Fishing Lines: Why big pike feed on greed

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The Independent Online
A STRANGE episode this week set me thinking about whether fish are really as bright as we anglers like to pretend.

Crediting a cod or carp with the intelligence of a nuclear physicists' conference does wonders for a fisherman's ego. When you don't catch anything, it's easy to blame your lack of success on the supernatural cunning of your quarry.

But the pike ghillie Richard Furlong may have blown that theory out of the bathtub. Furlong spends his life pottering around the Norfolk Broads, helping other people catch giant pike. He has even managed to lead me to a spot where I saw a bittern, a marsh harrier, and a peregrine falcon, and caught a snaggletooth of 26lb 8oz - though that's another story.

Anyway, last week he was pottering along a windswept river (easterly gales are born in Norfolk) when a 14lb pike took his customer's bait. Nothing very unusual in that. In the past four months, Furlong has led his clients to more than 100 pike topping 15lb. But what followed was very odd indeed.

Because pike are his living, Furlong treats them with reverence. He always fishes with barbless hooks; the fish are unhooked on a soft, padded mat so the little dears are not damaged, and carefully returned to the water.

Just a minute later, the float went under again. Hanging on the end was the self-same 14lb pike. You may wonder how he could tell, but those creamy blotches on the olive and gold flanks differ on every pike. Just as a sheep farmer can distinguish every one of his animals, so an experienced piker can recognise individual fish.

Furlong was surprised but not amazed. On at least two previous occasions, he has caught the same pike twice in a day, though never so quickly. However, when the fish had been put back, the float went under for a third time and, yes, you've guessed it. The same 14-pounder was hanging on the end.

'It didn't appear to be starving. It was a well-shaped fish that had obviously been feeling well,' he said. 'It was just very greedy.'

That should have been the end of the story. But it isn't. For when the fish was put back for the third time, it made straight for another bait that was still in the water. It was only because Furlong pulled the bait away quickly that the pike wasn't caught for a fourth time. 'Goodness

knows how many times we could have caught him,' he said.

It is not clear whether this constitutes three double-figure pike in a day for the angler concerned. More to the point: how can we credit fish with cunning, wit and street cred if they behave like this?

I have to admit to encountering similar happenings, though scarcely as blatant. On Denmark's river Guden, near Silkeborg, I caught roach so unworried about being confined that they continued to feed avidly while in the keepnet. As I sprinkled maggots to them, they competed to reach the grubs first. I blamed that on foreign fish seeing bait for the first time.

Then there was the occasion on the river Avon, in Hampshire, where I lost a big chub in the morning. Later that day, I returned to the same spot and caught it, but that was, after all, a greedy old chub. Not far away, on the lovely river Nadder, I caught a trout one afternoon that still had my lost fly from the morning in its mouth. Harder to explain, this, and I thought it was a million to one chance. Now I'm not so sure.

Game and sea anglers never notice this because a fish goes into the pot once it is caught. Coarse fishermen put their catches in a net, so the fish don't get the chance to feed again that day. But I'm beginning to suspect that the legend of the wily old trout is merely the product of anglers' fevered imaginations.

Almost all anglers reluctantly admit to similar yarns. But discussing an issue which shows fish may actually be as thick as school custard is akin to confessing that you're a train-spotter, or best friends with an MP.

Worrying, isn't it? Perhaps we can't blame a trout's acumen at spotting an imperfectly presented fly, or one that is not a perfect replica of the natural insect, for our own lack of success. Perhaps natural guile is, after all, not the reason that a pike has rejected a yummy chunk of dead fish. But if we can't bamboozle a creature that is unable to remember what happened 30 seconds ago, maybe the 'worm at one end and a fool at the other' theory isn't so far out.