Plugging for pike with Dylan Phillips

36 The River Nene at Lilford

Pitch a lure out on a slow, weed-fringed river and work it back thoughtfully. Hook a pike. Play it. Slip it back into the water. Watch it swim off. Go home happy. What could be easier?

The sad, unalterable truth is that it’s too simple: and much, much too cheap. There’s something in an angler, some inherent desire, that makes him want to complicate things endlessly – and spend a lot of money doing so.

Lure manufacturers understand this weakness and do their best to exploit it with a huge array of supposed fish-catchers, the sublime and the ridiculous. From the USA, enter the Triple Ripple Lizards, Whopper Stopper Throbbers, Hawg Dawgs, Cajun Critters, Manns Deep Pigs, Storm Wiggle Warts, Squirmin’ Grubs, Tickle Jigs, Bayou Boogies and countless others.

Ad men are guilty of giving not-so-subtle pressure: ‘If you didn’t catch ‘im on my unique new patented Pretty Pink Pants Squirmin’ Gizzard Grub, you didn’t really get ‘im at all, boy.’ Wallet in hand, many an angler leaps in head-first.

If Dylan Phillips has succumbed to the lure-bashing craze, he’s keeping it very quiet. His approach is refreshingly mini-malistic: just one tackle box full of Lucky 13s, Big-Os and Rapalas, a large net, a 9ft (2.7m) rod and a fixed-spool reel loaded with 12lb (5.4kg) line.

The River Nene at Lilford, high and slightly coloured because of recent rains, isn’t in its prime. In fact Dylan suspects a bit of untreated sewage may have washed in upriver. Despite this being his local water, he’s not too optimistic on this partly cloudy, windy day in September. ‘Lure fishing is for the summer and early autumn months because you have to find the fish, and it’s possible to cover a large area. The first frosts are when the small fry pack tightly into deeper, warmer water. I think that acts like a trigger for the pike to do likewise.’

Dylan selects a Big-0 and explores the head of an island off a small backwater. He casts to the point and retrieves slowly so the big lure doesn’t dive into the weed. With no takers he moves downstream.

He attaches a battle-scarred Heddon Lucky 13. ‘My absolute favourite for pike fishing. As you can see it’s a bit marked,’ he says, hurling it to the opposite bank and working it back slowly. The lure digs in and wobbles below the surface. It looks like a toy crocodile undulating through the water.

He stops — it bobs back up to the surface — and then continues reeling in at an irregular pace. He doesn’t just chuck it and wind it back thoughtlessly out of habit. He also chooses areas of the river where pike are most likely to be: in small backwaters, off mid-river islands, near dense underwater debris, fallen trees and weed-fringed edges of the river. ‘Sometimes you’ll find pike in a feeding mood, and they’ll just swallow the lure. It

A47 can be difficult to remove the hook. Other days you’ll get pike slapping the lure out of aggression. Many times you’ll foul-hook the fish. Sometimes pike won’t even look at a lure at all.’ No joy, so Dylan decides to try a gravel pit.

At Thrapston Gravel Pit (Thrapston Lagoon) Dylan begins fishing a bay with deep-running crankbaits. The water is heavily stained with algae — over-fertilized by, among other things, lots and lots of geese and duck droppings.

Dylan explores every likely area — submerged trees, ledges, steep drop-offs and deep banks – with deep-diving crankbaits, plugs and surface lures. Everything and anything. Does he wish he had a Wiggle Wart soaked in Uncle Wilbur’s Pike-Maddness scent, hot from the USA? No way. There are no fix-its when it comes to fishing. Sometimes, despite having done your best, you just have admit defeat. After trying two more venues — Mill Lake at Barnwell Country Park and the River Nene again – with just one half-hearted take, he calls it a day at 6:00pm.

The Lincolnshire drains — especially Dylan’s first venue, the Counter Drain – look like over-sized ditches filled with water and weed. Yet some big fish live in them.

