One of the major attractions of pike fishing to its dedicated band of followers will undoubtedly be the enigma that surrounds our largest indigenous predator. Surely fishing per se just does not stand up without the feelings of intrigue and mystery that water evokes within us from a very early age? In fact if you have not looked at the surface of a pond as a small child and dreamed of what creatures might lurk beneath that watery mirror -and of course schemed as to how you might catch hold of one of them- then I would have to wonder whether you are a proper angler at all.
Mystery has certainly always been a crucial factor for me -particularly where pike are concerned. I suppose when they invented the trout-water pike things did change a bit, however when I initially began to fish for them one quite rightly expected the very biggest pike of all to be found in the most ancient, wild or completely forgotten recesses of our water systems. The quest to best our most formidable predatory fish has always gone in tandem with time spent in desolate and wild places: remote private river beats, bottomless lochs, seedy drains -in the furthermost outreaches of Fenland- ancient forgotten monastery stew ponds or long-lost estate lakes. These were the sort of places where those unseen and uncaught giants lived; obviously in complete secrecy.
That knowledge fuelled us as kids. We dreamed of casting our lamentable tackle into the most forbidden places imaginable in search of that overlooked monster. That legendary pike which had sometimes been encountered briefly in some overlooked corner and recounted to us by older anglers but had somehow, thus far, managed to avoid being tripped up by rod and line. Such fish must have existed though of course. Even now I am sure of that. Somewhere on this island at various times in its history there will have been giant pike living out their macabre lives in undiscovered watery refuges in complete anonymity.
One local place in particular held us in awe as youngsters. A flooded quarry, a couple of villages distant, where the history and nature of the water ticked just about every box of the ‘pike water application form’. A near bottomless chalk pit of several acres surrounded almost completely by an impenetrable ring-fence of mature trees and bushes. It was situated on intensely private farmland in among game-keepered coppices, and as far as the would be fishing ‘guest’ was concerned those logistical pitfalls were only the beginning!
The story goes that it had been a working cement quarry in the early part of the last century; mining chalk from the mineral seam that ends where the gault clay of Fenland begins. Apparently close to the end of the quarry's working life they disturbed an underground spring in the chalk and the deep pit flooded with such speed that the work force had little or no time to remove plant and equipment. At some stage in its life the police are said to have used the deep pit for diving practice and the divers are said to have reported that there were still shovels and picks leaning against the sheds at the bottom of the pit, exactly where they were standing when the water level suddenly rose. Up until some time in the 1970's there was the ghostly jib of a crane towering out still from the midst of the quarry, but that has long since collapsed into the water and disappeared.
Local stories of ill omen abound. It is all at once a strikingly beautiful yet brooding and inhospitable place. To add further to the feeling of latent menace the rail lines on which the old diesel engine once ascended from the depths of the cavernous quarry laden with chalk now descend bizarrely back down into the deep water. The rusting tracks, bordered either side with fringes of luminescent green weed, disappear eerily down into the gin-clear water like some kind of crazy sub-aqua ghost-train. Huddled together all around one corner of the pit is a vast collection of disused and defunct farm machinery, a sort of ‘combined-harvester’s graveyard’ if you like. The winter wind scouring through this weird metallic cemetery moans and howls and rattles entirely in keeping with the sepulchral atmosphere that veils the quarry.
We grew up as anglers affording this dark and secret water legendary status. An occasional tale escaped the lips of a counter-dweller at the local tackle shop alluding to the capture of fish of mythical proportion by unknown ninja-like pike fishermen however in truth none of us actually knew anyone personally who had genuinely fished the place. And despite the various tales we were never certain that there actually were fish in the quarry anyway.
Alongside a reputedly unapproachable and immovable land owner (who himself seemed to us as mysterious as his fabled pit) and his sons who policed the place far too aggressively to allow us any hope of access, the quarry was also defended around much of its circumference by deep and steep sided ditches which ran off the excess spring water that perennially bubbles up from the chalk. These could only be reached anyway after a considerable trek across open farmland which could mostly be seen from the farmhouses. Consequently it was not until during my teens that I even got to see the hitherto mythical pool.
