Fishing lines: He lived as he fished: heroically

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The Independent Online

For many years (until it was supplanted by pictures of pop stars) my daughter displayed a large photograph on her wall. It showed her, aged seven, clutching a fish almost as big as herself.

Behind her, his hands ready to catch the pike in case she dropped it, stands a tall, smiling man. His name was Richard Furlong. He was the finest pike fisherman I ever met, perhaps the best there has ever been. I went to his funeral this week.

You know you're getting old when you attend more funerals than late-night parties. I'm a great supporter of the principle that when you're over 40, you only attend parties where people are older and in worse health than yourself. You can't pick and choose with funerals. But it's a shock when you bury someone who was younger, fitter and healthier than yourself.

A fireman for many years, Richard played a key role in the Moorgate tube disaster. He did some pretty heroic things that earned him the British Empire Medal. But he never used the initials, and only once spoke about that dreadful day. My journalistic curiosity got the better of me, and he reluctantly recounted the tale. Believe me, he earned that gong.

He left the fire service and moved to Norfolk, where he became the country's only pike ghillie. Until I met him, my biggest pike was a nine-pounder. Under his guidance, I caught six over 20lb, the biggest 26lb 8oz. In more than 10 years, taking out everyone from total duffers to those who wanted to steal his knowledge, he never failed to catch fish. He rarely fished himself, gaining his pleasure from helping others. On a trip to the lovely Belle Isle Estate in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, I asked Richard to join me - but he had to fish himself. When a pike took, he automatically passed the rod to me. I looked the other way.

"This is the first pike I've caught for six years," he said. But it wasn't. He caught thousands for clients; so many, in fact, that he stopped counting them under 20lb. They became pictures in the fishing diaries of hundreds. But really, they were all Richard's fish.

He moved recently to Ruston, near Norwich, and joined the local club, which had its own water. Richard captured every big carp in the lake, sometimes choosing which one he wanted to catch just for fun. He made it all look so easy.

He died of cancer. Even in his last week of life, he was apologising for letting people down with bookings, rather than recounting the agony racking his body.

At the funeral, I met several people who thanked me for leading them to Richard through articles I wrote. They fished with him once and kept coming back, not just because he could catch fish in a bucket but because his dry wit and enthusiasm made him wonderful company.

And now I've got to try catching my own pike. It could be quite a while until the next 20-pounder. If it ever happens again, I'll dedicate the fish to Richard.