Non-anglers probably don’t realise that certain months of the year are affiliated with some species of fish. October has the pike and the first day of the month is the start of the traditional pike fishing season. In truth this is something that fisherman have invented over time as a pike needs to feed all year round, but as the water temperature drops in autumn the pike will feed more often and the chance of large fat esox is more likely…one hopes.
Surprisingly, travelling to the Isle of Bute in February brought a taste of spring, double figure temperatures greeted us, with no wind and no rain. The visit was more to meet extended family but I did manage to post two old fibreglass carp rods up to Bute on the previous week. They would now stay in the house near Port Bannatyne for future pike and sea exploits.
Monday morning saw me picking the rods up from the Post Office in Rothesay, the main town on Bute. I then ventured down to Bute Angling Centre for a ticket to fish Loch Ascog and get some sound local advice. The town of Rothesay has a sense of past grandeur that still remains in its heavy stone granite architecture and gothic detailing, but in more recent times, Rothesay has taken on a run down charm, left over from the ice cream parlours of the 1950’s.
Loaded with some local knowledge, a landing net and a few frozen smelts, lunch was next on the agenda, so a ten minute drive took us to Ettrick Bay on the west coast of Bute, where after a game of football on the beach we ventured into the lowly and isolated beach-side cafe. For such a remote cafe on a Monday lunchtime this place was busy and for good reason, the menu was quite extensive, and the food was well made. I soon understood why it was so popular, my prawn cocktail salad was almost as big as the views that were framed at each table setting.
After a fine lunch I managed to persuade two from the eleven to venture forth to Loch Ascog in search of a Argyll pike, just a short drive away from Ettrick Bay.
The loch lay in a soft valley with some managed forest and fenced fields of winter crops, the banks gently sloping into to the peaty, dark waters. With one of my fellow piscators being ten years old I knew our time was limited, spinning with Toby’s and dead-baiting brought us no rewards, our first attempt for a pike here on Bute was a little half-hearted and unsuccessful, but we shall return with a little more knowledge, hopefully more time and bucket loads of enthusiasm!
The next two days were spent eating, drinking, sleeping while the rooks engaged in their gothic squawks and dog walking on the beaches.
I just got off the phone to Bute Outdoor Angling and the word on the quayside is pike! So my bags are packed with the usual piking gear, a hat, a selection of reels and some rods all heading for Loch Ascog and possibly a boat on Loch Fad. The report is, slow and cold but some large ladies are showing themselves….
If you travel north-east of Haywards Heath you meet a village called Lindfield, my old village, if you continue on as if you were heading towards the Ashdown Forest you come across a small village called Horsted Keynes, it has just a couple of pubs and a general shop. The main road that cuts through the village has a turning to the left travelling north, the sign post states two things, ‘No Through Road’ and the ‘Village church’, beyond the church you come to the lakes.
I experienced my fellow students from the other villages as soon as I started secondary school and in fairness they were all pretty much the same, post 1970’s kids, a mix of the long-haired and a new breed, the skinheads. We were too young to express ourselves as punks but the rub came in the form of suede head cuts and eighteen holer Doctor Marten Boots. As the tribes settled in to new life in secondary school, one select bunch stood out as they appeared to have their hair cut just a little shorter than the rest and their stay-pressed trousers a little tighter, they were the Horsted lads!
There was a slight sense of un-ease with these dangerous looking lads but I soon developed a friendship with one of them called Mark, in fact his hair was quite long, unlike the other Horsted boys but more importantly we had fishing in common. As I mentioned before in my piece ‘Becoming a proper fisherman’, I spent a lot of time in lessons with the Anglers Mail on my lap and telling tales of lost and found fish, some tales were true, some exaggerated and others slipping far from the recognisable truth!
Anyway after much talk and tales of my 6 lb pike capture I was finally invited to fish the Horsted waters by Mark who lived right next to one of these lakes, these fifteen lakes that ran either side of a bridle path that ran up a small valley. I knew the area quite well as my mother used to spend the autumnal months picking apples in the orchards situated at the far end of this lake filled valley. I spent many days as a youngster, probably during some of the teacher strikes of the late seventies, sat under those trees dodging the occasional apple fall.
So five years on I was back but this time interested in the first lake you came to from the church end. The lake was shrouded in oak and beech, from what I can remember only one end was accessible to fishermen, the rest untouchable by the overgrown banks, the water dark, quite eerie.
