Esox Lucius - The Northern Pike
They do say that if a boy catches a fish the first time he goes fishing then he'll be an angler for life. To be truthful, I don't remember whether I caught a fish the first time or not but I probably did as I've been a fisherman ever since, albeit with some fairly long breaks.
It was a long time ago! I couldn't have been much older than six or seven when Granddad George took me and cousin Richard to Ivinghoe on the bus. We walked up the road towards Cheddington Station for about a mile to where it crossed the Grand Union Canal. I think Granddad was a lot more interested in the pub that used to be there. I seem to remember it being call "The Raven" but it has long since become a private dwelling. We had one old rod and reel that Granddad had acquired from somewhere, a couple of floats and a jar of worms. Dick and I sat and drowned the worms while Granddad watched us from the pub garden, a jar of ale in one hand and a perpetual "Woodbine" in the other.
From then on, I was hooked, so to speak. Annual holidays to Lowestoft would find me and my other Grandfather... Grandpa Jack... on the South Pier (really the outer harbour wall) with a handline and a supply of fresh lugworms (wrapped in old newspaper) from Sam Hook's tackle shop. We never caught much, just a few little pouting and an occasional dab but it was a great way for a kid to enjoy the holiday when the rest of the family were content to sit on the beach all day. It was Grandpa Jack that bought me my first proper fishing rod and reel. That too came from Sam Hook's tackle shop. That's a great name for someone who owned a fishing tackle shop and as far as I know, the shop is still there, in Bevan Street. It certainly was a year or two ago when I was last in Lowestoft although I suspect that Sam is probably long gone as it was at least 55 years ago that I came out clutching the rod and reel that Grandpa Jack had just bought me.
It wasn't anything special, just a simple length of bamboo with a cork handle and a few rings whipped on but to me, it was the best thing I'd ever had. The reel was a simple 'fixed spool' device loaded with thick nylon line and not easy to cast with but it didn't matter. Now I was a 'proper' fisherman, like the others on the pier and not just a kid with a handline.
Rock on a few years... I'm 12 years old, and at senior school. In my case, The Luton Grammar School for boys. There I make friends with another lad in my class who's interested in fishing. His name was Mick Wayte and he lived on the northern edge of Luton. Such was our enthusiasm, that during the summer months, I would get up really early and cycle across Luton to Mick's house. He would be up and waiting for me and we would both cycle to Ampthill, about 10 miles further north, fish for carp in Ampthill Park Lake for a couple of hours and then cycle back to Mick's. Drop off the tackle and then cycle to school. As I got a little older, 14 or 15, I would cycle further afield at the weekend to fish the Grand Union Canal at Slapton, or the pit behind The Airman pub just outside Henlow. I'd also been fishing the River Great Ouse at Bedford. That was a train journey away. The 08:15 train from Luton to Bedford on a Saturday morning cost 5 shillings and 9 pence for a return ticket. It was one of the trips to Bedford that started my quest for pike. I watched a man land one, the first I'd ever seen... not a huge fish but bigger than anything I'd ever caught. I decided then, that I would catch one, and I did, eventually. A small fish of about 2 pounds but that was enough to start me on a quest for bigger fish that has lasted, on and off for a lifetime.
At 16 years old, my other lifelong passion, motorcycles, took over and it was another 12 or so years before I went fishing again. I was sharing a rented house with a friend, Dennis whose brother, Malcomb, was the secretary for the local branch of the P.A.C... The Pike Anglers Club of Great Britain. He invited me to go along for a days pike fishing on the Startop End Reservoir, one of the four reservoirs that feed the Grand Union Canal at Tring in Hertfordshire. That got me back into pike fishing seriously again. Every Saturday, from the 1st October until the end of the season in March, Malcomb, me and another guy named John O'Mahoney would fish on one of the three reservoirs, Marsworth, Wilstone or more usually, Startop that were avialable for coarse fishing. The fourth reservoir, Tringford, was trout fishing only. Sunday fishing on the Tring Reservoirs wasn't permitted at that time so on Sundays, the three of us could be found fishing on the large flooded brick clay pit at Stewartby, just south of Bedford. By then, we were all members of the Stewartby Watersports Club, as it was their "Angling Section" that controlled the fishing on the pit.
