Caught by the River

Angling for a Cold Fish

8th March 2009


By Chris Yates (from yesterday’s Telegraph).

A fiercely traditional winter can be as disruptive to an angler waiting for a fish as it is to a commuter waiting for a train. Yet last month I could not help but be delighted with the sight of frozen ponds, ice-locked canals and rivers bordered with snow-bent willows.

It was a scene that has become rare in my part of southern England, but it was good for the spirit because it reminded me of a Victorian print that used to hang in my local tackle shop, illustrating the kind of winter fishing I thought we might never see again here. The photograph depicted an angler standing knee-deep in a snowdrift, his rod bending into a big pike, its fanged jaws (crudely painted in) breaking the icy margins of a river. October to March is the best pike-taking time, and although the fish has never been a favourite of mine – it’s just a bit too Jurassic – conditions inspired me to sort out my long-unused predator tackle.

It was three days. though, before the lanes were open. By the time I got down to the water, most of the snow had melted from the trees, but there were still some deep drifts along the banks. The Dorset Stour was running deep and strong and at first glance looked black against the white flood meadows. A closer look revealed a darkly shimmering green, the colour it always runs when it’s cold. I found a nice slow underbank eddy, the place any normal pike would find ideal for launching attacks on shoals of lesser fish; but there were, apparently, no normal pike at home. Wandering downstream, I met another angler who said a pike of more than 30 pounds had apparently been caught a week earlier. A fish that size would have been longer than my leg, and I’ve got quite long legs. Had he had any joy? No, but a large fish had swirled for his bait in the wide deep pool two fields below, and though he recast several times it did not reappear. I said I’d have a cast there myself, but it was almost dark when I reached the spot. There had been rather too many other likely looking places to try, all unproductive. Also, my hands were now numb in the rising north wind, requiring me to fire up my kettle and make a finger-saving mug of scalding tea. Then another one.

A barn owl glided downstream along the bank, no doubt hoping to find a mouse. Its pale shape dissolved into the evening as I watched, but I followed the way it had gone and came to the now mythical-seeming pool. In the half-dark it did not seem quite as wide as it should have been. Attaching deadbait (a small herring) to my large single hook, I swung my leaded tackle into midstream and began to slowly twitch it back towards me. On my third or fourth cast I caught a sunken branch and had to almost pull for a break. Everything came twangingly free and I wound the bait quickly to the surface where it was snatched down again by something that looked in the gloaming like a small crocodile.

If you are only going to hook one fish in a day then I think it is always best if it comes when you are just about ready to give up. A fish at last! Definitely the best fish you have ever hooked. It certainly felt that way as the rod bent and the pike ran deep and far across the pool.
It was not a long tussle, but it was intense and dramatic, because I could not quite see what was happening and the fish seemed dangerous in the dark, especially with the slippery banks and icy waters. I eventually steered it over the net and lifted it onto the snow where, even in the dim light, I could make out the markings and see the fangs when I removed the barb-less hook. An impressive-looking if not monstrous fish – a winter pike of 14 pounds.