Since the age of four I have been a keen fisherman and, all these decades later, it recently occurred to me that the more I learn about fish and angling, the less I seem to know. We formulate guidelines and rules about when we can expect good or poor sport, but the scaly brutes don’t read books or magazines, and frequently blow our theories clean out of the water!
Occasionally of course it all goes to plan. For example, it is commonly accepted that pike (and indeed many other creatures) seem to know when a really cold spell is coming and often go on a feeding spree in readiness. This ‘knowledge’ worked very much to my advantage some three years ago when a ten-degree drop in temperature was forecast for the weekend. I went down to a local gravel pit mainly to test my old bait boat (whose battery proved to be knackered) and have a few casts. I had some lovely fresh herrings, purchased from the fishermen on Aldeburgh beach, and decided to give them a try. Remarkably, in just two hours fishing I caught no fewer than three pike over 20lbs, with the largest weighing in at 27lbs 1oz! My fishing partner, Bob Church (who was watching the local football team at the time), was in total disbelief and begged me to take him to the same pit the following morning, which I did. But the chance had gone. It was like the North Pole and he blanked!
Something along similar lines occurred not before, but just after a hard freeze. It was that very severe cold spell we experienced over Christmas 2011. Some of you may remember that the lakes and even several rivers were covered for weeks with really thick ice – so thick in fact that a farmer friend actually drove a vehicle across a shallow area of his lake (not advised!). However, when the freeze eventually ended the daytime temperature leapt from -2˚C to +9. It was still three or four days before the lakes were clear of ice, but things were looking and feeling really hopeful. Bob and I were quick to take advantage. Without delay we headed for our favourite pit and Bob set up a couple of dead bait rods. I, on the other hand, just couldn’t wait to get the fly rod working again. It had been such a long enforced break. I walked 80 yards along the bank from Bob’s position and commenced operations. Out went the five-inch roach pattern fly on a slow sinking line, a short pause, three strips and a hungry pike was on with a sudden thump. Only a six pounder but so welcome! It fought like a tiger and was in tip top order – contrary to my expectations after the devastatingly hard weather. They were clearly ‘on’ and, in the relatively mild conditions, I felt that a popper fly might tempt them up. Without casting again I returned to the car, made up a second rod with a floating line and attached a home-made popper.
A few casts near the original starting position soon had the popper fly gurgling and splashing its way towards me. It looked irresistible and almost inevitably, with a sudden mighty swirl, it was gone. What a thrill it is to catch a pike this way! I always say that I would rather catch one fish on a lure than three on bait, one on fly than three on a lure, and one on a popper than three on a sunk fly. Such is the excitement! I finished the session with seven pike including a ten and an immaculate fifteen pounder, all on the fly rod. Meanwhile Bob had three good fish on dead baits, the biggest scaling seventeen and a half pounds. Every one of them was plump and in superb order. I imagined that they must have been feeding under the ice, and later learned that there had been an explosion of silver fish in this particular pit – a welcome surprise indeed!
Following that ‘Arctic spell’ my beloved local River Nene turned that lovely greeny-clear colour – a state it held for about two and a half weeks. This was a rare and blissful bonus in the winter, and was perfect for fly-fishing for pike. But, as I was soon to discover, the right water conditions alone are not sufficient to guarantee success. There are other, very important factors to consider, including temperature, light and wind to name three. To illustrate this point,let me describe briefly a handful of consecutive or near consecutive days:
River clear, very cold and bright with a fierce Easterly wind. Ryan, a young fishing pal from Aldridge, joined me and my next door neighbour, Derrick, for a spell of fly- piking. I was not overly confident and three or four hours on the river and two gravel pits proved to be a complete waste of time – not one pull or follow between us!
Two days later Ryan had the afternoon off work and came down for a second try. The weather this time was relatively mild and overcast with a gentle, though still Easterly wind. First cast and my guest was into a small fish. Before he had landed it I was also in. Ryan then had to dash back to the car for something and before he returned I’d had two more. This was more like it! We finished the afternoon session with sixteen pike, mostly small, with the largest at nine pounds. Ryan was knocked out at our success and found it hard to believe it was the same river. I was delighted that he’d witnessed how it can be in the right conditions.
The very next day the bitter wind had blown up again and this time it was almost storm-force! Any sensible angler would have stayed at home but Max, my black Labrador, gets very grumpy if he doesn’t go out, so Bob and I tried a couple of freezing hours in as sheltered an area as we could find. It was pretty hopeless but we managed one tiny fish each.
Again, the next day my twin boys and their breathtakingly attractive wife and girlfriend were staying overnight after a late evening out. The understanding was that I was going to be ‘confined to quarters’ to be sociable but an early morning doggy walk along the upper Nene found the weather to be quite mild and still. It made me very itchy to get out with the fly again. It was getting on for noon before the young people emerged and I was hopping from one foot to the other! After a delicious brunch served up by my darling wife, Sally, I was excused, leaving the ‘hangover brigade’ to recover in their own good time.
Arriving at one of my favourite stretches of the river everything looked perfect and I was confident of some action. Sure enough in a couple of hours I had fifteen fish including three good ones of 11, 14.8 and 20lbs 6oz. It had been fabulous sport and I was ecstatic with my fifth 20 on fly from the Nene.
These days all shared similar water conditions and yet the changes in temperature, wind and possibly light made all the difference. Cold winds seemed to be bad, mild and still seemed to be good. Doesn’t sound too complicated! But things are not always so predictable.
A week later I found myself once more on the river, this time in a different area, and once again conditions seemed ideal. The water had retained that lovely bottle green clarity, the weather was mild and there wasn’t much wind. Two hundred yards of methodical casting later, however, and I had caught absolutely nothing. I had no idea why, but I knew they were not in the mood. As if to prove the point, I continued for a further half-mile without a follow. I find it quite bewildering how this can happen but I have seen it many times. It seems the only real answer is persistence.
Funnily enough, speaking of persistence, a good friend of mine, Tim Sumner, always says: “It’s on the day you’re catching nothing, that’s when you’ll get the biggy!”.
I must say, I have seen that happen on too many occasions to think that there isn’t some truth to it. Big fish, for me at least, often seem to come when there isn’t much action otherwise.
Indeed, it was Tim’s saying that kept me flogging away beyond that half-mile point, despite the feeling that I might as well give up. I was enjoying myself despite the lack of success, my casting was going well and I was in the mood to put Tim’s theory to the test. Almost as this very thought was in my head I had a sudden, unexpected, savage pull and was thrilled to feel the heavy slow headshake of an obviously big fish. My adrenalin was pumping as it cruised steadily up and down, and it was two or three minutes before I got a glimpse of a definite ’20’. I never carry a net on the river, as I find it far too cumbersome, but my heart was in my mouth when I saw the 5/0 fly just nicked in the front of the lower jaw. It fought strongly but eventually I was able to slip my hand in its gill cover and gently slide my prize to safety. The scales showed 23lbs exactly and after a quick photo I returned this pristine specimen to the water where it powered away into the depths. Fly-caught 20 number six from the river (19th from all waters) and I was on a complete high! My day was made and I fished my way back down to the car, a distance of about one and a half miles, in total bliss, catching only one more small fish as I went. Why would this be in what was, to my mind, perfect conditions? If the fish had been on I would have expected to catch somewhere between 7 and 20 fish from that two and a half mile stretch of river. But who cares?! It was a great result and we will never know all the answers. In the end, only persistence surely pays.