The pike fishing season on the reservoirs didn't start until October 1st, but you could fish for other species, so during the summer months, I spent a lot of time fishing for roach, tench and bream on Marsworth and Startop. Startop held roach to well over 2lb... the fish of a lifetime for some anglers. My biggest was, and still is, 2lb 1.1/2ozs. My biggest bream was 7lb 10ozs from Marsworth, a very good fish, but Wilstone held much bigger specimens. Fish in excess of 10lb were caught most years. Sadly, the largest tench I ever caught only weighed about 4lb but there were reputed to be record breaking tench in Marsworth, in excess of 10lb. This was back in the late 1970's. I haven't fished there for years so I have no idea if those large fish are still present. I did hear that Startop in particular now holds a good head of large carp. If that is so, then I would expect the larger roach and bream to have disappeared as they would not have been able to compete with the carp on such a relatively small volume of water.
It was during one of the Sunday trips to Stewartby, 19th November 1978, that I caught my first "double figure" pike... In fact I caught two on the same very wet and windy day. They weighed in at 13lb 6ozs and 17lb 2ozs. I was, quite literally, "over the moon". A big milestone had been reached... Now I was after a "20".
It was almost exactly a year later, Thursday, 22nd November, 1979 that I achieved that goal. I had taken a days holiday from work and was fishing alone on Wilstone Reservoir at the legendary "signpost" swim; a reputed big pike hot spot. My fishing record states "that it was a mild day after a couple of days of cold weather. There was a slight westerly wind." At around mid-day, a pike picked up my free-lined bait, the front half of a large herring. I eventually landed the fish, a large pike weighing 20lb 6ozs. It had a length of 42" with a girth of 20". I kept meticulous records of stuff like that in those days. Sadly, I never kept that up and more sadly, I don't have a decent photo of that pike either. I had yet to catch a "20" from Stewartby, that was the next goal but it was an incredibly difficult water to fish. Roughly rectangular, 3/4 mile long by 1/2" wide, and covers around 230 acres. Fishing was restricted as part of the water was given over to a water bird breeding area. It's now a part of Marston Vale Country Park. The banks, at the time I'm talking about, were pretty rugged, and very overgrown in places and access to the water was not easy. I did, however, stick at it and by the time another year had passed, I had caught fish up to 19lb 14ozs... just a gnat's short of the magic 20lb. That fish, incidentally, was largest of 4 fish taken on a plastic jointed lure being fished on a 10ft "Avon" style rod; two of them coming on consecutive casts. The three smaller fish weighed in at 11lb 12ozs, 12lb 4ozs & 19lb 2ozs. Probably the best day I ever had on the lake.
It was about this time that I started fishing with two of my motorcycling mates, Gary and Paul. Malcomb was married and moved home and I just lost contact with John O'Mahoney when he stopped fishing at Stewartby. We started taking it a little less seriously than I had done previously. The day out was the thing and actually catching a fish was a bonus. A stop at the Green Man in Lidlington on the way home became obligatory. A pint or two and a game of darts finishing off the day nicely. We fished, on and off, with some success and a good number of blank days. Between us, however, we caught a lot of pike, including many double figure fish. We also learned a lot about the water and how to fish it. It was to be 6 years, however, before we caught a fish that exceeded 20lb. It was Gary that smashed it with a superb fish of 24lb 2ozs. That took his trout bait at 13:20 fished about 40 yards out at what was then known as "Peg 8" on the south-west bank. It was 44" long and had a girth of 20". That was Thursday, 30th October, 1986. That was and still is the biggest fish that I witnessed coming from Stewartby. It ceased to be a working pit sometime in the early 1960's and was flooded by having a small brook diverted into it in the western corner. There is an outflow about half way along the north-eastern bank. There were rumours of huge pike being caught by a few people who fished it (with or without permission) during the period before the S.W.S.C. was formed in the early 70's. Going off track a little, I joined the club as one of the first members but not for fishing. At that time I was heavily into sailing a dinghy competitively. I crewed in a 17ft National Osprey belonging to Roger Mant before being 'head hunted' to crew in a similar craft belonging to Peter Dovey... Back on track... I never met anyone who had seen one of these huge pike caught so I would take it with a pinch of salt and consign them to the realms of "urban myth".
Anyway... It was exactly two weeks later, on Thursday, 13th November that I caught my first "20" from Stewartby. We were fishing the same south-west bank but a bit further down at "Peg 3". It was 5 p.m. and getting dark. Just as we were thinking about calling it a day, my buzzer went off. It seemed that my herring bait had grabbed a passing pike by the teeth. It weighed 24lb exactly. We speculated that it was the same pike that Gary had caught a couple of weeks earlier but it was impossible to say from the photographs.
