In the first of what we hope will be a regular column, Jon Day embarks on new adventures as Country Mouse, so named after the Aesop fable The Town Mouse & the Country Mouse. Our Town Mouse, Thomas Marks, will make his first appearance soon…
On the shelf above my desk I keep my small collection of found objects: a piece of razor-sharp flint; the tail of a squirrel; a rabbit’s skull, light and brittle as parchment. Pride of place is a malevolent aged jaw, six inches long, curved like a scimitar and spiked with several lethal-looking teeth. It is the jaw of a pike. It must have belonged to an enormous fish; certainly double figures, maybe a twenty or thirty pounder. I found it one spring morning on the banks of a lake in Oxfordshire, though how it got there I’ll never know. Who, or what, could have caught such a fish?
Pike are all mouth. Ambush predators, they sit deep in slack water, nestled amongst the weeds and sunken logs, waiting for unsuspecting fish to pass by. As Ted Hughes wrote in his poem ‘Pike’, these ‘killers from the egg’ are highly specialised, tools rather than animals, well suited to their role in life, possessed of:
…jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument
The great Victorian fishing writer Thomas Tod Stoddart described the pike’s fearsome ambush-attack as ‘mouthwork; calm, deliberate, bone-crushing, deadly mouthwork’.
Pike are winter fish, and now, with temperatures plummeting, is the time to go looking for them. Today I’ve returned to the dark hole where I found the jaw. I’ve cycled here through the crisp morning air, locked my bike next to a gate at the top of a frost-covered lane, and walked to the water past rows of diminutive frozen snowdrifts.
It feels like a good day for pike. I get to the bank and stare into the blank depths of the lake. Nothing is stirring. I imagine enormous mythical fish down there, lying in deep winter, gills kneading quietly, conserving their energy and waiting for prey to swim by. Ten minutes later I’ve assembled my strong but unlovely spinning rod, and begun to methodically feel-out the bottom of the lake with a series of exploratory casts, ruffling the surface of the water into a fan of ripples. Usually I’d use a deadbait in these circumstances, hung static slightly off the bottom, but the cold makes for lazy pike, and today I think I should come to them. It’s a kind of subaqueous cartography: I try to get a feel for the bumps and crags on the bottom with my spinner, building a mental map of the lake bed, stalking the fish to his lair.
Nothing moves on the water. A pheasant crashes clumsily through the trees across the lake. Suddenly (it is always sudden; always surprising) my rod folds over itself. Line spills out into the deep, and the wind whistles and whines against the taught rod, playing it like an Aeolian harp. For a few brief moments I am connected to a monster. Its power is exhilarating, and slightly frightening. Several seconds later, equally suddenly, everything goes slack. I reel in my line, the end of which is a ragged and broken mess. Mouthwork.
Photo: from Flickr, by BingoBangoGringo