Pike season, of course, is long over, so I'm late in putting this up. But Spring is being a real dick, with March and April already having slid by, and me barely fishing and not having any rad catches to show. Straight Rods Syndrome is never pleasant, and, especially at this time of year, when things are supposed to come alive, it causes my mindscape to fold in on itself, even as it expands into flat, circular nothingness. However, as it does so, memories and images from this past winter revive my soul again. Memories and images that I hope you, friends, will enjoy too.
This winter season was maybe the strangest one since my buddies and I have been deep into deadbaiting. I had just built a new heavy rod, to replace the one I'd so handily broken last year, and redone the one that I'd managed to keep intact. I was very pleased with the results; they were much nicer than they had been. It felt like I had two new rods! I even took the leap of naming my instruments. Of course there was no way I was going to name them after the Pike, the intended quarry, and destroy any chance of ever landing one. I'd learned that lesson some years ago. But naming them after two favorite baitfish seemed safe (and cool) enough.
Big thanks to my man D.T. for the shell casings
Previous years had taught us that the early part of deadbait season is usually most productive, November and Decemer being the months with the best catches. Late October has more than once given a good acount of itself, too, when the right chill was in the air. It was with tremulous anticipation, then, that my buddy Olof and I met at the MGD in late October, for our first try of the new season. The first session had delivered in the years before, so hopes were decent.
The hours passed, and the only critters to touch our baits were the dread Chinese Mitten Crabs. They can be real mood ruiners, for a style of fishing that, on the pits we frequent, gives up one bite per session on a good day. The only catch of this day was a Zippy that I somehow managed to hook.
No action on the first session, then. And no action on the second session, either. Or the third. Before we knew it, we'd fished through November. Four sessions at the MGD. Blank.
Two tries at the ZP. Not a beep.
One attempt at the VM. A new spot, that sure feels like it has potential. It ticks all the boxes, but all that touched my bait was a hellish crab. We will definitely be putting more hours in there, though. It has the feel of Bigness Lurking.
Seven biteless sessions. OK, we're talking sandpit deadbaiting here, but shit. Seven tries without a touch, to start the season? That is tough. Fuckiness. Doubt. Maybe I shouldn't have named my rods... Or maybe the new reels (I'd upgraded to a pair of larger ones, to fit more of that heavy braid on) were the reason. They have single handles, after all... Doubt. Fuckiness. Nothing for it but to trust in bait, technique and spots, and keep at it, with a careful hope that things would turn. And turn they did.
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December 16th found us on the MGD again. Doing the same thing, hoping for different results. Sandpit deadbaiting calls for a certain mindset. Resigned, definitely not expectant, but also definitely not hopeless. Because there's always a chance. It is, though, best to almost pretend you're not fishing. Sure, there are four rods out there, but what do those have to do with anything? While solo outings are great, and sometimes even preferred, for some types of fishing, deadbaiting is best done with a buddy, for the reasons mentioned above. You can just hang out and have a talk, watch the birds, and breathe in the crisp air, as the hours ooze together and glide by. It's easier to put more hours in when there's somebody to talk to.
This December day felt perfect. But then, so had the previous days we'd been out. I had a sardine out on my "Sardinha" rod, and a whiting on my "Masbango" rod. Whiting are just as great a bait as masbango (horse mackerel), but "Whiting" is not a very sexy name for a rod, is it?
The morning was not yet over, when one of my old trusty Carpsounders let off a few beeps. The first beep or three were met with some skepticism by us, after the crabbery of sessions previous, but it quickly became evident that this was an actual fish! A crab dicking around with the big baitfish will yield several single beeps, at regular intervals, and the line will almost never be pulled from under the rubber band. So, whenever you get those first few single beeps, you don't want to get your hopes up. But, on this occasion, more beeps came, and they were more determined. A bite! I walked, did not run(!), to my rods, and saw that it was the Masbango rod where the 50 lb braid was curling off the spool. Something down there had gobbled up the big, juicy whiting. I took the rod from the pod, and walked along the dock a ways, as the fish slowly took line, to get a bit closer for the strike. But there's never any real waiting, with the rigs we use (unless it's a really weird and fucky bite that makes you doubt its realness, and the realness of all things true and tangible), so after a few seconds I closed the bail, let the fish tighten the line, and made contact. How wondrously liberating it felt, after all those blank sessions. It was clearly a good one, judging by the weight, but the fight was not very spectacular. I suppose, too, that I still had the savagely strong, True Northern Pike of the Northwest Territories too fresh and vividly in my mind. Soon, I got the fish close, and when first she showed herself in the clear water by the dock, both Olof and I were taken aback by what looked to be an exquisitely marked Pike. Exquisite, even for this water, which is "nationally known" for its difficult, but extra beautiful and thick Pike. I slid her over the waiting net, and the first prize of this winter season was finally mine.
