We are not talking about one of those sluggish and invariably canal like rivers here but rather one with a fast powerful flow, gravel runs, streaming weed beds and many other features straight out of the Mr. Crabtree school of design. Well, have you? Probably not I suspect, for you donít see that many people piking on our rivers. Thatís good news for the likes of me because Iím not over keen on fishing with the crowds but hereís a little insight into something that might be a little different for you.
Weíre on the Hampshire Avon today and thereís three of us about to start a days piking. Mick and I have, as usual, just spent several hours trotting a sidestream with light float tackle for some bait, while Terry, the third member of the party, struggles with his float tackle but will probably use the most baits. This small stream trotting is particularly good fun today as the small fish are obliging, especially those dace with their lightning fast bites. Mick wonders again how he missed that apparent un-missable bite Ė the small loafer float rapidly plunging beneath the surface! Although the two of us could quite happily spend the whole day trotting this stream, Telís getting itchy feet - itís pike that we really came here for today.
The first swim we try is a deep bend, around 7-8 ft deep, after some gravel shallows. Thereís a series of perfectly overhanging trees, some of which are partly submerged creating some enticing looking weed rafts and the bank would appear to be undercut too. Terry plops a lively dace into the water a few feet out from the edge, whereupon it begins to trot nicely down towards the trees, the float bobbing erratically from the movement of the dace. After several yards the float ceases to bob about and it slowly submerges. It would appear that weíve snagged the bottom but we know this swim is much deeper than what the tackle is set at. And just to confirm our suspicions, the float moves away from the bank into the main flow Ė several seconds later a pike is hooked.
Itís a true entertainer this fish, providing a real spectacle to the on-looking crowd of two, powering runs and a tailwalking display or two follow before I net what is a rather athletic looking double. Thereís time for a quick admiring glance in the morning winter's light and then we promptly lower this Esox back into the river and the swim it calls home. We could give this swim another trot but weíre feeling like itís time for a walk so we wander off to try a few other spots, though after several hours without much response we decide itís time to wander up to the weirpool and give that a go.
With a small underarm cast I place a bait on the edge of the whitewater, whereupon it rapidly begins itís trot downstream. Halfway down I hold the float back a little pulling it into a small eddy where the float should sit quite nicely Ė for a brief while anyhow - in a pocket of relatively still water. Without warning the float plunges out of sight with such force that I feel the Ďbiteí through the rod and with line rapidly being taken from my multiplier I tighten down without delay. The pike cuts across and downstream through the weirpool, maximising itís own strength with that of the main flow. The rod has assumed itís full curve and we are getting a thoroughly enjoyable battle from this fish. Itís some time before I make out the orange glow of my float again. With the fish under the rod tip I just let it fight the current. Iíve got it under control now, letting it do all the work and after a little last minute thrashing, a fish is netted. Itís another lean and rather nicely marked pike this, which we agree is probably around 15 lb. Shall we weigh it? No, letís get it quickly back, a task made the more simple with the treble sitting cleanly in the scissors. So with the treble smartly removed, I return the fish back to whence it came.
Only on rivers such as the Hants Avon and Dorset Stour will you find me piking, you canít beat exploring all those features found only on this style of river, where the pike really seems to be at home. It is pike angling at itís best, no crowds to contend with, beautiful surroundings, diverse wildlife and some of the best fighting pike an angler can find. Of course these particular rivers are not within everyoneís travelling range but from those that Iíve either fished or seen, then rivers such as the Wye (Herefordshire), the Teme, the upper and middle Severn, the Kennet and the Swale etc. all look good. Basically if it holds Barbel and is/ was known as a game river then itís liable to be my type of pike river.
