The ice fisherman cometh; fishing lines

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The Independent Online
"YOU fishermen are absolutely mad," the elegant woman sitting across the table told me. She had one of those voices that would rasp through rock, and her inflammatory statement caused the rest of the table to stop talking and listen with interest.

"Apart from the fact that I'm putting custard on my crepe suzette, what makes you think we are all that different from the rest of the human race?" I asked.

"Well, our house [actually, she said 'hise'] backs on to the Grand Union Canal, and though the canal has been frozen for the past couple of weeks, we still see fishermen on the bank. There aren't any boats coming through, so the only way they could fish is by cutting holes in the ice. Perhaps we have a large Eskimo population nearby!" She laughed at her own joke. "Now, isn't that extraordinary?"

"Extraordinary," I agreed.

But the truth is far, far more peculiar. Most anglers would consider that a frozen lake or canal was God's way of saying that it's time to leave the fish alone for a few weeks. But there are several thousand rugged competition fishers who don't let things like a few inches of ice put them off. Undeterred by conditions so cold that your fishing seat actually freezes to the ground, this hardy lot simply smash their way through and start fishing.

In places like Finland, where ice-fishing is an accepted art, anglers carry special augers. There, it is the only way to fish for much of the year and the ice is so thick that you can drive your car to your favourite spot on, rather than beside, a lake.

In Britain, conditions are not as severe. It would often be dangerous to walk on the ice and to make things scrupulously fair in a competition, anglers must remain on the bank. This means augers are useless because they will only drill a small hole. You need to clear an area at least the size of a bathtub, and that demands something more substantial. So the modern winter competition angler carries his own ice-breaker.

Obvious things like bricks are fine for thin ice, but when conditions are really bitter, you need something much more hefty. This means boat anchors, dumb-bells or lead weights of up to 56lb, attached to lengths of chain. Some are even using chainsaws.

The minutes before a competition on a heavily frozen canal are something to behold. Everyone has a smashing time and it's just the thing to warm you up on a chilly day. Some anglers are tempted to go home once the ice has been smashed, in the knowledge that fishing will not be half as much fun. You would imagine that after such a rumpus, any fish would have buried itself in the mud with its fins over its eyes, thinking that the Third World War had started. But here's a funny thing. Parts of a canal which are not iced over, such as those lock gates or beneath trees, are not half as productive as those areas where anglers have had to smash their way through to the water.

It may be something to do with extra light penetrating. It could even be that the noise simply makes fish curious. But it's almost always effective, and the fish, though they are generally small, are sometimes caught within seconds of the ice- breaking coming to an end.

The downside is that coarse anglers carry an inordinate amount of tackle. It's not unusual for tackle box and rod holdall to weigh 60lb. Then there are net bags, bait bags and esoteric sundries that will add a further 20lb. Add a 56lb weight and a length of chain to this lot, and you can see that some anglers are actually lugging around more than they weigh - just to catch a bag of fish weighing less than a pair of wellingtons.

I never related all this to my fellow dinner-party guest because I'm sure she would have thought it just another fisherman's tale. Instead, I told her about the man who ate half a pint of maggots for a bet.