It was around this time that we were experimenting with long range fishing. The water was relatively shallow along the south-west bank and we wanted to fish in the deeper water further out than we could cast. (I was to find out many years later that the lake had a fairly uniform depth of around 40 feet. There were some deeper spots, up to 60 feet and the south-west and south-east banks were considerably more shallow for quite a long way out.) We were using inflated balloons attached to the top of the trace with a paper clip. Our winds are predominantly from the south-west which meant that fishing on the south-west bank, the wind was blowing from behind us. Just what was needed to carry the balloon out into the lake. When it had travelled the required distance, a sharp jerk on the line caused the balloon to unclip and the bait would sink to the lake bed. Normal nylon mono-filament fishing line was no good for this method of fishing as it would stretch too much so we were using the latest "Dyneema" braided line which was very strong, very thin and non-stretch. It was using this method that Paul caught his biggest fish at the same "Peg 3" just three weeks after I'd caught my "20". Paul's fish didn't make 20lb but it was a very nice fish of 16lb 12ozs. It must have been hungry as it took a whole trout at around 200 yards out from the bank. We fished most Thursdays through the winter and caught a good many pike up to 18lb 10ozs but it wasn't until the last few days of the season that I caught my second Stewartby "20". It was Thursday, 12th March, 1987. I was fishing on the north-east bank, in front of what was left of an old brick building. We called it "The old boat-house swim". I was fishing a large roach deadbait; it weighed 8 or 9 ounces and was dropped into the lake close to an overhanging bush. It was no more that 20 feet from the bank. That was picked up by a large pike just after 1 p.m. I remember it being quite a struggle to keep it out from under the bush. It weighed 20lb 8ozs, was 39" long and had a girth of 21". For one reason or another, it was to be almost exactly 31 years before I caught another pike that weighed in excess of the magic 20lb.
Right... At this point, I'm going to ignore the chronological sequence of events and jump forward 24 years, from 1987 to 2011, as I've just been talking about water depths. I will be returning to the 20th century later. In all the years I spent around the edge of Stewartby pit, I spoke to a lot of people about the nature of the lake bed. I got a lot of wildly differing stories regarding the depth and what was down there. Some thought that it was over 100ft deep in the middle, others told me of rail track and even steam engines being left in situ when the pit flooded. I thought it would be good to find out for myself. I knew that the area along the north-west bank where I caught my first double figure fish in 1978 was deep. I had a crude depth meter which I'd made and calibrated in a 6ft deep tank at work. That indicated that the water just a few feet out from the bank at that point was 55 feet deep. OK... Not the most accurate of devices but it was probably in the right ball park.
I spent a fist-full of my hard earned pension (I'd retired in February 2009) on a second hand "Microcat" bait boat, made by Angling Technics Ltd. This was a top of the range piece of kit that incorporated an ultra-sonic depth finder. It was radio controlled and had a radio range of far more than I would need... a couple of kilometres, at least. I could control the direction and speed of the boat, the display on the hand held receiver showed a real-time, moving graphic display of the depth of water immediately under the boat. Being primarily a "fish finder", the display would also show any weed beds and other underwater features. I did modify it very slightly by adding a pair of high power LED torches to the covers of the battery compartments. When the boat was two or three hundred yards away, it was difficult to see, particularly if the water was a bit "choppy". If I could see the torches, I knew that the boat was facing me and giving it full forward would bring it home. I spent many hours over the next two years with that boat and covered the majority of the lake. What I discovered surprised me a little. The water wasn't as deep as a lot of people thought. For the most part, the bottom was absolutely flat and devoid of features. The depth, just 40ft over the vast majority of the lake. There was a deeper area some yards out from the out-flow on the north east bank that dropped down to 60 feet and the area just off shore along the north-west bank was indeed around 50 feet deep so my home made device wasn't that inaccurate. The south-east bank was the shallowest, the water gently sloping down to around 10 feet and remaining at that depth for quite some distance before sloping down again to 40 feet. The south-west bank was similar, sloping gently down to 40 feet over a distance of around 60 yards. The bottom, at 40 feet seemed to be completely devoid of any plant growth and I never found any evidence of mining machinery down there either. There was a very shallow area in the east corner of the lake that I had seen as an island when the water level was lowered by the brickworks abstracting water during a particularly hot summer. Having served it's purpose, I sold the whole kit a couple of years later in October 2013.
