Fishing Lines: Match fishermen have gone up the pole

The weekly magazine Angling Times is trying to win a place in the Guinness Book of Records this week. Not for any sparkling feat of journalism, but through one of its reporters catching a fish on the world's longest rod, an achievement that in record terms ranks right up there with the most barbed hooks you can stick in one nostril.

In fact, Ben Fisk is not using a rod at all, but a pole. It is basically 30 sections of interlocking hollow carbon-fibre with a line attached to the end. And he is not really fishing with it either, but laying it on the water (imagine trying to hold a 41-metre tree) and waiting for a fish to hook itself. Well, each to his own.

Walk along any canal bank or commercial fishery these days, and all you will see is a Chernobyl forest. Nobody uses a rod for competition angling any more. But back in the 1950s, poles were a very rare sight. They were mostly made of glass fibre, though one London maker, Sowerbutts, offered cane roach poles, which required weight-lifting sessions to handle. A friend put 3lb of lead in the butt of his Sowerbutts pole to "balance" it.

Poles then were only used by Continentals to catch fish, and Brits scoffed at the tiddlers that the Frenchies seemed happy with. For years, we missed the point: that poles enabled a bait to be placed with pinpoint accuracy without being dragged off course by wind or current.

The lesson was there: years after year, the French, Belgians or Italians won the world championships. The England team squawked about how unfair the rules were, instead of seeing the pole's benefits.

But slowly the English fishers started to try them out. I recall fishing on the River Trent in Nottingham and seeing Frank Barlow, one of the river's finest anglers, using a pole. "What's this, Frank?" I asked him. "I'm catching fish on it, me ducks," he said. "Call me François Barlow."

Two things made the difference. The first was the realisation that tying line on the end was inefficient. Anything bigger than a couple of ounces could break that line. But then some bright spark came up with the idea of attaching the line to elastic that ran through the pole's hollow core. These days, anglers can land fish of 20lb or more with a pole faster than any rod, thanks to that elastic buffer.

Carbon fibre was the other key factor. Poles used to weigh more than your catch after a good day's fishing, and be as floppy as a hosepipe. Now a 16-metre model can weigh little more than 2lb, with the rigidity of a television aerial and the strength to lift a 3lb dead weight.

The bad news: they can cost £4,000 or more, and every serious competition angler needs two, plus a bunch of spares. Spend £100 and you've got a decent rod and reel. Match fishing these days is an expensive business.

Interestingly, pole dominance has coincided with competition attendances plunging. A big match was once 1,000 anglers; now it's 100. Angling Times now reports contests with 20 taking part. I blame the pole. I couldn't even see my float at 41 metres.

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