Now bare in mind I was with a bunch of about three to five Horsted lads that saturday morning, I was feeling a little apprehensive that my limited fishing skills would show, these boys were born fishers, most were from single parent homes, no father or uncle to teach them the ropes, these boys just fished on instinct and instruction from the older boys. Despite being partly feral, prepared they were and some roach were caught the previous evening ready for our days piking. Unfortunately the roach didn’t survive the night, now suspended upside down in an aluminium bait bucket. Seeing those glorious roach, lifeless was a shock but to the Horsted lads it was an annoyance, dead-baits weren’t as good as a live bait. So now not live but dead we all cast out our baits into the lake and stood back, slider floats all in a line.
By lunchtime nothing had been caught and being 13-year-old lads we also had no lunch prepared, so we fished on, luckily it was quite mild for late Autumn so we were fairly comfortable.
By three o’clock the Horsted boys were getting restless, a few heckle’s towards the local girls on horseback broke the boredom momentarily , clearly these girls were a different breed of local, home for the weekend from boarding school and certainly not playing ball with these rapscallions from the village. The truth, I was starting to feel the pressure, their frustration I felt was starting to be aimed in my direction!
Finally I was called up to play a traditional game that had been passed down from generation to generation throughout the village…. ‘roach canons!’ Like a chapter from the Wasp Factory I was taken to the bridle path, asked to select a roach from the bait bucket (thankfully dead, normally this is done with live ones) lay the dead creature on the path facing the lake, then quickly stamp downwards using the full effect of my Dr Marten Boot, across its body, where upon its guts would explode through its mouth and into the lake! I went through the procedure feeling like Sergeant Howie, persecuted in a community I did not belong in.
As the afternoon fell into fits of laughter and flying guts I finally stirred the courage to break for home before darkness fell, roach canons was not for me! Rod packed and tied to the cross-bar of my bike I left Horsted Keynes and sped down the three-mile road and back to home. As I did I took in the smells of rural West Sussex and the relief of leaving the roach armageddon.
Looking back, I don’t resent the Horsted lads, they were just like any young band of brothers finding their status amongst one another, but for me angling had another meaning, a meaning that still reflects here in the Tuesday swim, not too poetic and certainly not some form of macho prowess, but about angling experiences that enhance my life and maybe drag a few of you along with me? Stamping on fish is not a good thing but experiencing these things is, it gives us our own opinions on life and whether these experiences are good or bad, especially when we are growing up. I never did return to fish with the Horsted lads although I did go on to fish with Mark on quite a few occasions, especially night fishing for carp in an old ladies garden, but that’s another story.
I spent the summer of 1983 trying to learn to fish…properly, mainly on my own and mainly for chub, my apprenticeship for gudgeon had passed. There was a favourite deep run on the Sussex Ouse just a few hundred yards from the Ardingly road which I named chub corner and this was where most of my success came from. I spent a lot of time there with my Walkman listening to one song in particular on a loop just like teenagers do! Afterwards I would lie on the river bank and take in the summer sun, even then I knew these were cherished times.
On my return to school that september one of my science classes was shared with a guy called Mark who always brought a copy of Anglers Mail in on a Wednesday and due to the old style science lab benches (the ones with the gas taps that you could simply switch on at anytime and gas out the whole class) we could secretly read each copy on our laps, undetected by our teacher.
At that time Anglers Mail were running a series of extracts from Pete Mohans’ ‘Cypry the Carp’. We were transfixed each week as the story unfolded of Andy and Cypry the Carp but what also captured my attention was the ‘make your own tackle’ features that were so popular back in those days and in september pike tackle came into the spotlight. Spoons made from, well… spoons! Toby style bars made from spoon and fork handles and slider floats made from broom handles carefully carved out. Pike fishing seemed another world away and new precautions needed to be taken in the pursuit, wire traces, pike gags and forceps all needed consideration.
With talk of pike in the back of the science lab, my friend Mark told me tales of large pike caught in the Horstead Keynes lakes and he had witnessed a few captures as he lived right next to one of the lakes with his mother and brother in a small cottage. Horstead Keynes was only about four miles away but these lakes sounded out-of-bounds to me, still my fascination with large pike was growing.
At that time I was a member of Haywards Heath and District Angling Society and another story was relayed to me about more monster pike encounters and this time it was on a water I could fish in Slaugham, a HHDAS water. A large pike was hooked by two lads fishing dead baits, it had them all over the lake and finally it shot under the platform where the two young intrepid piscators were standing. Hesitantly one of them hand-lined the pike from under the platform not realising how close his hand was to the wire trace until the shock of seeing such a large toothed mouth caused the pike to be dropped, resulting in the line parting. A return visit had to be organised and this time I was going to be properly prepared.
