Fishing Lines: A nasty taste in the mouth

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I FEEL very sorry for the Tewkesbury father of three who appears in court next month, accused of catching out-of-season pike to feed his family. Fishing during the close season should be punished with the full force of the law - but anyone forced to eat pike deserves the magistrates' sympathy.

It appears that Alan Soden was caught by National River Authority bailiffs in May with a 25lb pike. Out-of-work Soden, who is scheduled to appear in court on 2 November, told the Daily Star that his family were down to a bag of rice and their last two tins of peas and sweetcorn. He said: 'Catching the fish was a matter of survival. We got three days' meals out of that pike.'

Soden deserves some credit for catching a pike that big in the first place. (It's bigger than any I've caught.) But he is clearly not a habitual pike poacher, for he caught two other pike that day, and returned them 'because they were too small'. He would have done better keeping the small pike and returning the big one. Pike generally are about as yummy as a bowl of Complan, but large ones are not only tasteless and bony but tough too.

I know that quenelles de brochet is a familiar feature on French menus, but even if we ignore the fact that the French will eat anything (they think roach and bream are delicious as well), pike need a great deal of preparation before they are anywhere near edible. Many recipes call for soaking the fish for 24 hours to remove a muddy taste (although I am unable to detect any taste at all). Others recommend salting the fillets.

Anton Mosimann's Fish Cuisine has several recipes, but even the master chef admits that the fish may have 'a muddy taste' and warns: 'Huge quantity of tiny soft disagreeable bones, vertical and fork-like.' In any case, I am not sure if Soden's hungry family would have been satisfied with Mosimann's delicate terrine de poisson aux asperges blanches, which needs such everyday items as lobster eggs, black truffles, thin white asparagus, flat-leaf parsley and kipper pate.

It appears that the 25-pounder, a specimen that many dedicated pike anglers never achieve, ended up in a stew. Possibly Soden tried Pike a la Genevese, a recipe from Mrs Beeton's Dictionary of Cooking. But even the Victorians, great fish-eaters, didn't care much for pike.

If you are determined to eat pike, there should be plenty of small ones available. The present fishery thinking is that it is better to remove small pike and leave the big ones, even in trout waters. Pike are cannibalistic, and big pike prey on small ones. As Irish trout loughs have learnt to their cost, taking out the large fish results in an explosion of 'jack' pike, which no longer have any enemies. Then the small ones eat the trout anyway.

(Interestingly, all big pike are females. Males rarely grow larger than 7lb. And they die young. Soden's supper would probably have been about seven years old; a carp of that size could be 40 or more.)

I'm not sure what will happen to Soden. But if the magistrates really want to punish him, I can think of few things worse than being sentenced to eating pike once a week.