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A February Pike

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A February Pike

H.T. Sheringham

So terrible was he, said one, that when he left his lair the river retreated before him, fleeing impetuously over its banks and taking refuge in the water-meadows; so ravenous was he, said another, that moor-hens and ducks shunned the spot, herons dared venture no nearer than half a mile, and even an otter had been seen in the grey of dawn hastening away with every sign of consternation in its countenance. The great pike of the previous year, said a third with conspicuous candour, weighed the better part of nineteen pounds; but even that creditable magnitude had not secured for it untroubled repose, for the unhappy fish had lived in a state of constant panic, ever dreading the time when it should be its turn to be devoured.

Only death indeed, intimated the candid one, had resolved its doubts, and that barely, for its nineteen-pound struggles had been misinterpreted as the seductions of a wee timorous bait. The monster had come forth from the depths to take advantage of the situation, and had only been driven off by the heroism of angler and keeper, who would not submit tamely to the insolence that regarded nineteen pounds of hard-earned pike as no better than four ounces of dace. Therefore they repelled the giant with shoutings and splashings, landed their nineteen-pounder, and took it away to the taxidermist; in fact, if evidence of the story were needed, the fish might now be seen in a glass case with gold letters on it.

These Gargantuan fables were, even to an intelligence enfeebled by recent influenza, obviously just the persiflage of the club, those imaginative flights that every honest angler takes from time to time into the unknown. Nevertheless, they chimed in wonderfully with the convalescent mood that suggested a holiday and a pike or so to end the season, and next day I put myself with my tackle into a cab, and then into an express train, little dreaming that I was about to enjoy the only week of spring weather that graced the year 1903, insinuated by a stroke of pleasing humour into the middle of February, where none but I could find it. When, an hour and a half afterwards, I got out at the station for which I was bound, the sun shone and the air was like wine, the wine of the South with the chill taken off. And when, yet an hour later, I reached the river bank, I sat on a stile, reflected that the world is indeed good, and looked round for May-flies.

But, be the sun never so warm and an overcoat never so embarrassing, it is not given to a mortal angler to see May-flies on the Kennet in February; if it were they would be vain, and a salted dace was more appropriate to the season. There was no wind, but the river was of good height and colour, so the chance of a fish or two was not so bad. It remained a chance, however, for neither by spinning nor trolling with snap-tackle was a run gained in the whole length of water at my disposal, though it must be confessed that I did not overwork myself. I was a convalescent, after all, conscience admitted, and had a perfect right to enjoy this miraculous gift of spring as I would. The keeper, who appeared with the frugal mid-day repast, was politely of the same opinion, but there was a small pike in the adjacent brook, and he would esteem it a favour if it could be removed, as it harried his trout and vexed his soul. To be brief, it was removed, and it weighed three pounds and a half. This was the only fish that greeted the spring on the first day.

The second day was like unto the first, and every whit as perfect - more perfect in fact, for the keeper had procured some live baits, and the salted dace could be discarded. His mind was not, however, quite free from care, for it appeared that there was another small pike in the adjacent brook, which harried his trout and vexed his soul hardly less than the first. This also was removed with the help of a gudgeon on a paternoster, and it weighed two pounds and a quarter; but the Kennet yielded nothing, though the keeper, cheered by slaughter, talked of a somewhat Gargantuan strain of a big pike seen occasionally by himself and others. Asked if this fish had been known to cause floods, eat ducks, moor-hens, and herons, alarm otters, and wrestle with anglers for a live bait weighing nineteen pounds, he confessed that these accounts bore the impress of exaggeration; the fish he meant would be somewhere about sixteen, and it lay just opposite the second hatch-hole in the middle field. This exactitude of detail made the fish seem a possibility, but neither spinning nor live-baiting induced him to move, and the second day ended with little done, but much enjoyed.

On the third day there was a soft vernal air after a crisp, frosty night, and I awoke to the joyful consciousness that I was fully restored to health. Sunshine had been too much even for the notorious after-effects of influenza, and there was now no reason why I should not fish as though I meant to catch something. The masters of the gentle art inform us that good intentions are not enough of themselves to bring about success; in these days of over-fishing one must also use science and fine tackle. I pondered over the matter during breakfast, and afterwards looked through my tackle-box for a trace that should satisfy the requirements of science and the remarkable weather. Eventually I picked out a rather fine Thames trout trace of single gut, soaked it, and tested it up to a dead weight of five pounds. To match it there was a flight of live-bait hooks tied on similar gut, and I observed to myself that any moderately skilful angler ought to be able to land anything with such excellent material.

