Fishing: Pity the old man river

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There comes a time when it suddenly hits you: I'm getting old. It's the moment you start to think: is it time to hang up my waders? After last weekend's fiasco, leading a press team to last place in a national competition, I'm feeling lower than the Mariana Trench. Looming ahead is a lingering decline into a twilight existence of dribbling, zimmer frames, worn slippers and golf. It's my own fault for ignoring the warning signs, and I feel it is my duty to highlight a few for those of a similar age still trying to deceive themselves.

The first clue was that simple task of threading a line through rod rings. Suddenly, I was finding I had missed out one of the guides, or twisted the line so that it wouldn't run through smoothly. Usually, I only spotted this when I was about to cast. It meant taking everything apart and starting again.

Over the past couple of years, I have realised that I have been using larger hooks and stronger lines. I put this down to catching bigger fish, which demand heftier tackle. But checking back in my records, it wasn't true. When it came to tying a hook, whether for fly or bait, I found that tiny 22s, little bigger than a pinhead, were suddenly too tricky. Nowadays, everything smaller than a size 16 is dying from disuse. And those web-thin lines are no good either. The idea is that they are so fine, fish can't see them. Trouble is, nor can I.

I've always mocked those who use sight controllers for fly-fishing, saying it's little more than float- fishing with a fly as "bait". But I'm finding it increasingly hard to spot a minute dot on the surface at 20 yards, I'm starting to see the benefit of such devices. Even getting glasses (ostensibly for reading, actually for fishing) has only made a modicum of difference. My floats now protrude further and further out of the water. Boats are trying to moor to them.

In the circumstances, leading a press team against the best anglers in Britain was like ignoring the "Danger: Crocodiles" signs. My only mitigation is that it was for a good cause. The Anglers' Conservation Association, which incorporates the Pure Rivers Society (to my mind a much better name), spends its time collecting samples of murky water and prosecuting polluters with the evidence. It rarely loses a case, even though its opponents are often public companies and, increasingly, water authorities.

Still, you can have too much of a good thing. This year's ACA Masters, held at Hayfield Lakes, near Doncaster, made me uncomfortably aware that I have passed my sell-by date. I have taken part in this event for several years and gradually performed less well. How aspirations change! Once, I would have asked God, if He could see His way, all things being equal, to sending enough fish my way to win the competition. Now, I pray not to win or even finish second, but that I will not perform like a dingbat in front of thousands, and get whopped by the winner catching 100lb next to me.

Several pressmen are pretty good. The Sun's Stan Piecha, for example, was close to being in the England team and Dave Wesson, an Australian now living here, actually won the world championships. But they all politely declined my invitation. Without a bit of backbone, we were wooden-spoon favourites. Having a pressman alongside is seen as having an empty peg next to you.

Well, of course we got walloped. Last by a clear seven points. Almost all the side finished last or last but one in their sections, a classic demonstration of the truism: "Those who can't, write about it."

To reinforce my gerontological paranoia, a spectator talking to the angler next to me said: "How's the old boy next to you getting on? He seems to have problems seeing his float." Well, I'll have him know that I was one of only two (the other was Angling Times' Richard Lee) who didn't disgrace the fair name of the British press - I even had the team's highest weight, at 26lb.

In retrospect, this may have been a mistake. I could end up captaining the bloody side until I can't see a float at all.