Fishing Lines: Legend of giant pike could grow and grow

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THE THREE largest pike recorded in Fred Buller's seminal work, The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike, all weighed over 90lb and were all taken in Ireland. In fact, 15 of Buller's top 25 are Irish fish. From this, you might reasonably conclude that the Emerald Isle is a middling good bet if you want to catch a whopper. No more, alas.

These days, your chances of catching a 90-pounder are about as good as your chances of being voted king of the planet Zog within the next five seconds. Buller himself is slightly sceptical about that top three. The largest, at 92lb, had grounded itself in shallow water and was killed by two men with an oar. A great yarn (remember, we're talking Ireland here), but it happened in 1832.

The runner-up (90lb 8oz) fell to John Naughton from Lough Derg in 1862, while No 3 was found dead at Meelick Lock on the river Shannon, measured by "a German engineer" (hence, I suppose, absolute precision), and was 5ft 61/2in long. It was reported in The Field, which calculated the fish at about 90lb, though Buller believes nearer 80lb would be more accurate. The bad news? It all happened in 1926. See? Nothing within the past 70 years, and you have to doubt the accuracy of the scales used in 1832.

Small wonder that Buller himself says: "A pike of more than 60lb may never be caught again. It is likely that such a weight can only be achieved in a lake or river where a pike - already large by ordinary standards - is able to prey on large runs of salmon and sea trout moving to and from their spawning grounds." Blame who or what you like - global warming, cormorants, indiscriminate high-seas netting, Railtrack - but that rich food source has all but disappeared.

To make it worse, the Irish haven't exactly been helping themselves to preserve their legendary pike. On the big loughs and rivers, both in the north and south, heavy netting has been taking place for years to cull pike in the belief that this will improve salmon and trout stocks by removing the predators.

This theory falls down for two reasons: it's impossible to catch every pike, and the result of removing big pike is an explosion of little ones. Small pike have no predators except big pike. Don't you just love the way that man always thinks he knows best? Nature, of course, has had a lot more practice at sorting these things out.

We saw the results of man's interference on Lough Erne in Fermanagh last week. The Angling Writers' Association conference takes place there in March, so a select party visited the venue, the Duke of Abercorn's beautiful estate at Belle Isle, Lisbellaw, to see if it was good enough to accommodate 30 or 40 fishing writers for a weekend. (As most of them would think a tent with a groundsheet was good living, it was no surprise that we gave Belle Isle the thumbs-up. We had our own cook, for goodness sake.)

There's no salmon or trout fishing at this time of year, but we were told there were some pike around. That's probably a fair description. In just two days and a few hours before we reluctantly departed, the four of us caught 73 pike. The fishing was so spectacular that the Norfolk pike ghillie Richard Furlong took our cook, Romayne, out in the boat and she landed three pike, the first she has ever caught.

The biggest weighed 27lb 8oz, caught by the film-maker Andy Nicholson. Now that's a pretty big pike, and when it gets feeding in preparation for spawning, it will weigh closer to 35lb (just about in time for our conference). But that one was an exception. Most weighed between 5lb and 8lb. There were so many small pike, we moved dozens of times in the hope of finding a few bigger fish. The next largest was 12lb.

All because, until a couple of years back, the fisheries board was culling pike. That big 'un was one of the lucky ones to survive, but it was a clear example of what happens if you take away the top of the food chain. On the other hand - as long as the board doesn't interfere - there could be a lot of big Erne pike in a couple of years. Pike are more than twice as efficient as trout and plaice at converting food into weight and grow fast. But they will have to eat an awful lot of pike to reach 90lb.