It’s autumn and with it are coming all the usual signs that the year is well into is winding down. Birds are heading south, leaves in the trees are changing colour and aquatic plant life is starting to die back. Water temperatures are starting to drop too. This means that from here on in a full drysuit will be the ensemble of choice to ensure the best chances should the worst happen. The water temperatures dropping also means that freshwater fish are shoaling up and looking for deeper water to wait out the winter. Whatever can be said for the summer weather, we were lucky enough to be treated to somewhat of an ‘Indian Summer’, at least here in Galway. We don’t get long runs of good weather here very often so I made sure to capitalise on this opportunity and spent a couple of days fishing a river system in an attempt to identify a few areas that may be worth targeting through the colder months for pike.
Each day I launched at different points on the river and every time I started paddling upstream. I like to do this for a couple of reasons; firstly it allows me to troll lures behind the kayak and by inching upstream this allows me to present lures very naturally, mimicking small fish as they push upstream. The main reason though; when it’s time to go home it is a lot easier to get there when paddling with the stream. Always get the current to make the return journey for you! On a couple of the trips I trolled lures for the duration using a selection that fished all levels of the water. One of the trips saw me cover approximately eight kilometres of water, most of it very shallow. The tactics here were simple; keep paddling and cast into any likely looking spots. Trolling and casting both proved very successful. It would be fair to say that for a few trips I hammered pike though it would be fair to say that I did use the kayak to exploit a good 25 kilometres of river in the process.
As I covered water I always had a watchful eye fixed on the echo sounder. It allows me to create a map in my mind of the stretches of river that I have travelled up through. I know of a bend in the river that immediately below the bottom shelves off from three to seven metres deep. This depression in the river bed was full of baitfish, stuffed to the brim with them. I picked two small pike from this feature, the best about eight pounds. I also remember exactly where this feature is and will almost certainly return to it at a later date to seek out larger ‘residents’. Similarly I found another interesting feature that seemed to be harbouring baitfish on its lee side. Another near double fell to the lures at this feature, a huge rock sitting on a flat river bed in about six metres of water. Another place to remember and to reinvestigate later in the year. I have picked out a few other similar structures and they are stored in the memory bank.
The shallower stretch was harder work. Paddling upstream against the current in a sluggish part of the river is handy enough. Once the river gets shallow the pace of the flow picks up and it makes for a lot of extra paddle strokes to cover the same distance. Shallow water and sub surface weed growth means that trolling here is impossible with gear snagging up almost every few yards. This reduced me to keeping the lures out of the water and paddling a lot, casting whenever I came across a slacker, deeper piece of water. This method also proved to be very productive and I discovered a really nice stretch of water but it remains to be seen if I will return to it this winter. It involves a lot of paddling for small amounts of fishable water and is certainly not a venue for a half day trip. With time at a premium full day sessions this winter may be rare but I always live in hope.
The few exploratory trips I did make were thoroughly enjoyable. It had been some time since I had wet a line in a river and it was good to be back. The weather was fantastic on all three excursions and the fishing matched it. I caught no monsters but I had constant action from a range of fish up to roughly double figures. I find this very encouraging, particularly since the trips were reconnaissance missions where I travelled light and had no baits with me. It makes a stark contrast to the dour fishing that can be experienced on managed trout waters where I have spent a lot of time over the last couple of winters. There is undoubtedly huge fish in the huge limestone lakes but they move around and perhaps a boat and engine is the better bet for chasing them. Right now the river is looking like the number one choice for the winter. I am looking forward to it.
A Turn for the Worse
One thing that did leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth was the capture of the last pike on the third session. Casting and retrieving, the fish hammered the lure and immediately pulled line. I knew it was a reasonable fish, probably getting up to close on double figures and a fish is always welcome. It had taken the Swim Pike lure, a firm favourite of mine and it seems of the pike in this river system. To the uninitiated it would seem like a dog eat dog world and quite macabre to present a smaller pike to a larger pike but studies have shown that pike can eat a diet of up to 45% other pike so it stands to reason that a pike shaped lure should always be considered. I feel that if it does not trigger a feeding urge then it may well provoke an attack to defend feeding territory. This pike fought very hard and I was surprised to see it when it surfaced; I expected to see a much larger fish.
On drawing the fish closer to the kayak to bring it aboard, it rolled and once it was on its opposite side I could see that something was very much amiss with this pike. Protruding from under the operculum or gill plate on the fish’s left side and being very much visible was what looked like a gill raker. A broken gill raker. Usually jumping to conclusions without proof can be a dangerous game but I think it is fair to say that bad handling is the most likely cause for the injuries being displayed by this fish. Other than an angler, I cannot think of a single thing that could get in under the gill plate, snap one of the gill rakers and leave it protruding from the gill plate. I cannot think of another creature that roams the Irish countryside that would be capable of such barbaric behaviour and precision.
At best I would consider myself and my piking interests to be part time. I love catching pike, I love the fight they give particularly river fish, I love the fact that when the fish hits for an instant you have no idea whether it is going to be 2lbs or 20lbs. But I love fishing for other species too. When I decide to chase a species I look for as much information as I can find and when it comes to pike what kept grabbing my attention were articles by IAD contributor Leo Farrell. Leo is a man that clearly is ‘all out Esox’ and his writings regularly encourage readers to look after pike as much as is feasible. Particularly well articulated by Leo time and again is that despite the fearsome appearance of the pike it is actually one of the more delicate species that we have and is easily injured through improper care on the bank.
What appears to have happened to the pike in question is that somebody went rummaging around under the gill plate to remove a hook. I imagine that when the pike was smaller it picked up a deadbait and for whatever reason the fish was allowed to take the bait rather deeply. The angler the tried to go under the gill plate to release the hooks and the pike, being small, would have had very delicate gill rakers at this stage in its like. The poking around snapped one of the rakers and the remainder has been poking out from under the gill plate ever since. A conclusion that I have jumped to but one that if I were a gambling man I would not hesitate to put money on. The result is a textbook example of what happens when somebody goes fishing and handling and unhooking are an afterthought. Fortunately and amazingly the affliction does not seem to be hindering the pike too much. I don’t know whether or not it took my lure as food or was attacking it out of aggression. Either way, it was able to hone in on a prey item and deliver a killer blow. The weight and condition of this fish also suggested that it was feeding.
Handle With Care
It is great that there are people going fishing for pike but a concerted effort should be made to look after the very species that we are trying to catch and then return. Carry good unhooking gear which should include forceps, long nose pliers and wire cutters. As well as carrying these items also take with you the knowledge of how to use them. If you do not have it then do not be afraid to ask for it. I can assure you that most pikers will be only too happy to pass on their knowledge, especially if it means that the future of their quarry is going to be in better shape. If fishing from a boat or kayak then ‘chinning’ the pike is probably the easiest way to get to grips with fish (certainly is on a kayak) and by ‘chinning’ the fish it will allow you to hold it firm while unhooking it in the water. The added benefit to this is the water supporting the weight of the fish as you work on it. When ‘chinning’ fish make all your movements deliberately and confidently. One head shake and a lose treble can find a home in your hand and the mess that will make is not going to be pretty. If you are not confident in landing pike this way then get a good landing net, it is only fair to the fish.
One other thing to mention before I wrap this up was touched on earlier; winter fishing approaches and it is now time for the full drysuit again. If you are venturing out make sure that you are dressed for the weather. The trick is to stay warm and waterproof all day long. Lots of thin layers are far better than one thick layer for achieving this. Enjoy your pike fishing this winter. Take steps to protect the pike both in the water and on the bank. Keep well wrapped up and keep fishing!