Country Notes

Water wolf

Patrick Galbraith on the promise -and the pain-of a pike that got away

Pinned up above the replace in an old Lincolnshire pub is a dog-eared letter written by the publican in 1908 requesting the pleasure of a little pike fishing. “My Lord,” it reads, “may I take the opportunity to ask you if two friends and myself might go fishing in your lake this Sunday? I should most earnestly like the occasion.” The letter appears to have been returned by the laconic landowner with “not at present” scribbled in the top left-hand corner.

It’s funny how life goes. A long time ago, in driving rain on the Isle of Lewis, I had a fight in the sodden heather over a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer with someone who has now become a great friend. All these years later my former combatant is working as a land agent on the estate, so happily, rather than having to construct a painfully polite note to an austere aristocrat, I sent Jamie a text message. We were to meet at 4pm, which would give us some three hours of daylight. He was going to bring the pike lures and I was going to bring the biscuits, which were to be shared equally.

He was going to bring the pike lures and I was going to bring the biscuits, which were to be shared equally

Over the years Jamie has managed to hook a number of large pike on the 26-acre Capability Brown lake but as I struggled to cast the red lure into the biting northerly wind, I was very aware that the water was not in shy fettle. Pike, as all readers of Ted Hughes’s poetry will know, are “killers from the egg”. Esox Lucius, their Latin name, translates as “water wolf”, and the British record fish, which was caught in 2017, weighed more than 40lb.

Tossing the lure out beyond a deep ledge, I watched the red feathers sink down into the depths before retrieving the line in a way that I hoped would mimic a sickly troutling moving feebly through the water. Struggling to make his voice heard over the wind, Jamie shouted across that he’s “known them take right on the surface” so I paused to let the lure rise and fall while watching fixedly for anything black-eyed and iridescent drifting up out of the gloom.

To catch a fish you must think like a fish. Successful hunting happens when the hunter undergoes cognitive metamorphosis. When there is little warmth in the water, pike will sink down to the bottom to conserve their energy. A dark pool beneath a blackthorn briar looked like the sort of place that I, become pike, would while away a grizzly Thursday. As the lure sunk into the shadows, two greylag geese passed noisily overhead. One of the joys of fishing is that you quickly blend into the landscape, and all that lives there starts to behave as though you don’t exist.

After an hour of us thrashing the water fruitlessly, mallard were on the wing and daylight was falling so I waded over to a deep hole promisingly known as fisherman’s corner. On my third cast, just as I started to retrieve the lure, my line went taught and I lifted the tip of the rod in an attempt to set the hook in the corner of the pike’s mouth. For a fleeting moment a flimsy bit of nylon connected my cold right hand to a water wolf, and then the line went slack and it was over.

As grey was finally fading to black, Jamie and I sat on the bank and watched the wildfowl fighting in to settle for the night. “Do you think the pike would have been put in here to be eaten?” I asked as a squall of homebound rooks appeared over the top of the trees. “I’ve always been told they lay eggs in shallow water,” he replied, “which then stick to bird’s legs and end up in lakes where they hatch.” Just before we turned and set o for the pub, a bat uttered languidly out of the half-light, bearing a promise that summer would come.

Sitting in the pub that evening, I looked up at the letter and thought about the Marquess’s taciturn response. Sure, you can deny someone the right to cast a lure on your lake but pike seem to exist grandly beyond the realm of human possession. On my way back to town, while rummaging in my pocket, I felt the two Tesco carrier-bags I’d brought with me for all the fish I was going to catch.

The older I get, the less tolerant I become of those worthy sportsmen who inevitably adore that bull-botherer Hemingway and go on about fishing not really being about fish at all. I’d told everyone I was going to make pike steaks, I’d bought the oven chips, and I’d invited people round. There was a pike-shaped hole in my heart.

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