The lake surface lies as flat as frosted glass, a sky upside down at my feet, with candy floss ranges. Spiky ochre reeds jut through the mirror in isolated patches or dense beds, rising and falling, bitten into bays, crossed by channels. More reeds grow in floating stands, their root-balls a dense and cratered mass, vegetative asteroids in a soupy space.
As I glide the canoe across the roof of this spectral other world, a bow wave rushes ahead of the boat, the pressure surge of some massive fish startled out of its lair. Then, as I lengthen my cast over an island to reach the drop-off on the far side, another fish reacts to the flashing line and the water beside the asteroid erupts, creating a sound like a bucket being emptied.
I ease the canoe on to a patch of reed, giving it just enough of a grounding to stop it sliding away on the wind, and start to throw casts up ahead of me, exploring a bay that curves inside a denser bank of reeds. The water is a smoky ochre where it drops to deeper hollows, valleys between the ridges of dark-green candy floss.
The fly lands heavily and ripples fan out. I bring it back in quick stabs. It flicks drunkenly across the ochre dance floor, a spangled slapper on the pull. The come-on is a rise and fall, sparkle, stagger, whoops-wheres-me-handbag? Drunken and available. But nothing takes her.
This is the part of the day when anything can happen and that anything may well be nothing. I have no more than a sense of a possibility, a distant expectation, which is a feeling I have learnt to disbelieve as much as to hope in. But when that first bow wave appears behind the fly, and jolting behind it the completely physical, visceral sight of a tooth-filled gob, that far-off expectation connects like a bolt of electricity with the here and now its real, its a pike and it is up for it. And if one pike is up for it, they all are.
Ive flicked the fly out to the side of the dance floor, where a tight channel curves away between the candy mountains. Tasha Slappa sparkles in the gloom, and as I lift the line to draw her over the weeds she is suddenly anchored to something tectonic. The bow wave rushes ahead of the fly, the sparkles vanish and the flat water curls into a crime-scene boil as Auntie Esox Lucius surges away. Dont strike. Just tighten into the retreating fish. The words of my pike-whispering pal Mambo Anderson he calls me Dr Floss are burnt into whatever synapses link the brain with the arm. My nickname was bestowed after a long session of pulling flies straight out of pikes jaws, giving them nothing but a thorough flossing.
So I leave the rod pointing at the fish, gradually squeezing down on the line as it slips through the fingers of my left hand until Ive got it tight and the dead weight is halted only then do I lift the rod, hold the line hard and do my best to cross the eyes of the croc thats 20ft out and 2ft under, wondering what strange kind of rudd its just bitten into. Yes! Its on.
The take of a pike is like a jolt down the spine from a cattle prod. Sometimes, when the fish really smashes into the fly and breaches the surface, throwing spray across the water, or tail-walks when the line tightens, my ears pound and sing and I get that thumping adrenalin rush like after a near miss on the road. Even on a cold day I actually heat up by a few degrees, Im sure of it.
This fish rolls against the resisting line, thrashes up to the surface, slaps its tail and surges again for the weeds. Its not enormous, but it is special, for this pike has been a long time coming. It is my first from my canoe.
I hit on this canoe idea more than a year ago now and it seems absurd that it has taken me so long to get myself sorted. I was inspired by a pike-infested day on the lower Wissey near Ely, where I landed a dozen or more jacks before stirring a whopper. That last big fish was more or less beyond reach. I had cast as far as I could down a part of the channel that was choked by reeds growing in from both banks. A split willow leant out over the river and, where its branches trailed the water, a mattress of debris had collected on the upstream side. This croc had scythed out from underneath, rolled at the fly and vanished, the boiling water spiralling away downstream for five seconds before settling. I wondered how many other monsters were beyond reach, undisturbed in their watery lairs from one season to the next. There are miles of water on the Wissey like this reed-choked and impossible to cast to. And on gravel-pits like the one Im on now.
I first fished this lake years ago and caught two good pike from it. However, it was almost impossible then and has only grown more impregnable since. But it looked so tantalising like a Northern European mangrove swamp but with pike replacing barracuda. I wondered about how to get afloat on it in something that would glide silently through the reeds. I knew there were monster crocs just waiting for anyone who could get near them. I needed a boat.
But theres something about a boat that goes against the grain of the nomadic fly-angler: it needs moorings, a trailer, tow hitches and jetties. My winter piking is all about blowing with the weather from drain to pond until I hit the right spot. If I were to get a boat it needed to be one that I could put on the roof-rack, lower down banks and drag across the ground. It would need a shallow draft but not an engine. It had to be a canoe. I even fancied the idea that a really big fish might tow it.
I Googled Canadian canoes, and drove to Wroxham to order one. I chose one made of Royalex (lighter than glass fibre), and had a cleat fitted to the side of one thwart and a pulley wheel to the stern, so that I could use a simple mud-anchor suspended from a rope.
I collected it on a stormy November day and drove straight to Barton Broad to try it out. I paddled swiftly out of the sheltered moorings, got my nose broadside to a wicked south-westerly and, before I could turn back, was spinning off down the River Ant. It was only by getting myself to the edge and creeping back upstream in the lee of the bushes and trees that I ever got back at all, let alone before dark.
From foolhardy to cautious I left it in the barn for the rest of the winter, waiting for a calm day that never came. It was September before I got it back on the roof-rack. Mambo joined me and we took it to the Wissey for a day of certain slaughter, only the pike were asleep, on holiday or had all been eaten by Kings Lynns burgeoning population of Poles.
I phoned my friend with the mangrove swamp, and after yet more weeks waiting for a window in the weather, Im finally here in my canoe and into a pike. Now comes the interesting part: how to land a thrashing monster from an unstable boat. I had fancied that I might just get a finger under the gill plate and unhook the beast with forceps, as I usually do. But Im normally standing with the pike spinning like a ratters tail. A big one and Id be overboard. So I have a net a huge purse seine with an enormous handle that has been annoying me since I got afloat, but which now comes into its own. I guide the nose of my pike into the waiting folds and pull back on the handle, trapping the fish in the water. Now, with plenty of time to sort myself out, I find forceps, set the camera on self-timer for the obligatory grip-and-grin, heft the fish from the water, say cheese and let it go again.
Theres something very engrossing about paddling across the element the fish are swimming in. The lake is screened all around by trees and Im miles from any house or road. At about midday two deer gallop through the glade to the north, pursued by an errant terrier. Swans and duck come and go. But otherwise I feel completely isolated and unreachable.
Esox plays ball all day. Isobars and the temperature climb and the fish are mad for it. One fish hit and ate the fly three times before I nailed it on the fourth. Another, recognisable by its Hapsburg jaw and a scar, took the fly at midday and again at five. But best of all was the big, fat auntie that speared out from behind one of those asteroids, because when I turned up the drag on her third run yes, for several feet, she towed the canoe.
Paddle your own canoe
The writer uses an Old Town Osprey 140 canoe, which cost £949. It is made from Royalex and weighs 26kg.
It has a broad base, is quite stable and will take two people. It can be paddled or fitted with rowlocks.
A good solo canoe is the Old Town Pack at £679 and weighing only 14.9kg.
Old Town also makes purpose-built fishing canoes the Predator c133 and c160 but they weigh more: the c133 weighs 35kg and the c160 39kg. They cost £699 and £749 respectively.