Tuesday 31 March 2015

A History of Pike fishing by Graham Booth

This book was published in 2011 and to be honest I never thought I’d end up getting a copy.  I’ve never been interested in angling history any further back than the 1950’s and I’m much more interested in more contemporary angling history, so figured this one wasn’t for me.  Since the book was published I’ve heard nothing but good things about it from people whose opinions I respect.  Thinking about it, this is a history of the sport I love I really ought to learn about it.  So when the book’s publisher Stephen Harper gave a very enjoyable talk for Suffolk PAC it was a good opportunity to get a copy.

Chapter one covers not just the history of Pike fishing but the origins of all angling from the time anglers began to write about the sport.  Some of the earliest known writing was found from right here in Suffolk at Helmingham hall.

The early nineteenth is the subject of the second chapter and the Pike is emerging as a renowned sporting fish.  Methods and customs of the day seem barbaric to us; the ‘dead gorge’ method where Pike were given five to ten minutes to swallow the bait meant almost all Pike were killed.  Instant strikes were only popular in March when Pike were more likely to mess about with the bait.  Up to this point I’d found the book hard going in places but on the whole interesting and probably more enjoyable than I’d expected.

Graham Booth has identified the period from 1865 to 1914 as the ‘Golden age of Pike fishing’ and this forms the subject of the next four chapters.  I found this part of the book really interesting, particularly the parallels that can be drawn with modern Pike fishing.  Although most large Pike were still killed for trophies the Victorians were practicing some conservation with many smaller Pike returned to grow.  Just like today many larger Pike were caught from private waters with restricted access and exactly like today the locations were very often closely guarded secrets.  Yes secrecy is almost as old as Pike fishing. 

Methods came on a long way with livebaiting becoming more popular, particularly the Paternoster rig.  Alfred Jardine developed the ‘snap tackle’ which most Pike anglers still use today, but I don’t!  There was a reference to Jardine fishing a water I have an acquaintance with which too.  There was also a fair amount of rivalry and a little bit of bitching between the leading ‘Pikeists’ of the day.  Pike guides were also around in the ‘golden era’, known simply as ‘fishermen’, though comparatively little is known about them.  This is a shame as it was these men who often put Jardine & co onto the Pike they caught.  For the most part I really enjoyed this part of the book but could have done without the chapter on angling exhibitions.  Pike were highly regarded during the golden age, at least the equal of Salmon and Trout, if anything they were more popular and were fished for by the upper classes.

The final chapter described the ‘dark age’ between 1915 and 1950 when Pike fishing was less popular with the elite and consequently there was far less written on the subject.  There were no real developments in our sport at this time and if anything methods went backwards.  There were a few enlightened souls including Jim Vincent who fished the Broadland waters I know today.  I was surprised that the Broads hadn’t featured earlier in the history of Pike fishing I wonder why the earlier Pikeists didn’t venture out east?

The further I got into this book the more I enjoyed it and I’m really glad I read it.  Produced by Stephen Harper it is colourful and laid out beautifully, we expect nothing less from Mr Harper and he never disappoints.  I’ve sometimes found Graham Booth’s writing style a bit over the top in some of his articles but that is not the case here.  The research he has done to compile this history must have taken years and Pike anglers owe him a debt for recording our sport for us.  I’ll definitely be getting hold of volume two as not only does it deal with the period I’m interested in but also waters and in some cases people I know.
Pike fishing history, 1982


Saturday 21 March 2015

Hickling Broad

I have committed a cardinal sin in naming a Pike water and what’s more I’m now about to make it worse by writing about it. I apologise if this offends anyone but I don’t do this lightly, I do it for good reason.

 The Broad’s fishing history is one of periods of good fishing punctuated by blooms of the toxic algae Prymnesium parva which destroys the fishery.  These blooms have an uncanny knack of “coinciding” with dredging or weed cutting carried out by the Broads Authority.  One such cycle which took place in 1999-2000 is brilliantly described by Stephen Harper in his book “Dream Pike”.

I first fished the broad over a decade ago on a wild wintery day which saw Rich and I blown off the mudweights and drifting down the broad in a blizzard.  This water is renowned for being rock hard but over the years I learnt how to fish it and discovered a handful of spots where I could be confident of finding a Pike or two.  I grew to love fishing the wide open waters beneath a massive flatland sky.  The Harriers soaring overhead became familiar, we often heard Bittern and occasionally saw them too.  Rich and I both caught memorable fish from the broad and by 2011 I would back myself to catch a Pike from it in almost any conditions, throughout the Pike season.  What we didn’t realise at the time was that winter was the peak of another mini revival for the biggest of Norfolk’s broads, in fact a Broadland angler of long experience stated it was as good as he’d ever known.