Right... back to the 20th Century. In the summer of '87 Gay, Paul and I went over to Ireland. Gary's stepmum was Irish and his dad had built a big bungalow overlooking Lough Corrib in Galway. That was too good to be true... Corrib was a legendary big pike water. As it turned out, we never caught a big pike but we did catch a few smaller ones and had a great time doing it. We hired a boat with a Seagull outboard and trolled lures behind the boat. I think the biggest we caught was probably about 6lb and we had a few large perch take the lure, too.
The bungalow was up on the hillside and water to it was pumped up from the lake to a filter tank to make it drinkable. We spent the evenings playing snooker in the games room and drinking "Jameson Whiskey and Corrib Water". We also explored "Log Island", but that's another story and has nothing to do with fishing!! We did find out that the pike fishing had deteriorated over the previous decade due to a misguided policy of "gill netting" carried out by the Irish authorities. This was an attempt to remove the pike in order to improve the trout fishing, a lucrative source of income. Thousands of pike were caught in the huge gill nets and killed. It didn't work.... removing the predators led to an explosion of small trout and other coarse fish which nobody wanted to catch. I digress...
In 1988 I met Hilary and we were married in 1989. Gary had married Vanessa and Paul had disappeared from the scene, riding off into the sunset on his purple Ducati Low Rider. Fishing took a back seat as other, more pressing projects occupied my time. Fortunately, Hilary used to live on a boat, moored on the Hogsmill, off the Thames at Richmond, so she was no stranger to dangling a worm over the side. We did manage to get a session or two on the Grand Union Canal at Tring and the River Great Ouse at Bedford but it was just fishing for fun, not a serious pursuit of wily old Esox. It wasn't until the mid 1990's that I started fishing for pike seriously again. Hilary, me and another friend, Les went over to Ireland for a holiday in summer. We were staying in Killaloe in County Clare, on the west side of the River Shannon at the lower end of Lough Derg. If you cross over the bridge to the east side of the river, you're in Ballina, County Tipperary. That's the home of TJ's Angling Centre. Les and I hired one of his fishing boats, went up river and trolled our lures around the margins and weedbeds in search of pike. We caught a few but nothing of any great size. At the end of the week, TJ was confident enough of our boat handling ability to let us have his own personal boat with a bigger, 4 stroke, outboard motor and an electronic fishfinder. In truth it didn't make a lot of difference. We still caught fish but they weren't the big ones we were hoping for. My memory is a bit hazy, but I think we went over to there and a bit further downstream to O'Briens Bridge for three, maybe four years before we gave up. One thing that does stick in my memory was spending more than one evening in John Crotty's Bar, in Killaloe eating his monstrous "Miss Piggy Burgers" and drinking the truly exceptional Guinness.
It was bout that time that I started hearing stories of big Pike and Ferrox Trout coming out of Loch Awe, in the west of Scotland. The story went that there was a trout or salmon farm on the loch that was raided by animal rights activists and the entire stock had been released into the loch. The temporarily abundant food supply caused the predators, the pike and ferrox trout to put on weight rapidly. We decided it was worth a shot, so for another couple of years Hil, Les and I spent our holiday on the shore of Loch Awe. That's Gaelic for the Black (or Dark?) Lake and it really does look black as where we started fishing at the northern end, it's in the shadow of the mighty Ben Cruachan. At around 20 miles long, it's an impressive stretch of water and as we were to find out, incredibly hard to fish unless you had good local knowledge. Like our time in Ireland, we did catch fish but not the big ones. I believe it was our last trip up there, we stayed in Ford, right at the southern tip of the loch. We'd spent the evening in a local hostelry and started chatting to an elderly local gent. It turned out that he was a gamekeeper on the local Ederline Estate. That estate include Loch Ederline. After a dram or two had been plied, we obtained permission to fish on the little loch... we even got the use of a boat. That was a result!! It was on that loch that Les caught the biggest fish we had taken for a long time. A cracking fish of around 15lb. That was to be his personal best fish for quite a few years to come. We were also treated to the sight of an Osprey fishing, with, I might add, considerably more success than us. There were a pair nesting in a tall pine tree on the shore of the loch. Quite spectacular and a memory that will stay with me for ever... I hope.