This happened when I was very young and very impressionable. Many things we did then would not now be considered ‘right’ - but people were a lot poorer then and still tried to help themselves and not depend on a bossy welfare state that imagines it knows best. It was very formative and something I wish never to forget. I still regard it as a privilege to have experienced it.
Ghosts of Hunters Passed…
by Peter Hunter
The scene reminded me of one of those brilliant layouts in Norwich Castle Museum I spent so much time admiring as a child. The one in my mind portrayed vividly a prehistoric encampment by an imagined East Anglian stream - loin-clothed primitives going about their ways in a hunter-gatherer society. Three members of the tribe were depicted returning to the camp, fish spears in hand, one of them proudly carrying a pike, freshly caught.
The scene confronting me might well have been the descendant of those long dead hunters. The mist drifting along the valley shrouded and camouflaged their modern identity, outlines of spears, harpoons or rods, the distinctive shape of a pike, held up as if in triumph. Timeless hunters, not interested in the finesse of technique that typifies the sporting angler, but true harvesters of field and stream like their ancestors long before them. As they came closer, I could see they subscribed to no conventional angling ethic or sporting creed. Instead of fishing rods, they carried hazel poles, cut obviously from some convenient hedge. Each ‘rod’ had a short stout line secured to the tip, the first ending with a large treble hook, the shank of which was wrapped around with lead wire and the other tipped with a large wooden plug-bait.
I recognised them as a father and his two sons - a ‘settled’ gypsy family from the same village in which I lived. The family had a reputation as poachers of everything that ran, swam, or flew. Nowhere had I heard that they were anglers.
The pike was the first one I had ever seen outside a glass case or a photograph. My enthusiasm must have been infectious, for it was rewarded with an invitation to join them in their next expedition for pike. So keen was I to learn and to see this legendary master of our streams brought to book, that I eagerly accepted the offer. A day was agreed. I was not at that stage concerned about their methods or tactics. With no knowledge at that age of close seasons, licenses and the need for permission to fish, or what was acceptable practice, I did not realise that everything concerning their pike expeditions was illegal, let alone unsporting by accepted angling standards.
We eventually met - in those days, long before a business thought to build a golf course and country club, the bridge over the upper Yare between Barnham Broom and Barford was a solitary place. The stream was much deeper then than it is now and just downstream of the bridge the flow had scoured out a deep pool, well used for a quick swim, and containing bream as 'big as barn shovels'. When I last passed that way - unable to resist stopping for a nostalgic peep, it was only about nine inches deep.
A mile or so upstream towards Barnham Broom was a mixture of weedy runs of medium depth, interspersed with deeper pools carved out by the current where the river bent on it's meanderings. It was mainly very narrow; an athletic youth would be well able to leap over it in many placed and full of roach, dace and gudgeon, it apparently held the legendary pike. In those days it was a fascinating place where a stealthy lad could reliably and regularly see coypus, the occasional otter and if very lucky an elusive bittern.
Typical of that land of rivers…
The plan was for the sons to fish, supervised by their father. I was surprised by the absence of a can of bait; assuming that the line with the weighted hook was to be used for some form of live baiting. My enquiry was met with hilarity. Apparently, they did not waste time with such niceties. I was to learn that this narrow relatively shallow stretch had been well chosen to suit the method to be used.
As it was now spring, most of the sizeable pike had become even lazier than usual. Lying in relatively shallow clear water, sometimes with a mate, they were easy targets for deliberate foul hooking. The very narrowness of the stream meant it was easy to cast over the fish with the short fixed line attached to the end of the hazel poles. The plug bait used by one of the brothers was no more than two or three convenient treble hooks. It was never intended as a lure.
We caught two pike that day, only two or three pounds or so in weight. The poachers appeared deliberately not to target larger fish, no doubt in deference to the limitations of their crude tackle. Each fish was remorselessly dispatched without admiration or ceremony. A hunting scene re-enacted no doubt repeatedly over the millennia.
Poachers they might be, but they understood all too well the haunts and habits of their quarry. As an introduction to pike in small streams, it served me well. I was to fish the upper Yare for its game small pike for several years after. Both my equipment and methods were more orthodox than those of the poachers, but the need for stealth to stalk a wary quarry in such a confined stream remained the same.
They had taught me well…
I often wonder now whether they, or perhaps their descendants, still haunt the upper Yare, or some other lowland stream. Perhaps the abundance of our modern society, computer games, the benefits of the welfare state, the attractions of television and other canned entertainment, have taken the edge off such primitive instincts.
I hope not…
Illegal though such activities undoubtedly were, they did little real harm in the grand scale of things - especially in an age when pike were prolific, as indeed were the fish they preyed on in those small streams. For that poaching family the occasional pike was a welcome addition to their diet. They were not greedy, not wasteful, unlike the pheasant thieves who infest the same area today. It was also obvious to me that they satisfied some primitive instinct, the atavistic one that unites all of us who hunt, fish, or shoot. They too enjoyed the surge of adrenalin that embroiders the chase and punctuates the kill.
If they are gone, I mourn their passing…
© Peter Hunter 2012