Mind you, this is not the place for the half hearted pike angler. We are talking about fast flowing rivers here, which are often heavily weeded and where flotsam of some description is often continually collecting on your line. Kon-Tiki sized rafts of weed can be commonplace, drifting downstream, often with a compliment of hitch-hiking coots and moorhens, and they come to rest in many a slack, eddy or on any partly submerged structure. The other main problem can be rain, a little to add some colour is good, but after a lot of rain and with the river well up, well Iíd personally suggest that you forget about pike and try for something else ( I hear that barbel fishing is good in such conditions?). No doubt there will be someone out there who will tell you differently but Iíve never found a river in flood conditions condusive to good pike fishing. Perhaps itís because on the rivers I fish, pike predominantly use sight for hunting and a flooded river has little clarity. Itís clear water conditions or a fining down river for me - but then, I have managed to winkle out the odd pike in just about any condition a river can throw up, so never write off your chances.
Pike fishing for me is an active type of fishing and the longer the stretch of river, the better, for it gives me more swims to explore. I tend to go and find the pike rather than sit in a single swim all day. I don't own any bite indicators, bivvies and bedchairs and there is no place for them on a true river. You can chuck out a couple of deadbaits on matching rods and then wait comatose for some squawky buzzer to sound out - but youíll never find me fishing that way, for thatís the style of those who fish the puddles. No, I like a fair amount of walking and investigation of swims. With this in mind itís best to travel light and be mobile, unless you're looking for a good workout. Load yourself up and even the fittest of anglers will tire themselves out rather quickly. All you need is the one rod and reel, landing net, bucket, and a few other of the essential items and spare pieces of tackle. Pop it all in a small rucksack or various pockets, if there are enough on your coat, and off you go.
I donít keep up with the ever increasing range of technical rigs that seem to be continually invented and itís pleasing to know that you donít really need any of these super-dooper set ups. Keep it simple, for that way there is less to fail, break, tangle or snag upon. Quite why people still use snap tackles I do not know, I cannot see the point of them for a single semi-barbed treble does the job just fine. Itís rare to miss a pike on the strike, not that you strike as you would in normal fishing, and those that you do miss are invariably jacks which are just holding onto your bait. Itís so much simpler and quicker to have to remove only one treble, so why doubly complicate matters? You wonít lose or miss more fish if you use a single treble, if you do then your technique is at fault. If youíve got two trebles, not only does it require twice the force to set them but a flailing treble can present more problems, especially once a pike is in your landing net.
Though I use a multiplier and can cast with it, I never have to cast a great distance, to me a long cast would be 30 yds, to a far side slack for example. Generally you only need to fish a few rod lengths out so you require a rod which is properly suited to this close quarter under the rod tip combat, one with a nice through/ Avon action is most suitable. Casting my mind back to the time when I did fish the puddles for pike, Iíd have to say that the river strain are real battlers in comparison to their stillwater relatives. They cannot be steadily pumped in for theyíre fast, powerful, often acrobatic and you need a rod capable of absorbing those runs and lunges of a pike fought under the rod tip.
In general, Iím never very impressed by whatís on offer in the local tackle store in the way of rods and Iíve yet to find a commercially made rod that I would want to use for pike. Iím critical, yes, but thatís being an Engineer for you. And you have to have the right tool for the job even if it means building your own. Fibatube do a rather nice blank under the guise of a carp rod (11ft 2.25lb t.c for the technical anglers) and if you put a nice full length cork handle on it and whip on eleven proper sized rings then youíll have yourself one of the most exquisite of river piking rods. The 3lb t.c. broomstick with a few curtain rings whipped on it (reminiscent of a beachcaster) and a nasty abbreviated handle are not suitable for the river style. They are horrid things to hold, have terrible actions and it is very understandable why their owners leave them in rod rests all the time. I couldnít hold one for long either, let alone have to be seen picking one up!.
