Fishing Lines: Wayne's other world

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MY pounds 175 trip to catch smallmouth bass tomorrow will cost me nothing. I think it is because I made my guide laugh so much about English fishing. The worst thing is, I was actually being serious. But Wayne and his partner rolled about holding their stomachs when I said carp fishing was very big right now.

'You fish for carp?' they chortled. 'Hell, they're trash fish here. We have bow fishing competitions for them.'

'Well, in England people will pay as much as pounds 10,000 for a good carp water. For a year.'

'Hey, you're kidding us.'

They realised I wasn't.

'Let's get this straight. English fishermen pay dollars 20,000 to catch carp, and then put them back? We'd make a fortune here. Lots of carp of 15lb, 20lb. Nobody, not even the kids, fishes for them.'

Eventually they believed me, though they reckoned it made as much sense as a Nigerian ice dancer. But they just wouldn't accept that some English anglers deliberately set out to catch eels.

'Eels? Hey, c'mon Keith. Nobody in the world tries to catch eels, except maybe for bait. You think us Americans are dumb?'

There may not be a simple answer to that. But here in the state of Maine, they can afford to be picky. After all, they have perhaps America's best fishing for America's favourite fish. For enthusiasts like Wayne Hockmeyer, even salmon and trout don't come close to the appeal of smallmouth bass.

'I grew up on salmon and trout and believed they were sophisticated fish. Now I know differently. They are basically stupid. Bass are a thinking man's fish,' says Hockmeyer, who owns Northern Outdoors, a sporting centre in the backwoods that caters for 15,000 people a year indulging in everything from white-water rafting to cross-country skiing.

Don't write him off as a hick American who drives a pick-up truck because it represents the apex in automotive engineering. Hockmeyer boasts a proud lineage. His grandfather came from England (though Hockmeyer's not sure where). And we should all be grateful to his father, the first person to put zippers into clothing.

So what is this special fish that makes a man who once owned six waterbed factories yearn to be America's Mr Bass. It's not the culinary qualities. Hockmeyer is shocked when I ask what they taste like. Bass fishers, it seems, would never consider killing a fish. In competitions, bass are kept in built-in aquariums in a boat, and then returned. It's not the size. The smallmouth record is 11lb 15oz, and a two-pounder is a big fish. The record largemouth is 22lb but an eight-pounder is something special.

And it's not the money - though it might be. There are more than 100 professional bass anglers in the US. The top competition carries a prize of dollars 100,000 ( pounds 52,000), though Wayne's best win so far is dollars 10,000. 'A record bass would be worth at least a million dollars,' he says.

It's not the elitist appeal either. Quite the opposite. An organisation called Bass publishes an annual brochure of almost 400 pages and has 600,000 members. Probably 10 times that number will fish for bass some time during the year.

But there is something special about them that makes even Hockmeyer, who talks more than Joan Rivers, find it hard to put into words. 'Salmon fishermen might change to bass fishing, but you'll never see it happen the other way.

'It's a combination of things. They sure fight better than a salmon, and they jump, too. Salmon anglers solve their problems with money, but with bass, you solve it with ingenuity and research.'

A younger George Adamson (Born Free) down to the baggy shorts, Hockmeyer has time for research. He has passed on the day- to-day running of Northern Outdoors and fishes almost every day. If he's not acting as a fishing guide, he'll fish alone. And for bass.

'This was a sport that had not developed much for perhaps 200 years. But in the past decade, it has made huge advances. There is a continual upgrading of knowledge, and everyone is experimenting with finding better ways to fish. I think I have found something that is probably unique.'

And tomorrow I'll find out what it is when we go fishing for this piscatorial paragon. Wayne's world, 40 miles from the Canadian border, is one of the great undiscovered parts of America, where moose are more common than people. Ospreys, looms, beavers, porcupines: Hockmeyer says we'll see them all. He also reckons we will catch smallmouth bass so big that most Americans would give away their Superbowl tickets just for the sight of one. All he asks is that I tell him a few more English fishing stories.