Fishing Lines: I opened a can of worms with the bank, the blonde and the barbel

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The Independent Online

Nearly lost my first job because of my love of barbel. I was working on the 'Maidenhead Advertiser' as a junior reporter. The local stretch of the Thames during early autumn was a great place to catch the powerful, be whiskered fish.

But how to do so? My life in the Berkshire town was a frenzy of court reporting, WIs and cats stuck up trees. Most evenings I had a parish council to cover, a play to review, an 80-year-old's party to attend. Woe betide me if the copy wasn't in the news editor's tray by 9am.

Fortunately, I also had the education ticket. This meant trudging round all the area's schools and trying to find stories. (Not guns and knives then; a new history teacher, or someone picked to play in the county hockey side.)

I learnt very quickly that by working extra hard one week, I could store a couple of stories for the following week, allowing me to slope off to the river for a few hours.

The barbel were feeding well. I caught two within 40 minutes, and reckoned I still had over an hour before heading back to the office. But then, disaster! I glanced along the bank and saw, in the distance, the deputy editor walking towards me.

In those unenlightened times, it would have meant immediate dismissal. But (further evidence that there is indeed a God) he was walking hand-in-hand with our glamorous new blonde reporter.

I pulled my fishing trilby over my eyes, my parka around my shoulders, crouched over my rod and stared at my float. I heard them stroll past. I waited for his hand to grab my shoulder and sack me on the spot. But nothing happened. As soon as they were out of sight, I grabbed my tackle, jumped in the car and hurried back to the office.

Nothing was ever said. The deal was obvious. You keep quiet about my illicit affair,and I'll stay mum about you fishing when you should have been working.

It all came back to mereading 'A Can of Worms'*. This book, a celebration of barbel, covers the subject from early days to modern times. Once an elite quarry found in only a few rivers, barbel are now all over the UK, and their pursuit is said to be the fastest-growing sector of UK angling.

The author, Jon Berry, has done a formidable job researching the fish (bet you never knew that the King of Naples incorporated two gold barbel in his coat of arms),from its origins back in the last glacial period to a section on outsize specimens.

The fish won its reputation as the river prince, living happily in the fastest-flowing water.Nowadays, such is its popularity that you can catch barbel in dozens of stillwaters – much to the chagrin of purists, who feel that dumping them into muddy ponds demeans a fish that many rate above salmon.

Once, the Thames boasted professional fishermen who would hire out their services to catch barbel for clients. If the deputy editor of the 'Maidenhead Advertiser' had been discussing the news diary that day rather than having his mind on more earthy matters, I could well have been pursuing a similar career.

'A Can of Worms' by Jon Berry (Medlar Press, £35)