Good strong line is a must and in the old days of monofilament the use of something around 15 lb. B.S, was the norm. Nowadays itís got to be braid! Generally something of 30lb b.s or more depending on manufacturer. Every has their own favourite brands. Iíve always liked Spiderwire, but then, Iíve got a source in the US where itís so much cheaper! The line strength I find I need not only when battling fish but the continual trotting, and dragging tackle through weedbeds and bankside vegetation gives the line a bit of a battering. If I do snag, I can normally retrieve my tackle when using braid as the hook generally straightens before anything breaks. I use a multiplier now in preference to my old Mitchell reels for itís better in use with heavier lines, is superior for casting or trotting (just like a centrepin) than any fixed spool reel. For comparable line capacity it's also smaller and more compact. A most useful addition on many multipliers is that when in free spool you can turn on the Ďclickerí. This will hold a bait back in all but the strongest flow but will give line when you get a run and when that run occurs the Ďclickerí makes a noise. Perhaps I did lie about having no bite indicators then - but I suppose you have to have an audible bite indicator these days even if it is mechanical!
As for the choice of swims, well your obvious starter is any slack for they are the easiest fish feature to spot. Weirpools, stream mouths, deep glides, rapid river depth changes and bends are probably the next set of worthwhile swims, though in reality, pike occur anywhere from a shallow gravel run known for its barbel, to that classical slack - so it pays to also keep your eyeís open for itís not uncommon to spot a pike in the river. But more often you wonít spot them as they lurk perfectly camouflaged near to the river bed, especially when in a feeding mood. For this reason I like to fish about 1-2 ft under depth so that I feel Iím putting the bait either at their eye level or overhead so they get to see it better, also you snag less on the weed - and that inevitable tree branch which wasnít there last time. Watercraft skills are a necessity but any swim, no matter how small or insignificant, is worth a try, even if only for a couple of minutes or a single trot. It may take time to sort out the swims but if, like me, you fish the same stretches of river for other species then youíll learn the water that somewhat quicker.
Most swims Iíll fish for 20-30 mins before moving on for if there is an active pike in the swim you often know fairly quickly, sometimes it will be within minutes. I may spend longer in some swims if they are particularly large or, of course, if Iíve had a couple of runs. Itís not unusual to take 2,3 or even more fish from the same small swim and I like to imagine them lying side by side in the current waiting for the next meal to drift by. If a swim does not produce first time, itís often a good idea to try it again later, for you never know who may have become the hungry resident. So unless Iím doing particularly well in one spot Iíll keep moving, wandering about the river, dropping in here and there - however I do like to find a nice slack about twice a day where I can sit down for an hour whilst I have a tea break.
You have probably gathered by now that the preferred bait is a livebait. From experience they are far more effective, at least for the way I fish. Deadbaits do work and I do sometime use them either laid on in a slack or trotted overdepth, especially so if my bait-catching prowess has failed me. Deadbaits involve much more of the 'sit and wait' game which is not my style but one which on the odd occasion I do adopt. Obviously to catch reasonable bait youíll need to be a competent float angler with the light tackle or else know someone who is. Catching bait in the summer is easy but in the middle of winter, catching suitable bait is often more difficult than the pike fishing itself, not that the pike are easy to catch of course. Bait size is not of the uppermost importance, you donít need to use huge baits, around 4-5" long is ideal. A friend who managed to trick a 35 lb pike from the Avon on a 2" dace takes great joy from re-counting this fact Ė and who wouldnít - even though he still generally reaches for the largest bait. My largest pike, also caught from the Avon, took a paternostered gudgeon which was less than 3" long - so if the pike are feeding they will take any prey providing itís easy. Iíve found that a small jack is just as likely to take your biggest bait as is a twenty and vice versa. My only preference is that the bait is of the shiny silvery type and the other thing is that small baits are easier to control, largebaits often go where they like which is generally into the nearest snag.
If catching the ultimate leviathans is the reason you go pike fishing then Iíd suggest you stick to fishing puddles - for river thirties are very rare. Twenties arenít exactly common either. One day I hope the river gods will be kind to me and Iíll fool a river thirty (just a couple of pounds to go now) but as far as Iím concerned, itís not the size of the pike in the fight, but the size of the fight in the pike which counts. Being beside the river, out in the countryside and experiencing all that happens around you is what really matters. The old clichť "thereís more to fishing than just catching fish" is so true, but catching a few pike on my next trip will really make my day though.