Hoist the Jolly Roger! Fire up the Seagull! Don your sou’ wester… Ace pike buccaneer and Lomond predator addict Will Burton has come for another fix of those tailwalking, deep-running Loch Lomond pike. ‘Don’t think you’ve caught pike until you’ve ‘ad a Lomond monster. They’re not the same species. These fish reallyfight.’
The evening before the expedition Will is down on the jetty catching bait. The sunset is calm and rosy, so it’s hardly fair when the dawn brings a gusty force 4 westerly and February drizzle arrived, making it easier to surf than catch fish. By ten o’clock the wind had eased a bit, and we set off.
So, armed with a boat that seems pitifully small to deal with the tooth-filled terrors that Will describes, off we chug from Balmaha for the first of two days in the Crom Mhin bay. The very name of it sends shivers down the spine… The Crom Mhin bay… the hottest hotspot of them all.
The bay is surrounded by reed beds. So while the wind whistles about the ears, the boat lies steady. Will puts out two baits – a live float-paternostered dancer (dancing dace) and a float-legered sardine. He also throws out a plug – a 20cm (8in) trout patterned Whopper Stopper Hellcat Magnum.
Most people don’t bother with plugs even in summer, when tradition says they work best, and in the winter… Well, it’s just sheer folly. Which is why it’s no real surprise when it’s taken in a flurry of spray. Despite the head shaking antics and a quick angry leap, it isn’t long before Will is unhooking a fish of about 4lb (1.8kg) in the water. ‘You see ‘ow that fish went. You can imagine what a big one is going to do. That’s why you ‘ave to use ‘eavy lines ‘ere. Nothing under 15-18lb (6.8-8.lkg) ‘as the stopping power to ‘andle a big old girl ‘eading off towards the snags by the bank.’
He stops plugging to check the livebait. It doesn’t look very happy. The wind creates turbulence in the 1.5m (5ft) deep water, making it difficult for the dancer to swim. Will puts it back in his bucket to recover and replaces it with a dead smelt.
He recasts the plug. ‘There’s a channel which runs along the bank from the mouth of the bay. It swings out when it reaches the burn there. It’s not deep but the pike cruise along it into the bay. That’s what I’m casting the plugs over.’ to Glasgow
The drizzle which has been around all morning solidifies into a steady downpour. The texture of the rain is very much improved by the wind which drives it straight under the hat and into the eyes.
However, Will is undeterred. ‘I love this place. You know all about it when you’re out on the vast bleakness of Lomond in February. There’s nowhere to touch it.’ His eyes mist over as he imagines the take of a Loch Lomond monster.
For a while nothing happens, except that the rain actually eases. Then the float on the sardine bait starts edging towards the submerged trees along the bank. Will picks up the rod, calmly winds down to the fish and hits it. A pike erupts from the water and tailwalks away from the boat. ‘Look at that! It’s only a four-pounder, but it thinks it’s a twenty.’ Even in the coldest weather, the fish fight like fury. These are no ordinary pike.
Sadly though, that’s it for the day. After seven hours in the rain, it’s good to get back to the warmth of Moniack – our B & B. But there’s no supper for Will until he’s checked all of his lines. He doesn’t want one breaking on the first good pike.
Our second dawn couldn’t be more different from the first – blue skies, hardly a breath of wind and glassy calm. Will stops the Seagull engine and rows into position. He’s going to try farther inside the bay this time, near the mouth of a burn which runs into it. We’re not alone; another boat has moved in to sample the pike fishing.
Will moves silently and efficiently around the boat as he casts out a smelt and a herring. ‘When it’s this calm, you don’t want any noise or unnecessary movements, or you’ll put the pike down,’ he whispers.
Once the baits are out and in position, he repeats yesterday’s drill, going through his armoury of big plugs. But when, by half past ten, there still hasn’t been a run, he retrieves the smelt to put on a live dancer.
The wind gets up slightly, making a bit of a ripple and bringing home the February cold. Despite this, Will keeps up a quiet banter, recounting courageous piking exploits of the past. Every so often Lomond inspires him and he breaks into verse. ‘But no matter ‘ow brave or bold, you put your gloves on when your hands are cold.’ And he does.
