There is something compelling about pike. Of all our freshwater fish their call, for me, is the most insistent. They are the black-eyed death-dealer of our fresh waters, the equaliser, the remorseless destroyer without whom natural balance would falter. Their narrative coloured by tales of dark, bottomless pools where monsters capable of devouring small dogs and even toddlers lurk. A fish adored and despised in equal measure, persecuted, like raptors, to perpetuate the manufactured hunting grounds of the privileged. Removed from some commercial waters to protect the interests of the owners and the sensibilities of the anglers.
I suppose in some ways it’s understandable. They are a bit scary, and those teeth are sharp. They’re the only UK fish that can inflict real damage to a careless angler. I’ve known many a fellow fisherman who regard them as a nuisance and would no more fish for them as sell their favourite match rod.
But the pursuit of pike is fishing at its most primal. It’s almost audacious, hunting a hunter. To outwit a pike of any size and trick it onto the bank is the defuser of myth, the proof that the monster is fallible, vulnerable. It’s a privilege too because they are creatures of great beauty and surprising fragility. Handling and unhooking them requires love, respect and, occasionally, a surgeon’s dexterity. And they have the added attraction of growing big, on a par with carp weight-wise but bulk based on natural food not man-made protein balls.
There’s not much to look forward to in winter apart from pike fishing, and pubs serving dark, malty ales. (Pubs, how I miss them.)
Also, winters have less allure now as far as general weather. The crisp, cold, snowy and white frequently replaced with drab, damp, muddy and brown due to climate disorder. And the seemingly endless winter rain plays havoc with river piking. It’s only December but my local stretch of the Suffolk Stour has been up and down like a Bo-Jo’s Barnet. I did manage a fruitful session or two in mid-November, however.
I’d become drawn to a prime stretch of the Stour near Sudbury Town centre known as The Priory. Adjacent to this is another more open section called Friars Meadow, nomenclature no doubt based on the Dominican communities that occupied the area in the 13th Century.
I like a degree of isolation when I’m fishing and the Priory section offers that despite being in the middle of town. There’s ample riverside cover and a formidable belt of willows and vegetation between the railway walk footpath and the river itself which separates the angler from passers-by.
The Stour was fining down nicely after autumn rain, which coincided serendipitously with a mild spell, so an ideal opportunity for a go at the Stour pike.
A opted for a mid-week session and off I went my my German Shepherd Indy who makes for a fine fishing companion as long as I keep him onside with Bonios. We found a likely-looking, spacious swim on the Priory, enough room to fish two float rigs tight to near bank features. The swim had the added appeal of being opposite a majestic sweep of water meadow and the moment I settled in my seat I spotted a nosy muntjac checking us out from the far bank, all ears and nervous curiosity. Indy stared back, ears up, hackles twitching. “Go on then, if you think you’re hard enough,” I chided. The dog might’ve if there wasn’t a river in the way. As it was he turned his attention to my rucksack, probing for Bonios.
Even a half-arsed angler like me was in with a fair shout of catching, such were the almost perfect conditions. I felt confident, and so it was that within twenty minutes of casting out, the right hand float bobbed and danced and disappeared and I was into an angry Stour pike. The fish fought hard and thundered around the swim in tight, powerful circles. It felt excellent to be connected to my first sizeable pike for years, and my first river pike for even more years.
Indy’s quite funny when I’m playing a fish. Despite the commotion, usually involving me puffing, swearing and thumping around looking for the net, he just sits there nonchalantly, some may say indifferently, picking burdock seeds out of his coat or something. He may come and have a gander once a fish is on the mat, but only if he can be bothered. This is in stark contrast to my previous German Shepherd, Harry, who happened to be Indy’s great uncle. I only ever took Harry fishing once, such was the extent of his copybook blotting. We were on the famous Met Pit in the Lee Valley, fishing for pike. Harry was his normal well behaved self until I cast out my dead bait, then he went totally insane. Before I could stop him he dived straight in and struck out towards my pike float, which was only a few metres out, grabbed it in his jaws before I could reel it in, and swam back to the bank, dragging float, trace and dead bait with him. He nearly became the biggest live bait in pike fishing history. But that wasn’t the end of it. To keep him contained I had to tie him to a tree, he was literally straining at the leash to dive in again.
He settled down eventually, mainly because I hadn’t cast for a while. Then I hooked a jack of about six pounds and he became a monster. The moment I laid the netted pike on the mat the lead securing Harry to the tree broke, unable to withstand his lunges. He was on the fish in a flash, jaws snapping, eyes bulging. Quick as I could I lifted the net plus the fish back in the water, trying to block his advance with my body. I shouted at him so loudly that my voice echoed around the pit, startling me as well as the dog. Having lost sight of his prey he calmed somewhat giving me time to unhook the fish and release it pronto; I was thankful it was lightly hooked.
I loved that dog. He was a beauty, a great companion with a flawless temperament, until you took him fishing!
