Sunday, April 29, 2012

It's the wrong kind of rain for pike fishing

After five days of solid rain, the rivers are on the move. Out in the black Fen, it's filling the dykes and drains, swirling around the staunches as the lodes and leams rise to the brim. 

It's now officially the wettest drought on record, but it's the wrong kind of rain. After a prolonged dry spell, it runs straight off the dry soil into the rivers, prompting flood warnings as it runs out to sea.

It'll take weeks and weeks of it to restore the soil moisture deficit and replenish springs deep underground. So when the weather breaks and things warm up again, we're hardly going to notice much difference, once the drains and rivers return to their normal levels.

Where the Middle Level meets the tidal Ouse, the new pumping station stood idle for much of last winter. We know the consequences of prolonged heavy run-offs, when fish get flushed through sluices, decimating stocks in the lower reaches of drains.

The system needs a certain amount of rain for fish to flourish. But it needs it spread through the seasons, so there's enough water to go around once the crops begin to grow in the great peat prairies, sapping water from the land.

Changing weather patterns are skewing the equation, upsetting the apple cart beneath the surface. When the EA carried out research into declining barbel populations in the upper Ouse, the anglers blamed otters for falling catches.

But while there was ample evidence of Tarka, every fish tagged electronically at the start of the study was still alive a year later. What the scientists found was that low flows had allowed silt to choke the gravel on the barbel's spawning sites. That decimated fry recruitment, meaning there were no younger fish coming through

Pike are just as vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather, in a slightly different way. Fluctuating levels can see their spawning sites and the areas which harbour fry shrink or dry up altogether, while sudden downpours can simply wash them away.

Declining numbers of jacks points to a bigger problem than people who go fishing with lure rods from Lidl and carrier bags to carry their catch home for Svetlana to cook.

Maybe it's a problem nature can't solve on her own. Maybe it's time pike anglers lobbied for the the EA to conduct similar research into what's going on in one of our rivers or drains, to look at whether pike need a helping hand, like they gave the Ouse barbel when they restored their spawning sites, to ensure populations flourish.

Is this the way forward for pike fishing in the Fens..? Answers on a postcard.

+++It's not just pike which suffer, according to John Bailey - click here to read what he's got to say about how fluctuating levels affect roach spawning in the River Wensum. 

Where are all the zander in the Fens..?

Caught many of these lately..? Thought not. Last season was the second in a row when I didn't see a single zander, let alone catch one.

Most winters before then would see one or two accidental captures of zander, including the odd decent one. I say accidental because despite the fact I gave up fishing for them years ago, they're still in most of the waters I fish for pike. And despite what you read to the contrary, they're not averse to picking up the odd sea dead.

There are all kinds of theories doing the rounds about why waters which once held zander in numbers now produce so few of them. They range from mitten crabs eating their spawn, to illegal fishmongers knocking them off with gill nets.

The irony is the zander weathered a storm a few years back, when there were calls to kill them because they were an "alien" species. The fact is they've been in the Fens since 1963, when the then Great Ouse River Board stocked 97 of them into the Relief Channel.

The Environment Agency said it wouldn't prosecute anyone for returning them. Bearing in mind officialdom struggles to prosecute anyone for illegally removing fish, that's not exactly surprising.

Zander are a valued sporting fish, which has found a niche in many of our rivers and drains. They bring badly-needed revenue to club coffers, from the anglers who still travel to the Fens to fish for them.

Perhaps it's time the EA investigated what's happened to the zander - not to mention why pike populations appear to be collapsing on so many of our waters.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

I hope you 'int goin' fishin' in this

"I hope you 'int goin' fishin' in this," says the Post Office Lady. "Th'ass rotten out there, that is. Proper rotten." 

There's a long queue in the village post office. Several of its members shake their heads, as they murmur: "Rotten. Proper rotten."

"Moi ole man used to gew fishin' all the time," an old dear behind me shrugs. "Always out in the bad weather, he was. Killed 'im in the end that did."