We sneaked over there one sunny Sunday afternoon me and a fellow scalliwag, crossing from the blind side of the farm cottages and negotiating various dykes and hedges to reach the quarry. The route in took us through a denser wooded area that surrounded one corner of the quarry. A heart jolting ‘creep’ through the keeper’s penned off area -with pheasants whirling around our heads and thundering away vocally through the bushes- led eventually to an over grown spit of land that wound a semi-forgotten trail through thorny bushes and waist high bad-tempered nettles. We emerged finally on a virtual island, reachable only by the aforementioned jungle-like causeway, sweating profusely and full of stings and insect bites.
Having worked our way through the thick brush we came at last to a belt of ivy-choked trees that were perched precariously on the edge of the chalk-pit's white, cliff-like banks. In various places around the quarry those trees in the second rank had forced their neighbours over the edge of the chalk precipice and bleached woody skeletons -some dead, some still half alive- dotted the outer edge of the pool like mangroves. Though it was difficult to fully assess the scene from between the leafy branches of these trees growing half in and half out of the water, we could nether-the-less see enticing glimpses of a deep, crystal clear pool of water, with near vertical chalk sides that were blanketed in silky green weed -the surface of the water many feet below us.
|In the summer other potential swims are exposed|
. Even from that limited view-point, looking down on the scene below from among the tangle of trees, the aura of the place and the strange sense of foreboding that hung over that unkempt water-filled crater was immediately apparent. Although in retrospect I doubt any of them held much validity, stories of drownings at the pit were rife and at that age we were all too willing to believe the ghastly tales. An almost palpable tension thickened the atmosphere surrounding the old quarry and, daft though it sounds now, it seemed for all the world at the time as though there was a feeling of hostility toward us from some unseen force. In truth some of that unworldlyness might be attributed in part to the fact that, as we lay there in the leafy shade peering down into that strange and mysterious pool, we whispered ourselves conspiratorially into a blue funk with tales of horror and the possible paranormal potential of the place.
Some stories did at least have the semblance of truth about them though, and the mystery of the flooded quarry only grew in both stature and appeal to me as the years past. At some stage in my life I must have become even keener on fishing for pike than I had previously been. And pike fishing being what it is the notion of a virtually un-fished but productive pit began to bleep so loudly on my water-finding radar that I could no longer ignore it. I resolved to try and cast a line in the quarry. Permission was of course going to be an impossibility, so my only chance lie in the use of the old ’universal permit’. I determined that my best chance would lie in a Christmas day assault.
Over the next two or three years each December I hatched a plot to make an attempt on the pit on the 25th from the North Western approach. A route that took me over sticky ploughed fields, through barbarous hedges and across a couple of steep dykes with a healthy depth of water in them. I think the first year I turned back for the car at around a quarter of the way across the first field when my boots became about four stone apiece heavier in the winter-sodden clay soil. The second year I spotted a dog walker on an adjacent footpath and had to bale out early again. The third year I probably caught a nasty cold over Christmas - I can’t really remember. Either way, despite the firmest of resolves I just never seemed to make it there.
You just never know what might be around the corner though…
A few years later I started work for a new building company. This saw me frequently travelling through the village where the quarry is located. There also happened to be a particularly popular bakery in the village. I stopped there now and then for my daily pack-up and had been using the place for many years. The baker (and owner of the shop.) obviously got used to seeing me on a fairly regular basis and, as you do, I would exchange pleasantries with him and chat briefly about this and that for the couple of minutes it took for one of the girls to knock up my sandwiches.
One week I had a picture published in the local paper of a nice pike caught in the fens When I went into the baker’s during the following working week he made a point of producing a copy of the paper and made some kind comments about my five minutes of fame. We got talking about fishing. He mentioned that although he didn’t fish himself his brother did and he seemed quite interested. One way or another I bought up the subject of the quarry, telling him how if there was one place I’d love to fish it would be the flooded pit on the farm land just outside of the village. He mentioned the farmer in question by name and told me that he knew him quite well and that he was a regular customer.
“I can ask him if you like.”
I smiled and said it would be great if he could, thinking inwardly that there was probably more chance of receiving a complimentary gift from DLST! The same farmer still owned the land and he still kept the place under a heavy guard. I did not hold out even a glimmer of hope. By then the idea of fishing it without permission was out of the question for me too. I guess we all grow up eventually, and it is not much fun having to look over your shoulder while you are fishing.