Me and Indy managed to catch three pike during that first session, smallest nine pounds biggest twelve. We lost a bigger fish that could have been a mid-double. And we were treated to numerous fly pasts by a kingfisher, the bird with the sky on his back. All in all a satisfying and enjoyable day for man, (and as far as I know but it’s hard to tell), dog.
Footnote. It wasn’t all satisfactory. I collected two bags of litter from around my swim before I left, almost certainly discarded by anglers. There was a good deal more too but I only had two bags. Some say that littering has become a collective myopia, which is galling enough but for fishermen to litter, to discard dangerous, wildlife threatening, river polluting, unsightly waste while they fish is the antithesis of what angling represents and embodies for so many.
From deadbaits to breadflake
The river at Wixoe, on the border of Essex and Suffolk, is a craggy old piece of the upper Stour running alongside a large pumping station. Sadly, its banks are liberally strewn with the detritus of humanity, aided and abetted by a succession of floods that have become the trademark of the wet winters during this age of climate change.
It’s a stretch run by Sudbury and Long Melford AC and according to some of the club’s more established members it’s well past its heyday, where good bags of roach and dace as well as sizeable perch and pike in the winter are distant memories. But isn’t that the depressing mantra so familiar to anglers nowadays when discussing river fishing in the UK? There’s little doubt that river systems in general are at the mercy of agricultural run-off, excessive sewage discharge and poor management but, thankfully, it’s fairly obvious from reading the angling press that it’s not all bad, that there are rivers that still produce good fish, and that the natural cyclical high and lows of fish stocks and specimen fish still prevail.
Saying that, I’m not specially enamoured by this stretch of the Stour. The whole area has a deserted, frontier town feel. Local businesses seem to eventually fail. In the 15 years I’ve lived nearby, a pub and restaurant, a garden centre, a garden machinery retailer and a hairdressers have floated down the Swanee, or should I say Stour. Probably a convergence of negative ley-lines or something. Anyway, bad energy hotspots aside, and now we’re in lockdown no 3 where fishing is acceptable but must be ‘local,’ I find myself drawn by circumstance to this fishery.
But it’s definitely got something.
If you can somehow ignore the mud-flecked plastic bottles, beer cans and polystyrene chunks bobbing about and concentrate on the wintered reed beds, willow-lined bank, near-side slacks, and rafts of accumulated vegetation it all begins to look very fishy.
I decided to try my luck for the first time one cold, bright January afternoon when the river was practically devoid of colour and frankly, about as appealing as a cold shower. Predictably, my trotted single red maggot was flatly refused for two hours solid so, as the light faded, I opted to hoick the light ledger rod out and fish the features with breadflake. Again, nothing, save a few trembles on the tip. But as the magical last hour of daylight came and went, that erstwhile sterile river burst into life. Right under my feet in fact. I’m pretty sure it was a big chub, that great silver head that popped up. Whatever it was it definitely tickled my enthusiasm. I was pleased as it had corroborated my gut feeling: that this uninspiring river held good fish.
Despite the promising sighting, however, I remained fishless but nonetheless cautiously optimistic. I second visit was a necessity.
Less than a week later I was back, and after some more heavy rain the river was fining down and looking far more angler-friendly than the previous visit. The banks were treacherous, however. Perpetually muddy and sloping, on this occasion the post flood mud was like a quagmire, oozing moisture and offering no grip whatsoever. This is an under-fished water, which is not a bad thing but can also lead to neglect. The banks are a Jack-Straw tangle of windblown willow limbs and deadwood. So getting to my tucked away swims in the near darkness was a trial. And I’d forgotten my head torch.
As quick as I could I knocked up some bread mash and fed two small balls to three swims some twenty yards apart. In my haste to get a bait out before dusk descended I hung the rig up on a willow twig and lost the link ledger in the process. Frustration was setting in now. I’m not the most adroit of anglers. I have my days but generally it’s not second nature to me, I have to concentrate. So it came as no surprise to me when a second cast was as bad as the first and hung up too. Thankfully the fishing gods were sympathetic and the rig dropped clear just where I wanted it. I’d hardly settled on my bucket stool when the tip arched round. It didn’t register at first, it happened so quickly but the penny dropped when the rod thumped, thumped, thumped and the drag groaned. Immediately, the fish made a sprint for the snags. Side-strain thwarted that lunge but two more shuddering runs followed before it broke surface. I knew it was a chub before I saw it, the fight gave that away. But it’s size made me swear, loudly.
It was a pristine fish, utterly flawless, probably never seen a bank. Along with my torch I’d also forgotten my scales so I can only guess at its weight but it looked like a five pounder or thereabouts.
In my reverie I’d failed to notice that the dwindling light had dwindled entirely and I could barely see the ripple as I slipped that lovely chevin back.
The short, dark walk back to the the car was a tad fraught and I nearly went over but I didn’t really care. That tip of a river held good fish as well as the contents of a dustcart, and I couldn’t wait to get back there, but next time I’d be sporting a head torch, a set of scales and hopefully a rudimentary grasp of casting.