Near the peak

The following spring the BA commenced its ill-conceived dredging and ‘island recreation scheme’ and the subsequent deadly bloom of Prymnesium parva was well documented on these pages.  The Pike fishing on the Broad was dire the following season, Pike were notable by their absence.  However the next season (2nd since the bloom) showed promising signs and it seemed like the Broad was on the road to recovery.  Unfortunately the season that has just passed was very poor again, not just poor it was, well it was just weird.  Before Christmas there were a few fish about but not where we would expect them to be in any numbers.  Most of those we caught were small and came from unexpected places.  The new year saw silver fish massed in unbelievable numbers but a broad that seemed to be devoid of Pike.  This I experienced myself and it has become apparent that other anglers have found that the Pike in particular have behaved in totally unpredictable ways.  Something strange was happening on the Broad. 
 On March 9th reports came through of dead fish being spotted on the broad, rumours of recent dredging circulated.  This eventually jogged my memory; I had seen a crane or something in the woods on the other side of the road at the end of Catfield dyke.  The ditches in this area are pumped under the road and into the dyke.  I emailed Dan Hoare at the BA who stated that the authority had not undertaken any dredging in the area, this work had to have been done privately and evidently had not received permission from Natural England.
 Over the weekend there were sporadic reports of dead fish on the Broad then on Monday 16th fish were seen in distress in the boatyards at the far Northern end, the Environment Agency took action and with PAC's main main John Currie helping, over the next two days more than two hundred thousand fish were netted and relocated to safe parts of the system.  Boats surveyed the broad and discovered around two hundred dead fish including Pike, Perch, eels, Bream and Roach.  Steve Lane and co. from the EA worked hard and went beyond the call of duty saving fish. Scientists from the John Innes centre who are researching Prymnesium parva took water samples and removed dead fish for testing.
 The next day more dead fish were reported and by the evening of the 19th the boat yards were once again heaving with fish that had left the main broad to escape the toxin.  The following morning the EA team were in action again netting and transferring fish to safer waters.  Details of the EA’s work can be found here;
 Water samples taken at the end of Catfield dyke were negative for toxins.  Those with their heads in the sand will say this proves the Prymnesium outbreak was not down to dredging, it’s just another “coincidence”.  Those of us that don’t believe in such things will point out that the toxin would have dispersed naturally down the dyke, aided by the strong westerly winds on the days that preceded the first dead fish being sighted.  The water may have been fine when the tests were taken but was almost certainly deadly a few days before.

Friday 20th saw the EA team in action with the nets once again, another successful operation which saw a further forty thousand fish netted and released in safe waters.  This brought the total to over a quarter of a million fish saved.  It’s interesting that the fish massed in the boatyards would risk death through lack of oxygen rather than face the lethal toxin on the main broad.  As yet there has been no official confirmation that Prymnesium parva is present on Hickling Broad but no one involved doubts for a second that this is the case.  At this time few fish are turning up dead on the Broad so it seems we may have been lucky, the fish have moved away from the toxin in numbers and a full scale fish kill has been avoided.
9th March 2015

So having established that disturbing sediment through dredging or other work can lead to outbreaks of a deadly fish killer, surely people would have enough sense to avoid such action?  Sadly not, voices within the yachting fraternity continue to pressure the Broads Authority into more dredging and damn the consequences!  This will seem ridiculous to many but dredging is scheduled for this coming autumn and this work is set to take place at the northern end of Hickling Broad, close to the very area where the fleeing fish have taken refuge this week.  These people are only worried about sailing their unsuitable boats and care nothing for the chain of life invisible to them beneath the water.  They presumably care nothing for the birds and mammals that rely on fish for food either, but why would they?  They make far too much disturbance to stand a chance of actually seeing Bittern, Grebes, Kingfishers, Egrets, Herons or indeed Otters.  As long as ignorant attitudes remain, Hickling Broad will remain at risk from Prymnesium parva blooms and as was witnessed in 1969, a big outbreak could literally wipe out the system.

Sunday 15 March 2015


March started with Isaac and I heading off to a gravel pit in the late afternoon for a couple of hours fishing.  This is a water I’ve fished a great deal in the distant past with quite a lot of success and one I’d earmarked for a few visits next season.  Today would be a good chance to refresh my memories of the water and hopefully my son and I would find some fish.  Some things stick long in the memory and I recalled an area that used to produce Pike late in the season so it was here we set up. 