Within a week or two of that I was given a little job in the village. I had to dig out a couple of bases and concrete them for the placement of a memorial bench in amongst the old graves at the front of the churchyard. The church looks directly across the road to the baker’s. (which was handy) I got started digging and loading the spoil from the holes onto my pick-up, -planning to grab some lunch from the baker’s for my break at ten O’clock.
I’d pretty much dug the holes and had got a half of a ton or so of hallowed ground loaded on the truck when I heard someone calling. I looked up to see the Baker, outside his shop, waving and beckoning me across the road to him. Walking over to him with the merest tremor of excitement stirring inside me, I was intrigued at what he might want me for and telling myself ,
“Don’t be daft, that is impossible.”
It wasn’t though. He came right out and confirmed it there and then,
“I managed to talk to the farmer and he says if you’d like to give him a call he’ll talk to you about the prospect of fishing.”
I thanked him until I bled and then headed back to my grave-yard digging walking on air. It seemed almost beyond belief. After all of those years dreaming about the place and wondering what secrets it might hold. And there it was, as easy as that! I called the farmer the next day and we chatted for a bit. He was a little cool and asked me quite a few questions including whether I was a member of any local clubs. I mentioned the PAC and he happened to know my RO. It swung things for me I think and the conversation ended with him saying that I could fish a Sunday once a month and we would see how it went from there.
|In late winter the only way to fish the quarry is to don chest waders and walk in. I keep the rail lines in sight below me at all times. A yard either side of the rods the water is well in excess of forty feet.|
On my first ever visit the water level was right up to the brim. That left only one tight little gap in the tree line through which to cast a bait -into an uber snaggy part of the quarry- and the trees overhead limited that casting potential further still. I was a bit dismayed. It was all very well having the almost indescribable privilege of fishing permission, but what use was that if you could not get a rod out anywhere? I circled the entire pool looking for another potential swim but found nowhere that I could fish from. Finally in desperation I threw caution to the wind and climbed down an almost vertical chalk face using exposed tree roots as hand and foot holds and perched precariously on a pile of clunch boulders left there at water level some fifteen or so feet below the top of the chalk cliff by a previous land slip. It was madness really. With no one there to help if I slipped or the boulders gave way, in the event of a mishap I would simply have been drowned. When you are younger though, and the ‘quickening’ is upon you, all sense of reason can depart. Rightly or wrongly I took my chance.
I had to climb up and down the steep slope two or three times with the rod rests, tackle, net and sundry items. Standing on that exposed spot made my knees knock and I resolved to bring a life-jacket with me next time, and a rope to tie around me to act as a safety lanyard. Weeks of planning for the event in my head were instantly trashed. I had planned to cast around a bit with searcher leads to check for snags and depth variations but I could barely cast more than about twenty yards, and that into open featureless water. Nether-the-less I prepared a popped-up half herring on my favourite hinged-rig set-up and, teetering awkwardly on my unorthodox perch, lobbed the bait out into the open water. I waited for it to reach the bottom and was amazed to see the line from the tip eventually swing back and drop all but vertically below me. I wound back in for a retry with the same effect. Further attempts and counting down showed that the quarry was well over forty feet deep no more than a foot or so from the bank. So the steep sided topography of the exposed banks was continued down below the water too. It was a sobering thought to think that if I took one step out into the water I would be in forty odd feet of water! I cast again this time pulling line from the spool to encourage the bait to sink nearer where it had landed in the water rather than swing back to land completely under my feet.
I dropped a second bait in the margin under the rod tip and waited for a minute or so for the line to cease peeling from the spool…
I will be honest here and admit that my expectations had been severely crumpled. I could barely get a bait in the water anywhere and now that I had managed to cast a couple of baits out, despite my best efforts, in the unnaturally deep water they appeared to be fishing directly under my feet, albeit a bloody long way under my feet! That meant that of a possible ten acres or so I had approximately six square metres covered. At that point in my piking career I was not even sure that pike could be caught at such depth and the thought of climbing up with the rods again to change to float based rigs was a bridge too far for me. My confidence was at zero level and days of eager anticipation had been forgotten in an instant to leave me a rather disillusioned and deflated piker.
