Norfolk author delves into pike fishing’s rich history

Artilleryman turned author Graham Booth has fired off the first definitive history of pike fishing.

A History of Pike Fishing examines the development of not only the tackle and methods used to trail the puissant pike, as Shakespeare put it; but our understanding of its moods, the way factors like the weather impact upon them, and last but not least the growth of our consciences when it comes to protecting them.

More lies have been told about the pike than any other fish, observed the Victorian naturalist Frank Buckland. Yet those of us who pursue them with varying degrees of obsession more than a century later have little grasp of how our approach evolved - or how many of the same dilemmas our forefathers faced.

From the dark days of snares and trimmers, gaffs and gorge baiting, the rigs we use today were born in what Norfolk-based Booth calls the Golden Age. By the latter half of the 19th Century, pike angling had undergone an explosion in popularity.

'Perhaps angling for pike is the most popular of all fishing,' wrote John Harrington Keene in the Fishing Gazette, in July 1877. Debate soon shifted to conserving the pike.

'As anglers have increased, pike have decreased,' wrote John Bickerdyke, in 1888. 'Not only are anglers more numerous, but they are also much more skillful than in recent years. Something must be done, or soon there will be none left, which would be almost a national calamity, for the pike is invariably a fine sporting fish.'

A pivotal moment came with the birth of the Jardine Snap Tackle - a rig which enabled the angler to strike quickly, in order to hook the fish in the mouth.

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Sliding floats, paternoster rigs and primitive artificial lures had also arrived on the scene, while the weather was another topic of interest to our Victorian forbears.

'Never go pike fishing when it freezes sharp,' weighed in William Bailey, in 1857. 'Although some writers on angling say pike will bite well in such a state of the weather, I can assure you they are very much mistaken.

'In January and February, when the weather is open and a little sun shining, and the water clear with a gentle breeze blowing, the pike will bite well.'

Bailey preferred a cloudy day with a ripple regardless of time of year. Classic deadbaiting weather, to this day. Jardine preferred to fish when the air was at least four degrees warmer than the water, fastidiously checking the temperatures of both a century before today's specimen hunters.

The growth of the railways meant pike anglers could travel. The arrival of the Fishing Gazette saw catches publicised and at times questioned. Some tried to stay one step of the herd who thronged Liverpool Street and other stations by keeping their waters secret, as pike fishing boomed in popularity.

'The most enterprising pike anglers, who sought out secret waters, enjoyed the lion's share of the spoils,' writes Booth. When details got out, the hoi polloi were soon on the banks.

'This is exactly like today, of course,' he notes. 'When yesterday's secret water becomes, in time, common knowledge, and part of the circuit.'

Volume One (Booth is currently beavering away on Volume II, when he isn't pike fishing...) ends on the Norfolk Broads with the Vincents, in 1950 - immediately prior to what the author terms a brief dark age.

Booth has no time for what he terms 'the arid prose of academia'. In his preface, he writes he has 'leavened and seasoned this story with the joy and delight of an ardent practitioner'.

'As summer descends into autumn; when the sedge is withered from the lake and no birds sing, the ordinary Briton is carried along by the inexorable march of the seasons, into the long, dark tunnel of winter, against his wishes and with bitter regret,' he goes on.

'Not so the pike man: he rushes headlong into it with joy in his heart and the keen hope that he might emerge, into autumn's azure sister the spring, with an increased store of memories of good sport and - with luck - some more big pike tucked under his belt.'

Booth's work is a joy indeed, beautifully presented by Norfolk publisher Stephen Harper - who has written or had a hand in some of the most sought-after books of recent seasons.

•A History of Pike Fishing, Volume One, Harper Fine Angling Books, �35 plus �6 p&p - see author's website above to order.

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