Driving there, it started to rain very heavily which made me think that the river would be coloured and a waste of time. The previous year, Neville had tipped me off about a couple of bays on Corrib from which it was possible to bank fish, so it was to there that I headed. Neville had taken fish to 27 from the area and another English angler had apparently taken a 36. Despite this, my confidence was low as I trudged across the fields to the bay I had chosen.
Three deadbaits were quickly cast out into the shallow weedy water and I huddled behind my brolley, trying to shelter from the incessant wind and rain. I was more than surprised when one of the Backbiters sounded before I had even drunk the first coffee. The run was dropped, but I was considerably cheered up. Minutes later a half mackerel absolutely screamed off and this time the rod bent into something substantial. After a good scrap an obvious twenty rolled into the net. As it did so one of the other rods, also with a half mackerel tore off. The line was a blur as it left the spool. I had no choice but to drop the net and hope the first fish didn't escape. Bullying the fish as hard as possible I could hardly believe it when I saw it was another twenty plus. I am not a fan of hand landing big pike but this time I had no choice. Luckily, all went to plan and I was soon looking down at a lovely brace of fish. They were fin perfect, fat fish and absolutely identical in every respect. One weighed 23-02 and the other 22-14. I took a couple of shots of them lying together on my sling before popping them back. The photos later turned out very well and were in fact used by North Western Blanks in their catalogue, earning me a free rod for my troubles.
An eleven pounder plus half a dozen small fish completed the days catch. It was an excellent start for a new area and I was looking forward to what the future would bring. I fished the same area quite hard over the next couple of months but things got slower and slower and I never did as well as that first day. By mid March, action was almost non-existent wherever I fished. I had to move from the cottage at the end of March and decided it was time to take a bit of a break from piking for a while. The winter's fishing had produced nine twenties including the two 27s, a total I was more than happy with.
During my short break from fishing I took the opportunity to purchase a Volkswagen camper van. This I thought would be rather handy for the summer pike fishing. By mid May I was raring to get fishing again so I hitched the boat to the van and set off for Corrib once more. Fishing several different areas I managed a few doubles and one twenty at 20-04, taken on a drifted deadbait. It was fairly hard work though, so a change of venue was called for and back to Lough Mask I went. A large bay I had never tried before had been marked down as a likely looking area. The only problem, was that it was a long way from the nearest boat launch and it took me a good hour with the outboard on full before I eventually arrived there. A river flowed into the bay and there was a huge area of weed. It really did look the business.
Anchoring up in about ten feet of water I decided to drift a shallow fished bait over the top of the weed. This was instantly successful and in quick succession two doubles of 13-14 and 17-00 were landed. No more action was forthcoming that day and after motoring back to the launch, the night was spent in the camper van by the lakeside.
The alarm woke me just before dawn the next morning. Still in the sleeping bag, I leant over and put the kettle on. It really was nice to be able to lie in bed sipping a coffee, looking out over the lake watching the sky gradually get lighter. Most of the gear was still in the boat so it didn't take long before I was on my way to the bay again. Starting off in the same spot as the day before I quickly took a fish of 16-06 on a drifted bait before things again went quiet. Thinking over events, I decided that what was needed was a method that would cover more water. The bay was vast and I was only covering a fraction of the likely looking area with my drifted baits. Float trolling was a method that I had dabbled in before and I knew that it was very much a favourite technique on the English trout reservoirs. I had my electric outboard and sounder in the boat, so I was fully equipped.
Deciding it was worth a try, I rigged up a rod and set the float at about six feet deep. The bait chosen was a dead roach of around four ounces in size. Only a couple of hundred yards had been covered when the rod top slammed violently round and the baitrunner made a most alarming noise. Giving the motor a quick burst in reverse, I picked the rod up, engaged the baitrunner and held on hard. The rod took on a serious bend and I was forced to backwind straight away. It was a good ten minutes before I could get the fish within netting range and by that time I had drifted out into deeper water. Several attempts were made before the fish was safely in the bottom of the net. Parting the mesh, I knew I had taken my biggest ever pike. I had drifted very close to a small grassy island by now so I decided to do the weighing and photography there rather than in the confines of the boat. On the Happy Hookers a weight of 32-12 was recorded. My second thirty pounder. I just could not believe it! The fish was in good condition but fairly lean and I wondered what she would weigh in peak winter trim. The action did not stop there though, with several more good fish falling to the float trolled deadbaits, giving me a total of over a hundred pounds for the day. As well as a personal best, it was the first time I had ever broken the ton barrier. I was particularly pleased that it had come from what was for me a new area of the lake and to a new method. The third day turned up three more mid doubles, all again falling to float trolled deadbaits. The weed was so thick in the bay that it was necessary to fish the baits very shallow. Takes were often accompanied by a large swirl. It was exciting stuff and a style of fishing that I took an instant liking to. Most of the fish got heavily weeded, but by pulling from directly above I was always able to get the fish moving again and didn't lose any at all. An 18-12 was the only result of the last day but I packed up feeling very pleased with events.