The day was bright and fairly mild but there was a fresh westerly wind which luckily was on our backs.  We each fished with a float legered deadbait and used a lure rod to search the swim.  An hour in the first spot saw nothing so we moved to another area, which was the swim from which I caught my first twenty pounder back in 1983.  We fished the same methods and had the same result.  Isaac grew distracted and wandered off with the camera and I scanned my surroundings. Did I really want to revisit this old haunt next season?  With a busy footpath behind me and too many other anglers clearly visible and audible on the bank opposite me I decided probably not.

The reality is in my local area although it’s easy to find Pike fishing, big Pike are few and far between.  Overall the fishing is mediocre at best.  The waters themselves are a mixture, most are pleasant enough places but they are busy, when word of decent Pike fishing gets out the crowds descend.  The big fish I mentioned last month is getting pressured and has been caught again already, once at least.  Almost all of the local Pikers I’ve met have been decent people but social Pike fishing just isn’t my thing.  Most of all the local fishing lacks any kind of mystery to keep the fishing interesting.

About one hundred photos later Isaac returned and settled down with me again to watch the floats.  We chatted away and made each other laugh then Isaac who is a horrendous cheat claimed a victory at “I spy”.  With the sun dipping we both decided enough was enough and returned home happy but fishless.

A few days later I was fishing again.  I’d expressed an interest in a certain East Anglian water and a mutual friend put me in touch with Mr N who was a member at this exclusive fishery.  We had a shared love of fishing and Ipswich Town F.C., we swapped a few emails and Mr N kindly invited me as a guest to fish the water with him.  A date was set and I’d looked forward to it, now it was here.

We met on a cold, clear mid-week morning.  Mr N felt the slight frost was not a good omen but the fresh North westerly wind would hopefully get the fish moving.  We fished three deadbaits each from a large and stable punt which Mr N had rowed into position.  Within minutes he was away on a smelt and shortly afterwards I netted a big fish for him.  Big smiles and handshakes, the day was off to the best possible start!  All I wanted now from this new water was just a Pike, any Pike would do.  It wasn’t long before I got my wish and brought a welcome jack to the boat.

The hour that followed was one of those mad periods of hectic fishing that I often read about but rarely experience myself.  It seemed like we were constantly dealing with a fish, sometimes two at a time and at one point we had a Pike in each net for a combined weight of over thirty eight pounds.  In the brief periods between fish we sat laughing and shaking our heads.  Fishing doesn’t get better than this.  All the fish came to float legered deadbaits with Smelt taking the most.

After that mad hour the sport tailed off so we moved around and Mr N added three more to our tally with another big fish to finish.  He assured me this was indeed an exceptional day, the best he’d had here for several years.  Our combined weight was well into three figures with Mr N catching the lions share; I decided I must bring him luck.  The water itself is quiet and a very agreeable place to spend a day, it ticks all the boxes.  Before this day we’d never fished together before but we discovered mutual friends and much in common, Mr N was interesting and really good company.  He must have thought I was OK too because we promised to do it again.

 A few days later I headed off for my last trip to the special place for this season.  The weather was mild but the fishing was tough and on the first day all I managed was a jack on Lamprey.  The second day got worse, jacks were splashing in the weed and it looked like spawning was on the cards.  I decided to get off the water early.  On the way messages and observations suggested something very bad was happening on the system.  I hope I’m wrong but I have a feeling I’ll be writing more about this in the very near future.

 Saturday March 14th, the children were settled so I decide as it was the last day I could fish the river then I should fish the river.  I grabbed a lure rod and the necessary bits then headed out to my favourite local stretch.  My sights were set low, I just wanted to catch a Pike.  This is my third visit to the stretch this winter and I arrived to find the water low and clear.  There were loads of snowdrops growing, this always cheers me up, a sure sign of spring.  I clipped on the never fail Zoota wagtail and made my way upstream casting along reedy margins and to overhanging trees.  With the water so low the polaroids revealed many areas were painfully shallow and not worth a cast so I covered ground quickly.  I arrived at an obvious feature that had produced a fish on a previous visit and sure enough it did so again.  I’d have been tempted to think it was the same one but if anything this was smaller.  Still it was the last river Pike I’ll catch for a while and mission accomplished for the day.  I reached the top of the stretch, passing a Chub angler who had reason to smile.  Should I retrace my steps with another lure?  No, back to the car with the Clash on the stereo and home to a warm house.

 Another Pike season comes to an end, I think this is the 34th consecutive winter for me and I have enjoyed it as much as I ever have.  I’ve been fortunate enough to catch a few this season but the fishing hasn’t been easy, it’s been challenging and interesting all the way.  I keep enjoying my Piking because I choose the waters I fish carefully, they need to tick three boxes; 1 - They must be nice places to spend time.  2- The fishing must be interesting. 3 – There should be the possibility of a whacker.  This past season I managed to tick all three.