Wrongs of the write stuff

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The Independent Online
HOLIDAYING doctors, I'm told, never admit their profession. Let slip that you know your superior concha from the middle or inferior concha, and word gets round a Spanish hotel faster than a dose of salmonella. Soon you're inundated with strangers saying: "I've got this pain in my shoulders. Perhaps you could have a quick look at it." So doctors hide the BMJ inside a copy of Playboy and pretend to be tax officials or life- insurance reps. It's the only way they can get a trouble-free holiday.

There is a good lesson here for fishing writers. Write one article for a magazine or newspaper and people assume you know more than they do. Write two, and you become an authority. Write three, and you are an expert. Even worse, some start to believe the publicity.

There are two sorts of angling writer. First, there are the true experts. These people can tie a salmon fly with one hand, wield a 16-metre pole as if it was a garden cane or hurl a 4oz sea weight farther out than most people can swim. The trouble is that what they have gained in piscatorial skills, they have lost in social ones. Their columns are usually ghost- written because they are monosyllabic in real life and spell cod with two ds. There are exceptions, like the former carp record-holder and author Chris Yates. But, in most cases, a three-legged dog is more entertaining and socially adept.

Then there are the angling writers, hacks like myself. We're just journalists who like to fish and can scribble a bit. In most cases, we're not much better at fishing than Mr Average, and in many cases worse. The idea that fishing writers should actually be able to fish is a very new concept.

Many years ago, and quite by accident, I won the national sea angling championships. The fishing magazine I worked for at the time had thought it would be good publicity for their no-hope writer to take part. My chances were rated so highly that the staff photographer didn't even bother to take a picture of me on Southend Pier, preferring the eight-year-old moppet next to me who didn't know how to tie on a hook but looked far more photogenic.

When I won the three-day contest, the magazine was in a panic. They had no pictures, which in fishing circles is like missing the winner of the men's singles at Wimbledon. Fortunately, trolling through the files revealed a snapshot of me drinking coffee in the office. And that was the picture that went in. (Ironically, my main prize was a colour television. The following year the winner picked up two cars.)

But winning that competition uncovered something I had never experienced as a no-hoper. Suddenly, everyone wanted to beat me, and when they did so, they boasted to their mates about how they had caught more than the national champion. I only sea-fished occasionally so this wasn't much of a problem, though in turn it made me more competitive than I cared to be.

This same phenomenon occurs when you're an angling writer. You're an expert, like it or not. It's a no-win situation. If you catch a lot of fish, that's no more than people expect. If you don't, they question what the hell you're doing writing about it in the first place.

Even in our little village, locals come round with all sorts of technical questions about the correct sort of hackle to tie a blue-winged olive, or how to catch carp when all the standard methods have failed. To tell the truth, I generally haven't got a clue. But they expect an answer, so I give them one.

And here's a funny thing: it works more often than not. Because they believe they are working with inside information, so to speak, they approach the problem with fresh enthusiasm. If it fails, they attribute it not to bad advice, but to their own inadequacies.

The more my advice is successful, the more people believe I'm one hell of a fisherman. It reached the stage where, if I fished on the local river, a crowd of youngsters came down to watch. When I hooked my hat or my net, they muttered in amazement that I suffered the same mundane problems as the average fisher. It gets hard to enjoy your angling when your audience expects every cast to be perfect and catch a large fish.

So now I keep a very low profile, preferring to perpetuate the myth rather than destroy it. And on holiday, when people ask what I do, I tell them I'm a teacher.