I press on regardless, confirming my name, address and date of birth as Post Office Lady taps away on her keyboard.

"My ex said he was goin' fishin' all the time too," a young woman towards the back of the growing queue chips in. "Seeing that cow he left me for, he was."

"Cow," the queue chorus, as the Post Office Lady's printer spews out a receipt. "Roight then darlin', that say yew can gew fishin' for 28 days if yew carry ID and they'll send yew yer licence," she smiles. "An' hev a noice day."

I walk out £27 poorer, the proud owner of a receipt for an EA rod licence which entitles me to pursue non-migratory trout, char and coarse fish. For the next 28 days. As long as I carry ID. The village pond awaits.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pike..? Oh no, I don't think we've got any of those

I'd heard there were pike in this most unlikely of places four or five years back, but never got round to checking it out until I heard a big fish had come out.

It hadn't just come out, it had stayed out - or so the story went. As in removed for allegedly tucking into the owner's prize waterfowl.

Ah well, end of, I thought. Then it cropped up a few years later, when I was having a mardle with a friend who - shall we say - has connections which stretch all the way to the upper-most echelons of society. We were on our severalth pint, admittedly. 

"There used to be some bloody great pike in there," my mate agrees. "They used to let me and some of the lads fish there. One of them had one last winter. Thirty-something pounds it was."

Thirty-something pounds. Last winter. Reckon I might (hic...) give it a go, the beer made me say.

"Don't you dare. You'll probably get boiled in oil or thrown in the Tower if they catch you fishing there," he says. "I'll have a word with you know who, they might let you in if you're with someone in the you know whats. Your round..?"

Like many projects said friend and I hatched whilst under the influence, the promised invite did not materialise. I forgot all about it, until I visited the place and got into conversation with one of the staff, as we stood by the water.

"Pike..? Oh no, I don't think we've got any of those," they shrugged. "In fact there aren't any fish full-stop. We drained it a couple of years ago to get rid of the lillies and dredge that stinking silt out. All the fish got took out first, not sure what happened to them."

Looking into the water, I can see the bottom two-thirds of the way across. Then a dark shape catches my eye. It's only a jack but it's still a pike - in a water where there aren't meant to be any fish, let alone pike.

On the way home, I pull into the first layby and phone my mate in the you know whats, about you know where. "Hi there, long times podna. Fancy going out for a pint..?"

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

There's a pike in the village pond, you know

"Much else happening in the village," I asked one of my parish council contacts I'd phoned to get the inside track on whether or not a Hollywood A-lister had bought a house in the area.

"Well now you mention it, there is something you might be interested in," he said. "I think we've got a pike, you know." What, as in it's gazumped Johnny Depp, I ask.

"Oh no, nothing like that," he said. "You know we've got a bit of a problem with the ducks in the village pond. Well between you and me, I think one of your lot's took some direct action and stuck a pike in there to thin 'em out a bit. Quite a big one too, by all accounts."

Monster pike in village pond stories surface from time to time in Norfolk. Mainly in villages with ponds, where not much else happens. The last time there was a big pike in village pond story doing the rounds, someone caught a 28lbs pike from said water.

The village in question also has no pedigree as far as pike fishing's concerned. But it does have a pond and an ongoing row over whether there are too many ducks, just the right number or whether the ducks will become the biggest threat to rural life since New Labour's landslide victory in the 1997 general election.

Last time I drove through the village, the water was covered with ducks. Young mums with toddlers in prams were chucking them bread.  Now signs warn ominously of a duck cull, when I go down there for a gander.

A 4x4 nearly ends up in the pond, as it swerves to avoid an old taggler zig-zagging up the lane on his bike. "Why don't you look where you're going, you silly old fart," shouts the driver through the open window.  "Up yours," responds the old chap.

The theme tune to The Archers drifts from a cottage on the village green, as peace returns - punctuated by the occasional defiant quack from the reeds around the pond. You're going to look really, really stupid fishing here, says a little voice in the back of my head.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Brief respite for the River Nar

It's not exactly a household name when it comes to pike fishing, but it might well hit the headlines later this summer. For of all the rivers in the Fens, the Nar's one of the most vulnerable to drought.

