Here be Monsters

They are monstrous yet misunderstood creatures, as fragile as they are fierce. No other fish provokes such contrasting emotions as the pike, writes Dominic Garnett

It is an unlikely setting for a scene from Jaws, but unbeknown to most who walk its banks, the Grand Western Canal is home to an ancient breed of monster. You might have to look hard, but they are there all right, lurking in tangled weeds and shady corners - toothy beasts from little bigger than a pencil to almost a metre long.

Contrary to the sayings of folklore, pike do not drown dogs, attack children or pull in horses by the reigns, although they are partial to the occasional frog or even a duckling. Most often though, their staple diet is smaller fish and that includes their own kind. Needless to say, your grandmother is quite safe down at the canal.

Even in the 21st century, you might say that the pike is a character with a severe image problem. The pointed-tooth-filled mouth doesn't help. Nor do those steely eyes and primeval look. Then again, humans are always quick to judge, and you would be hard pressed to find a predator more perfect than the pike. Beautifully sleek and superbly camouflaged, the species is a design classic that has remained virtually unchanged in some 60 million years.

Dubbed the 'freshwater shark', it is sometimes tricky, even today, to separate fact from fiction where Esox lucius is concerned. Pike are the stuff of legends, wild exaggerations and downright lies. The godfather of coarse angling, Izaak Walton, thought that the species didn't breed at all, but emerged ominously from water weeds. Other writers all but asserted that pike were in league with Beelzebub himself. But whittle away the old wives' tales and the bare facts are impressive enough: the pike grows to more than 40 pounds in weight, is capable of eating creatures almost half its own length and combines acute predatory instincts with a frightening turn of speed. Although sometimes pigeonholed as a specialised ambush merchant, the pike is also surprisingly versatile and found in a huge range of habitats, from Tennessee to Tiverton.

Some of the more outlandish aspects of the pike are closer to reality than you might think. For example, the old idea that female pike snack on their suitors after spawning is no fanciful myth. Indeed, after the rigors of mating, the big girls get very hungry and their male counterparts, which are midgets by comparison, can easily end up on the menu. It is not unusual to catch small pike in the spring bearing impressive-looking teeth marks.

So what could possibly possess me to fish for such a voracious predator? There are plenty of reasons besides my dubious mental state and I'm pleased to add that I still have all ten fingers. Excitement is perhaps the key factor, and pike fishing is a million miles away from the old man's sport the public imagine angling to be. Watching a pike attack from nowhere is heart-stopping stuff, as is the rapid first run of a hooked fish. I must say that I am also drawn to the savage beauty of the species; those emerald-green flanks and vivid yellow spots are so primitive, so stunning... or perhaps beauty truly does lie in the eye of the beholder. Whatever the reason, like thousands of others I will spend the coldest months of the year braving the elements in search of this deadly customer.

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Then, of course, you have the pike stories. Every fisherman worth his salt has a good one, which usually improves with age. It is a fish that etches itself into the memory and no angler ever forgets their first encounter with the toothy one. My own debut was nearly a disaster. The fishing lure I was using, a cheap Christmas present, split in two when my first pike grabbed it. Anxious at the idea of leaving the fish with a hook in its mouth, I fished on for what seemed like hours, until he took again and I was able to retrieve the broken half-lure as well as my other bait to release the pike unscathed. At six pounds it was hardly a leviathan, but to a 14-year-old it was the most awesome, perfect creature I had ever seen.

That was a lucky day, but unfortunately pike are not always so lucky, and the species' fearsome appearance belies a great fragility. Even today, the pike is regarded with fear or as a menace by many anglers, some of whom still cling to outdated ideas that the species decimates the fish populations with which it has remained in natural balance for millennia. Pollution and culls are a constant threat, whilst on the bank pike also need careful handling to ensure their safe return. A true specialist he may be, but the pike's hunting prowess comes at the price of vulnerability; he is among the first to suffer from pollution and defence is not his strong suit. Fortunately enough though, a growing band of pike devotees are now fighting to preserve and protect the species whilst educating anglers on how to release these fantastic predators unharmed. Ignorance remains the biggest barrier, sadly, and ignorance tends to go hand in hand with fear, which the poor old pike inspires in abundance.

Love or hate them, the pike is a true survivor, a thriving remnant from a wild past when Britain was populated not by office workers and motor vehicles but wolves, wildcats and bears. The tyrant of the depths may be ruthlessly efficient but possesses no unseen malevolence or threat to the balance of nature; that is man's territory. Let us just hope that our own species lasts a fraction as long as that ancient assassin, the pike.

The Pike Angling Club of Great Britain, offers plenty of useful information, including essential guidelines for pike handling and conservation.

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