The greyish light was perfect for some sweet photos, and she even posed by flaring her dorsal in defiance. She measured 101 cm. That would do very nicely.
With bites being so rare, our rule for winter deadbaiting is that one good Pike landed between the two of us makes for a successful session. So I was certainly not expecting another bite. But I was also, somehow, not surprised when it came. This time, it was the Sardinha rod. Something had nabbed the sardine, a smaller and much softer baitfish, so even less waiting. I leaned into it, and once again felt that splendid, solid weight. More weight than the previous Pike, it seemed, but in the first few seconds you can never really tell. But, the closer I got her, the heavier she became, and that's always a good sign. The first glimpse we caught of her was a bit deceving, and even when she was in the net, I was struggling to get an idea of her size. When I went to lift the net, and felt her true weight, I realized her voluminous girth must have made her look short.
107 cm she was, with a huge head and even more imposing belly. Her color was rich and deep, but not quite as striking as her predecessor's.
Shoutout to my man Big Ben with this photo
Two Pike of over 100 cm in one session! That is a rare treat, that I've only enjoyed a few times. And as this hefty lady swam away, her tail swilrls washed away my doubts and thoughts of blank days.
No further action was had, but the sheep came by to see what we were up to.
One of my favorite "side feelings" in angling is riding home after a memorable session. Much more so than driving home in a car. Better to breathe the air of the waning winter day. Better to feel the weight of my loaded, big backpack on my shoulders. Better to have my rods and net resting on my handlebar, as I pedal home in the afterglow. Better to still have my mind mostly by the water. Still there, from the day that's been, and already there, for the next attempt.
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Buoyed by this splendid showing, I was eager to get back to the MGD. In the words of Shelly "The Machine" Levene: "All you need, a little boost, you turn a streak around. Am I right? Good, huh? Huh, good?" This time, Pieter joined me, and cast his baits where Olof would normally place his. As I watched him fling out the salty corpses, I remember thinking he would have done better to put the right one out bit farther, but I decided to shut up about it. Olof hadn't had any luck far out, so maybe a change would bring a chance. And so it did. The morning fog had not yet lifted, when Pieter's right bite alarm sounded with some very promising beeps. Pieter carefully, but deliberately strolled over. You don’t want to tempt fate, running over the slippery boards of the dock, plus I'm paranoid about running jinxing the bite, ever since I had one quit on me. Anyway, Pieter picked up his stick, and connected. The Pike, it seemed, was not fully awake yet, because after a rather tame fight it was ready for the net. We could tell it would not make 100 cm, but it was another marvellous looking specimen, typical of this water. She stretched the tape to 93 cm, and was surely photo-worthy. Pieter had a bit of a hard time holding the fish in a nice pose, but here she is.
We took turns going for strolls along the bank. Always good to get the blood flowing a little, on these winter days, and break up the time spent trying not to think of getting a bite. Also, with water on three of four sides, you never know what you might find on the shoreline. Pieter was rewarded with a pretty damn neat crankbait, and I came back with a pot that looked sure to have some rupees or a potion, maybe even a fairy, in it, but was sadly empty.
The day wore on, and the wind picked up, clearing out the last of the fog. The Sun was already approaching the trees to our left, when it was my left rod that was called into action. Another session with two bites?! Were the fish making up for lost time, after the blank November? It was my "Masbango" rod, but once again the bait was no masbango, but a weever. Weevers are long, and very solid, so I gave the fish a few more seconds before I gave 'er the onions. And so, still riding the high from my last outing, I was again connected to what felt like a very good Pike. The fight was much stronger than that of Pieter's fish, but when my prize came into view, it looked to be about the same size. Once in the net, it looked to be about exactly the same size. In fact, it was exactly the same size. In fact, it was the same fish. That was a new one. We've had a good amount of recaptures at this spot (strikingly many, actually, considering the amount of water out there), but never in the same day. I didn't mind at all, as it was a very good fish, and new to me. Also, this gave us a second chance to get a nice photo of her. The light was much nicer now, and the fish much more obliging. She gave us a good pose, and was quickly sent on her way, no doubt tired of us humans, disturbing her day twice.
