Pier fishing is a great spectator sport. Gives me a laugh, anyway. The matches on Southend pier are fraught with incident mainly because it is mandatory to perform an underarm cast, rather than the more usual 'wallop it overhead' stylie.
There are, more often than not and especially in decent weather, punters walking the mile and a quarter length, you see, on their after dinner or 'let's go for a walk to work up an appetite' constitutionals. A few dozen anglers, in a fishing match taking place at the same time, hurling weights and hooks about can cause all kinds of injuries to passers by, particularly if the walkers are curious enough to get closer for a better view of the proceedings - and they usually are.
A couple of friends of mine entered for one of these matches recently. Andy, a complete novice and Chris, who had fished the pier on numerous occasions, arrived early managed to find a parking space (a result in itself along the busy foreshore) and set out towards the draw for pegs venue hoping for a good one.
Andy fancied an inshore peg, near the pier entrance, because it meant that he wouldn't have to walk so far loaded down with fishing gear. There is a regular train service, every fifteen minutes or so, but there are no stations. You get on at the pier entrance and are deposited ten minutes later at the pier head - a mile and a quarter away. If you land a peg in the middle of the it means at least a half mile walk from either end.
On the other hand, Chris, the veteran, was panicking in case they drew a mark far away from the third shelter along the pier's length. This construction, about three quarters of a mile out, has always been traditionally the best place to get a result. A number of years ago, in the days when codling and flounder gave themselves up, jumped out of the estuary and into your bucket, the third shelter seemed to be the favoured spot for decent catches. Anglers would fight, to the death, to acquire it for the day and jealously guard their territory against all interlopers.
Anxiously and with bated breath, they waited until their names were called. To Chris's delight, they were given a mark about 600 yards out and as near to the third shelter as made no difference.
'Bound to do well,' said Chris, confidently to his inexperienced friend. 'The trick is to make sure that you cast out far enough. You've ideally got to get out at least 60 - 70 yds. Don't worry. I'll show you how to cast underarm. It's a bit tricky if you've never done it before but you'll soon get the hang of it.'
They set up at their appointed spot and Chris proceeded to instruct his mate in the finer points of performing the dreaded underarm cast. He showed off his expertise perfectly, several times, before the hooter sounded to indicate that fishing for the competition should begin - he made it look easy and Andy was suitably impressed. Immediately after the hooter, Chris confidently tried again. Instant bird's nest. Not once but three times. He put it down to a design fault in his reel.
'When's the best time to catch then, Chris?' asked his companion. Chris hedged his bets. 'Either on the ebb or the flood,' he replied. 'Oh, that's all right, then,' said Andy, with just a tad of sarcasm. 'Sounds a bit like a stopped clock that shows the correct time twice a day.'
Chris had, so I was told, spent five hours on the Saturday night making up traces. Cutting wire, super glueing like a good'un and eventually, after upsetting the superglue onto the carpet (there's no chance of getting that out. I speak from experience) carefully laid his finished traces over the ironing board to dry out overnight , each with three, nicely separated, trace hooks.
Unfortunately, due to 'a design fault in the traces,' they wouldn't stay separated in the water. Everytime Chris reeled in, Andy told me - and it was every twenty minutes - there were the magic hooks all joined together and fishless.
At the end of the day neither of the intrepid pair had caught a thing. They were fed up with trying to appear amiable when passers by asked how the fishing was going and had resigned themselves to a blank day when their third partner in crime, Tony, caught a baby flounder in the last few minutes of the match - so small, related Andy, that it was practically a foetus.
Chris had his own back when he found out who my informant was for this story. 'Yes, it's all true,' he said. 'But what Andy didn't tell you was that he had a bite early on - and lost it! Could have won us the match if only he'd been concentrating.'
You can probably guess where the winning marks were situated. Right inshore, they were, within the first half dozen pegs. Shame!