SCARY, LOVE, obsession, toothy, prehistoric, predators, stealthy. These are all words inspired by a tiny word: pike. Like all things that are not fully understood, people are scared of pike, although they are loved and obsessed over by the men that fish for them. Pike are predators. They eat trout and cuddly things like ducks, but they will eat anything smaller, sicker and more feeble than themselves. And that gives them quite a choice: the current UK pike record is 46lb 13oz. Then there’s the teeth – very many of them in the large flat jaw that seems far too big for the mean, little head.
But – and I knew this would happen – when you meet them in the flesh, pike make you fall in love with them. A bit like Mick Jagger: you see pictures of him and think: `What’s the fuss about?’, but see him in the flesh and it seems the attraction is obvious. Pike are really beautiful fish, weird looking, but awesome none the less. And, contrary to popular belief, pike don’t attack you. They only bite if you put your hand in their mouth.
Pike, kennel name Esox Lucius, are solitary hunters. Their bodies are torpedo shaped and built for short, aggressive bursts of activity. They live in clear water, in rivers, lakes and reservoirs and lurk around the bottom, in weed beds, waiting for their prey. Their bodies are perfectly marked for this subterfuge, camouflaging them amidst the vegetation. They are mysterious, dignified creatures; Ted Hughes even wrote a poem for them once.
So it was that I was beside myself with excitement at going pike fishing with my friend, Mick Rouse, from the Angling Times, a former UK champion pike record holder (36lb in 1988). There was lots of equipment that was alien to me as a fly-fisherman. Wire trace in the place of nylon tippet (which pike would bite clean off) and a freezer box full of frozen dead fish in place of beautiful flies in Wheatley fly boxes. There were mackerel, smelt and hideous lampreys which are vile, blood sucking creatures so their corpses were now full of frozen blood. The shoe designer, Oliver Sweeney, a keen fisherman, had advised me to take frozen sardines, which he said the pike would go mad for – as they melt in the water the smell brings pike from all around, he said. But I decided not to interfere with what Mick wanted to do, although he too agreed that sardines were excellent bait, but that they disintegrated quickly as their flesh was soft.
We went to Tallington Lakes in Lincolnshire and had the place all to ourselves, which was good – all the fish were potentially ours. We set up two pike rods each, most with drop-back indicators that let out an electronic beep when a fish bit, and 15lb nylon line. This was the first revelation for me with coarse fishing; once you have cast out you can sit back and do nothing, just waiting for the drop back to tell you there is a fish on the end of the line. No wonder coarse fishing is so popular! None of this constant casting around, watching your fly or line for fish activity. Two of the rods, however, were set up with bite-indicators that needed a bit of work on the fisherman’s part. One was a sight indicator and one a drift float.
The latter is a square-shaped flag that floats above the water by virtue of the polyball underneath it. It was cast out and the flag acted as a sail that took the bait far out, much further than you could ever cast. If this flag bobs under the water, you know a fish is at the end of the line, so you strike. The line used with this set-up needs to be different: nylon line can stretch when wet and that would be no good when you’re trying to reel in acres of line, so we used Fox braid no-stretch line and cast it out 60 yards. At the end was a smelt, a fish that smells deliciously of cucumber.
It was about 11.30am when all was set and Mick said that usually the pike bit at 11 o’clock and then again at 4pm. So we cast and hung around, and if there was no activity we recast again in a different place after half an hour or so. In this cold weather, fish are extremely lethargic so you have to find them and dangle the bait right over their nose. After a couple of hours, Mick got out a syringe. Aye, aye, I thought. We’re going to jack up. But no, Mick got a mackerel bait that had been in the water and injected it with fish oil to “refresh” it. Pike feed by smell, sight and vibration.
Then, bang on the 4 o’clock, just as Mick and I were chatting about some nonsense we looked round and the drift float had gone. He struck, a pike was on. He handed the rod to me and I played the fish in, which involved lots of hauling the rod back, reeling in fast, hauling the rod back, etc. A bit like sea fishing. At this point we had more than 200 yards of line out so there was lots of hauling to be done. But very soon (they are lethargic remember) the pike was in. He weighed 10lb 11oz and I held my breath at his beauty, which is something I’ve never done with Mick Jagger.
First published in The Independent.