Hero or villain? David Profumo wonders if we’ve misjudged the elusive Esox lucius.
NO British fish has attracted more paradoxical attitudes than the formidable pike. Once so prized for the table that it fetched twice the price of salmon, Esox lucius was also vilified as vermin (especially in chalk country) and has only gradually been rehabilitated as a desirable quarry. Sometimes patronisingly referred to as ‘the poor man’s salmon’, its lacking that cachet of an adipose fin has never bothered devoted ‘luciophiles’ one tittle.
It has been ill-served by folklore, with a reputation as a voracious automaton Walton dubbed it the ‘Fresh-Water-Wolf’. True, it sports the assassin’s cold, binocular scare and, yes, stomach contents have ranged from a swan’s neck to a fobwatch (human body parts are another of those Esox fables). Pike can attain a vast size the females especially: the aptly named Prof A. A. Luce once saw a Sheelin specimen ‘half as long as the boat’.
Terrified of their dentition (pike have some 600 specialised teeth), many anglers in the past merely slew them. Now, rather than being regarded as predatory brutes, large pike in particular are recognised as crucial components to their aquatic ecosystem.
Fly-fishing for them has achieved recent status, but the idea isn’t new it dates back at least to 1662 and one early author recommended a peacock lure ‘about the size of a wren’. Modern tackle has made the pursuit of pike more feasible, so I sought out a man who has written an admirable book on the subject David Wolsoncroft-Dodds, formerly Davey Dodds, mandolin player with the band Red Jasper, now dedicated to pike guiding everywhere from the Baltic to Manitoba.
He invited me down for a day on his local water. This happens to be the gorgeous, serpentine lake at Bowood in Wiltshire, designed by Capability Brown, complete with Doric temple and hermit’s grotto. In the venerable boathouse, we rigged up new Sage rods and smart red reels loaded with sinking-head lines (David lays on all the gear you need).
I casually enquired what was the largest pike he’d seen taken from here I nearly dropped my hipflask when he said it was a veritable ‘croc’ weighing more than 36lb.
‘First, find your pike’ is his eminently sensible mantra. Their precise location depends on temperature and season. As Robert Nobbes observed, back in 1682, ‘a pike, like a person of quality, hath both a winter and a summer house’: I guess we were looking for Wolf Hall.
Although, when the water warms, the fish will move into the shallows to spawn, it was coloured and still chilly (at 6˚C), so we anchored over a deeper drop-off. David stressed that, far from being mere killing machines, pike are capricious feeders. Sometimes, they will arrow upwards to intercept a lure they can strike at 9ft per second but, in these conditions, they might be torpid and we’d have to tickle their fancies. To achieve this, he knotted on a fly that was 6in long.
The February morning was drear cold rain pocked the surface and, by noon, we were eager for a shore lunch of homemade soup and rolls. My companion’s enthusiasm never flagged, however, and soon we had relaunched; a reluctant sun came wanly through, waterfowl began clack-ing in the margins, there was even a glimmer of kingfisher. But would the dining room down in Wolf Hall now be open?
On cue, at 1pm, David felt a knock and set up on a nice fish a gleam of gold and green that thrashed in the gloom as he hustled it expertly to be released alongside the boat. At about 6lb, its size slightly disappointed him (fly-caught pike here average an impressive 12lb), but, to me, it seemed a winter beauty. I was instantly envious and the pressure was on.
Double-hauling the gigantic fly takes a wee bit of practice, but I was content to work hard, in the knowledge we were covering fish. An hour later, my line stopped, I strip-struck and, finally, I was on. It was only a modest-sized jack, but immensely powerful, and most welcome on such a day. Firm of flank, elegantly tailored and full of vim, even these smaller specimens make splendid adversaries.
We finished with another brace apiece and I’m certainly coming back for one of those 20lb grannies. If this is the poor man’s salmon fishing, then I’m happy to be accounted a piscatorial pauper.
For more details, visit www.flyfishforpike.co.uk or telephone David Wolsoncroft-Dodds on 01249 890114 or 07909 716234