Spring brings mayfly, a monster halibut and tricky land reform

Just as my last column was flying to the presses, news broke that a monster halibut had been caught.

Just as my last column was flying to the presses, news broke that a monster halibut had been caught. I read with wonderment,then sadness that the 8ft long, 20st, 35-year-old fish had been netted in Scotland. Sad because the more I thought of this grand old fish (I think being nearly 35 myself made me more empathetic) and how it had evaded being caught all that time, the more I wish they'd put him back. He probably wouldn't have lived anyway, after the trauma, but none the less.

Instead he went to be gobbled up by diners in an Aberdeen restaurant. It's enough to make you turn veggie. Almost. But my Italian meat-eating genes are so much stronger than sentiment. This got me thinking about halibut because it's not a fish I have much to do with. Salmon we all know I'm obsessed with, trout I catch a fair amount of so I'm pretty familiar with them, ditto grayling. But halibut? I don't fish for them ­ although I know some people do avidly ­ and I can't remember the last time I ate one.

Halibut really have a dreadfully boring image. They're quite ugly, but that's not the reason because look at pike. It's just that halibut don't seem to have anything romantic about them. I mean, has any poet ever written about them? Funny I should ask, because yes one has. William Cowper did in the 18th century ­ 'To The Immortal Memory of the Halibut on Which I Dined This Day' ­ although his verse doesn't have quite the passion with which Ted Hughes wrote of pike. (If truth be told, I think Cowper was taking the pi-pi somewhat.)

Halibut, being a flat fish and a demersal fish at that (fish that live on or near the bottom, like cod or haddock) have a face slightly like Frankenstein's monster. I feel mean writing that, but it's true. They have both eyes on one side of their head. But not in a symmetrical way like ray fish. Rather in a squashed, afterthought way. One eye is where you would expect it to be, the other above the 'snout'. Look at a halibut (which, incidentally, means 'holy flatfish', it was much eaten on holy days) next time you're at the fishmongers and you'll see what I mean. No point looking for one in the supermarket because if they sell halibut it will be filletted to within an inch of its life.

Anyway, much other news to catch up on. This week the 10-week ban on cod was lifted. The ban was imposed by the European Union. The news was greeted with glee by fisherman, and who can blame them if their livelihood depends upon it. But I can't help thinking that 10 weeks isn't really that much time for a fish that's endangered to recover and there are so many other other fish issues that the EU still needs to address.

And a bit of a tussle is going on in Scotland. A proposal in a draft bill currently before the Scottish parliament ­ the Land Reform Bill ­ would give crofters the right to buy the land they currently rent. Great news you may think. Well this depends on whether you are the crofter or the landowner.

The landowners argue that the crofters right to buy should extend only to the land, and not to the fishing rights. The crofters argue, not all but most, that they should be able to buy the fishing rights too. It seems a curious business. On the one hand, having dealt with some incredibly snotty owners of Scottish river fishing beats ­ they've always been English ­ I think "Ha! You won't be so posh and grand and have such an ungenerous attitude now, will you?" On the other hand, if I were such a landowner with fishing rights, I would be really very miffed (the crofters have to pay a 'fair' price but still. And there's nothing to say they won't in turn either let everyone fish it which will bring problems of its own, or be just as snotty.) It's a situation I'm glad I have no part in although I intend to watch what happens with a keen interest. If anyone wants to read about it go to www.scotland.gov.uk/landreform and have a look, it's really quite interesting.

Now for some heartening news that maybe spring is on its way (although it's well hidden, isn't it?). I have reports that some hatches of mayfly have been spotted on the Avon and the Test, so good for you if you have 'early' bookings on those rivers. Imagine fishing for the mayfly on a river that hasn't been fished for months ­ as is the case with some ­ it'll be doubly exciting. Take smelling salts.

a.barbieri@independent.co.uk

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