Fishing Lines: My catch could have made me famous – it'sa ripping yarn

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Could have had a fish named after me, you know.

It all happened in a remote part of Russia. I was one of a small party invited behind the Iron Curtain, pre-perestroika,to explore the possibilitiesof attracting anglers to the Soviet Union.

We were fishing the giant Veselovskoye reservoir, near Rostov, which covers nearly 600,000 acres, when I caught a strange fish. I was sharing a boat with a gloomy guide and Stan Piecha of the 'Sun'. "Ever seen one of these?" I asked Stan. He was just as puzzled.

Trouble was, the fish (and my memory has dimmed over the years) was small, spiky, nondescript brown and only about six inches.

We put it into the guide's net, intending to examine it more closely when we had stopped fishing. Unbeknown to us, though, the guide's net had several rips in it. When wepulled it out, the mystery fish (and many others we had caught) had swum out.

I've never seen another. It doesn't appear in any fish books. Was it just a different shade of something more common? Has time addled my brain? Or was it a species unknown to science, the first Elliottus?

It's a slightly less dramatic story than the discovery of the first coelacanth in modern times. But the significance of that mystery fish spotted in 1938 by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, could easily have suffered a similar fate.

She had discovered it in a catch of sharks in East London, on South Africa's south-eastern coast, and knew it was something special. But it was just before Christmas, her own museum chairman said it was just a cod, and she was unableto find anywhere to refrigerate it. It looked as if it would have to be thrown away.

Fortunately, a local taxidermist helped her out with storage, and she immediately contacted Dr James Smith, a chemistry lecturer who acted as honorary curator of fish for smaller museums. But Smith was on holiday, and didn't see her letter until 11 days later.

He wrote later: "I didn't know any fish of our own, or indeed of any seas, like that. It looked more like a lizard. Then a bomb seemed to burst in my brain."

Back in East London, Courtenay-Latimer had given up hope of hearing from Smith. The fish was breaking up. She gotthe taxidermist to skin and mount it, though he too was mystified. It had no ribs and a flexible tube where the spine should have been. But the innards were thrown away.

Meanwhile, Smith was assailed by fears that he was about to make a fool of himself. "It was preposterous that coelacanths had been alive for 70 million years, unknown to modern man," he wrote.

Smith didn't make it to East London until a month later. On a rainy day, he arrived at the museum, even taking along his pregnant wife. "Although I had come prepared, that first sight hit me like a white-hot blast and made me feel shaky and queer," Smith said. "There was not a shadow of doubt. It was a true coelacanth."

An armed guard took the fish back to Smith's museum. Over the next few months, it would stun the world.