Although I do not believe that we did much harm to the pike, having occasionally caught the same fishes at a later date with the gaff mark healing up, it did occur to me how, as anglers, our general attitude to our quarry has changed. I doubt if there is a single pike angler in the UK who would gaff a pike nowadays, keepers on game fisheries and the like excepted. Of course there were reasons we used a gaff as even we pike anglers of the past were not without feelings for them. I remember extolling the virtues of pike and pike angling in the angling press decades ago when there was still a general feeling among many coarse anglers, especially match anglers, that all pike should be killed. I also remember that Richard Walker was very much in favour of removing pike from waters too, and having argument with him about his views.
But as far as using a gaff to bank a pike was concerned…
In the first place it was extremely difficult to get a landing net that would be large enough to net a decent pike without creating the problem of trying to get a quart into a pint pot, and then, if one did find a suitable net, such as one used for salmon, (and even those weren’t that big) there was the nuisance of carting it around if one was fishing a roving game - spinning, or trotting dead-baits over great lengths of river.
The same problem still exists if one is after any large species, and one is continually moving swims or working the area, but at least landing nets are lighter now, and there are a few that easily fold down I believe. Even so, carting a big net around is a pain, but the law now says no gaffs, so that’s that!
I have got to admit also that I long ago gave up gaffing pike, and as I have got older, sorry, ‘old’, my attitude to fishes has changed, and I would now find it very hard to stick a gaff under a pike’s chin even if it was still common practice. There must be a market for a good, reliable, collapsible landing net, that is easy to carry when fishing on the move, that is easy to put into operation with one hand, but is also strong, light, and durable. Modern technology must be able to supply materials to support a good design. It might even help some of today’s anglers to get off their butts and do some active fishing, instead of simply winding in their self-hooked captures when the buzzer relieves them of their boredom.
Naturally we only gaffed good-sized pike, landing most of the fish we caught by gripping them across the shoulder, beaching them if the beach was not too rough, or sliding our fingers into the isthmus beneath the lower jaw and lifting them out.
Recently I was fishing for tench at a lake that I had not fished for about 30yrs., when a fellow member who was spinning for perch gave me a call. He had hooked a good pike on the light tackle, (what they now call an ‘upper double’) and I assumed wanted some help to land it. I wandered along with my camera in case he also wanted pics., but he did not seem to be bothered about that. I was about to lift it from beneath the jaw with my fingers when he offered me a glove, something I have never used, and so liking the idea, I put the thing on. Never again! I could not feel what I was doing and lifted the fish with my fingers beneath the gill cover, and of course, the glove got caught on the lower, toothy, gill-raker bone. I placed the fish in his rubber dinghy which he suggested as a suitable unhooking mat, removed the glove from my hand with the glove still hooked on the gill-raker bone, and left him to sort it out.
OK! So a landing net is perhaps an easier way to land a big pike as gaffs are out, but there is still the problem of a loose treble, or one in the scissors or the edge of the mouth becoming caught in the net’s mesh, and as doubtless most pike anglers have had a fish kicking in a landing net with it’s mouth attached to the mesh by a treble, they will know how much trouble it can be to free it without danger to fish and angler, without resorting to cutting the mesh and holing the net.
I can well remember hooking a large pike during the hours of darkness, which was ultimately lost through hook entanglement, and indirectly because a landing net was used to try and net a fish that was too long for the net. The pike would have gone in the net but extreme care was necessary. We were carp fishing for the night, but as I have never believed that night is a good time to fish for pike, but was having a discussion with a friend who thought otherwise, I sometimes put out a bait. Eels were keen but rarely the pike, until this night when I had a real beauty, well over 25lb I would think, and my friend came round to net it. He was a mite careless, and did not make sure that the net completely cleared the head of the perfectly stationary fish, with the result that the treble became attached before the fish was completely enmeshed. It was worse! He had brought his own landing net but had not screwed the net frame and pole tightly together, so that as he tried to juggle the fish into the net the frame swivelled around, leaving a pike attached to the outside of the landing net. A good kick by the pike and it was free of hook and net. I have caught very few pike at night and that was by far the best, but my old friend, if you read this, I still ‘luv yer’.
Better nets than are currently available can resolve the nuisance of carting a big net about, but I don’t see an easy solution to the ‘treble in the mesh’ situation, apart from always using barbless. I’ve had several pike fall off barbless, and salmon, and I often wish that I hadn’t succumbed to a view that it was so obviously better for the fish when unhooking. Possibly the answer to barbless hooks is to use them much larger than normal and so have a better hook-holding capability. This year I have changed some of the small trebles on my spinners to large barbless singles, and so far they seem to be successful with the unwanted trout that have hung on, and with my first salmon of the season. In Alaska, in the protected areas, all the lures that I used had to be armed only with single barbless hooks, and I lost several of the big Chinook that I was after, but that would have happened whatever I suspect, as I have always found all species of salmon to be good at getting rid of the hook. However we try we will never always win!
So, the practice of chin-gaffing pike, which I stopped many years ago, is now illegal, and the authorities have also outlawed the gaffing of salmon, which I had also decided a long while back that I would stop, although as soon as a salmon was landed it was immediately killed, and I hope therefore did not suffer. I do not believe that fish feel pain in the same manner as warm-blooded animals, but it was still damage to a beautiful fish.
What did I do instead? I used a salmon tailer. I was still killing salmon at that time and will admit that using a tailer is not so easy or as sure as gaffing, and I had a few losses because of it, mostly when I have put my trust in others. A tailer is not something that I would use now as I have not purposely killed a salmon for about 12 years, and tailing a fish can cause some scale damage – especially with fresh-run fish whose scales almost fall out if you blow on them.
I turned to the use of a net as soon as I decided there were too few salmon coming into our southern rivers to allow a kill policy, and I now have a fairly large knotless landing net, which does the job adequately for most of the fish I catch nowadays, although a twenty pounder is a bit tight. If I ever get another fish over 30lb though I shall sweat a bit.
Of course, if circumstances allow, it is still probable that the best way with salmon is to land by hand, or unhook in the water, rather than take the fish out. It is marvellous what can be done with a pair of long forceps if the hook is in the scissors or somewhere easy to unhook.
Anybody want to buy a couple of good gaffs and tailers?