Wild pike on the fly
In fly fishing, it is big, wide and wild places that hold the most powerful draw, says David Wolsoncroft-Dodds.
When I started to fly fish, I was happy to catch a fish. As I honed my skills and became more proficient, I was happy to catch more fish, then bigger fish. At some point in my continuing progression, my perspectives changed. The number and the size of fish I caught became less important than the quality of the fish and where I fished for them.
The heart of the hunter craves the satisfaction of outwitting a quarry that is a worthy adversary. I also need to feel that my watercraft, stealth and casting skills are making a contribution to my success. Too often, a small commercial trout fishery can feel more like a garden pond. Every cubic foot of the water can be covered by a competent caster. The lake may be full of rainbow trout rather than koi carp but they are still tame fish that are missing their pellets.
For many years, I have enjoyed fly fishing for pike. Before I started to chase them with a fly rod, I bait-fished and hurled spinners in the autumn and winter, when it was the closed season for trout and salmon. Pike on the fly quickly made fat farmed rainbows pale in comparison. Every pike was a truly wild fish. It had survived against overwhelming odds and had thrived because of its own guile and hunting skills.
When I fly fished for trout on The Bowood Estate’s fishery in North Wiltshire, I targeted the beautiful (and sometimes impressively large) wild browns. I looked forward, with eager anticipation, to my weekly trip to fish the Dan-y-Parc beat on the Usk. The chance of a silver salmon and the abundant native trout combined with the delightful natural setting to fire my enthusiasm.
I got more adventurous with my fly fishing. I travelled to Ireland and caught powerhouse pike from windswept loughs. I caught the occasional salmon from undisturbed rivers, numerous sea trout from secluded estuaries on the northwest coast and sparkling silver bass from rocky shorelines. It was great fishing that gave me a profound satisfaction. Every one of those fish felt like a splendid triumph.
The experience of fishing for wild Irish fish in undisturbed wild surroundings made me recalibrate my standards and whetted my appetite to try more adventurous sojourns. It also made me more particular about where I cast a fly and what I cast at back home in England.
Fishing for pike on an English trout reservoir, such as Chew, can be an acceptable substitute for pursuing them on Lough Corrib. I can do it as a day trip, without the time, cost and hassle of a ferry crossing. The pike are impressively big and are a pleasure to catch. However, they just don’t bend your rod with the same savagery as a wild Irish beastie. My guiding client Paul Armishaw enjoyed a week with me on Lough Corrib and connected with three pike of more than 20lb. They all tried to drag him out of the boat and the biggest (a splendid specimen of 25.5lb caught on the first day) left him speechless. The following spring, Paul brought a 34lb pike to the boat on Chew. It was his largest fly-caught pike, but he will always rate the Corrib fish more highly.
For many years now, I have travelled to some truly remote locations to cast a fly for some truly wild fish. The pristine wilderness of Northern Manitoba feels like the world as it was intended to be before we humans started to interfere. Moose, bears, wolves, caribou, and wolverines have made me feel like a bit player in a David Attenborough film. And the eerie, wailing songs of loons provide a perfect soundscape. Travelling in a tiny float plane from the lodge to fish places that haven’t been fished by a single soul for several years is absolutely wonderful. I once fished there with Dave Evans – a delightful chap from Yorkshire. We were guided by Don, a Cree Indian whose navigational skills bordered on the supernatural. He ensured that we didn’t get eaten by bears and taught us about the mightily impressive wildlife. Dave was surprised when I dipped my mug over the side of the boat and drank the clear, cold water. When we returned to the lodge, he asked the young lady who looked after us if it was safe to drink the water from the lake. She looked puzzled and replied, “I hope so, that’s what we’re all drinking here!”
The fishing was unbelievably good. Despite the enormous size of the lake, Don was able to take us to bays where there were huge concentrations of pike and to ‘holes’ full of monster lake trout. These fish tested my 10wt fly rod to the full. The startling clarity of the water meant that we were able to sight-fish for the pike in shallow water. It was similar to casting for bonefish on the flats – except that the pike were much bigger and much more plentiful!
The Kvarken Archipelago off the Baltic coast of Finland is a World Natural Heritage Site where magnificent sea eagles treat you to a fishing masterclass. My good friend Ad Swier, the pioneering Dutch pike fly fisher, has always reckoned that you get two holidays in one when you fish the Baltic. The fishing is supremely productive and the birdlife is prolific and spectacular. The white-tailed sea eagles are undoubtedly the stars but I have also seen cranes, goshawks, red-throated divers and red-necked grebes. The idea of catching pike from the sea may seem fanciful but the Baltic is less salty than our Atlantic, and pike (and some other freshwater species) thrive there. It doesn’t really feel like fishing the sea. The innumerable islands frame areas of water making them feel like a series of connected loughs. The water is beautifully clear and in the post-spawn spring, the pike are often in shallow bays, giving the chance to enjoy sight fishing at its very best.
Big, wild fish from big, wild waters excite me. True, I can’t fish such fantastic places every day but I can sip a good dram, savour the memories and plan my next expedition. There are so many places and so many exciting fish that I want to connect with. Meanwhile, at home in Cornwall, I can catch wild brown trout from expansive, high moorland lakes and tumbling streams. I can scramble down steep rocks and fish for gleaming bass without being beset by herds of tourists. I can pump some petrol and chase pike on a beautiful natural lake in Wales. These fish and these places let me control my impatience; they help me manage my addiction before I board a plane once more and head to the wild places.