Fish may not be very bright, but as for fishermen...

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TIME moves in mysterious ways, as anyone with a bus schedule will tell you. Every year, it takes less time to reach Australia but longer to drive to work. A minute equals 60 seconds, except when someone says "Just a..." And UK National Fishing Week, which started yesterday, lasts 10 days.

Anglers see nothing strange in this. Too much time spent stretching their arms out wide and turning sprats into mackerel, I guess. What other activity is there (except male lap-dancing) in which enlargement is not just accepted but welcomed? But then there is more to National Fishing Week than merely hauling in our finny friends. Among its 4,993 events (compared with the mere 114 when it started in 1992) you could - if you didn't fancy learning to cast - try maggot racing instead.

Either way you will not be alone. More than 450,000 people will be dangling a line during the week. That bible of outdoor activities The Big Breakfast has been trailing it heavily in a series called "Reel Men".

Whether you're a sad old git, a yuppie, a psychotic, a snob or a hooligan, fishing has something for you. But you do need to choose the discipline - game, sea or coarse - that fits your personality. Mix with the wrong set and you will be treated worse than a Kosovan refugee in Dover.

Game fishing means trying to catch trout and salmon, usually with bits of fluff wrapped round a hook. Looking the part is very important. Designer clothing and tackle with names such as Hardy and Orvis are de rigueur. They cost a lot, but then so does the fishing: a week chasing salmon on a prime Scottish river can set you back more than pounds 1,000, and in Norway it could be three times that. Hampshire's river Test - "clear as gin, and twice as expensive" - is the place for trouters to be seen. Affecting a posh voice, talking loudly in restaurants and signing petitions for the return of the death penalty will all help your cause.

All game fish can be eaten and usually are. Unfortunately, this results in waters without stock. But being able to afford the crippling costs, and to cast like the characters in A River Runs Through It, is infinitely more important than catching anything. You can always buy salmon and trout in your local supermarket if you really want fish, and you'll get free parsley thrown in.

Whatever trout fishers claim, their quarry is not very bright - indeed, only a little smarter than those who seek to catch them. Most trout come from fish farms, where they are fed twice daily on high-protein food. Such fish exhibit all the natural cunning of a rock. Fishing a river near Seattle, I had farm salmon actually swimming up to me, looking for food, which rather reduces the "challenge" of fishing. Still, if you want to get on in PR or the City, game fishing is your only bet.

Sea anglers fall into two groups: shore and boat. The former sling a weight out to sea from a beach and catch nothing, because in-shore trawlers have hoovered up all the fish. They also dangle lines off piers, and catch crabs. They are highly gregarious. Walk to the end of Southend Pier, start to fish and the only other angler on the pier will set up right next to you.

Boat fishers catch about the same amount, but go farther out to sea to do it. This is a very macho sport where big rods, huge hooks and thick lines demand regular weight-training. Heavy drinking is encouraged, preferably while the boat is rolling in a force eight. Don't expect sympathy for seasickness, either. It is a cause for tremendous merriment among your companions.

Coarse anglers pursue all the species that the game set would like to see extinct, such as roach, perch, pike, carp, chub, tench, bream and sticklebacks. All are inedible. Try a chub if you don't believe me. Oven gloves taste better. Most waters still hold coarse fish. You fish for them... and put them back. Pretty pointless, huh?

Except a whole new industry has grown up around returnable fish. At its most extreme, specimen hunting makes the Masons look like a Citizen's Advice Bureau. Even naming the county where a big carp or catfish was captured is seen as too specific. This week's Angling Times typically talks of a large carp caught "at a secret Southern pit". If you think they're out to get you, join a carp-fishing syndicate and prove yourself right.

Certain very big fish are caught so often they acquire pet names. The record carp is called Mary. He - sex does not figure highly among coarse anglers' interests - has been captured several times between 40lb and 55lb. Tempt Mary, or Stumpy or The Pig, six times, and you can claim to have caught half-a-dozen 50-pounders - even though it's the same fish.

But such success is achieved only by spending weeks, sometimes months, beside water, living in a bivvy. Ultra-specimen hunters equip their bivvies with televisions, carpets and even fridges.

Still, carp fishing offers wonderful scope for invention, especially in baits. Chum Mixer, marshmallows, pepperoni, mung beans, even flavoured rabbit-droppings have all caught fish, but to really impress those who fish for days at a stretch the trick is to make your own. A chemistry degree helps here. A typical ingredient list reads: five large eggs, 16oz Seed of the Weed mix, 5ml Forest Berry, 10ml Aminol, 2ml Supersweet and one level teaspoon of Betaine. But this recipe, taken from a carp magazine, is probably no good because someone else already knows about it. Secret baits are always better.

At the other end of the scale are match anglers. These are the green umbrella brigade, a familiar sight on canals and rivers, spaced every 20 yards as far as the eye can see. You can't move from your spot for five hours. Picked a bad area? Tough luck. Their quarry is anything with fins. I know one match fisher who won a competition with 600 minnows weighing 5lb. This branch of the sport is ideal for those with extremely good eyesight, who can bet on drops of rain running down a window.

Of course, you could just go down to the local river, dangle a piece of bread and hope for the best. This is contemptuously called "pleasure fishing". Expect scorn from all the other groups if you consider taking this route. It means feeding swans with your sandwiches, forgetting your reel and tying your line to the end of the rod instead - and losing all sense of time.

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