Fishing Lines: The foul side of professionalism

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The year I won the national sea-fishing championships, I walked away from the three-day competition with a carload of whisky, rum, gin and beer (the event was sponsored by Double Diamond) and a colour television.

I was well pleased. In those days, the television was quite a prize. But I was a junior reporter, driving a 20-year-old car. The telly didn't last long, the booze only a little longer. Alas, I won in the wrong year. Twelve months later, the organisers got better sponsors and the winner picked up two cars.

There's not much money in fishing. Never was, really. People who claim to make a living from it actually depend on part-time jobs like gardening or window cleaning in between fishing trips. Only one competition, Barry Hearn's Sky-televised Fish 'o' Mania, offers a big prize: £25,000 winner-take-all.

It's different in the US. I fished with Wayne from Maine, a keen bass angler. The latest winner of the Bass Classic collected more than $1m, but Wayne had never won anything like that. "Best I've done is $40,000 and a boat," he said gloomily.

You don't even need to fish in competitions. The latest US government wheeze is to offer money to go fishing. Starting this month, it is paying anglers up to $8 for every pikeminnow they catch. To atone for the damage caused by hydroelectric schemes in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to migrating salmon runs, it is paying anglers to catch pikeminnow, which just love migrating baby salmon for supper.

Since 1990, more than 2.7m pikeminnow have been removed from the Snake and Columbia rivers as a result of the "sport reward programme". Predation has been cut by 22 per cent, meaning about 3.8m more baby salmon a year, Oregon officials estimate. A 2004 report for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission estimates that the extra fish generate up to $9.9m and 446 jobs.

There are also more than 1,000 specially tagged bonus fish worth $500 each, to attract more fishermen and help biologists gauge the effects of taking out the predators.

It's a neat scheme because nobody would fish for pikeminnows otherwise. A few years ago, officials tried to turn them into fish sticks in Chicago, but pikeminnowstix proved a failure. They are bony, the flesh is mushy with little flavour.

Some anglers earned nearly $40,000 last year, though at $4-8 a fish, you need to catch an awful lot of pikeminnows. Some treat it as a proper job, fishing up to 18 hours a day, and weekends too.

Bounty hunter Tim Caldwell, who collected $19,084 last year for 2,425 fish, two of them bonus pikeminnows, admitted. "I'm after it for the money." He has fished full-time since he sold his gas station and tackle shop three years ago. His best day was 141 fish, but he got up at 2am and fished until 10pm.

"For some people, this gets pretty competitive," he said. "There have been problems with people fighting over spots to fish. I mean, bad enough to get the police involved. I've actually had my life threatened."