Deadbaiting in the winter has yielded hefty specimens up to 27lb (12kg).

According to Dylan, lure fishing is more suited to early autumn. From June to August there’s too much weed to lure fish and too much natural food for the pike.

The cloud cover of the previous day has all but gone. In its place is a nasty westerly wind which Dylan welcomes. ‘Because the drain is only about 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) deep in the middle, I think the pike feel more secure on a windy day with a ripple on the surface, than when it’s dead calm.’

For this reason Dylan selects a large plug over 20cm (8in) long, explaining, ‘A noisy lure which makes a bit of commotion on a windy day actually interests the pike instead of scaring them.’

The Counter Drain is about 7.6m (25ft) wide and several miles long. Weeds line the shallow edges and the bottom but have cleared in the middle of the drain. The water is very clear.

Dylan flicks his plug towards the opposite bank, waits a moment or two and begins a slow, erratic retrieve, making the lure dive deeper as it approaches the middle of the drain and allowing it to come up as it nears the shallow, weedy margins.

Finding fish on a drain is notoriously difficult. Dylan says that the only way to pick a good stretch is to fish it regularly and see what happens. Experience is your best guide. Out of the many miles of drain, stop at a landmark – such as a small bush isolated in the featurelessness – and begin.

Dylan covers the drain with his Lucky 13 and then takes another few steps, working his way gradually down the drain (going downwind – casting against it is a bit of a tall order today). Along the weed-fringed margins no deeper than 60cm (2ft) a pike slams into his lure sideways. He lifts into the fish to set the hook. The middleweight pike explodes off along the drain. Despite two more aggressive runs, Dylan works the fish in close. But once he sees how the plug is lying – in ((Sometimes you’ll find pike in a feeding mood… Other days you’ll get pike slapping the lures out of aggression. D the very corner of its mouth, he bullies the fish into the net as fast as he can. At about 8lb (3.6kg) the pike is about average for the Counter Drain. The battle-scarred Lucky 13 proves its worth yet again.

Sometimes a pike strikes because there’s an alien-looking thing invading its territory, and it just has a go to prove who wears the trousers in the drain.

Dylan slips the handsome fish back into the water and continues working down the drain towards Pode Hole. With a 5lb (2.3kg) pike on and then off, he decides to move to the nearby North Drove Drain.

The North Drove Drain is wider and somewhat deeper than the Counter. Along its banks and margins are tall reeds which provide pike with cover. Dylan recommends fishing the North Drove in the morning and evening when light levels are low.

When matches are fished on the North Drove the winner usually weighs in about 3-4lb (1.4-1.8kg) of roach, perch and skimmers. The small fish aren’t plentiful. But there are many double-figure pike in this drain, and not so many jacks. One reason for this may be that the big pike feed almost exclusively on small jacks. It’s often the case that when you do catch a jack, a bigger pike will latch on and won’t let go.

At any rate Dylan attaches a big perch-coloured Rapala and stealthily begins covering the water.

Suddenly he freezes and half shouts, half whispers behind him. ‘Don’t come any closer; don’t come any closer.’ He waits, immobile, looking into the clear water of the drain with his rod tip pointing down. ‘I just had a double-figure pike following my plug,’ he says somewhat apologetically. He puts on his biggest, heaviest plug and throws that for a while but without success. We decide to take a long lunch.

Dylan tries one last venue where he nearly always has some small jacks — Vernatt’s Drain in Pode Hole. This is much wider and shallower than the last two drains, yet equally straight. Since the fish are generally smaller here, he puts on a small, shallow-diving Bagley’s plug and begins.

A shoal of roach spook and swim up. He spots a few small pike nearby. One takes his lure but comes off. Dylan moves downwind after the shoal of roach, casting all around them but there are no more takers – though some horses follow him down the bank. At 5:00pm we decide to head home after a fascinating two days of autumn lure fishing.