I had managed somehow to prod and cajole my bank-sticks into cracks in the bone hard chalk and had wedged the wobbly set-up into place complete with front alarms and bobbins. In this fashion I crouched there uncomfortably for a quarter of an hour or so deep in rueful thought. With still no rock solid proof that there definitely were fish, let alone pike, in the quarry, in truth I had all but dismissed there being any chance of my capturing a pike from this unaccommodating water. Then suddenly against all the odds the bright orange bobbin on the left hand rod started to rise swiftly towards the rod butt. In the time it took to unclip the bobbin and pick the rod up my mind was a maelstrom of whirling thought. Initial open-mouthed shock was superseded by a quick visual check to assess that the line was indeed moving away at the tip. It was. Hell’s teeth, it’s a fish! It’s only a bloody fish!!
|Netting a pike from the side of the railway reef.|
I netted it easily first dab but once in the net the pike went completely and utterly beserk! Rolling itself into a ball of frothing fury in the open weave of my large landing net and thrashing itself around like a thing possessed. Seriously! You had to see this to believe it. I have never before (Or since.) encountered fish that behaved like it. Despite only a relatively light hook-hold It was an absolute nightmare to unhook. Not for one second did it give up struggling. From the minute I set the hooks to the second I finally released it back into the dark water below it thrashed around manically. In my teetering position down there on that boulder I simply could not countenance weighing and photographing the pike, which given the way it had behaved during the unhooking process may well have been a blessing.
I cannot really do this pike justice in words either. Not only had it behaved like no other pike I had ever encountered it had also looked like no other I had ever caught. It was an almost impossible shade of orange. I don’t mean that reddy-gold sort of colour you get with some pike. This creature was virtually the colour of a Christmas Satsuma! A vivid and unnatural ochre marked with red dotted coins of darker pigment on its back and flanks and the colour of clotted cream on its underbelly. It was a gorgeous fish in unblemished condition and from the look of its wildly glaring yellow eyes and its crazed reaction, up until that point this pike had not known humans existed!
|An autumn fish. You can see the sheer side of the quarry below the water just behind me.|
So then, in keeping with its unworldly feel this strange place was also home to an almost alien looking species of pike with an attitude that mirrored the quarry’s harsh nature. Three or four fish later that certainly appeared to be the case anyway -like peas in a pod they were. I ended that day feeling both exalted and yet also a trifle disappointed. Although I had not weighed any of the pike I knew that none of them had been anywhere near double figures. Of course I should have just enjoyed the moment but I had built the place up so big in my mind. I had expected a double at least and of course I had been dreaming of a twenty pound plus fish.
I had three or four more days there that season fishing for pike and eventually after some considerable effort and quite a few fish I put the net under my first double at 13lbs odd. It was not how I had envisaged things going. I had been certain there must be big pike in the pit but the form was beginning to look suspect. I had read about pools where the thin pickings lead to jack-only waters. Was that what this place was? Although the water was beautifully clear and I could see thick green weed clinging to the sheer chalky sides of the quarry below the waterline there was precious little by way of life out in open water, given the vast depth of the place. And of course no angler’s bait found its way into there to provide bonus food for the shoal fish. Attempts to catch live-baits seemed to corroborate this. Any fish I caught were no bigger than four or five inches long. Was it actually a hungry water? Were all species stunted accordingly? All of these negative thoughts occurred to me and I began to pigeon hole it in my mind as merely a fabulous looking and exhilarating place to fish, rather than a prospective big fish water.
And it was exhilarating! The bank-side opportunities were extremely limited. Even at times of low water, when a few more spots from where I could fish were exposed, any attempt to reach them demanded a soul destroying trek with tackle through thick brush and brambles and often also required a climb down the sheer chalk to reach the swim. Not an easy place to fish by any means. However, despite my relatively poor results at that stage, this challenging pool of water was still steeped with that quality of the unknown which is catnip to us pike anglers There were other considerations too that made the place appeal to me, such as eels and perch.
So I carried on fishing the quarry at the agreed monthly intervals. When I turned my attention to pike again the following October I dug the place out for an easy early season session. By now the water level was only just beginning to climb again. During the summer the water had dropped significantly and I had been able to fish a few more places. The easiest place to fish was the plateau on which the train tracks plummet to the bottom of the quarry. This juts out into the pool itself and in times of lowest water means I had approximately a ten or so feet wide plateau on which I could cast overhead with no hindrance. At least I could if I put on wellies and walked down the rail track a little way.
