Darjeeling & ’the follow of the pike’

On slow days I play a trick on myself to keep in the zone, imagining a pike detaching from cover and approaching my streamer with ill intent

It is hard, with a low winter sun, to track the feathers as they twitch and glide back over the deep pool. I’m holding my breath, eyes straining for any movement beneath the reflections of the willow trees – muddy stripes on the jade surface. I’m sure there is a pike here.

I’ve searched this cold river for hours, dropping a streamer in to any likely spot. My fingers are numb and the grainy fly line and cold water conspire to make tiny cuts that will  later sting in the warmth of home. But no gloves for pike fishing. For the primal trip it has to be skin to jaw.  

In these deep winter days distant seems the memory of summer surface fishing and surging bow-wave takes. It’s so easy now, after these take-less hours, to fall into a mechanical way of fishing. Cast, retrieve, repeat. The cycle speeds up, the mind wanders, opportunities are missed. It can sometimes happen now that a savage take catches you out. Often in such moments I forget to set the hook and the rod twangs straight again, leaving me with nothing but collywobbles and a melancholy wondering of what could have been. And there is that  certain frisson of angling for a species that can actually mess you up. Pay them respect and most pike are docile enough in the net. But now and again along comes a fish that fixes you with an eye of pure bedevilment. “Oh please bring those soft hands close, for so big am I and so very hungry.” Safe catch and return, for both pike and for angler is a craft to be learned and not taken lightly.There may be a little blood in the learning but it should only be yours.

On slow days I play a trick on myself t0 keep in the zone, imagining a pike detaching from cover and approaching my streamer with ill intent. No more dogmatically stripping the fly back, now I pause and twitch and dart the feathers to entice a strike from my imaginary pike. 

When I first cast into a really pikey looking lair anticipation is high and nerves can be stretched. Sometimes the fly is hit violently the very instant it splashes down. How can a fish lay motionless all day, unseen and silent yet ready to lash out in an instant, killing the fly in one take? 

More often there is no immediate sign. When the water is deep and the pike are likely holding near the river bed, that’s when I imagine a following pike. No, I’m not imagining, I’m willing a pike to manifest. And, I’ve found, if you will really hard then sometimes you can conjure up a spectral shape behind your fly. At first this may seem like a trick of the light or the misreading of some reflection. But pike can materialise in mid-water as if gathered of the very atoms of their surroundings. If you stare very hard now the loosely defined shape of a fish may resolve. And when your ghost fish actually follows your fly it is as if a shadow has crossed the ether to become fin and flesh and tooth and bone. Something visible and definite and real you can connect to

Your task now is to induce that final rush and predatory strike, and remember to set your hook. Invariably there is but one chance. Usually (but not always), a pike that follows but doesn’t take will probably not take on your second, third or tenth retrieve either (though they may well be content enough to follow from their own idle curiosity or need for entertainment). So I try to judge the mood of the pike as it follows. Aggressive fish may dash and hammer a fly that speeds away from them, for fear of missing a meal.  

Sometimes an uncooperative fish can be provoked to strike seemingly out of irritation at a gaudily dressed and arrogant interloper (your lovingly crafted tinsel confection you have named ‘pike teaser’ or some other confidence inspiring appellation). Sometimes I feel as if my most colourful streamer is like some flamboyant and suicidal transvestite sashaying down the middle of death row. The cell doors are open and a cry of “come and get me girls” is ringing out. 

But there are many times when a more sombre pattern scores, when my instinct is to match the colours of say roach, dace or bream. Now, more pensive pike may tip to examine a motionless fly and take their time before opening those jaws and delicately sipping in. 

But their are no real rules to catching pike on the fly. At least if there are they are made up solely by the pike who constantly change them and seldom share more than the briefest of glimpses.

Writing & Images – Darjeeling, Winter 2021