After two weeks at work I was raring to get back to the bay for a bit more float trolling action. I felt sure that after the rest it would once more produce the goods. Three days later I had been brought back down to earth with a bang. Despite fishing hard I had only managed a couple of jacks. What a contrast with the previous visit. I just could not understand what was going on as conditions appeared perfect. At a bit of a loss as to where to try next I decided a change was in order and the next couple of sessions were to completely new venues. This was good fun and quite a few fish were landed including two 18s. None of the venues struck me as being mega pike waters though, and it was not to be long before I was studying the map of Lough Mask again.
I had read in an old copy of Trout and Salmon magazine about pike being caught from another bay on Mask during a trout fishing competition. It had to be worth a try, so in mid July I launched my boat on the bay for the first time. As I did so I noticed that there was a lot of weed, and even more encouraging was that there were enormous shoals of perch fry present.
Things were looking good. After two days fishing, four nice doubles had been taken on my float trolled deadbaits. Not a bad result, but I felt that things could have been better. I had seen quite a few decent pike feeding on the perch fry but could not get them to look at a bait. It seemed that the pike were preoccupied with the fry and were not interested in my larger deadbaits.
It was three weeks before I could return. Looking around the margins I noticed that the perch fry had grown considerably and that the shoals seemed to be even larger than before. Numbers of terns and gulls were present also, no doubt feeding on the fry as well. It was with mounting excitement that I set off, the electric motor on tickover with a float trolled joey mackerel set at five feet deep. The first take produced a fat 13-14 and two more low doubles were added before the day was out . All the fish had come from a part of the bay where it dropped off sharply from five to twelve feet. There was thick weed growth along the drop-off and huge shoals off fry in the weed. A classic pike holding feature! The alarm woke me at 6.30 the next morning, but the sound of heavy rain on the van roof persuaded me to switch it off and go back to sleep. When I woke up an hour later the rain had stopped, it was a glorious sunny day and mist was rising off the lake. I could hardly get out of the sleeping bag fast enough!
Expectations were high for the first troll of the day over the drop-off hotspot. When the sounder showed only four feet deep I realised that I had cut in a bit too far so turned the boat quite sharply to head back out to deeper water. Just then, the float plopped under and the Baitrunner howled. The fish was moving very fast and I hit it straight away. I was soon in no doubt that this was a good fish. At one point it got about a hundred yards away from the boat and kited fast through a thick weedbed. I really thought I might lose it but fortunately I managed to regain some line and eventually got the fish within netting range. The netting went without a hitch and I was once again staring down at a large lump of a pike lying in the bottom of the boat. She was incredibly thick across the back and I knew she was going to be close to the thirty pound mark. Onto the scales and yes! Thirty pounds and twelve ounces! After years of never even dreaming of catching a thirty, all of a sudden they just seemed to be giving themselves up. What a venue this was!
A large portion of the pike's tail was missing, presumably through an encounter with an outboard engine. Even more interesting was that there was what appeared to be a gaff wound beneath the pike's chin. Nobody gaffs and puts back pike into Lough Mask so it must have managed to escape from a bungled gaffing attempt. A very lucky pike! Apart from the battlescars, the fish was in pristine condition and on being returned she swam strongly away.
One problem with summer pike fishing on Lough Mask is the large number of trout anglers. Earlier in the year I had been witnessed catching a few fish by a party of trout anglers. They were not catching trout and in desperation turned to pike. Several dead twenties were the sad end result. To my relief, no trout anglers passed whilst I was playing and weighing the big one. It appeared that there was a big concentration of pike in a very small area and the last thing I wanted was a load of trout anglers to start slaughtering these pike. Pike protection laws are almost universally ignored on Mask despite signs at every boat launch. Fortunately, the day for most trout anglers begins at eleven a.m., so it is possible in the summer to get four or five hours of peace and quiet in the morning before the crowds descend.
This was the general approach I took over the next few days. An early start and fish until about eleven, then a break of a few hours before going back out for the late afternoon and evening. It turned out to be the best pike fishing I had ever experienced. A further fourteen double figure fish were boated, two of which were twenties at 21-08 and 22-10. Every fish was taken on float trolled deadbaits. Lures were tried on a number of occasions but failed to even get a single take. The pike were really feeding hard and I managed to my astonishment to not miss a single take throughout the entire session. Anyone who does much float trolling will know how rare that is! After resting the bay for a week, I returned and carried on where I had left off. Action was non stop with thirteen more doubles landed, including one twenty at 21-00. Several of the fish I recognised as repeat captures.
Not wanting to keep hammering the same fish I decided on a break from piking for a few weeks. Mid September saw me refreshed by the break and once more launching my boat on the perch fry bay. It was apparent that the perch fry had by now dispersed from the bay and so it turned out had most of the pike. Two days trolling produced three pike of 11-06, 15-04 and 21-05. Several other areas were tried with little result. It was now becoming clear that unless a concentration of pike was found, the fishing on Mask could be very difficult. There is after all, an awful lot of water for the pike to disappear into. In the Autumn of 1992 I again decided to rent a cottage by the lakeside for the winter months. A busy spell at work however, meant that it was late November before I next managed to get the rods out. It didn't take much thought to decide to try the scene of last winter's success. I had by now realised that the pike in this area were feeding on trout which were running up a nearby river to spawn. I had tried the same spot in the summer and it was totally devoid of pike. In addition the water level was much lower during the summer. The water level of Lough Mask varies by as much as 5 or 6 feet from summer to winter. This has a big effect on the pike fishing. I have caught pike from Mask in the winter in places that you will find cattle grazing during the summer!