Its upper reaches are totally different in character to the embanked stretch that flows through the Fens on its way to the old whalers' quays of King's Lynn. It's a chalk stream, shallow and fast-flowing, that supports a run of sea trout, along with resident brown trout, dace and a few chub.

It was raining hard this afternoon, when I dropped in on a couple of spots around South Acre and Castle Acre. The Nar was bowling along like a good-un, but several inches down on its normal level. Spots where I'd seen fish in the past, like the glide above a ford that usually held dace, were all devoid of life.

It's forecast to rain for the next few days, bringing short-lived surface run-off to the river. But the Nar depends on springs deep beneath the chalk hills to feed it. And if they fail, the river and the life it supports will struggle to survive, as it shrinks to a just a trickle through the water meadows.

Enigmatic - but worth a go all the same..?

Enigmatic. Now there's a word. It sums up a water that might have some pike in it, but no-one's really sure. A water that's well off-piste, that no-one seems to know anything about.

When I mentioned it in passing to a mate or two, the response was sceptical. "Yeah, right four-eyes," one scoffed. "Been on the giggle juice..?"

But when I wandered the banks on a late spring evening, I had a feeling the Enigma might just be worth a try. I'd had an idea when it came to tackling it as well.

Somewhere tailor-made for trying out a new approach. I've kept meaning to give this little scam a go, without giving the game away, but never quite got round to it.

If the hunch proves right, it might be worth a more concerted effort both here and on a few other waters. If it doesn't pan out, it's not the end of the world. I just fancy the idea of fishing somewhere off the radar - to see what it throws up.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hats off to ponios for pike fishing

Hats off to one of the cheapest, naffest-looking accessories out there. Ponios - I'm sure they have other names - come in different sizes and you can get a selection pack for not much over £1. 

Rod bands, meanwhile, are three or four quid a pair and most seem to be the wrong size to fasten two sections of a pike rod together securely. They also have a habit of getting lost.

Slip a few of the ponio-wotsits over the handle of the rod, stash a few more in a pocket somewhere and you can use them to keep tackled-up rods securely banded together in transit. Simples.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Pike fishing - growing old, gracefully..?

Poking about the Fens last season, I saw one junior out on his own - a lad who's already got the makings of a good pike angler, judging by the picture he showed me on his mobile phone of a cracking twenty and his description of how he caught it.

Assuming he sticks with it, obviously - amid all the other distractions that fill our late teens, such as the female of the species and various ways of getting off your chump.

Other than young Ash - as opposed to the other two older and larger Ashes I know - I can count the number of pike anglers aged under 30 I either fished with or bumped into on the fingers of one hand.

Both the pike and pike fishing now face all kinds of threats I never even dreamt of when I caught my first one getting on for 40 years ago.

Yet while many despair at the impact of all kinds of modern-day predators on our beloved pike, I wonder if the obvious is passing us by. If we don't do more to encourage the pike anglers of tomorrow, those of us who love our sport today could well turn out to be its last generation.

For if we can't teach today's young anglers that there's more to life than carp puddles, there might not be much else left of fishing full stop, in 20 years' time.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Otter damaged pike from the archives

When the float sailed away on a gravel pit in mid-Norfolk a few seasons back, I found myself attached to a pike which gave up the ghost as soon as I whacked the hooks into it.

As it neared the net, I saw something I'd never seen before and haven't encountered since - the obvious aftermath of an otter attack.

I was fishing with a press photographer on a pit in the Wensum Valley, when I caught this double with fresh slash marks down both flanks.

Graham photographed the damage, as we debated the cause of the wounds on the fish. Fairly obvious, bearing in mind the river runs behind the spot we were fishing.

I nursed it in the margins before I let it go to take its chances.  I've seen otters or signs of otters on most waters I've fished over the last few winters.

But I've yet to see anything quite this graphic, regarding what happens when they bump into a pike.