Any angler who sees a fair bit of the country inevitably ends up with a head full of unfulfilled plans. Every time we travel and see a pretty river or lake, we think “I’ll fish there one day”. Too often we don’t. Which is why I was delighted to be invited for a day ticket session at Blenheim Palace.
I’d first spied the place at one of the summer game fairs and thought it looked beautiful. Nor does it lose any of its charm in the depths of winter. It’s a bloody dream, in fact. Crazy statues and Victorian follies. Stupendously ambitious Capability Brown landscaping and so much decadence you wonder if the rowboat will have an anchor made of gold.
To be frank, it looks like one of those places you usually aren’t allowed near unless your dad owns half a county or you have the right pals. So, how fantastic to find day tickets for riff raff such as myself (click here for day tickets, season dates and other info). I mean, just look at the boat house (above). Usually, the fisheries I visit have messages like “no fires, littering or killing fish/wildlife/each other”, not “May thy craft glide gently on as years roll down the stream”.
In truth, I owe the invite to Gary Brookfield, an angler and fellow book lover I’d met when doing a talk for Worcester Fly Dressers. He only had to waft the bait of a day on Blenheim in front of me, in fact, and I bit. I’d half expected to spend a day pike fly fishing, but with the weather being cold and him knowing some nice deep spots where the fish can usually be found, we opted for dead baits.
I know what you’re thinking… but you’re a fly fishing addict? Why not search the whole damned lake? Well, in this case there were perhaps two factors. First, local knowledge should never be dismissed with methods and locations. Second, I quite fancied a lazy day for a change. After all, I’ve walked miles in recent weeks for only the occasional jack on the fly at home. Perhaps you can forgive me then, for wanting to park my backside and relax.
A slower pace of pike fishing
My approach to bait fishing for pike has changed over the years. I once would fish no more than half an hour per spot, being raised on canals and small rivers. But on bigger, harder waters, I am now of the opinion you can be better off staying put for an hour or two minumum, at least if you know where the pike are likely to show up.
In fact, the bigger and the deeper the water, the more I tend to wait it out, provided I’m confident the area is a good one. The pike on larger lakes certainly travel quite long distances, and if your bait is right on a dropoff or depth line they are likely to patrol, it can be a matter of waiting for a fish to come past.
Gary was confident anyway, and I’m never one to diss local knowledge. An old river bed runs right through Blenheim Lake, with the bottom dropping away nice and deep. And so we found a nice sloping bit of lakebed and cast around, float fishing for the most part- although I decided to watch one rod on float and leger another, trying a popped up bait. The other advantage of the leger is that you can try a swimfeeder full of chopped fish or oily groundbait, which can be handy on tough days.
We moved little during the session, once we had a spot we were confident in, right on a drop off. I guess you can choose to chase after fish, or let them come to you. And in good company, the waiting itself can be enjoyable. I fielded one pressing phone call before silencing the damned contraption and relaxing. And what a different world we were in, beyond our usual midweek jobs and the traffic of Oxford. We watched kites soar on the wind and water birds dive. We talked books and music and the joys and troubles of the current fishing scene.
The minutes and hours drifted by agreeably and smoothly. The fact that the bite arrived as we were totally relaxed only seemed to add extra drama, as things went from tranquil to crazy in seconds. First, Gary got a run and struck firmly. To his shock and mine, his old pike rod suddenly shattered in the butt section with a crunch, while the pike continued to race off.
A bit frenetically, I held the broken rod top as Gary reeled to keep in touch. But if that wasn’t enough drama, my legered rod then fizzed off, the baitrunner clicking away with another fish! It seemed to have hooked itself, but not got a decent hold though, because as it came towards the boat I lost it.
Meanwhile, Gary was wrestling with a combination of two bits of carbon plus angry pike, plus net. Getting other lines clear, I helped him land a nice looking pike, not so long but bright looking and solidly built. It was a beautifully marked double and, even the strangely crunched rod couldn’t kerb his enthusiasm.
Third time lucky?
With a cloudy afternoon, I still felt like conditions were ok for another run. Gary explained to me that Blenheim isn’t an easy or prolific water- but the fish were often a nice size when you did contact them. Not silly trout water size, but often doubles.
My confidence has, admittedly, been low of late. Recent fishing had been poor, even on my reliable local waters. I guess writing columns and articles I have to maintain a healthily optimistic bluster, but in reality my level of belief bounces up and down as much as the appetites of the fish. And just as you can get on a roll where you can do little wrong in fishing, you can also get to that dangerous mindset where you are almost expecting to fail.
At least the lake was beautiful and Gary was the best of company. In his own words it’s “a bit of a gamble” to spend a whole day in a boat with a partial stranger. But we had plenty of stories to swap and a similarly laid back temperament. I always find resourceful anglers’ gear interesting to make a few notes on too- Gary not only had a DIY double boat rodrest, but a very welcome gas hand warmer. It’s always refreshing to meet a practical angler in this age of off the shelf fishing and chucking away rather than fixing things. Incidentally, he’s already planning to fix the rod he accidentally “converted” into some kind of pike swingtip.
Meanwhile, I’d been adding a bit of chopped up old bait, but had almost accepted the chance might be gone. Inevitably though, it’s when your hope starts to waver that the next bite arrives. The float popped, wandered, then disappeared. The rod hooped and thankfully didn’t shatter this time. But what a weird fight. The fish seemed to kite and shudder madly. It then rushed towards the boat so quickly I temporarily thought I’d lost it.
The line then tightened again and after another odd, slanting run, I got the upper hand and managed to bundle it into the net. Bizarrely, it was no longer even connected to the hook and somehow I had landed the fish by lassoing it! No wonder it had fought weirdly. Other than being a bit confused though, it was no worse for wear and at low double figures again, I was made up.
Another hour or so and the idea of a warm pub started competing with the idea of getting another run, and eventually it won. Besides, one of the disadvantages of fishing many reservoirs and estate lakes is that the rules mean you can’t fish from the crack of dawn or stay right till the bitter end. Not that these habits are always good for our health.
Would we have caught more by roving the whole lake then? I’m not sure. Had the pike really been “on it” perhaps we would. But two other duos had struggled on the fly doing that. Quite a few fish were following and having a look, we heard, but they were infuriatingly hard to convince. Perhaps the best way to catch one really was to lasso it then? Who knows, it was a nice feeling after a fairly testing spell of winter piking.
More bloggage coming up soon, but should you fancy some more reading material on pike and other subjects, my Far Bank column is still going strong in Angling Times, while you can also read a whole selection of my favourite pike fishing stories in the pages of Tangles With Pike.