Outdoors: Pike practice

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MY FIRST and only face-to-face encounter with a pike was in the Baltic Sea when snorkelling off a beach in eastern Sweden.

There was a small floating wooden jetty and the pike was lurking beneath. It was not a big fish – maybe 4lbs in weight – and for a second or two it turned its elongated snout towards me, before the torpedo-shaped body disappeared with a swift flick of the tail.

It was a fleeting encounter, but just enough to give me a glimpse of the impressive jaws that have given the pike such a fierce reputation. It has been described as the “water wolf”, “freshwater shark” and “king of the lake” and is renowned for snatching ducklings and water voles from the surface of our lochs and rivers. Angling literature is littered with tales of the “one that got away” and of huge specimens bending the rod double and eluding the landing net through sheer power.

There are certainly some very big pike found in Scotland. The so-called “Endrick pike” was found stranded on the River Endrick marshes on the south-east corner of Loch Lomond in 1934. The head was taken from the carcass, dried and preserved. Experts who examined the skull some 30 years later estimated that the fish must have been around 70lbs in weight. A fish taken from Loch Ken in Dumfries & Galloway in 1774 was reputed to weigh almost 73lbs. The current rod-caught Scottish record is 47lbs 11oz, but there are undoubtedly much bigger pike than that lurking in our lochs today.

Fred Buller in his classic book Pike recounted the tale of “The Emperor’s Pike” taken from a German lake near Mannheim in 1497 that was reputed to be 19ft long and weigh 350lb. The skeleton hung on the wall of Mannheim Cathedral, enthralling a gullible public until an interested naturalist revealed the presence of hundreds of extra vertebrae inserted strategically to extend the length of the fish.

It would seem that fish size exaggeration is an innate human trait that can be traced back to the earliest of times. However, the reality is no less remarkable and there are authenticated records of pike growing to over 5ft in length and living for up to 30 years, although it is only the females that reach such a size with males seldom growing larger than 12lb.

The pike is an accomplished hunter that ambushes its prey through stealth and guile. Its bony mouth is lined with rows of teeth and the large eyes are directed forwards in such a way that it can accurately gauge the distance towards its prey, aided by sighting grooves along the snout. It is superbly camouflaged like some underwater tiger with the wavy stripes on the flanks enabling it to blend in among water plants. It hangs and hovers motionless in these weed beds, holding itself on station by flickering its fins. When a small fish is sighted, the pike begins to stalk it by slowly sculling through the weeds before striking its prey in an explosive lunge. The jaws open in a flash and the unfortunate fish is sucked in, the backwards pointing teeth giving the strongest of holds.

Many major rivers and lochs in Scotland hold pike. Fishery managers have mixed views on pike as they can be a major predator on salmon and trout, but they are also greatly admired as a sporting fish and are a much sought-after quarry among many anglers. Attempts to control pike so as to protect salmon and trout also have the potential to backfire, because pike are cannibalistic and will eat their smaller cousins. Therefore, removing large pike may benefit the smaller ones.

Although fish are its main prey, it will also take young waterfowl, frogs and small mammals. Indeed, the voracious appetite of the pike made the news recently after a 25lb pike was found dead on the shores of a Perthshire loch after having apparently choked to death on an adult tufted duck that it had tried to swallow whole. Stories of pike attempting to swallow small dogs are almost certainly wide of the mark but nonetheless help contribute to the colourful folklore that surrounds this most interesting and impressive fish.