Rich pickings with a catch

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The Independent Online
TOM PICKERING has just earned pounds 10,000 an hour for going fishing, which seems like pretty good money for hooking out a few slimy things with fins. But the Barnsley fisherman's record UK payout, for taking the world's biggest catch in five hours, only squeezed him into the Diadora League of angling's big earners.

This is not to denigrate his achievement. A former world champion, Pickering collected the pounds 50,000 bonus for catching 323lb 11oz, beating the previous record by just 6oz. His catch, taken last week at Skanderborg Lake near Silkeborg, Denmark, in the final of the Embassy Pairs competition, rounded off an expensive season for the cigarette company's sponsorships. Earlier this year, it forked out pounds 147,000 for Stephen Hendry's maximum 147 televised break at the world snooker championship. After the Denmark event, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco said, with gritted teeth: "Embassy is thrilled to pay out the biggest prize in angling." Undoubtedly it took the precaution of insuring against the unlikely event of anyone breaking the record.

Pickering's haul comprised 170 bream, four roach and four perch. A fish every 100 seconds might seem a great many to catch in five hours, but Pickering is perhaps the most adept angler in Britain at catching large numbers quickly. He once caught 14 fish, admittedly tiny ones, in a minute. In the US, however, top-line fishers would have greeted such arm-aching exertions with amusement. After all, they compete for purses of $50,000 or more and can win with just one fish, as long as it's the biggest. Such rewards have generated a professional circuit and each year, one event offers a staggering $1m top prize.

You might suppose that salmon or perhaps trout would be their quarry. But no. More than half of America's 56m fishers put freshwater or black bass at the top of the pile. So what's the appeal? Even ardent trouters admit that bass are something special. Acclaimed author and trout addict John Gierach, in his latest book, Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing, writes: "Given the choice, the fly-fisher with any breeding whatsoever always chooses the spotted, streamlined fish. Bass are amusing enough, but like triple X-rated movies and cheap wine, they are not something a gentleman spends a lot of time and money on.

"I, however, consider largemouths right up there with trout on the scale of respectability and have even been known to quote Russell Chatham [don't ask me] to the effect that, if a bass and trout of equal size were tied tail to tail, the bass would tow that trout clear up to Healdsburg." This is an American way of saying that bass are stronger.

There are six species, but basically anglers are after smallmouth and largemouth bass (somewhat misnamed because even a 3lb smallmouth could engulf your fist without scraping the skin).

The bass fan club can best be gauged from an annual catalogue issued by Bass Pro Shops. This $5 tome contains nearly 500 pages, and Bass Pro shops are huge. Their Missouri branch has a 150,000 sq ft showroom, while the Atlanta store includes a 40ft aquarium so anglers can observe bass feeding habits. Addicts can even buy tasteful presents for their children from the catalogue, from a bib with Born to Fish imprinted on it, to a fish-decorated cot and fish sheets.

Bass are handsome (though not as sleek and sexy as trout), strong fighters, fierce biters and good to eat. But it's more than that. In modern parlance, they are fish with attitude. Their appeal somehow transcends class barriers. A couple of years ago, I fished in Maine with the owner of a huge outdoor complex and his bass partner, who mended trucks. Addicts? I'll say. We fished from 10am to 9pm, and they ate their lunch one-handed rather than put their rods down. "Won any decent prizes?" I asked them. "No, a few $25,000 competitions, but nothing big," was the reply. Eat your heart out, Pickering.

l The capture of a record-breaking 53lb 15oz carp sent angling publications into a frenzy, and one paid a rumoured pounds 1,000 for the captor's story - probably the first example of chequebook journalism in angling. But just to show that God goes fishing, last week the same fish was caught again, weighing 55lb 6oz. The latest captor, Alex White, is said to be miffed that his new record attracted only a pounds 250 bid. What will the fish be worth when it's caught next week?

Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing by John Gierach (Flycatcher Books, pounds 14.99).