If you haven’t located your chosen species you might just as well sit at home for all the fish you’ll catch.
The most modern tackle, the sharpest of hooks and the very freshest bait will contribute nothing unless you find fish willing to feed. And yet, judged by the actions of many anglers at their initial approach to a fishery you’d be forgiven thinking that a comfortable swim, facing the sun and with the wind from behind is all that matters.
A level of hedonism has crept in to modern angling practice whereby some anglers seem more concerned with their ‘camp’ than their ability to catch fish. Tackle manufacturers have gone to some length to provide us with superb rucksacks capable of supporting an assault on the north face of Annapurna, sleeping bags to keep the incumbent warm at temperatures way below the point when the water freezes over and tackle that hardly ever lets us down. Suitably equipped, everything then gets put in a wheelbarrow and trundled to the nearest bit of flat bank!
As comfortable as this approach undoubtedly is, it is restrictive and hardly encourages the angler to up-pitch and to move to where feeding fish may be found. Pike anglers, if they are to remain successful must be mobile with their tackle and in their minds.
Pike range widely in their search for food; they follow shoals of prey fish, they lay in wait for food to swim by and they scavenge when it suits them. But, they spend more time moving around very little, holed up in spots they like, perhaps in which they feel secure, and yet they remain alert and willing to feed if food is offered them.
I have never forgotten the lesson learned in the late 1960’s when a small group of us were fishing a gravel pit in Essex (sadly ‘reclaimed’ just a few years later) for its pike. The pitch I favoured was at the end of a point looking south down a long channel between islands. In those naïve days we free lined herrings or light-legered sprats and although we quickly learned that the pike preferred to hunt along the margins of the islands we failed to understand quickly enough the delicate nature of their feeding. The pike patrolled close to the margins of the islands and due to their especially delicate feeding on dead baits, and the poor sensitivity of our Heron bite alarms, takes were sometimes detected too late to prevent deep hooking. Those poor old pike, which ran to over 20 lbs, taught us more about techniques, and even more about the need for pin point accurate location, than many of the thousands of pike that followed.
I can only assume that these pike patrolled the islands very slowly indeed, for takes, when they came were rarely more than delicate twitches. Baits were eaten on the spot and if we didn’t strike quickly the hooks were too deep for comfort. As soon as we picked up on this we began using small floats, often cork bodied quills set a little over depth but still the bait was free lined. More importantly, within the subject of this article, was our discovery of their patrol routes. Most of the channels between islands (some of which were submerged thereby forming bars rather than islands) were in the order of 15 to 20 yards wide and ran north-south across the entire pit except for a couple of bays at the north end of the lake. The pike, broadly speaking, patrolled the islands swimming north until they reached the end of the island or bar when they turned south down the other side. In other words they patrolled both clockwise and anti-clockwise depending upon which side of the island they patrolled. Some of the pike seem to spend much of their time in one of the bays (particularly the bay invaded with submerged trees) though we never did discover how frequently they went off hunting.
Out of passing interest it was from these particular pike that I was to discover that the flank markings on pike are unique to individual fish – as unique as human finger prints. This hardly seems noteworthy today, with this fact being common knowledge but in the late ‘60’s no one had given it a second thought until I began to examine photographs. A few years later my discovery was successfully tested and published by Alwynne Wheeler at London’s Natural History Museum when he and I worked on certain aspects of a record pike claim that was subsequently dislodged from the BRFC fish list.
What certainly wasn’t unique about these particular pike was the discovery that they patrolled bars and islands close to the margin rather than along the gulley proper. Of course pike do swim along deeper parts of gulleys. though all too often the margins, even distant margins, are ignored in our search for deeper water.
Look at it this way. When we fish large, open waters we tend to cast at 90° to the bank (and in so doing often overlook the margins) yet when we fish narrow waters we tend to cast to the left and to the right of our sitting position (and in so doing tend to overlook the water immediately before us!) yet we often position a bait near to the bank opposite the one we are seated on. It is therefore easy to draw the conclusion that on such-and-such a water pike patrol the far bank, yet, if we fish from the far bank we catch fish by casting to the …… opposite…… bank!
Despite the very best of run detection methods, and irrespective of the alert state of the angler, it is next to impossible to be sure exactly what the pike is doing once it has picked up the bait at long range. Theory tells us that the maximum distance a pike can run with the bait is the length of the trace before it has to register in some way. This depends partly on the amount of lead used to tether the bait in position, but it ignores the effects of current and undertow on the line, the water pressure on the line, the distance of the cast and the tenacity by which the angler has tightened down to the bait. It is entirely possible for a pike to pick up the bait and to move several yards with it without any registration at the rod - if the combined effects of current/undertow on the line cancel out the momentary slackening of the line as the pike moves off. The angler needs only to be dealing with a pike on the second rod, for example, for all this to be going on unnoticed. Alternatively, the angler could be along the bank huddled beneath his mates' brolly……
If you find yourself fishing on a narrow water, or fishing any water at close range, watch what the pike do when they take your bait. As I mentioned earlier, when we fish at close range we customarily cast our rods to the left and to the right of where we are sitting. Pike taking the left hand bait usually run further to the left, pike taking the right hand bait run further to the right. This may, just may, have something to do with the pike being able to detect your presence though more likely, I suspect it is a reaction to the tension on the line. Take it one stage further however, what they do tell you a lot about, is where they are going and their willingness to feed in certain spots.
If the majority of runs each head off in the same direction it’s a pretty strong message that the pike are passing through your swim (and you should up-pitch and go and find them). If the runs take off initially but quickly double back or stop it indicates that the pike are resident. You may, for example be right on top of a hot spot.
I’ve chosen these couple of examples to show you how it is possible to learn more about pike whereabouts from straightforward angling results than ‘pure’ location indicators. The ability to read what pike are doing from their feeding habits is as important to their location as any of the more ‘traditional’ methods, perhaps even more so.
I don’t believe in coincidence. To my way of thinking, one is a pattern, two a dead certainty. If you are fishing an area with two rods, one bait should be fished where your gut feeling tells you, the other rod should be cast around. When a run comes always, always put a bait back in the same spot. If one pike was happy to feed there others will too. The second rod should be used to ‘fine tune’ the swim, to find other taking spots (if they exists) and generally used to experiment with. Within the confines of any ‘feeding area’ there will be one extremely localised, pinhead spot that produces more takes than outside it. It’s not just a matter of finding the general feeding area either; the depth at which your baits are fished may also matter.
This all takes time, and when we consider these issues against the effects the weather may have, locating pike consistently is not a five-minute undertaking. Whist I don’t advocate summer pike fishing these days, there can be no denying that a lure rod in summer finds the pike hot spots quicker than just about any method. You’ll also learn a great deal about the whereabouts of submerged bars, shallow spots, snags etc. Lure fishing probably tells the angler more about a fishery than any other angling technique and catches a few fish along the way.
More on this next week