Angling: Chain up your pike

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Izaak Walton declared that his recipe for pike (basic ingredients include oysters, anchovies and claret) was "a dish of meat too good for any but anglers, or very honest men". Sounds like a dish fit for Finland, where a decent meal is generally adjudged by how little of the plate is still showing when food is served. However, this is not the place to argue over the old rascal's culinary talents. More to the point is the precision or otherwise of Walton's prose. I am convinced that The Compleat Angler has suffered inevitable corruption and that originally he wrote "for anglers and very dishonest men".

I'm not saying fishers are by nature dishonest. Others have done it for me. Queen Victoria's Inspector of Fisheries, Frank Buckland, once declared: "More lies have been told about pike than any other fish." His claims are substantiated by William Senior, who wrote: "The pike is a most convenient fish for the exercise of imagination."

You will doubtless have spotted that the word "pike" keeps recurring. For some reason, pike and fibs go together like peaches and cream, Laurel and Hardy, Paul Gascoigne and early Byzantine church music. Now even the BBC is telling pikey porkie pies.

The most extreme example of a monster pike that wasn't is the Beast of Mannheim, whose painting still lurks forgotten in some back room of the Natural History Museum, in London. According to legend, the pike was planted in a lake by Emperor Frederick II in 1230, and finally removed from the lake in 1497. In 1558, Gesner put its weight at 350lb and its length at 19ft.

Impressive, huh? Early writers thought so, and took the tale as gospel. Stories circulated about Emperor Fred keeping the pike on a lead and taking it for walks (though no mention is made of it retrieving sticks). To substantiate it all, the fish's skeleton was preserved in Mannheim Cathedral for all to see and admire. Unfortunately, one unbeliever had the gall to examine its backbone - and found that the Emperor's pike had mysteriously acquired a number of extra vertebrae. Later, the American fishery biologist Keen Buss did a basic weight-for-length calculation, and worked out that the fish should have weighed about 3,000lb.

Still, let's not let the facts stand in the way of a good story. In its publicity for "Tales From the Riverbank", starting on BBC2 on 12 May, the BBC's list of did-you-knows include:

The biggest recorded pike weighed 92lb and was killed by being hit with an oar in the River Shannon 200 years ago.

Another Shannon monster, weighing 90lb, was found dead in 1926.

Ducks are often eaten by pike, not only ducklings but occasionally adults too. (That's the way they wrote it. Sounds like the police might be able to clear up quite a few missing persons cases by blaming disappearances on a man-eating pike.)

Fred Buller knows more about pike that anyone. His definitive The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike, published in 1979, listed all pike over 35lb and examined thoroughly every outlandish claim. He gives some credence to a 90lb 8oz pike taken from Lough Derg in 1862, but admits there is some discrepancy over the weight. However, pike are getting bigger, though there's some way to go before they tickle the ton. (The British record is only 46lb 8oz.) A Welsh reservoir, Llandegfedd in Gwent, has turned up the last two British records - for a strange reason.

The 430-acre reservoir is subject to severe variations in level. This often means pike spawn, deposited in shallow water, is killed. So the actual number of pike in the water is quite small. Hence, competition for food is less intense, so the fish grow big. Who would ever have thought that we would have drought and rapacious water authorities to thank for our giant pike?