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Down to the river

Young anglers are hooked on a mentoring scheme that introduces them to Britain's most popular pastime, reports David Newnham

Anyone who has ever endured a wet British holiday will know the routine.

You sit in the car park, waiting for the rain to ease, and every three minutes you turn on the wipers and scan the sky for progress.

Surely the clouds are breaking to the east? Isn't that a patch of brightness heading slowly your way? After half an hour, there is nothing for it but to pull your hood over your ears and make the best of it.

Which is what two dozen or so teenagers seem to be doing on the banks of Derwent reservoir in County Durham today. Except that, on closer inspection, they don't seem at all bothered by the rain. Certainly, they take care to wrap themselves up, and a few shelter beneath big umbrellas.

But their main concern is not with the weather, but with the business of catching the rainbow trout that occasionally leap out of the leaden waters.

Their refusal to be put off by one of today's more persistent showers comes as no surprise to policeman Mick Watson. For almost five years, he has been using angling as a way of keeping young men out of trouble, and he never ceases to be impressed by their eagerness to focus on the task. "We've had them out chub fishing in temperatures of minus eight, and when you ask them, 'Do you want to get in the car and get warm?' they say, 'No thanks'. They don't want to miss a bite."

It was in April 2000 that PC Watson, a social crime prevention officer with Durham constabulary, launched his Get Hooked On Fishing project. Inspired by the peer-led approach of the Durham Youth Enterprise Scheme, and with a little help from a friend's straight-talking teenage son, he devised a project that would give young people a sense of purpose as well as a degree of self-management lacking in many youth schemes.

Such was its success that Whitehall is now looking at ways of replicating it outside the North-east. Mr Watson, meanwhile, is taking a two-year career break to help develop the project, having been awarded a Queen's Police Medal in recognition of his achievement.

A recent report from the Environment Agency, Our Nation's Fisheries, argues that angling, properly organised, has a key role to play in reducing levels of youth offending, anti-social behaviour and truancy. The report points out that angling can be a cost-effective way of contributing to the Government's social policy objectives, and it highlights projects such as Stoke Angling For Everyone (Safe), which has introduced more than 1,800 people to the sport.

What sets the Durham project apart, though, is that results here have been quantified. It's a simple matter of referring to police custody records and school attendance registers, says Mr Watson. And the figures are impressive. To date, 360 youngsters have been involved in the project, and not one has landed in court. Overall truancy has been slashed by 75 per cent and educational performance has improved, with one previously excluded pupil now at university, one "out of control" boy becoming a sponsored angling coach, and another participant picking up a Young Angling Journalist of the Year award.

The boys who join the project do so for a variety of reasons and come from a range of backgrounds. "Not all of them are at risk," says Mr Watson.

"Some come purely to improve their educational standards, to increase their confidence, and maybe to raise their aspirations.

"We have a lot of mining villages where unemployment is a serious problem and young people can't see anything to aim for. They don't know what the future holds for them. We can come in and change that and help them realise the opportunities that are out there and the abilities they have."

Watching the lads here today, casting their lines into the grey reservoir and reeling in the occasional trout, it's not immediately clear how so much can be achieved by the simple act of dangling a hook in the water. But, as Mr Watson explains, fishing is only the beginning.

Central to the Get Hooked project is a mentoring scheme, manned by four adults and a dozen of the more experienced young people. They are available from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, to give advice by phone or email.

"What we offer is basically a male role model," says Mr Watson. "We get phone calls asking what bait we should use tomorrow or how to do a piece of homework. On the other hand, it might be someone ringing to say, 'I've run away from home' or, 'A kid's offered me drugs at school'.

"Something may happen in a youngster's life - he falls out with his parents, he makes a mistake or gets into some sort of trouble - and he needs an impartial third person to speak to. So why shouldn't it be one of his mates who he goes fishing with?

"That's what this has been all about right from the beginning. Anglers are a funny bunch in that they all participate in a sport that other people think is crazy, and they tend to stick together. We share this affinity, and you can base so much around that."

Along the way, he says, participants can pick up a surprising array of skills and acquire a great deal of knowledge. And with that comes a new self-confidence. "Angling, as distinct from simply fishing, is about understanding the environment the fish lives in, what it eats, what it's going through at a particular time of the year, what the water temperature's like, where it likes to hide and what it's hiding from," says Mr Watson. "I spend more time watching fish than I do trying to catch them, and some of the boys are like that too.

"Then, say you have a disruptive youngster who can't read and write and who is giving his school a real problem; if you bring him out of that enclosed environment of school, you can provide him with an alternative system.

"You can sit him down with some fishing books and get him to write one sentence, then extend it to a paragraph and then to a page. We've had kids write 750-word articles for the Angling Times. We have them writing about natural history and writing poetry about how the mist rolled off the water on an early morning when they were tench fishing.

"We get them taking photographs, drawing diagrams of knots and float set-ups, using PowerPoint or preparing flip-charts. Fishing is a small part of what we do. It's about the personal development; about being able to face a TV camera and tell an interviewer about this project, and then having the confidence to do well in a job interview."

For the young people prepared to give it a go, there quickly follows the satisfaction of tutoring others, says Mr Watson. "They tell me that one of the best things about this is seeing someone they've been teaching the first time they catch a fish, because they can recall what it was like for them."

And for Mr Watson, the reward is seeing youngsters from the Durham scheme who maybe joined at 13 now at work or in further education, but definitely not on the dole.

"They come to you at 17 years old and say, 'I don't live on that estate any more. I live in digs in Sheffield, among a load of other students who don't care which estate you came from. They don't even know where that estate is.'

"We have kids who started at 13 and are now going to Staffordshire University. And they're still fishing, which is another thing you can measure, because fishing is licensed so you can go back to the Environment Agency and submit the names and addresses and they will tell you if those people are still participating actively in the sport.

"It's a broad thing we do, and it's all based around putting a maggot on the end of a hook."

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