So far I had not fished in this swim for pike. I had earmarked it earlier in the summer when fishing there for eels. It was a eureka moment really. For a large part the only feature to fish to was the outer edge of the quarry where the trees overhung and the vast majority of this was impossible to reach. However the underwater rampart that disappeared down into the pit at a gradient -carrying the aforementioned rail tracks- strewn as it was on either side with thick life-harbouring weed, made the perfect underwater reef. I had given it a lot of thought over the months and I was convinced that there could be a whole territorial thing going on along this reef. It was the perfect place for the vast shoals of fry and stunted shoal fish to cling for safety and that would surely be where the bulk of the pike will be focussed?. I had made my mouth water thinking about the prospect of hanging a bait under a big float in the water that sat above the disappearing parapet and its accompanying rail line.
It was far from easy. The prevailing wind blew consistently into my face in this spot. Although it was only a moderate and sporadic breeze on that particular day it did make the task of holding a suspended float in the right place in the deep open water a busy task. And the same breeze always threatened to carry the float across the rail line. If left unattended the float would drift and the tackle would snag on the top of the sunken plinth. I particularly aspired to keep a bait hanging just off the side of the reef in the fifteen to twenty five foot band of water. This meant fairly constant re-casting -and re-baiting with the soft fleshed sea dead-baits that I favour. I did not fare too well with my baits on that occasion but did catch a pristine 14lb fish on a home made lure witnessing the whole approach and attack of the sleek predator in the eternally crystal clear water of the quarry. I was over the moon!
Back again a month later the conditions were unusually still. It was a piercingly cold frost that morning which was quickly followed by a rising temperature and persistent thin, cold drizzle. Despite the filthy conditions I was pleased to be there. It was Remembrance Sunday. I set up on the plateau. Although the water level was rising there was still enough of the chalky plinth exposed for me to be able set up a brolly and chair and as I looked out over the sombre sheet of rain dimpled water in front of me from under my shelter I could not help but think about the occasion and how lucky I was to be there. It seemed particularly poignant given the date. I can remember asking myself: what would some of those poor sods who’s lives were robbed at such early ages have given to share the privilege I was currently enjoying?
I sat there in relative comfort looking out over the quarry. Despite the unceasing sheet of fine rain the day was surprisingly still. I had by now developed some home-made oversized through-the-middle balsa floats specifically for the job and one of them sat motionless out in front of me, its suspended whole sardine bait hanging perfectly over the side of the sunken reef about twenty feet below the float. I wasn’t expecting much from the day really. Rain is never an ideal accompaniment to pike fishing. At least that was what I had read. Indeed some pike anglers seem to have convinced themselves that our boldest aquatic predator does not actually like getting wet…
Anyway, I fired up my little camping stove and put the kettle on for a brew. I’m sure I must resemble a tennis fan when I am float fishing for pike. All the while, no matter what else I’m doing, I’m constantly swinging my head back and forth to watch the float. It is like having a nervous twitch. As I glanced at the orange top of the big sliding float out in front of me between stirring sugar and milk into my steaming mug of coffee I saw it jump out of the water and lie flat. It was quite a surprise to me. Of course I had seen lift bites before on float set-ups but in this case I could almost swear the float had made an audible slap on the water surface such was the violence with which it popped up out of the water. Something had clearly hit the suspended sardine at some velocity from below.
Given the ex-industrial history of the quarry I had always resolved not to delay a second before hitting takes when fishing there. With the kind of snags likely to be out in the main basin of this water those vital few seconds we sometimes allow the fish to get the bait inside its mouth just were not an option. I leaped out of my chair, picked up the rod and wound like fury! As the 60lbs bs Powerpro started to rip through the surface film of the water I swept the rod high above my shoulder, instantly feeling the tell-tale thumping of a hooked fish on the other end. I would like to tell you that a glorious battle ensued between angler and fish but the truth is, in my highly excited state, all I did was pump and wind like someone demented. I wound it back so quickly I think I must have caught it completely by surprise.
