Masked men with a mission

fishing lines
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The Independent Online
I AM pleased to solve a mystery that has doubtless been puzzling owners of fancy-dress shops all over the country: why have large numbers of shifty-looking men who smell of fish been buying grotesque masks? Now, this column is known for some fairly oddball accounts, but I think this one tops the lot. Those mask-buyers are anglers who pursue outsize fish, and it's part of a manic quest for secrecy.

This might sound as if I've been spending too long on the river bank myself, but I swear it's true. I've even seen a couple of the masked fruitcakes. It happened on the Norfolk Broads with Richard Furlong. A couple of times each year, I go fishing with Furlong, who makes his living from helping less able anglers catch big pike. Britain's only pike gillie, he has an uncanny ability to sniff out spectacular examples of these snaggle-toothed predators. On this occasion, we headed for a wild area of the river Thurne, miles from anywhere. During the day, we saw a marsh harrier, a bittern and two grown men wearing silly masks.

We had been drifting quietly along the river, sorting out the world's problems, when we spotted two anglers in another boat. That's pretty unusual in this spot anyway because it's so desolate. We prepared to hail them and ask if they had managed to tempt any of the river's large pike. But as we drew near, they bent down and fumbled in the bottom of their boat. And we found ourselves looking not at a pair of windswept pike anglers, but Ronald Reagan and Sylvester Stallone.

It didn't take me long to realise that the tattered boat did not actually contain the former American president and the star of the Rocky films. For a start, Ronnie never moved that fast and never wore a bobble hat, while Stallone would surely have been using his bare hands to catch pike. So who were they? Had we stumbled upon the filming of The Mask II? Was it a private fancy-dress party for pike anglers, to which we weren't invited? And if so, where were the balloons and the silly hats?

Taken aback by the unexpected appearance of such celebrities in windswept Norfolk, I failed to extend the traditional greetings and camaraderie. There was also something about their demeanour that did not invite small talk. Richard, who is so sociable that he even talks to the fish he catches, had merely glanced at them and given one small but meaningful shake of his head.

As we moved out of hailing range, I ventured to point out that we had just passed two fishermen wearing the sort of rubber masks favoured by bank robbers. While I hesitated to cast aspersions - not being used to the strange ways of those who live deep within the Broads - this struck me as somewhat unusual. Even Richard agreed it was aberrant behaviour, and he explained what it was all about. This particular part of the river Thurne is renowned for extra-large pike (later that day, I captured one of 26lb 8oz) and its location is jealously guarded by a select few. They are convinced that others are out to discover their secret places, and that hordes will descend on these hotspots if the site is discovered.

We're talking serious paranoia here. They can't stop people walking along the towpath or rowing past (though they would if they could), so their answer is to disguise themselves. And so, whenever anyone comes near, these crackpots don their masks, convinced that such cunning will deceive the most determined tracker.

Acclaim is very important to these furtive fishers, but they confuse the issue by reporting their successes months later. It's now commonplace, alas, to conceal, mislead or blatantly lie about where outsize fish are caught. A glance through the Angling Times reveals the extent of this practice. "Caught on the Thames", "taken from a Wessex river" or "captured on a southern stillwater" are typical.

Believing that their vehicles will reveal where they are fishing, some go as far as to put on false number-plates when they park (a custom that should interest the police). Others get their wives or the few who are in on the secret to drop them off. Using a mobile phone, they call when they are ready to be picked up.

To me, such people are severely disturbed and should take up a sport more befitting such behaviour, like golf. But then, I haven't got any fishing spots that are worth keeping secret. And as my wife cruelly points out, I don't need to wear a mask.