Fishing Lines: Vicar in state of high gudgeon

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ONE OF my very favourite fishing stories is the extraordinary tale of how the Rev George Harvest, of Thames Ditton, Surrey, lost a bride. It seems that the vicar was betrothed to the Bishop of London's daughter, and all was set fair for the wedding - until George decided to while away those awkward hours before the nuptials with a spot of fishing.

By all accounts George was quite a fisher. But his love of angling was to be his undoing. 'On his wedding day, being gudgeon fishing, he overstayed the canonical hour, and the lady, justly offended at his neglect, broke off the match.'

For this account I am indebted to H T Sheringham, former fishing editor of the Field, who narrated the story in the Fishing Gazette of 10 April 1920. He commented: 'There is a calmness about the narrative which carries conviction. Is there anything more remarkable in the annals of gudgeon fishing?'

Probably not. But the tiny gudgeon, one of the smallest British fish, is a pretty exceptional specimen. This might explain why it was once a far more upper-class fish than trout or salmon, and why, at the London auctioneers Bonhams next month, a 3oz stuffed gudgeon is likely to fetch more than pounds 1,000.

The tiny fish, preserved for posterity in 1936 by J Cooper and Sons, the foremost fish taxidermist, was caught from a private pool on the Bourne Brook, near Birmingham, by F W Jefferies. It is splendidly mounted in a tiny case less than a foot long, its bow-fronted glass inlaid with gold leaf.

You might wonder why anybody would go to the trouble of mounting a fish smaller than a sprat. But a 3oz gudgeon is mighty. The British record, caught in 1990, is a mere 5oz. They are usually about 5in long, so a two-ouncer is a whopper and one an ounce larger is, in piscatorial terms, better than a 30lb salmon.

Despite being puny, the gudgeon is highly prized. In Fish and Fishing (1877) Dr J J Manley wrote: 'In my humble opinion, however mean a fish the gudgeon may be thought whereon to exercise the angler's skill, he is worthy of all commendation for the angler's table, and indeed the board of the most fastidious gourmet.' This tastiness created a unique Victorian weekend spectacle on the Thames - upper- class men and women, immaculately dressed, embarking on gudgeonfishing parties.

Most women find fishing immensely boring. But by all accounts, the promise of a day's gudgeoning would tempt the grandest dames and the greatest society beauties. Of course, the women may actually have gone along to snare men as well as fish. Edmund Waller, exhorting men to beware of lady gudgeonfishers, wrote:

The Ladies angling in the crystal lake

Feast on the waters with the prey they take

At once victorious, with their lines and eyes

They make the fishes and the men their prize.

But it could equally be because gudgeon fishing is easy for an amateur. The pretty little bewhiskered fish, speckled in brown, silver and blue, are so simple to catch that even novices can be assured of a netful. The traditional way to tempt them was to stir up the river bottom with a punt pole or rake. The curious gudgeon, which swim in shoals, would come into the cloud to investigate and be caught.

It's probably why the word gudgeon came to mean a stupid person. My Oxford Dictionary describes gudgeon as 'one that will bite at any bait or swallow anything: a credulous, gullible person'. This may be a little unfair on the poor fish. Greedy they may be, but they have a remarkable territorial instinct. Gudgeon displaced from a shoal and put back more than half a mile away still manage to find their old haunts.

I've never eaten them; I have a soft spot for the soppy things, particularly because they often squeak or grunt at you as you remove a hook, as if saying: 'Go easy there. Careful of my whiskers]' I don't think Mr Harvest would have eaten them either, even though Sheringham described him as 'a lover of good eating, almost to gluttony'. He did manage to get married eventually, though not to the bishop's daughter. No doubt he found someone who saw nothing unreasonable in missing a wedding because the gudgeon were biting well.

Bonhams sale of fishing tackle and sporting items is on 29 March at 10am, Montpelier Street, London SW7.