It was crucial that I kept control of this fish. I had to stop it from crossing back over the sunken rail line and I angled my rod and piled on pressure in an effort to encourage it away from the reef and into the open water to my left. It was not until I was certain that it was on the ‘right side of the tracks’ that I allowed myself time to think about what might be on the end of my line. Given the stamp of fish I had encountered in this water previously I began to wonder if this one had picked up a heap of weed. It felt extraordinarily heavy. Thankfully I now had it in the clear. As I brought it nearer to me though it seemed to reawaken. What had initially been a fairly subdued response to my bullying suddenly all changed and it began to forge downwards and away from me in an explosion of power in the deep clear water to the left of the reef. It pulled like no other fish I had ever hooked and I began to wonder what in the name of hell I was attached to!
Now you can scoff if you want to but I will freely admit here that I was a bit unnerved. The sheer brutality of this ex-industrial site is seriously disconcerting. That dark flooded chasm still carries some of the atmosphere of dread we’d sensed as kids, and I was standing up to my knees in water on the thin strip of reef . The sudden sheer drop into watery oblivion either side of me was worryingly apparent and some manic unseen force was seemingly trying to pull me in. It pulled that violently on the locked-up tackle that it had me unbalanced a couple of times. I wedged a booted foot under the rusting rail track below the water to get a more stable foothold and kept in touch with it.
It seemed determined to get back down to the very bottom of the pit. I knew that would almost certainly result in a lost fish so I locked the rod up and hung on grimly. My Daiwa Dictator bent right through to the butt and the ultra strong braided line was given the strongest test imaginable. I shuddered inwardly fully expecting the hawser-taut line to part on some unseen snag or the hooks to pull from the fish’s mouth but somehow it all held tight. The fish hesitated for a second or two and I seized the advantage, drawing it back towards me relatively easily in the deep clear water. Finally I caught sight of what I was attached to as, aware of my presence now, the fish arced wildly across in front of me, shaking its head against the tight line and passing virtually over my booted feet as it negotiated the sunken rail tracks. It charged across the shallow water and into the next section of the quarry creating a huge wake on the surface, its thrashing tail throwing up a mist of spray as it passed me. I was a nervous wreck! It was a pike and it looked huge in the clear water. Bigger than anything I’d ever seen!
Given that in the section of quarry the pike had crossed over to on my right, I could see the huge rusting hulk of an iron wheel and numerous other metallic objects protruding from the slope of the reef, I opted again for the bullying tactics and deployed a sort of underwater Heinrich Manoeuvre. I yanked the big pike towards me through the water with some force, and once again appeared to catch it by surprise. It glided over the sunken snags straight towards me (I’m sure only in a momentary state of confusion.) and just about over the cord of my outstretched landing net. I dropped the rod in blind panic (I am sure that I never will manage composure.) and lifted the submerged net from the shallow water. However the sheer size of the pike had me fooled somewhat and as I tried to raise the net to encompass the fish its hind quarter began slowly but surely to slide back out of the mesh. I had one of those undignified moments where you have to try and flip the pike back into the net like a pancake. It hung agonizingly for a second or two on the net cord on its own point of balance -the slightest of movements now bound to set it free -but thankfully, at last, slid unharmed into my landing net. I grasped the arms of the net and shuffled it gently into the deeper folds of the soft mesh in the shallow water and then just stood there briefly gasping for air and shaking like a leaf.
When I pulled the arms apart a second or two later to get a proper look at it I was almost overcome with elation. It looked monstrous in size! It had to be close to thirty pounds I thought. In fact it weighed only a surprising 25lbs 10ozs but clearly had the frame of a giant. In a trout-water or a commercial fishery this pike would have been the fish of a lifetime.
…what am I talking about? It was the fish of a lifetime! Or at least my lifetime anyway.
|A monster from my childhood dreams.|
|One of the baker's dozen|
It was a seminal time for me as a pike angler. It opened my eyes to a number of important factors and I suspect it will remain among my most memorable days until that day when I finally hang up my rods for the last time. Over the next few years I went on to catch thirteen twenty pound plus fish from the quarry before deciding it was time to call it a day. Repeat captures of pike made me feel I had got the best from the place. I still fish it from time to time for eels in the summer but unfortunately increased public access to the land adjacent to the quarry has opened the door to poachers. The trouble is it really is not a water for beginners and tackle losses amongst these often poorly equipped guests have all but destroyed the pike potential now.
Still, I will never forget my baker’s dozen…