Fishing Lines: Twilight world of Houston toilers

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SOME loco angling writer, whose name escapes me, once claimed that when God calculates the time you are allowed on the pinball table of life, He does not count the hours and days you have spent fishing. What a load of twaddle! I suspect He penalises anglers rather than panders to them. Then He probably adds on a few extra months, just for the hell of it.

Last week in America, in quite the oddest angling experience of my life, it wasn't thoughts of mortality that drifted through my mind, but thoughts of sanity. I'm always telling my children not to talk to strangers. So what do I do? I climb into a stranger's pick-up and let him drive me 80 miles to the seaside. Worse, I persuade my friend Brendan, who hasn't fished since he was a child, to join this nutty expedition, then frightened him to death with talk of stingrays and sharks.

Tony Lopas is not really a stranger. I actually met him earlier that day. He is an ardent angler, and in his spare time, he works as director of guest services at a posh Houston hotel. He convinced Brendan and me that his local beach is the best undiscovered fishing in the US, and dragged us along to prove it.

Our quarry is the inappropriately named weakfish, or speckled trout. Weakfish live in the sea and grow to about 15lb. They bear a passing resemblance to trout in that they have spots and are a silvery blue-green with a bit of yellow here, a touch of purple there. But the mouth soon tells you this is not a fish that sips tiny flies off the surface, the sort of jagged gnashers designed for grabbing smaller fish and holding on.

Not just small fish, either. My two-gallon container is full with eight- inch prawns, called "shrimps" locally. Hook on a shrimp, and you can tell when a weakfish is about because the prawn jumps out of the water trying to get away. Trouble is, it's night-time. Unless I can persuade the bait to carry a torch, it can perform like a dolphin and I won't be any the wiser.

You might assume that we were alone in this nutty venture. Far from it. The Galveston coastline is crowded with anglers, hundreds of them. Some have even brought portable generators and rigged them up with lights so they can spot their shrimps doing triple Salchows.

We could fish from the shore and keep our feet dry. But Lopas assures us the sea is warm and shallow. Shallow? Well, if you know where to walk. Lopas admits some spots are 20ft, even 30ft. If the water goes over your head, take a step back.

So out we paddle. Brendan, however, is performing a sort of epileptic walking on the spot, which I christen the "Stingray Shuffle". Rays are one of the hazards of night wading. They lie buried in the sand. Tread on them and whack! The sharp tail spine can drive right through your shoes. Kicking the sand as you walk makes them move elsewhere... sometimes. It also helps to keep sharks away, a further factor making Brendan nervous. Here, says Lopas, sharks of 500lb come into water scarcely deep enough to cover their backs. It all adds to the fishing.

I'd like to report that we caught a mass of weakfish. But we didn't. Maybe the water was too coloured, or there was too much other food, more attractive than our flies, shrimps and lures. As far as you could see, the water was alive with small shad, mullet and other unidentifiable tiddlers. The weakfish only needed to swim with their mouths open.

My abiding memory will be of a Chinese family, kids and all, wandering up at 2am and asking how we were getting on. "We have not caught much, either," they said, and disappeared into the dark. Much later, four teenage girls asked if we were doing any good. Not, you notice: "Why are you standing in the sea at 3am?"

They might also have asked: "Why are you eating the bait?" With only a sandwich inside me, I was starving by 2am. There was only one option: prawn sushi. (If you knew sushi like I knew sushi.) So I polished off the lot. Dog-tired, with no bait and wondering how I came to be standing in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico at 4am, it was time to quit. And to hope that God hadn't been watching.