The morning dawned heavy with cloud and it was cold, really cold. Having left the lingering summer warmth of March in Australia, I was now rugging up for another day of hunting a Scottish river bank in search of Old Luce – the pike.
Winter still held in the West Coast Highlands and the previous three days of searching had left us with very little to show for our efforts. Thankfully, we had lucked out on an early season trout bite the previous afternoon and I managed to catch my first brown trout. Dad had come out on top though with three under his belt, including a 15oz (big for the water) beauty. It never ceases to amaze me that you can try every trick in the book with trout for no response, but chuck a Tassie Devil out and the fish bite like bulldogs.
If the cold was shutting the fish down, it was doing much worse to the local deer herd. Consistent rain throughout the late summer, autumn and winter (I’m talking 50+ inches over a few months) had pushed the deer to their limit. This cold snap was the last straw for many that had burned all energy reserves trying to stay warm for so long. Dead deer littered the hillsides. This was hitting the local stalkers hard; both mentally and economically; and combined with the indiscriminate culling and ‘trees first’ mentality of such organisations as the Forestry Commission and John Muir Trust, who knows how this might affect the future face of the Highlands.
We had tried our hand at fishing a nearby sea loch and had cast mackerel strips, soft plastics and metal blades from the steeply sloping shores while I dreamed of cod, hoped for pollack and imagined almost mythical Greenland sharks hiding in the depths. Dad must have been dreaming too and reacted all too late for the frantic take of his mackerel bait and resultant bust-off. Who knows what that was. The fine sea trout that inspected and dismissed a Squidgy fish had ignited a burst of excitement one afternoon and the next morning found us positioned on a narrows just as you would expect to intercept barra moving in with a tide change. Four shallow water swipes were made at my Abu Toby – likely sea trout; ultimately empty handed. Not to be left hungry, we harvested a meal of fat mussels from the rocks and ate them by the fire with a bottle of ale that night.
Dad’s pike fishing hot spots were seemingly devoid of life. Crystal clear river channels showed only patches of weed and the fluttering artificial life of our lures. His 2013 season had been exceptionally quiet with only two small fish brought to hand. However, we had seen some unexplained swirls and splashes in the shallows, and frogs had been moving before the most recent temperature drop. Maybe we could tempt a strike.
Surface fishing a River to Sea Step Wa’ frog on daybreak as my chest involuntarily quivered with the cold seemed a bit optimistic, but it was worth a go. I’ll admit, I had fished the same section of river a few years ago when we had to cast accurately in order to land in ice-free spots, and had to give up because the eyes on our rods froze closed and the line froze to our spools. As should probably have been expected, surface action was non-existent and after an hour or so I stopped to reconsider and dig my achingly cold hands deep into my jacket until the pain subsided. Where were the fish?
Rummaging through tried and untouched lures I picked out one that I had only just rediscovered before I left Australia, stashed away with some forgotten supplies from time spent in Canada five years previously. With nothing left to lose I clipped the Blue Fox Rattlin’ Pixy to my stout wire trace and lobbed it out.
Deciding that the upper water column wasn’t the place to be I let the big spoon sink to the bottom before beginning a slow-wind, uninterrupted retrieve. The big chunk of gold, silver and red metal and plastic was transformed to a big chunk of gold, silver and red metal and plastic flailing from side to side. I know that they work. But how? Why? I didn’t have much time to ponder as the lure emerged from the depths, wobbling up the abrupt drop-off about three metres from shore. A dark mass, most identifiable by its similarity to its surroundings and yet commanding, purposeful presence, cruised out with amazing speed but beautiful inaction. No tail beats, undulating body or flared fins. It moved like a shark. Commanding, terrifying, predatory movement. I saw teeth, a yellow-white mouth, gill flare. I was on.
The Gen Black loaded hard and the fish dove over the drop off. Line peeled off the reel in constant, heavy pressure. Everything about this fish was very deliberate. I had uttered my usual involuntary “yep!” at the hookup and dad, seeing the bend in my rod, had dropped his mid retrieve and grabbed his big salmon net as he raced over. The first turn of the fish brought it back to the surface and it breached, showing a heavy-set back and big boof head. I think I let out a tense laugh and “it’s a pretty big one”. Dad agreed in the same nervous manner. The fish dove again and pulled another few feet of line in a determined way, before meandering back and forth in front of us.
I had seen the hook set and knew that it was in the very tip of the upper lip. With this in mind I gently applied steering pressure to swim the fish in front of us and quieten it down. A little more oomph and she turned towards us and glided through a gap in the weeds. Dad had the net ready and performed his ghillie duties as a seasoned veteran. Rod tip down, fish swims down with the release of pressure, and it was in the net. Now it was OK to cheer.
We released her, a beautiful pre-spawning female, after a few photos. Running at 106cm and 26lb 2oz, she was – to our current knowledge – the heaviest fish caught in the river. My uncle was not impressed when he heard the news, but it has definitely fuelled his enthusiasm to find a bigger one. We will see!
The day went from strength to strength, after a relaxing breakfast revelling in the mornings events. The Pixy performed well and I had a missed take in a very deep eddy in a downstream section of river, before another take that seemingly spat the hook. Retrieving the lure, I spotted the fish cruising behind it. Taking a leaf from North American pike fishermen I’d seen on YouTube, I started swimming the lure back and forth in front of me, only a rod length out. The fish followed back and forth, then apparently saw me and darted off. Then it was back. Then it darted away again. Again it cruised into view and pursued the lure. I paused momentarily at the end of a sweep and it made a dash and swallowed it! If only I had had the GoPro on! This was another prime condition fish and 6lb 6oz.
To top things off, we made a last minute run to a hidden lochan rumoured to be crawling with little trout. Dad was soon hooked up on a spinner, while I tried to make sense of a fly rod. Managing to crash land my fly into the water somewhere a few metres in front of me, I waited, wondering what I was supposed to do next. To my great surprise, a fish leapt out and took the fly. Not a big fish by any means, but my first to a fly rod. Starting to get the hang of casting, I stalked over to where I had seen a fish rise and put the fly out as best I could. Just as I was considering a re-cast, another cracking little brown attacked and was brought to hand.
We did fish the next day, our last before heading down to northern England and other pursuits, but to no avail. That being said, I really wasn’t trying too hard. With the fish I had already caught, my 2014 Scottish wishlist had been fulfilled. Looking at the river, I wondered where my big girl was. Hopefully terrorising some unfortunate duck or something. But now that we know the river can provide for fish of her size, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that there are bigger ones lurking somewhere.
Maybe next time.