Poacher strikes gold at end of barren search

THE POND was the loveliest place in the world. Unspoilt by human invasion, it had a rich green-brown colour, like pea and oxtail soup gone wrong. It whispered "Fish" better than any No Fishing signs. Sadly, there were plenty of the latter. But they merely confirmed the fishing would be exceptional, a sensation reinforced when you tiptoed round the reed and lily-fringed margins. Swirls like the plug being pulled from a giant bath showed that huge things lurked in that murky water. I had scrambled over the wall to find apples. Instead, I had found heaven. Those signs? Ah yes. But they weren't meant for a 12-year-old who would be quiet as a water vole, were they?

It was my first encounter with one of angling's truisms: the best places to fish are always those where you can't. The next time I visited the lake, I was almost caught before I had topped the wall. As my head appeared, a voice shouted: "Oi!" so I dropped back, grabbed my bike and pedalled off. Another time I watched a man walking through the woods towards the lake with two huge dogs, terror on legs for an unscheduled visitor.

The Pond became the place where I would break British records, if only I could spend just a few uninterrupted minutes beside its hallowed water. I had even devised an elaborate scenario to explain away the location when filling in record claim forms. (Asking permission to fish never occurred to me.)

Despite misgivings about bailiffs with shotguns, killer dogs, mantraps and quicksand, I eventually planned an early-morning raid. Travelling light, I scaled the wall with just one rod and a net. Bread stolen from the kitchen was in my pocket. Mist rose from the lake as dawn broke. It was a truly lovely sight. A large fish plopped somewhere close by. With trembling fingers I put on a piece of bread, huddled among the reeds, and waited. Bubbles from feeding fish started to rise from the bottom. My float wobbled as something brushed the line. The anticipation was better than sex (though I was only 12, and didn't know the difference.) And then I heard a voice calling a dog.

On the far side, through the mist, I could see a man and the killers. They were heading straight for the pond. I grabbed my rod, slid through the rushes and ran for my life. Fear lent me wings as the dogs barked and crashed nearer. I was over that wall like Colin Jackson, on my bike and off down the road in seconds. And that's when I realised I had left my net behind. I never dared go back. Took ages to save my pocket money for a new net, too. But that was my first taste of the heady mix of excitement, expectation and fear that come from "visiting" or "freelancing".

I have never been a good poacher. Invariably, I get caught: on a tiny pond on Windsor Great Park, trying to tempt the Queen's carp; on the Blackwater in Waterford, where permission was granted for roach but not salmon (no prizes for guessing what I hooked, and who should come along as I was playing it); even on Southend Pier after bass, but without a night permit. I realised ages ago that I don't have the gall, the courage or the luck to freelance. So, for 30 years, I have always fished with a permit.

Until a couple of years ago. After spending two weeks, thousands of miles from home in Arunachal Pradesh, risking my life and catching nothing, I was feeling glum as I sat in the Tollygunge Club in Calcutta, the night before flying back to England. All that way for nothing! Yet as I walked back to my room, I realised it didn't have to be. The answer was swimming around a small pond in the club's lush grounds.

I went back to the restaurant, nabbed a couple of slices of bread. In my pockets were some light line, some tiny hooks. And as dawn broke over the city, I crept out with the line attached to the top joint of a rod, a stick for a float, breadpaste for bait, to fish for... goldfish.

It was low and shameful, I admit. I can only plead temporary insanity after travelling so far for nothing. It wasn't the 100lb mahseer I was hoping for. But I wasn't waterlicked after all, and my record book shows that for 14 days in India and Arunachal Pradesh, I had landed (and sportingly returned) two goldfish. Best of all, without being caught myself.