He looks about, drinking in the atmosphere. ‘This is what pikings all about for me. The bleakness, the emptiness. It’s so vast, there’s always the chance of a ‘uge pike. I could happily sit here all day without a run, knowing some monstrous fish might be round the corner.’
Will tries to retrieve the dace livebait, but finds it stuck. ‘Ah. My little dancer has found sanctuary in some far distant weed bed. And it is my sad duty to pull it out.’ All around the inner part of the bay there are extensive potamogeton weed beds in summer, and the roots provide a ready-made system of snags during the winter.
Almost as soon as the dancer is repositioned out of reach of the roots, the float marking the legered herring vanishes, to reappear much closer to the boat. Will winds down but feels no resistance. When the bait comes in it’s been savaged. ‘That was probably only a jack. They tend to do the most damage to a bait.’
Will quickly recasts with half a mackerel and then clips a home-painted golden Rapala to his spinning trace. ‘Let’s see if there are a few pike over there then.’ So saying, he casts the plug over to where the run had come from. There isn’t long to wait.
Third cast produces a take. This fish doesn’t leap but runs parallel to the boat. Will draws it in and every run brings it closer to the net. Eventually he has it and shortly after slips the lean 8lb (3.6kg) fish back into the frigid Lomond waters. That’s two fish on plugs and just one on baits. So much for conventional thinking.
Having only had one fish, our fellow pikers in the bay head off to another spot. Hardly have they left when the livebait float stops hobbling around and shoots off left. Since the last bait was dropped, Will hits this one quickly. For a second the rod testifies that this is a good fish, then the line falls slack. Will retrieves to find the bait almost intact. ‘That’s the sure sign of a big bold Lomond pike. They can ‘old a bait right inside their mouths, without putting a tooth into it.’
About a minute later, the other bait – a half mackerel – goes off for a slow wander towards the reed bed. ‘That’s a good fish. See ‘ow slow it’s swimming- it isn’t worried about anything, it’s just looking for a good place to eat.
Will waits. ‘With a big bait like ‘alf a mackerel you can afford to let the fish ‘ave a bit of time.’ Eventually he’s happy and he tightens up to the float and bends into the fish. ‘This is a better one all right,’ he grins, as the fish takes off.
A very determined pike is attached to Will’s line and it swims powerfully and unhurriedly off towards the reeds. ‘I’ve got to stop ‘er in open water,’ he manages between grunts as he strains to turn the fish. ‘This is why you need strong line.’
The fish stops and shakes its head, trying to dislodge the annoying thing in its jaw. Will draws it close, and once it sees the boat, it stands on its tail and crashes back, trying to frighten this impudent and irritating intruder. At no time does it think it might be beaten. ‘She’s a really good fish,’ says Will. ‘Just look at the way she’s pulling.’ Finally he manages to trick his adversary into swimming too close to the net and she’s trapped. ‘She’s not as big as I thought. I must ‘ave forgotten ‘ow ‘ard these pike fight. Still, she’s a double.’
She’s neatly hooked in the scissors, so Will clearly didn’t wait too long. On weighing she turns out to be 11lb 15oz (5.4kg) – a fine, boldly marked pike.
No sooner is the fish weighed, returned and a bait recast, than the livebait begins to move. Will gives it plenty of time – the fish seem reluctant to take a bait properly today. The float slows down and then slides off in a new direction, and Will strikes.
It’s not the size of the last, but for a six-pounder (2.7kg) it puts up an amazing tussle. Once in the boat, Will admires the build of a typical Lomond fish. ‘Look at the size of that tail… built for speed. A lean, mean fighting machine.’
For the next two and a half hours, it’s all action, as Will winds into a succession of fish from close to the mouth of the burn. In most cases the float dithers then shoots off, but with one, it cocks irregularly for a couple of minutes, moves a couple of feet nearer the boat, stops and moves back again.
When do you hit a ‘run’ like that? The answer is, when you think the fish has taken the bait well. But don’t wait too long-far better to miss a few fish than to gut-hook one. Striking as the float moved away again produced a muscular eight-pounder (3.6kg) hooked in the scissors.
At about half past four Will decides it’s time to head back, before darkness maroons us in the bay. He smiles as he steers back to Balmaha. ‘Seven pike in February. Who’d ‘ave believed it?’ He stares wistfully at the engraving rivetted to the side of his boat, Esox magnus – the mythical monster pike. ‘Next time. Maybe next time…’