UK Predators Chapter 1: An Encounter with the Water Wolf

Summer in England was unpredictable, like any of the seasons here. Upon arriving into Heathrow, the sun was out and the temperature was a comfortable 70 degrees. However, by the time the bus pulled into Oxford, the sky had become shrouded in a grey cloak of clouds and gusts of wind swept through my sweater. I had found that fishing in the UK was similarly unpredictable. Course fish consisting of carp and crucian fish roved in enormous schools, vacuuming food from the silty substrate. Equally mobile were the predators that stalked them from the margins of the school, preying on the weak, small, or unlucky fish that strayed too far from the rest of the school. The major piscine predator found throughout England’s extensive canals and river systems was the Northern Pike, or Esox lucius. Although the pike that is distributed extensively throughout Western Europe is sometimes referred to as European pike, it is actually the same species as the one found throughout the North American continent. The only major difference that I have seen was that the European pike looked much lighter in shade with almost a golden sheen. In fact, people used to seeing the dark green and vibrant yellow mottling of the American pike have sometimes mistaken the light greenish yellow color of the European pike for muskellunge.

After catching my first pike last year, I found the fish an extremely unique fish to target and fight. Extremely temperamental and swayed easily by changes in temperature, pressure, water quality and prey, pike could easily be one of the most frustrating fish to catch. More than once I have had large pike follow in my lure the entire way towards the shore, and remain impervious to the traditional figure-8 attempt to trigger a strike. To see a monstrous fish appear like a stealthy shadow beneath a frantically worked lure is a sight enough to produce palpitations in the most experienced fisherman.

This trip to the UK would be relatively short and with an abbreviated window for fishing opportunities. Luckily, I was already familiarized with the waters nearby that were productive for pike fishing, so I could maximize my fishing time. My goal was simply to produce a pike that was a new PB. My previous best fish was only around 24”. Given that a number of sources had told me that pike grew to over 25 lbs in the areas that I fished, I figured that beating my PB would not be too difficult to achieve.

After spending a day settling down, obtaining my UK fishing license and appropriate fishing permits, I was ready to test out the waters for some fishing. My arrival conditions had further deteriorated and large thunderclouds had gathered threateningly in the skies. I quickly hiked the 2 miles to my favorite stretch of the Thames River that locals told me often yielded large pike. The water on the Thames was running low and muddy and I knew that would make fishing difficult. I chose to use a flashy jerkbait that would take advantage of the strong reaction bite that pike possess. Let the casting practice begin!

Fan casting the river and working the jerkbait in variety of cadences, I found no willing biters. I worked the margins of the river, around overhanging branches of trees, and the deep center channel of the river. As I suspected, the fishing was slow. I decided to try and fish the one spot that had yielded my previous PB pike. The location was a place where the Thames river widened from series of curves into a meandering flow. There was a thick bed of water lettuce in the middle of the river, and the pike seemed to like to hide in the water lettuce to ambush passing prey. I casted my jerkbait out, and jerked it hard to get it to the working depth and to reset the weight transfer system. I began my retrieve by reeling in slowly to get the jerkbait wobbling through the water, then pausing and jerking 1 or 2 times then pausing and starting the process again.

On my second pause, I had a hard take. I instinctively set the hook and connected with something on the other end of my line that was furious to have been hooked. From the middle of the river, I saw an explosion as a fish shot out of the water and shook it’s thick head in an impressive display of power. Then it dove deep and began the tug of war battle. Even after having enticed a moody pike take a lure, the chances of landing it were still slim.

The hard mouth of the pike provides few places for a hook to securely hold. Along with this, the explosive head shakes of the elongated pike often provide enough power to shake off even a securely hooked lure. Lastly, pike fight in a very unique way. They like to sulk near the bottom of the river, bulldogging against any pressure from the line. Larger pike are almost impossible to turn and you must simply follow them on their slow bid for freedom. However, if the fish finds any cover or feels the pressure and angle from the line lighten, it will go on a drag scorching run. Again, very difficult to counter using side strain and testing both the drag capability of a reel and the hook hold.

Lady luck was on my side though. The fish initially dug deep to try and get back into the water lettuce, but was unsuccessful in snagging my line. Then as I brought her in, she swam upstream until my line angle against her was acute. While I tried to lessen it by catching up on the bank, she blasted into a long drag burning run. However, the hooks held and my drag remained smooth. After a few more hairy moments including an extensive tailwalking display, I was able to pull her up onto the shore. One thing I have noticed about pike is that despite their fearsome looks and strength, they are extraordinarily delicate fish. Especially when temperatures are above 65-70 degrees, they do not tolerate handling very well at all. So, I worked rapidly to take a picture, measure, and release her in just a few seconds. Luckily a passerby had been observing my fight and was quick to help me take a picture with the fish.