Back to back sessions with action. Good stuff.
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The weather turned nasty for a few days after this, but it calmed down in time for Pieter and myself to be back out there the very next week. Could we make it three successful outings in a row? I had picked up a tasty load of masbangos at the market, which meant that I could now actually bait my "Masbango" rod with its namesake. Surely, that had to bring some extra mojo. Sure enough, that rod got hit, but the culprit was too small to measure or photograph. I doubt the fish would have made 80 cm. Still, it was a fish. Action again. The streak lived on.
No more bites came that day, but we were treated to a special visit, when an honest to goodness Loon emerged from a dive right in front of the dock. That's a rare bird on this side of the Atlantic, and I'd never seen one over here before. Of course it quickly moved on, and there was no chance at all of getting a photo, but we took turns admiring it through the binoculars I always bring on deadbait outings.
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Now that the Pike were active and in the area, we had to make it count, so Olof and I were out again at the very next opportunity. Again, I baited "Masbango" with a masbango, and cast it out to the deepest section, way on the left. Again, it was that rod that brought the beeps. Again, I connected. If the rig is right, it’s extremely rare to miss a bite. Good thing, too, because with bites so few and far between, and the high likelihood of the biters being big, you do not want to blow any chances. "Masbango" is slightly the heavier of my two deadbait rods, but here she was made to bend deeply again. Solid, lazy resistance on the other end. After a few slow, grudging runs, a peculiar looking Pike came into view in the clear water. She had the massive body of a 110, and felt like one, too, but her head looked more fit for a 90. I'm useless enough at guesstimating, and sure wasn't going to try with this one. Once in the net, she didn't look any less odd. But she had to make 100, right? Or not? Well, just barely: 100 cm exactly.
Four successful sessions in a row, I could hardly believe my luck. This was shaping up to be a swell winter season, after all. I was, however, starting to feel a little bad that the Pike seemed to only find my baits, while Olof's alarms stayed silent. Usually, the catches even out over the course of the season, but he'd had a lousy one last year, and this one hadn't started out any better. Nothing for it but to keep trying, though, so we vowed to be at it again as soon as conditions would allow.
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Temperatures took a dive, and the days turned windy, so we were made to wait for our next attempt. There was even the odd night of white stuff, albeit very little of it.
On the one hand, hitting the same spot again and again was starting to feel a little itchy, and I really wanted to give other areas a try, too. On the other hand, I'd be a fool to ignore the MGD, when it was being so good to me. The easterly breeze made the decision even easier. "Gonna be cold" I messaged to Olof, the evening before our next scheduled date. "Yep," was his reply. The forecast promised that the temperature would stay well below freezing all day, but it would be a calm one. We couldn't wait. I dug up the acid-free vaseline, to treat the guides with, so that the line wouldn't freeze to them. Can't have that, with a freeline setup. Can't have the only bite of the day quitting, because the fish can't take line.
As I rode to the MGD through the frost-muffled dawn, I noted that all the canals and smaller waterways I passed on the way were frozen shut, as expected. I wasn't worried; it takes a lot for the deep sandpits to ice over. If anything, it added to the atmosphere. On my midnight bike ride, just a few hours earlier, I had seen and said hello to two foxes. A rare treat. Not all my rides take me through Fox territory, and when I do ride there, I'll see one maybe every third ride on average. Not the rarest of occasions, then, but always a happy moment. Two sightings on the same ride is exceptional, and I felt there could be no doubt that this was a good omen.
I met Olof at the spot, and we breathed deeply of the frosty haze as we rigged up and chose our baits. Barely noticable specks of white floated through the air around us. There was that stillness that only occurs on midwinter dawns. The east-facing side of everything was coated in delicate needles of frost. The water lay before us, near mirror-calm, with just the gentlest ripple creasing it from time to time. It felt like the best morning.
As soon as our large baits were on the bottom, we poured ourselves some of Olof's splendid soup. Loaded with goodness, including my first modest harvest of peppers, it's a staple of our winter sessions. Does well in the boat on summer nights at the Wels spot, too. With the first mug gone, I opened my large bottle of chocolate milk, and got right into that. I was struck by how right my renewed rods looked, resting on the pod. Made for mornings like this.
Late morning, "Masbango" (baited with, what else, a masbango) was roused again. Of course it was, on a day like this one. Solid, irregular, determined beeps called me over, and I was extra careful on what was now the Magical White Dock, not the Magical Green Dock. The line was easing through the greased up guides with no sign of trouble. Go Time. Once again, I had cast this bait out way to the left, so, as the fish took line, I walked and reeled with it a bit, to get closer for the moment of truth, and to hopefully avoid a mussle bank or two.