Then in a state of considerable scientific elation I went off to the river, to find it the least bit ruffled by the breeze, and very suitable for the testing of my theories. I began with a live dace on float tackle, casting it out almost to the other side of the river and allowing it to swim down-stream, while I kept pace with it along the bank.
And, sure enough, as it reached the spot pointed out by the keeper there was a check, the float went under, and a vigorous strike just revealed the fact that the fish was a heavy one before the trace parted at an upper knot.

Then was it borne in upon me that the sun was too hot, the breeze too mild, the season out of joint, and science a wicked delusion. Had there been a snoring breeze, had the white waves been heaving high, as even a convalescent has a right to expect when fishing for pike in February, had the still small voice of science been drowned by a conflict of the elements, I should never have thought of using a ridiculous gut trace (on which Izaak Walton himself could scarce have landed a minnow), and that sixteen-pounder would have been mine. Besides, I was no longer convalescent, and boisterous weather was what I needed - was no less than my due. In a word, my meditations were supremely ungrateful, and I was justly punished when the wind dropped altogether, February became more like May than ever, and not another fish moved for the rest of the day.

On the morrow, however, there was a real south-westerly wind and a fine ripple on the water. Pike, I reflected, as I mounted an eight-inch dace on a Pennell spinning-flight, have been known to run at a bait twice in a day, twice even in an hour, almost, even, twice in a minute. It was therefore logical to expect the sixteen-pounder that morning. Yet, by the time a third of the water had been carefully spun over without a touch, the edge of enthusiasm was to some extent blunted, and the keeper, who appeared about mid-day, was asked somewhat petulantly to explain the wrong-headedness of the fish under his charge. This, of course, he could not do, but, willing enough to tell of past triumphs, he furbished up the tale of the nineteen-pounder anew, and dwelt on the labour of carrying it home, accompanied as it was by two others of fourteen pounds and thirteen pounds respectively, both caught by the lucky fisherman on the same day.

Having done his duty by the triumphs of history he departed, and somewhat cheered I returned to my spinning, determined to give the sixteen-pounder another chance. Opposite the hatch-hole of which mention has been made, the river was deep and some thirty yards wide, but a few yards above was a shelving shallow. Spinning across and up-stream I thoroughly searched the deep water and worked up towards the shallow, making casts of about thirty-five yards. At last, in some four feet of water, I had that blessed sensation only obtained in spinning for pike, the sensation that something which suggests a stout post has come into collision with the bait, but something that sends a thrill up the line and obviously is not a post. In a second or two it became obvious that the fish was a heavy one, and I cast a hurried glance over my shoulder to see if the keeper was still in sight. He was - a microscopic figure in the distance - and I whistled with all my breath to recall him. Fortunately the sound carried, the retreating figure stopped, recognised the signal of distress, and returned at a run.
MMeanwhile it was as much as I could do to play the fish and attract assistance at the same time. At first the pike moved steadily up-stream for fifty yards or so; then he came back again at a great pace, and I had to run with him, winching in line for all I was worth - a vain proceeding, as the fish immediately took it all out again. After a while, however, it became evident that the main battle was to be in the deep water, and by the time the keeper arrived proceedings had become more dignified and sedate.

“That’s him,” gasped the keeper, as a thick olive-green back showed for a moment close to the bank.

“Twelve pounds,” I commented. “He’s making a good fight for his size.”

The sight of the fish suggested that it was nearly time for the net - a big grilse net - and it was not long before the gradual application of the butt told. The pike was brought in and the net was slipped under it. “He’s a big twelve-pounder!” I exclaimed, when it became obvious that the net was too small, a point emphasised by the fish, which rolled out of it and hurried away to the other side of the river, fortunately still hooked. Thrice this happened, but the fourth time the quarry, utterly beaten, allowed himself to be packed inartistically into the inadequate receptacle and dragged ashore in triumph. As net and fish were carried safely out into the meadow I enlarged my estimate of him to sixteen pounds.

“More,” said the keeper, and it became apparent that he was right when, each holding one end of a sack, we were traversing the mile that lay between the river and a weighing-machine. By the end of the mile the more moderate estimate (the keeper’s) was forty pounds.

As a matter of fact, the fish weighed twenty-three pounds and a few ounces, though, as I still fondly imagine, in the glass case it looks more. The triumph was not Gargantuan, perhaps, but in such marvellous spring weather it seemed so. It is seldom that one has everything that one could desire, and that holiday was perfection. It made the influenza quite worthwhile.
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See more about
An Angler's Hours
by H.T. Sheringham