Caught by the River

Pleasures of….February 2009

5th March 2011

Pike Under Venus Rising by Chris McCully.
19th February 2009

After nine weeks of frost, the waters in this part of the Netherlands became free of ice last Tuesday. Even the slootjes – the ditches – have thawed. Although we haven’t yet heard the song of the first blackbird of spring, the snowdrops have appeared, and now and then there’s a pitiful and chaotic twittering from the hedge where bluetits couple in a whirr of protest and static wing beats. Late snow still disfigures the hellebores, but the ground is very slowly softening. In this hinterland which is neither winter nor yet spring, and just before the end of the pike season, again it’s time – high time – to think again about trying to catch a pike.

Yesterday I looked up after a morning’s work and decided that squinting through proofs and double-checking copyright permissions would be a baleful way of spending the afternoon. I shrugged into jacket and boots, put a flask of coffee into a shoulderbag, picked up the 9-weight and set off for the northern polder, where the pike just might possibly be sidling into the shallows. Every year I’ve noticed this localised migration, from the deeps where the pike spend the bitter weather of January back to the dead reed stems and vegetation in the shallows where, in a month or so, the pike will spawn. Accordingly, in any relatively ice-free winter I’ve had some wonderful pike fishing with the fly rods in later January and throughout February – a fact which baffles many UK-based friends, who associate February’s snow flurries with the compulsory arcana of dead-baiting. Further, fishing the fly properly involves presenting it in relative terms more slowly and searchingly than would be possible with many a moving lure fished on a multiplier or fixed-spool reel.
It’s not easy. The problem, always, is finding the pike. As February progresses the fish begin to lie together in twos or threes. Many hundreds of metres of water can be devoid of pike, while fifty metres further up you may have a dozen follows or takes from small, pre-spawning groups of fish. The groups usually comprise one or two males (jacks), plus one larger female. The earliest I’ve watched pike spawn here in the Netherlands was March 3rd – last year, in the mildest winter for decades. The latest I’ve seen them begin spawning was March 26th.
There was a cloudy sun, a cool breeze from the south which veered uncertainly towards the westering light. I covered water by sluices, dead reeds, sullen drop-offs – water which had yielded a bare handful of pike over the past months. Nothing happened except the squall of huge flocks of geese on the skyline by the sea dyke. Occasionally I changed the 4/0 Flash Fly for a 6/0 Red-head Bunny Bug. Nothing went on happening, and then a bit more of the same nothing happened which had been the same nothing a few moments earlier. If I looked up into the afternoon the light was so open and the sky so vast that I began to sense the curve of the earth at the horizon. I felt that I was casting the streamer under a huge inverted bowl of air and cloud.
At a junction of two small canals a grey-green shape slid from a near-bank reed bed and annexed the Flash Fly. A few moments later and a jack lay in the reed stems at my feet, was unhooked – a twist of the hand to free the streamer – and swirled back to its lie. A small fish, granted, but it focused attention. Perhaps it would be lying near a bigger female. I covered the water more diligently, with better concentration, varying the speed of the retrieve, allowing the lure to sink and flutter, to hang there, then to speed upwards, then to hang again. The lovely thing was that in such relatively clear water I could sight the streamer at the end of the retrieve. It still surprises me, how often during the course of a session there’s a spear-shaped head, a pair of predatory eyes, following the lure. And then the hurtle of a flank as a pike turns on the prey …
Fifty metres towards the sea from where I’d returned the first pike I moved another. This one had followed the streamer from mid-canal, and finally nipped at the lure six paces from my boots. I failed to hook it. On the next cast the pike came again, a swift flash at the lure as flaring tinsels neared the bank. It missed its target. I cast once more, intent. This time, the pike made no mistake, the hook fastened, and a minute later a small fish of 5lbs came to my outstretched hand. Like many pike here in the clay polders of the north-east, this one had a beautiful silvery sheen to its pristine scales. Three leeches fastened to its belly testified to its recent period of near-coma under the ice.
It was instructive, that little pike, reminding me that in a cold February the pike are still at least relatively torpid. They rarely hunt all day and it’s often just the warmest hour of the afternoon in which they choose to hunt. (If that hour coincides with dusk, so much the better.) They may also take three or four goes, on consecutive casts, to annexe a moving lure. The angler’s job then is to respond appropriately to each moving pike and above all, to give the pike time to get its shot in. In late winter, a pike hunting a moving lure is a pike driven by radical pre-spawn hunger. Once moved from its torpor, such a pike can usually be caught. Indeed, it’s not at all uncommon, at this time of year, to catch the same pike twice.
I fished on and within ten minutes moved another fish. This one loomed after the streamer in mid-canal, disappeared, reappeared, and then took in a flare of gills close to my feet. No pike, this one: a flash of mottled brown, striped flanks in silver. It was a zander, of around the same size as the pike I’d just returned. I still have no idea how it shed the hook.
I moved no other fish. It was past teatime and the cold was falling in as the light darkened. You could feel the tension of winter leak back in the air. The low sun was veiled in cloud and would soon extinguish itself on the rim of the world.
Before turning homeward I stood for a moment and looked westerly at a landscape turning back to monochrome. There in the faint remaining blue of the sky was Venus rising. It’s the brightest object in the westerly evening sky at this time of year – so bright and so apparently large that on some evenings I try and fail to see the contours of the planet’s surface.

Associated for millennia with cosmic imagos of womanhood – Venus has been known as Ishtar, Aphrodite and Hesperus (a word that’s related to the more familiar ‘vespers’) – the planet rode there in the west, a symbol of day sliding into night, yet also the day-bringer, April’s morning star. Its steady, unnaturally bright light hung over all the polders stretching west through Friesland; over copses, nubs of towers, knots of villages; over the geese gathering in thousands on the mudflats and kwelders; over the veneer of ice reforming at that moment on the muddy green lees of ditches.

I turned finally for home, asking myself what these slight encounters had meant. I couldn’t tell. I could tell only what they’d included: an uncertain, middle-aged man; two small pike, intent on prey, hunting into the sun’s extinction – and then Venus rising, a visible vesper at the lip of the certain dark.

Taken from Chris’s forthcoming book ‘Outside’, due to be published by Two Ravens Press in April.

Chris McCully.
Two Ravens Press.