It was a saturday morning, crisp and bright, I had already purchased a PDQ wire snap tackle trace, bound multi-stranded wire with red cotton whipping over the twisted knots. The trace carefully coiled in a tracing paper bag, I could only afford one trace so it had to last. Also I had purchased a Vortex sliding pike float (carving a broom handle was a lot harder than made out in the Anglers Mail article) along with various swivels beads and swan shot. The rod was my trusty old Marco fibreglass carp rod with extra whipping over the joint where a split had started to show, the reel was a Mitchell 300s.
Standing outside the fishmongers by the roundabout in Haywards Heath I purchased a few joeys and some sprats which were a cheaper option. I was now a hunter using fish to catch bigger fish, maggots were for boys…I set off in trepidation!
The journey to Slaugham lake was a good forty minutes bike ride so I set off, now prepared like ‘proper’ fishermen do, off to do battle with rod and landing net tied to the crossbar and a faint whiff of sea fish following behind. On arrival the lake was calm, the trees bare and the air cold. My choice of swim was one of the platforms that protruded from the large reed bed that surrounded a good forty percent of the whole lake, the rest of the lake was un-fishable as the banks were covered in fallen trees that even the most cunning of stalkers could not penetrate. Once on the wooden platform I tackled up, carefully tying on my wire trace and setting the sliding float so that it ‘cocked’ nicely in the flat calm water. I couldn’t remember from my Observer Book of Coarse Fishing whether the dead bait was to settle on the bottom or dangle in the mid-water? A few adjustments over the morning covered both options but the float never moved. By the afternoon I had covered a large corner of the lake and then remembered the illustrations in one of my books back home of a pike snapping at roach near some reeds, so I cast as close as I would dare, fearing that I could loose the wire trace and that would then be curtains for the day.
After only moments the float bobbed, then slowly towed away, just a foot or two but then stopped. Mixed emotions of excitement, fear and disappointment all came at once but I reeled in, kept calm and replaced the now tired looking joey with a fresh tail and re-cast. Again the float carried off and this time I struck, instantly there was a swirl that broke the stillness of the day and I was in a true tussle, like nothing I had experienced before. After a short while the pike was under control and I netted a pike of around six pounds. My next thought was how to un-hook the pike, I had forceps and a ‘humane’ gag but this was an operation all new to me. So straddling the fish I managed to get the gag in place and thankfully with shaking hands, managed to get the trebles out. I leant down and returned the pike using the landing net, I then stood up on the platform and thought, that was a ‘proper’ fish, was I a proper fisherman? Well time would tell but I certainly cycled home feeling a foot taller!
It’s the start of January, work is back on the agenda, rain is lashing sideways on my window, even a kestrel has landed on my window sill to shelter from the driving rain and lost opportunities in search of pike over Christmas play on my mind.
Only now the unemployed, unemployable, retired or just plain fortunate can benefit from a short mid-week session in search of Esox. At weekends with limited time the challenge is to leave the comfort of your own home or the lure of the local for a pint of brown and an open fire. January is a fine month for short sessions in the pub, while others take themselves jogging around the park, detoxing and stretching muscles they thought they never had, the January pub is a quiet place for the guiltless few to be enjoyed before the joggers return in a month or two…dissapointed, as predictable as the returning swifts!
But a far more rewarding day can be had venturing out for pike! Armed with gimp wire, a small bag of basics, a few sprats and some plugs, one can be lost in a darkened grey scene with only the orange or yellow of a bung to focus on. So my next excursion will be on the Regents Canal where my friends narrow boat is moored for the winter months. It’s a spot that holds pike, only a few months ago I watched a young eastern european lad (wearing a jaunty placed grey/silver Trilby) spin for pike and although not connecting with one, managed to lure two away from their lair, only at the last-minute the pike veered off, maybe the pike saw that silvery hat!
So without Trilby I shall be on the Regents and The Hertford Union Canal around Victoria Park in E3 in the month of January and February in search of Esox with the added bonus of a wood burner and hot tea to make the experience a little more comfortable.
For those who don’t make it out this winter for pike may instead want to read ‘On Nature’ the second compilation by the Caught by the River crowd. Part of that crowd is John Andrews who has written (with a lot more skill than I can ever hope to) a piece titled ‘Winter Pike Fishing’, this short, sums up the pike and the pike angler perfectly for me. Other writers include Chris Yates, Dexter Petley, Luke Jennings, Bill Drummond and Charles Rangeley-Wilson.
Just as I write this an email has come in from John Andrews also supporting the January social scene with a gathering at The Stag in Hampstead on the 24th January with the first Caught by the River event of 2012. See you there?