I set the hooks into what felt like a slab of concrete. None of this "you can never quite tell in the first few seconds" stuff; this was straight Monster weight, from second one. Little bursts of frost exploded from the guides and reel, as the tension mounted and the Pike ripped through the drag. "Masbango" showed us her deepest, most earnest, living curve. Neither Olof nor I spoke. Deep she stayed, for the longest time, and her furious weight seemed only to increase. But I was getting her closer, ever so slowly. Then came that part of the fight when the line points almost straight down, and the anticipation becomes almost too much to take. When would she show herself? And how? Would she come up submarine style, or would she flank? She flanked. And it was Glory flanking. Faced with Glory, I could only say: "That really looks ... really good..." She ran again, not far, but deep. Having seen her, of course, breathing became a bit of a chore for me, for the rest of the ordeal. When she showed herself again, we could see that she was hooked semi-fuckily. While one treble looked to have a solid hold, right in the corner, the other hung free. There would be only one chance to get it right with the net. Her look told us she was not quite done, so Olof held off on lowering the net. She thrashed, and thrashed again. The treble that looked to have a solid hold shifted, just a little. It had to be now. Olof got down, and made sure the net was completely wet, then stuck it down as deep as he could. I slid her over the waiting mesh. Olof lifted in one fluent motion. She exploded, and of course the free treble immediately caught in the net, but she was in there.
It wasn't over yet, though. The treble was caught near the edge of the net, which meant the Pike's head was dangerously close to the edge, too. She came horribly close to torpedoing out in anger, so I grabbed the bolt cutters and cut the leader. Now she rested safely, but still angrily, deep in my big net. Now she was mine.
Keeping her in the net, in the water, I freed her of the one treble that had brought me Glory, and it was then, with all scariness passed, that I began to shake. I lifted her out, and gently placed her on the soft grass. The net froze within a second. So did my hands. Time for the tape. It seems trivial to have to reduce such a sublime creature to a number, but I had to know. I knew already that, whatever her measurement in numbers, she was the best Pike I'd ever caught. I managed to unroll the tape, but couldn't stretch, or even feel it with my frozen fingers. After three or four pitiful attempts, Olof took over, with his dry hands. 120. The Dream Line. I'd caught one Pike, a few years ago, at the same spot, that was one centimetre longer and a good bit heavier. But this one was better. With her immense, shovel-like head and pointed lower jaw, her exquisite markings and flawless scales, and her magnificent, but not decadent girth, this one was better. For several more reasons unnameable and inexplicable, this one was better.
I carried her back to the water, to let her rest in the net, while Olof readied the camera. Posing proved quite the ordeal. My arms and legs felt like they were not my own, and my wet, frozen hands would not do my bidding, and were starting to hurt quite a bit. Fortunately, Olof has a great eye, and he snapped away steadily for a few seconds. He assured me there were a few home runs in there.
Then, it was time to say good bye.
She lingered for a few seconds, by the rocks, then lazily swam out of view. I was left speechless. Filled not with a sense of achievement or accomplishment, but amazement and awestruck gratitude. I picked myself up, and stumbled up the bank. Olof and I fell into a manly anglers' hug, and, as soon as my hands wanted to move again, I tied on a new leader, rebaited and recast. I sent images and ecstatic messages to friends on the other side of the ocean, though I knew they were not awake yet. Not even Uncle Pat. I did these things, but I don't remember doing them.
It didn't seem right that I should get another bite, but I did. On the same rod. Olof couldn't help but grumble a little, and I couldn't blame him. Surely, it was his turn, had been his turn for a long time. I remember nothing at all of the bite, or the hook set, or the fight, but moments later another beautiful Pike lay in the net. A very familiar looking Pike. 100 cm exactly. A few quick photos, and she was on her way. I checked the images, did some zooming and scrolling, and sure enough, it was the same Smallhead Bigbody of the previous session who had come to see me again.
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Somehow, without ever talking about it, it got to be the way of things that Olof always fishes the right half of the MGD, and I the left. Altogether, the bites and catches are pretty even, but with all the bites coming on my side this season, we decided to change the approach. From now on, we'd switch sides every session. If nothing else, it would break up the routine a bit.
