Fishing Lines: Not just crying crocodile tears for the demise of the big day out

Coach companies must yearn for the days when competition fishing used to be fun. Before everyone owned a car, clubs would hire buses and coaches at weekends. They would set off, laden with tackle, beer and excited men for the Thames, Severn, Trent or Ouse. Tough if you wanted a quiet day's fishing. Most Sundays, it was impossible to find a stretch without a competition taking place.

Back on the coach, card games would take place and ribald jokes were told and retold through a Woodbine fug. I was too young to appreciate that I was seeing the end of an era when, at 14, I arose at 5am to meet the club coach bound for Mapledurham, Tadpole Bridge, Bablock Hythe. Those places still evoke sharp memories, generally of catching not very much and watching in awe as huge bream, chub and roach were put on the scales and their weights solemnly recorded.

But soon everyone had a car. Why get up at 5am when you could have a few more hours in bed and still reach the competition on time? But the car stole match fishing's soul. A few clubs still preserve the old coach-trip tradition but their passengers look like pensioners taking a day trip to nowhere. No smoking, no cards, no crates of beer – and take those boots off before you get into my coach.

Before the charabanc, fishing clubs used to travel by rail. The companies offered special rates to fishermen taking those early-morning trains to tiny stations long since swept aside in the drive for profitability.

The fishing itself was fun too. There was a great camaraderie. Not catching? Let's go and see how Reg is getting on – and eat his sandwiches. I'll bet no match angler these days would think of playing the joke perpetuated on the famous Ivan Marks.

We were fishing Trent Lock near Nottingham, and Ivan, as was his wont, stayed chatting in the café until the last moment. This gave the angler who had drawn next to Ivan time to set up the sting. At the time, you could buy stuffed baby crocodiles, about 2ft long, and he had obtained one of these. Attaching it to some mono-filament, he ran the line through the reeds where Ivan was fishing and to his own spot.

After two hours of the competition, we gathered to watch the fun. As Ivan was chatting to a few admirers, this crocodile nosed through the rushes and past Ivan's feet. He fell off his box in fright. "A crocodile! A crocodile!" he screamed. By then it had gone. He tried to tell everyone he had seen a crocodile, but nobody believed him. "On the Trent at Nottingham? You've lost it, Ivan." It was weeks until he learned the truth.

It's far more serious now. Competitions are all about catching ravenous carp from waterfilled holes scooped out by a JCB. Not so long ago, one angler landed 661lb of them in a contest. That's just obscene.

This soulless fishing has driven most of those who enjoyed competition away. It's no longer fun, just darn hard work. Once, big matches comprised 1,000 or more. Now 100 is a spectacular entry, and it's usually a quarter of that on those featureless puddles. And on the rivers, just the ghosts remain of those flat-capped men who once lined the banks.

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