Plenty more fish

In Comacchio, a country-cousin of Venice, Rob Ainsley checked out an automated angling system - plus wine and apricot tart - that leaves British fishing technique high and dry
I've never understood the attraction of angling. You sit in the drizzle for three hours watching reeds grow, then catch a shopping trolley. But the way they do it around Comacchio could turn even me into a fishing fanatic. The Italians, never ones to waste effort that could be used to lift a glass of wine or cut a piece of cheese, have automated the process.

With my girlfriend, I'd cycled to Comacchio from Ravenna. We were lured like curious minnows by its "Little Venice" tag. Sure, any town with a drain down the middle can be called Little Venice, just as any town past Calais with a kebab shop is a "unique crossroads between East and West". But Comacchio is one of the more deserving bearers of the title: a country cousin, 60 miles down the coast from Venice, the pretty little town is based on a small network of canals, quietly lined with pastel-coloured houses.

But Canaletto country this ain't. The brick stairways and bridges - most dating from around 1634 - look more like those perspective-bending Escher lithographs, and you keep expecting lines of soldiers to appear from the sleepy cafes and march ever upwards in impossible circles.

More intriguing, though, are the rows of wooden fishing huts that line the rivers and drainage channels around Comacchio - more Little Vietnam than Little Venice. Poles stick out over the water like crabs' legs, and nets the size of tennis courts droop from them. An old boy in a crumpled hat and dungarees was messing about on his veranda when we stopped to picnic on the bank.

When he shouted at us, we were a bit worried. But he was merely inviting us into his hut for a bottle of wine and some cheese.

He was a farmer called Gianluigi, and he showed off his one-man fish factory with the glee of a bambino on his Christmas bike. Angling technique here dispenses with rods, lines and casts; the only flies are the ones that buzz around your Parmesan. You press button A and the net lowers into the water; wait two minutes, and button B brings it up, full of crabs, eels and other fish. You scoop out what you fancy, and lower everything else back to fight another day. This is the sort of angling I can identify with. Environment-friendly, and easy. And you can drink and socialise as you do it. And it isn't raining.

Gianluigi's hut was complete with dining-table and chairs, fridge, barbecue, store cupboards, sofa and TV - all of Sixties and Seventies vintage, comfortably battered and browned. We laid out our picnic lunch, slurped his wine, and watched him work his push-button piscatory. He even let us have a go. "Go on!" he chuckled as I pushed the buttons. "See, you're a fisherman!"

My technique obviously wasn't quite up to it. I only managed to catch a black plastic sandal. "They don't barbecue so well," Gianluigi chortled, and we downed more vino tipico.

His chum Enrico turned up from the hut next door, bringing an apricot tart made by his wife. After we'd had a few of Gianluigi's fish freshly barbecued on his little grill, followed by the tart, we went round to Enrico's hut to enjoy some of his mother's coffee liqueur. He was a retired banker, a thoughtful and curious man, keen to know who we were and why we'd come to their backwater. He told us the fishing lodges cost around 50 million lire - pounds 20,000 - and are sold like time-shares, with everyone buying one day's use a week. Like most of the chaps there, Enrico and Gianluigi knew each other through their shared fishing day.

Unlike Gianluigi, Enrico wasn't entirely convinced of the value of the Italian way of life. "We Italians are easily distracted," he told us. "Good climate, good wine, good food. We love to sit and talk, and eat, and drink. But we are not good at organising, at looking forward. We only think of today, not tomorrow."

I found it hard to sympathise. We were sitting on the veranda of his hut, eating more apricot tart and drinking more coffee liqueur. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and Enrico was absentmindedly pulling out in bucketfuls the sort of fish that the restaurants in town were charging the price of an Andrew Lloyd-Webber Canaletto for. Today seemed pretty good to us. Organisation? Britain has had one government since April 1979; the chaotic Italians have had 20, according to their London embassy. I know where I'd rather do my fishing.

Off we wobbled on our bikes back to the camp site. In contrast to Comacchio's tranquillity, the resorts of Lido d'Estensi and Lido di Spina are - in season, at least - busy with tourists, and looking at the flat beaches and sapphire seas, it's easy to see why. This region is also great for cyclists, level yet scenic: Comacchio sits in the Po delta, easy, flat fenland criss-crossed by channels, rivers and drains. Lagoons of brackish water serve as home to one of nature's more curious species - bird watchers, who come in droves to see herons, egrets, pratincoles, avocets, black- winged stilts, greenshanks and spoonbills.

Porto Garibaldi, a few miles from Comacchio, is a genuinely unspoilt fishing village, with a lively and inexpensive market, lively and less inexpensive fishing trips for visitors, and a two-minute river ferry packed with schoolchildren and bikes that must offer one of the shorter crossings in Europe. Eel cuisine is a speciality of the region, and the restaurants offer some good fixed-price menus. The eels and other fish come fresh off the boats, served in risotto or lightly fried, with a bucket of cheap and fizzily delicious local white wine.

But it's all a bit commercial for me. I prefer to eat fish I've caught myself, following that primeval battle of wits between man and fish. So long as I can drink wine, eat cheese, chat in pidgin Italian, sit in the sun, and just push buttons to catch them.

Comacchio facts

The nearest airport is Bologna, with Marco Polo in Venice a close second. Sky Shuttle (0800 129129) has several charters from Gatwick to both airports, and is quoting pounds 110 (including tax) for a flight to Bologna on 6 April, and back from Venice on 17 April. The company also sells scheduled flights on British Airways from Heathrow to Bologna, for pounds 198.

From Bologna airport you take a bus to the main railway station, whence a train to Ravenna takes 75 minutes. Local buses run to Comacchio.

The Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254) can provide some information on the region.