Back in the days when Stewart and Efgeeco weren’t producing plastic injected tackle boxes, a visit to see grandad could result in a cigar box perfect for fishing tackle items. In my case, some pike tackle.
The Tuesday swim finally got the pike season off to a good start with a short session down in Sussex before some ‘proper’ Guy Fawkes celebrations in Lindfield. The lake I fish is a 300 year old mill-pond with a small head of frustratingly hard carp to catch, large tench, perch, rudd and some rather big pike.
Driving down from London I kept my tackle to a bare minimum, fishing just one rod a Chapmans, Dennis Pye 700, Cardinal 66, pike bung and some oil injected sprats (two handfuls for a pound in Roman Road market). As my kit was to the bare minimum my scales were a small set of Salter spring balances that measure up to 20 lbs but I’ll come to that later!
Arriving in Sussex the weather was warm for November but felt like a typical Guy Fawkes night, over cast, some light mist and a smell of bonfires in the air. The lake has a few regulars taking advantage of the warm autumn weather and trying for a final carp of the season. The lake was moody, grey but dappled with orange from the freshly fallen leaves. Casting out the yellow pike bung next to a bed of thinning lily pads, the float settled nicely drifting close to the pads, an ideal spot for an awaiting pike. After an hour and a few re-casts my float dipped a few times and then moved slowly against the wind, waiting for a more positive take the float then sat idle, another five minutes passed so I wound in to find no bait. I thought at least something was stirring beneath the slate grey water.
After a few casts elsewhere I returned to the same spot and thought this time I shall strike a little earlier if the same thing happened… thankfully it did! Again the float bobbed a couple of times (only pike bungs have this distinctive bobbing action due to its bulky body) and then moved away, this time I struck. At first there was some resistance but only slight, then an instant heavy surge resulting in a white form as the belly of a large pike took to tail walking about thirty feet out. After this the pike made a few lunging runs off to both sides of the swim trying to take me into some fallen trees close in, but after applying considerable side strain on the Chapmans rod the pike started to tire. As I retrieved the landing net another powerful surge resulted in the flaring of gills and some more aerial acrobatics but slowly I gained full control and eventually netted the monster.
After un-hooking the pike I got the scales out and watched as the spring balanced bottomed out at 20 lbs with a thud!
Looking at the photo now, my un-hooking matt measures exactly 36 inches, adding another 5 inches for the tail I estimate it to be 41 inches long, so looking at Fred Bullers pike conversion table which is only a rough guide this pike could have a mean weight of around 25 lb? The pike was quite solid in build so who knows what weight it actually was, either way I was very pleased.
The 20lb balances have now been shelved for such trips and my larger 44 lb version are now in the tackle bag!
Update: It turns out that while sorting out the tackle bag two days later I have left the said item, the 20lb scales on the bank, so this mistake shall never be repeated!
Update II: Said item found by fellow angler!
Last weekend the tuesday swim was at sea on the Lea Navigation next to the Middlesex filter beds in Hackney (not to be confused with the area of North West London). I was canal boat sitting for the weekend and in search of my first pike of the season.
My pike fishing is generally divided into two disciplines, casting dead-baits into lakes usually down in Sussex in the dead of winter and secondly short sessions spent plug fishing on the Lea Navigation and River Lea. Urban or canal pike fishing has a special place in my heart as it suites the targeted species, often the location is as remote and as still as the lone pike. Pike are often described as ‘angry’ fish, I disagree on this matter, pike by nature have to be still, solitary, lurk in darkened holes awaiting unsuspecting prey. When pike target a fish, they do it in the most economical manner, ‘anger’ doesn’t come into it, ‘lazy’ could be used to describe the pike’s behaviour, ‘efficient’ would be my favoured description of the pike.
Arriving at the boat a perfect scene lay before me, the moon was just rising, a warm wind blew, perhaps a little too warm for my first pike session but as darkness fell I cast out a blue Abu HI-Lo plug.
As the canal deepened it tone from grey to black, some kids opposite in the local park started up a mini-moto and put pay to the peace for the next hour, so slightly irritated I packed away the little bait-casting rod and headed inside the boat and lit the wood burner. After an hour or so the mini-moto had been ridden away into a nearby estate and I stood alone on the boat with wood smoke in the air with a cool light breeze …stillness had returned and the moon appeared almost in a full phase.
The next morning I was expecting visitors including various kids, so the fishing became more of a tutorial in casting and pike location, in the end our efforts were fruitless but the blustery autumnal day fired my hunger to seek out a lone esox lucius on another and probably a more wintery day…