Fishing: Thud, thud beat is parr for course

Annalisa Barbieri on fishing
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The Independent Online
ON WEDNESDAY your rod licence will expire and you will need to renew it for the 1999-2000 season. And, new for this year, just in case you can't get to one of the 17,000 post offices that are authorised to sell them (and if you live somewhere that remote please let me know as I could do with being that far from civilisation right now) you can buy them over the phone. You dial 0870 1662662, pay an administration fee of 90 pence on top of the pounds 18 cost of a full licence and can be legal immediately - you get a licence number there and then whilst the real thing goes in the post. This is useful if you want to go fishing and suddenly realise you don't have a licence, although lines are only manned from 8am-8pm (seven days a week aside from bank holidays) so midnight cravings for a rod licence will have to wait until the morning.

To me, 1 April marks the beginning of fishing proper. There has been the odd bit of snacking with grayling fishing, but otherwise I have saved myself for this day. I think abstention is important and even though you can now fish almost 12 months of the year, it is nice to wait (I am also Catholic, so am used to curbing urges, although if my mother is reading this, I haven't given in yet). All those trout that have spent the winter getting fat will be mine, mine, mine.

Actually big fish don't interest me. At fisheries where there are monster fish, there are photographs of men - it is always men - holding fish so big their bellies sag between proud, gripping hands. This always makes me smile because I wonder if they would display photos of their wives as proudly if they were as relatively big of girth! ("Here's a picture of the wife, I was after her for years when she finally fell to a romantic weekend in Brussels. She weighed 200lbs when I caught her. There were a few envious looks that day, I can tell you.")

No, it is small, wild fish that interest me. Fish that have felt the running water of rivers in their gills, and not grown flabby in stock cages where they nibble on each others' tail fins out of boredom. Well, nearly always. I admit there have been times that the thought of big, wild fish have made me misty-eyed.

Last August, when I spent a quiet, still day fishing the Lyd in Devon I encountered many tiny, but lovely fish. Despite the stinging rays of the sun I was cool and sheltered beneath a canopy of trees, and my wader- booted feet were kept chilled by the deceptively fierce current. Salmon and sea trout can be caught here and, at one point, as my fly swung over the sort of deep pool they love, I felt a thud thud thud - a characteristic sea-trout take. My heart beat went from 60 beats per second to at least 150 as I hit and missed - I have never caught a sea trout and got overexcited, which you must never, never do in the stealthy sport of fly fishing.

Because I never believe this nonsense about not re-casting to the same spot, I did just that, several times. And several times the same thing happened. Thud thud thud. By now my heart had almost exploded out of my multi-pocketed-vest-covered chest. A monster, surely, lay there. So cocksure of himself that he was not spooked in the slightest. I could feel a county record coming on.

But eventually, he was mine. I hooked him. He was tiny. Readers, imagine my disappointment. Not since discovering one of my boyfriends had a button champignon for a penis... It's not that the fish wasn't beautiful, just that he had promised so much with all his thudding about. However, my disappointment lasted but a moment: he was a salmon parr! The most precious of fish, in conservational, ecological and environmental terms worth a fortune. Without touching his delicate flesh, I unhooked him, gazing for a moment at his delicious little face. But instead of darting away, he swam to the side of my foot and stayed there like an obedient puppy. Eventually, after much shooing I got rid of him. "I'll see you again in two years when hopefully you will have grown to 10 times your size," I said. To the fish, not the boyfriend.