The weather was bad for the first day of the session and it was touch and go to even manage to stay anchored in position. To my surprise, I had four runs on old faithful half mackerel and landed three good fish of 19-12, 22-04 and 24-06. A fourth big fish was lost when it ran through a snag. This was an incredible result considering the bad conditions and I hardly dared imagine what the next few days would bring. It was obvious that big pike were in the area in large numbers. Day two and the action continued with pike of 13-00, 20-10 and 12-02 falling to my deadbaits. The next day I decided to give the area a rest because Peter was due over the day after and I did not want to hammer it to death before he got there.
More wind and rain greeted Peter's arrival. It was a case of extra anchors being needed and we both got blown off our swims on several occasions. I had noticed that one particular spot seemed to produce more runs than any other so I decided to leave a half mackerel there, all day if necessary. It really was rather grim and we were both huddled down in the bottom of our respective boats trying to keep warm. Nothing happened until three in the afternoon when I was pleased to see my half mackerel float moving purposefully through the waves. The bait was at long range and on winding down I was met with solid resistance. As I slowly pumped the fish towards the boat I reached behind me to get the net ready. To my horror, the mesh was caught by the wind and wrapped round the top of one of my other rods. I tried in vain to free the net, but without putting the rod down, there was nothing I could do. "Oh well" I thought, hand landing it is! When the fish surfaced near the boat and I got a look at it, I quickly changed my mind. Swallowing my pride I shouted at the huddled form in the other boat "Peter, I've got a thirty on and I need some help!"
Being the good mate that he is, Peter was soon alongside in his boat and quickly scooped the fish which was lying quietly on the surface, into his net. It was indeed a thirty, at 30-04 and was a typical, fat, fin perfect Lough Mask pike. That evening, it was my turn to buy the sparkling wine! Over the next few days I managed fish of 20-06, 21-10, 24-04, 16-02 and 16-14. Peter also joined in the fun with fish to 28-00. What was very interesting was that action had been tailing off until Peter tried a dead trout as bait. A flurry of runs to trout deadbaits was the result and he took a number of good fish including the 28-00 on them. It seemed that some fish would not look at the seabaits and were totally preoccupied with trout. Since that day, whenever we are fishing Mask in winter we both make sure that we have a few trout baits in the freezer box. A couple of weeks after this trip I sat down one evening and sorted through all my slides of Lough Mask pike taken over the previous three seasons. The results were fascinating. My 30-04 was the same fish I had taken the year previously at 27-12 and the 24-04 I had taken the year before at 27-00. One fish had come out on three occasions. We first met in January of 1991 when it weighed 12-14. By November of that year it had shot up to 20-11. A quite astonishing growth rate. A year later I caught it in the same spot again, weighing an ounce less at 20-10. What was also interesting was the fact that all these fish had been caught in the same place as their previous captures. indicating that even in a water the size of Lough Mask the pike return to the same areas every year.
What an amazing years pike fishing it had been for me. A check of my diary showed that I had taken seventy five doubles, eighteen of which were twenty plus with three over thirty. I was starting to think that something truly exceptional could be just round the corner. The fact that thirties were coming out quite regularly suggested that there must be bigger fish about waiting to be caught. I was quite convinced that there were forty pound plus pike in Mask at the time, as I still do today.
The full story of my 1993 season would not make particularly interesting reading. Whereas the previous year, everything went brilliantly, 1993 I will remember as the year when everything, with one exception, went badly wrong. I was off work throughout January and February and put an intense amount of effort in. Two twenties at 21-10 and 24-10 were recorded, but considering the number of days I fished it was a meager result. The highlight of the year came in May when Peter joined me for a week long session. We hired a cottage by the lakeside and enjoyed a fabulous weeks pike fishing in superb weather conditions. Float trolled and wobbled deadbaits accounted for 20 double figure fish for me, with three over twenty at 22-04, 23-14 and 28-14. Peter also did very well, taking fish to 29-00. An amazing result, but if I was honest, I would have to admit that my heart was not really in it. I had fished so hard over the last couple of seasons that I had burnt myself out and just was not enjoying it as much as I used to. Such had been my obsession with pike fishing that I had done virtually nothing except work and fish for the best part of two years. The decision was made to leave Ireland and move back to England, a decision which I have no regrets about. After moving back to England in May I made only two trips over to Ireland during the rest of the year. The first visit was in July and I was expecting to hammer the fry feeding pike again. The pike had other ideas though and I failed to boat even a single double figure fish. Pike were present in the bay but were totally preoccupied with fry and would not look at my deadbaits. The second and last trip was in November, timed to coincide with the trout moving up the rivers to spawn. Unfortunately, very low water levels meant that the usual spots were a waste of time. I did manage two twenties of 20-04 and 24-12 but it was very hard going compared with the bonanza of previous years.