Fishing Lines: Too much to stomach for the grayling man

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IN A week when the world seems concerned about fish stocks (not a problem for me: I make my own), my little globe has focused on one particular fish: the grayling.

This is not a fish you read about much. It likes clean rivers and won't compromise. Grayling possess a forceful protest mechanism when the merest pollution strikes. They die. Environmentally, this carries a powerful message, but it doesn't do a great deal for grayling stocks. The result is that they are found in only a few British rivers. This, however, is not a sad little tale of a once lovely stream polluted by big business.

My grayling week started at The Field's Christmas party. This is an annual gathering of the great and good, full of Lord this and Lady that, television personalities like Jeremy Paxman (though to be fair, he's a regular contributor to the magazine on salmon fishing) and the sort of people who own rivers, rather than merely fish on them. We won't go into how I sloped into such an august gathering; suffice to say that I didn't get thrown out, told a few bad jokes that made some of them laugh, and didn't insult anyone with the surname Windsor.

The highlight, however, was not the people but one cameo involving David Profumo, Country Life's angling writer. David is very good at catching fish but has not yet learned the art of not catching them. He was recently invited to join the Bishopstoke Angling Club annual grayling competition on the river Itchen in Hampshire. Taking his guest role rather too seriously, David captured 44 grayling, more than everyone else put together. He won all the main prizes (top weight, biggest fish, best brace), while the chap who invited him won the only other prize by default.

David told me this story with some glee, whereupon I retorted: "You'll get your comeuppance" - never thinking it would happen at The Field's Christmas party. An elegantly dressed woman accosted David and said: "Are you Profumo?" He confessed he was. Whereupon she berated him for catching all the fish, and especially for catching a lot more than her seven-year- old son. Being a polite sort of chap, David could only nod his head in shame. It was a delicious moment, which I couldn't help exacerbating by telling her that he rather made a habit of doing such things while a guest on exclusive stretches of trout streams.

Feeling good about grayling, I returned home to find a message that my Mongolian grayling are ready for collection. Since my trip to Outer Mongolia for taimen, I have yearned to have a lasting memory of that memorable expedition. In my role as editor of Taxidermist magazine (don't ask) I have met the country's leading taxidermists, one of whom said he could recreate the fish I caught. I was especially interested in the grayling, because the Mongolian variety are a sub-species found nowhere else in the world.

We called them disco grayling. They are undoubtedly the most beautiful of all grayling, and look as if a jeweller has been twiddling with their scales. Their dorsal fin is truly vast. The other fins are striking too, but the really amazing thing is the last third of the fish, which is orange-gold, as if a male goldfish has snuck into the spawning beds.

The final part of my grayling week concerns one I didn't catch. I was invited on to the river Frome in Somerset, where grayling, while not plentiful, are huge. The British record is 4lb 3oz - from the Frome. "You'll only catch a few, but they will be at least 2lb, maybe 3lb, and could be bigger," my host said. Well, imagine my excitement. I have never caught one bigger than 1lb 12oz in England.

Unfortunately, the night before I took my staff to one of the few restaurants in this epicurean wasteland listed in The Good Food Guide. After the meal, I didn't feel well. That night, I slept badly. In the morning, I was seriously sick. For four days, I ate nothing and drank only warm water. It was undoubtedly food poisoning. My wife rang the restaurant. "He must have been drunk," they told her. Pity Paxman wasn't with me.

OK, I could do with losing a few pounds (though preferably not this way). But to lose a 3lb grayling is a different matter entirely. Thank goodness David Profumo didn't go in my place.