Keith Elliott at Large: Why the Belgians love pigeon droppings

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The Independent Online
THE TEAM that will have the biggest impact at this weekend's World Angling Championships is unlikely to show up on the Nottingham water at all.

Bit of a shame, that. Although none of the all-black squad stands much higher than 3ft, they are far better fishermen than any of the 150 anglers on view. Maybe it's the prospect of a 10,000 crowd and a hostile reception. Perhaps they are shy by nature. Or it could be that they don't think it's worth turning up, because they've eaten most of the fish already.

When England first put in their bid for the world event three years ago, Holme Pierrepont seemed the perfect venue. The National Water Sports Recreation Centre was easy to get to, capable of accommodating thousands of spectators, ideally suited to England's style and most of all, brimming with roach, bream, gudgeon and perch. Then along came the cormorants.

There are various arguments why birds that prefer seafood should change their traditional diet. The most likely answer is that increased inshore trawling depleted sea fish stocks so much that they have been forced to hunt elsewhere for their protein. The cormorants, which scoff an estimated 2lb of fish daily, can dive 30ft or deeper and stay underwater for up to 30 seconds. At times, up to 100 have been dining there. Small wonder recent surveys showed very few fish were left.

It's been stocked since, but the England team manager, Dick Clegg, reckons it's too little, too late. He's preparing for two tough days' fishing, where catching anything with fins will be a bonus. 'There are fish to be caught, but they're in pockets and not spread evenly along the venue,' he said gloomily.

Even so, it should be better than last time England hosted the contest, 13 years ago on the River Avon at Luddington, near Stratford. That was the year Stan Smith, then England manager, predicted there was no way England could lose: they came second. Camp followers of this annual competition, notorious for its bizarre happenings and Third World inefficiency, are divided about the single worst event of that weekend. Was it the cunning decision to run the match on a river prone to flooding? The car park two miles from the competition? The Angling Times promotional balloon that broke its moorings and put half of Warwickshire in darkness? The spectator facilities, which ensured that fewer than 100 could see what was happening?

It's all changed now. Hard man Clegg has moulded a team that has produced the best results in the world over the past decade. One key factor has been a modest man from Great Yeldham, Essex, who didn't even start fishing until his mid-20s. Bob Nudd is now probably the world's most famous angler. Britain's first professional fisherman, he has won the world title twice, appeared on Wogan, almost became BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and he's even bringing out a record, the 'Maggot Rap'. Not bad for an Essex boy who once ran Bob and Pete's Mobile Dogs.

There are no great secrets to catching fish, Nudd says. 'It's just a matter of concentration, and doing the right things at the right time.' He rarely fishes purely for pleasure. They say Nudd can catch fish from a bucket, as long as there's enough water to cover the bottom of it.

Nudd is truly spectacular at handling the huge carbon-fibre poles of up to 18 metres that will be used by every angler in the world match. Costing up to pounds 3,000, these enable a tiny bait to be positioned with pinpoint accuracy, though holding them in a strong wind is like trying to control a supermarket trolley.

England will be favourites, but with fish likely to be scarce, the smart money will be on the French and Belgians, fiendishly clever at tempting fish into their patch with smells straight out of an old-fashioned sweet shop. Not all their tempters are yummy, though. One favourite is pigeon droppings.

Whether even pigeon droppings (most productive, I'm told, when the birds are fed on hemp) will attract the remaining fish in Holme Pierrepont remains to be seen. A pity that, instead of banning the cormorants, organisers have not revived a 1,000-year-old method still used in parts of China. In this, trained birds are kept on a long lead with a leather collar. They dive down to catch fish, but cannot swallow them.

It's true that the post- match interview would be difficult, but the advantages would be enormous. Action- packed and great for spectators; ideal for that compulsory animal slot on television news; easy to see who's winning, and a sponsor's dream (think of how many logos can fit on a 3ft cormorant). Maybe angling, the world's biggest participant sport, has unwittingly discovered the route to the publicity it craves. Those vilified cormorants could be fishing's new stars. Watch out, Bob Nudd.