Pike fishing in Suffolk
Virgin streams, surface poppers and savage takes from wild apex predators. Matt Harris leaves his passport at home and heads to Suffolk for a fishing trip with a difference.
The morning mists are starting to lift as we push off downriver, making our way through the trailing branches that drape into the dark, foam-flecked water. The sun starts to climb higher in the sky, winking through the dense green canopy overhead, and steam curls up off the river's surface as the summer day starts to warm. We work the kayak carefully around the reedbeds, and weave around the serpentine bends in the stream, easing the little craft over the riffles and shallows.
Rounding a corner, we find a perfect spot. A big, fallen tree is slumped into the river, and the dark shadows beneath its fallen branches offer a perfect ambush spot for our quarry. Jonny steadies the kayak, and I work the big surface-popping fly up into the air, trying to gauge the exact distance I need to throw. I make a false cast, and then, confident that my range is good, I drop the fly as close as I dare to the dense foliage.
The fly lands just clear of the tree with a satisfying plop and I draw it gently away from the branches, pausing between each strip and letting the ripples spread out on the glassy water.
Suddenly from nowhere, a wild, savage blur of olive and bronze and a perfect stop-frame image of those unmistakable teeth that appear as clear as day through the hazy rush of movement and violence. I set hard and the fish dashes for the sanctuary beneath the tree. It fights powerfully to regain its lair, but I bully it hard, and the tight line sends the enraged creature rocketing into the air in a huge, rattling cartwheel. I give no quarter and again and again the fish bursts skywards, thrashing its head furiously and arcing its back in a wild, jack-knifing display, before finally succumbing to the unrelenting pressure. Finally beaten, it glowers at us and skulks a few yards from the boat. I draw it gingerly towards us, and Jonny grabs it expertly behind its head and lifts it carefully from the water.
The fish is magnificent – a streamlined submarine predator from some forgotten time – its baleful eye and ranks of cruel teeth a perfect combination of killing tools, its long lithe frame wrapped in a perfect camouflage of exquisite olive-green, mottled with pale creamy spots and a flush of golden tiger stripes, and the whole brutal ensemble finished off with a set of powerful fins and that big, flame-orange, fuel-injected tail.
We could be in the Amazon, hunting some primordial creature in the festering heat of the jungle, but why bother? We have it all here. We're in darkest Suffolk. And we're pike fishing. On the fly.
Jonny Stephenson runs Topwater Kayak. He guides his clients in the wilds of East Anglia, using his state-of-the-art kayak to access overgrown streams and rivers that see few – if any – other anglers. Jonny fishes for pike, perch, chub, estuarine sea bass and sea trout using both fly and lure, and the fishing is technically challenging and absolutely addictive.
Turn your nose up at coarse fish if you like – these fish are genuinely wild – unlike all those flabby, pellet-bloated stockie trout in your local stillwater, or even – dare I whisper it – chalkstream. The fishing is pure hunting: pike are a magnificent fly rod species – “killers from the egg”, as Ted Hughes would say, and as aggressive as anything that swims. The perch in particular fight hard for their size, and the chub are big specimens that can often be spotted in the high sun of midsummer, making for exhilarating sight-fishing. What's not to like?
I've long pursued coarse fish on fly. My local River Cam, flowing through the heart of Cambridge, is a two-minute walk from my house. It's full of chub, pike, perch, roach and carp, despite the best efforts of a tiny minority of eastern European farmworkers to take them all home for their tea. In truth, most of the oft-vilified Lithuanians and Poles on the riverside are great guys, and I often swap banter and info with them on our midsummer dawn raids on the river – most put their fish back with at least as much care and affection as the rest of us. While my rivals mainly use bait and lures, I love to use my 3wt Sage and a selection of dry flies and nymphs, and the sight-fishing in the early sunshine at 4am on a midsummer's morning is as engrossing as it is on a Cuban permit-flat or a New Zealand stream.
It's often every bit as challenging, too.
My best chub weighed in at 5lb 2oz, and was caught with a tiny #18 Bead-Head Pheasant-Tail after a lot of hissed curses and furrowed brows. It's a catch I'm very proud of, and I'm aiming for an even bigger one this summer. The river is certainly capable of it. There are also some hefty wild carp to 20lb and more that have so far passed up my overtures. It's no wonder my 4am sorties to the river seem to increase in regularity every year.
Another coarse-fish-on-fly nut, pike-on-fly guide and all-round good guy, Zimbabwean Mark “Zimbo” Anderson introduced me to Jonny at last year's CLA Game Fair. Jonny, like Mark, is a breath of fresh air.
Like Mark and myself, he entertains none of the old prejudices about coarse fish being somehow inferior and unworthy of consideration. In a land offering pitifully few opportunities to fish for genuinely wild fish, Jonny's Topwater Kayak operation offers a rare chance to target fish that have seldom if ever seen an angler of any persuasion. The fish I've caught with him have all fought with the abandon and rage of fish that have never felt the bite of steel before.
I've had some great days out with Jonny – we've snuck into tiny streams where no-one has fished for years and winkled out cracking chub, had some fantastic days in the depths of winter catching muscular, hard-fighting pike and even managed to pull out a mob of handsome perch and good-sized chub from my local River Cam before the Sunday-morning scullers got going. Jonny will row you into some very secluded spots, where you can cast from the front end of his remarkably comfortable custom-built NuCanoe Frontier Kayak, and you can choose to fish for any number of target-species. Jonny can supply all the kit – he has a mountain of excellent fly fishing kit made by Vision and other leading manufacturers, and a host of stunningly beautiful and murderously effective flies, tied by his lovely and phenomenally talented wife, Jo, whose Fairer Flies are as beautifully tied as any I have seen.
Don't be intimidated if you're not a ‘fluff-chucker' – you don't have to fly-fish. Jonny can supply a comprehensive selection of lure fishing gear and a huge armoury of ingenious and lethally effective lures from the cutting-edge Spro company. Believe me, lure fishing is just as demanding and just as absorbing as fly fishing. Watching Jonny's pal, Essex cricket star Mark Pettini expertly and consistently popping a surface lure just inches from overhanging bushes and trees, and into even the tightest of hidey-holes, was a real education into just how much skill a lure fisherman can possess. Mark is a great guy – easy-going, quick-witted and instantly likeable – and he is as skilled with a fishing rod as he is with the bat (he regularly opens for Essex alongside Alastair Cook). I was thrilled for him when Jonny recently forwarded an image of a fabulous pike that they had wrestled out of one of Jonny's secret waters. The fish was huge – a brute of a thing that weighed well into the mid-20s, and a fish that would surely have pushed 30lb after a big bream or chub supper.
A day out with Jonny is a real pleasure and a fantastic and exhilarating change from trout and salmon fishing – I cannot recommend it highly enough.
And if you are a pike-on-fly nut, look up Jo Stephenson's Fairer Flies page on Facebook.