At 28”, this fish would weigh almost 5.5 lbs according to the weight formula for Nothern pike as w(lb)= 0.000180*28^ 3.096. Not a 25 lb beast that I had been told resided in these waters, but nonetheless a new PB as I had hoped for, and a fish that gave a brilliant fight. When releasing pike, they usually take a few seconds to revive but this one shot off as soon as it was back in, so I was happy to see it none the worse for wear.

After watching her swim away, I decided to switch my lure to something a little slower moving, and chose a multi jointed shad imitation. These lures work extremely well at very low speeds, but sometimes will work well waked across the surface as well. One thing I had learned last time fishing for pike was that sometimes they just cannot resist something struggling and splashing on the surface.

I continued to work the shoreline of the river, passing another pike angler who said he had caught nothing. He was using a bright orange spinnerbait that was retrieved very rapidly. Although I know spinnerbaits are supposed to be a catchall bait, I have actually never caught anything on one despite owning quite a few. I’d have to say that it’s probably due to my lack of confidence in a lure that looks so unrealistic, but of course I realize that spinnerbaits work due to reaction bites and aggression. One day I’ll have to figure out how to use them more effectively.

While I was pondering whether I should switch out my hardbait for a spinnerbait, I came across a very shallow weedbed. I could see a few small rough fish topping at the surface, and coupled with the patchy blue sky which had suddenly appeared, looked quite beautiful. Casting out my lure, I worked it slowly over the patch of water, jerking and pausing the lure like an injured fish. No bites. As I fan casted across the area, there did not seem to be any interested pike in the area. However, midway through one of my casts almost paralleling the shoreline, I snagged a piece of water lettuce. I quickly sped up my retrieve so I could clear my lure and my lure came up splashing and sputtering over the water surface. Suddenly, there was an eruption of water as I spot the yellow green tail of a large pike slap the water surface! I feel the pike on the line for just a few seconds on his first big run, and then just a solid dead weight. He had snagged me. Luckily, my braid was strong enough to pull out the entire water lettuce plant so I freed my lure.

I figured lightening rarely hits the same spot twice, but why not give it a chance? I threw my lure back out in the same trajectory, but this time worked it quickly over the water surface. As it bubbled over the same area, again, the pike came up and engulfed the lure. Alas, I could see the pike had struck more tentatively than the first time, and it must have missed the hook. Once again, I missed the hookset, and this time the pike had wised up. Spending another 15 minutes casting over the same spot yielded nothing, despite the audience of cows that had gathered to watch my unusual human antics.

Slightly disappointed but buoyed by the action, I moved down further along the river. I came across a large dead tree that had fallen into the river. Despite the absolutely fishy looking water, I had fished here before and never caught anything nor saw any fish. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try again. This time, I tried the topwater retrieve style. As my lure came closer to the tree and shoreline, I sped up my retrieve to avoid snagging. WHOOSH! An enormous wake formed and rocked the tree as a huge pike rushed out from the submerged branches of the tree towards my lure. It formed a gigantic wave as it grabbed the lure and turned back towards the branches. Yet it seemed that I had lost my luck as my hooks failed to penetrate the fish’s mouth. The lure came free within seconds. Without a doubt, this fish would have been yet another PB, but I was slightly relieved that I didn’t hook it because I really don’t know if I would have been able to pull him out from the tree without breaking off or snagging.

My time for fishing was almost up, and I began to make the slow journey back towards the city center. However, I found another widened portion of the river, and decided to make a few last casts. Throwing the same lure out, nothing was excited by my topwater antics, so I let the lure sink to mid depth. Halfway back, my retrieve was stopped hard and I felt a good fish give me a solid headshake. However, as I continued to reel in, I knew the fish was not going to be a big one. Giving me one solid run, the fish quickly succumbed to me, and I found myself looking at a small pike of around 20”. He was quickly released after one picture, and I hustled back home hoping in vain that I wouldn’t be late.

Over the course of the next week, I continued to search for a good pike of over 10 lbs, or a “double” as British anglers refer to them as. However, the heat of the summer (80 degrees here haha) had caused the river to become extremely low, and sluggish. Along with this, the water had become highly discolored from boat traffic and algae blooms. These conditions made pike fishing very difficult and my efforts became more half-hearted as I felt it was not ethical to be fishing for a fish that is sensitive to the higher temperatures. I caught a few more “jacks,” which are pike that are under 5 lbs, that were all released while still in the water, but my new PB stands.

With the non-ideal piking conditions, I decided on a new angling goal to achieve while I was in the UK. This goal would be quite lofty, attempting to track down an uncommon new species on a new river with only a single shot of a few hours of angling. Not only that, but this species has proved to be exceedingly elusive to even the British anglers who fish for them, often feeding only at night and moving great distances in short times. However, armed with an entire slew of knowledge gleaned from researching the species and a backpack full of various lures, I was ready to test my mettle as an international roving angler.

To be continued…

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