Our next time out, then, Olof set up on the left, and I on the right. The reel I'd caught Glory on had developed a slight malfunction, and was out of comission for this session. A good excuse to break out another beauty that I don't often use. "This is a bad luck reel, though," I joked, as I rigged up. "Haven’t caught anything good on it yet." I'd scored some fresh bait at the market, including some great looking herrings. Those are not often available, and I had great confidence in them.
Out went a herring on the "Sardinha" rod, with the interim reel on it. Of course that rod got the bite of the day, the first time Olof and I had switched sides. Of course I connected to a heavy fish, and then lost it, on that bad luck reel. That makes sense. I was OK with losing that fish, weird as it was. Fortunately, it's a rare occurence, with this style of fishing. It turned out the leader had somehow wrapped back on itself, pretty much masking the hook points. That was a first. The fuckiest part was that we'd decided to switch sides, because all the bites had been coming on my side, and right away that bite comes on the side that Olof normally fishes. Add to this that the time I fished with Pieter, he caught a Pike on "Olof's side." That's a mindfuck and a half.
Next time out, I was on the left again. I got a bite again. On a herring. I connected, and brought in a Pike of maybe 80 cm. We didn't even pick up the net, and I poinked it off in the water. Looking back, I wish I would have gotten a quick photo, for completeness' sake.
The time after this, with me on the right again, the mindfuckery continued. I got a bite, on a herring, and lost another fish that felt very good. Shit. Later, Olof got a good bite, but somehow set the hooks into a snag. That never happens. He got his rig in, but no Pike. Obviously, I was bummed about losing another good fish, but I could live with it, still riding te high of my dream catch. Olof, it seemed, was cursed. With a bit more luck, this last session on the MGD of the season would have been a great one, with a Pike each.
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By now, we were into February, and the weather had turned unstable. The winds were wrong, and too strong to visit the MGD anymore, but Pieter and I found a day to try at the ZP. Our desired spot was taken, so we set up at a sexy little point. Pieter cast into an abyss where he'd caught a nice one the season before, and I placed my rods right at a corner that always looked and felt perfect, but where I'd never yet had a bite.
The drop-off makes a U-shape there, and is so steep, that just a gentle flick of a few rod lengths got my sardine to a promising depth. I cast out my other bait straight from the point, and we positioned Pieter's shelter with its back to the wind, to sit out the morning storms. The morning passed, blustery and biteless. It calmed down in the afternoon, and it was then that I got some very hesitant beeps on my left rod. So hesitant, that at first I didn't even get up. Then came silence, so maybe it was nohing, indeed. No, more hesitant beeps. The line hadn't even been pulled from under the rubber band yet, but there are no crabs in this water, so it had to be something. I picked up my rod, and tried to feel what I could feel. Nothing... No... Something? Maybe..? Yes, definitely something there. With much uncertainty, I set the hooks into the strangeness, and connected. There was not much weight there, at all. Maybe it was just a little Pike. That might explain the strange bite. Up came a rather raggedy looking Pike, that was not as small as I was expecting. 93 cm, and not the prettiest, but a welcome vistor.
I rebaited with a weever, and put it right in the U again. Amazingly, I didn't have long to wait for it to get gobbled up. Another very hesitant bite, but again I connected. This one felt a bit better. In the clear depths, we spied another odd looking Pike. Very thin, especially for this time of year, but with beautiful, striking colors. She had that purplish hue about her gills that you sometimes see, but it doesn't really show up in the photo.
This was a hungry Pike; when I went to free her of the hooks, I found the tail sections of two or three other baitfish, in various states of digestion, sticking from her throat. Thin though she was, she seemed to have the head of a 100. Sure enough, the tape put her at 102 cm. Good show.
The weever was still intact, so I put it right back out there. Soon, it was getting to be time to leave, so Pieter went to get the car. While he was gone, I unhurriedly started packing up, and was startled by a ripping run on my left rod. The fish was taking line like a Wels or an Eel, not a winter Pike. There are no Wels in this water, and an Eel would be almost unheard of, at this time of year, on such a big bait. Confusing... Might it be the Sturgeon that lives in this pit? Rumor had it that it would run with the bait like this... One way to find out. I leaned into it, and connected not to a 5 foot beast, but the same 93 cm Pike of earlier in the day. Another same day recapture. And a 93 again, just like earlier in the season.
A strange ending to a strange session, to end a strange deadbait season. Never before have the catches been so unfairly distributed. The unfairness was in my favor, and it was one of my best winter seasons. I'm more than happy with that, but it's always the most fun when everybody is catching stuff. Who knows what next winter will bring? In some ways, I'm already looking forward to November...