For the last thirty years I have travelled and fished the length and the breadth of the UK for many different species, both in freshwater and in the sea. As I grow older and my passion for angling increases as each year passes I find myself chasing an even wider selection of weird and wonderful species. Travelling to various countries within mainland Europe, to Africa and beyond to north and south America. Seemingly though our fondest memories often lie with our experiences as a young lad at grass roots level.
For the majority of my thirty eight years the backbone of my angling apprenticeship was formed in and around Exeter and particularly on the Exeter Ship Canal where I have landed every species of fish present over the years but my first love is, and always will be, predatory fish. And at the top of the food chain, without any doubt, is the freshwater Pike.
In recent years the canal has produced a good number of 20lb plus specimens with the odd one or two weighing over the magical 30lb - every Pike angler's dream fish.
Realistically on every trip I set my sights on catching double figure fish worthy of photographs but the Pike angler must be prepared for lengthy blanks or the odd small Jack. Whatever the size of the fish treat them all with the same level of respect. Make sure you have the correct unhooking tools and make sure you get the fish back in the water quickly and with the minimum of fuss. - remember a Jack today could be a twenty a few years down the road!
Pike can be caught all the year round with lure anglers doing better in the warmer months, but for most of us who fish the canal the Pike season really takes off as the nights begin to draw in and late autumn arrives. With the air and water temperatures plummeting natural baits reign supreme with livebaits and sea deadbaits regularly taking good quality Pike. All accepted and legal methods are allowed on the canal and, with the recent reintroduction of livebaiting, all our options are now open. However please note that livebaiting is permitted only under strict guidelines and anyone found contravening these rules will be severely dealt with.
It is my opinion that the larger Pike will always prefer a deadbait when the water temperature is very cold. Large Pike are generally lazy fish and rely more on scent and scavenging, whereas small Pike like to chase and react well to movement. I have personally caught more than thirty Pike of over 20lb from the canal with most of them falling to seabaits.
So, what makes the Exeter Canal an exceptional Pike fishery and different from your 'traditional' canal? There may be a number of reasons but I think it is mainly that the canal is termed a 'deep water canal', with the average depth varying from 9 to 11 feet, depending on whether you fish the upper canal which extends from the city basin to the double locks (which has the greater depth) or from beyond the double locks to the turf basin. The canal has a rich larder of natural foods that all species of fish take advantage of. Much of this 'food' lives among the weed and aquatic plants that are present throughout the canal for much of the year. The whole ecology of the canal is a well balanced one.
We now generally accept the Pike as a true sporting fish, gone are the days when Pike were mistreated and culled senselessly because of old wives tales and ignorance. Ask anyone who has removed all large Pike from a water of the dire consequences that have followed with explosions in the populations of small fish.
The Exeter Canal is without doubt the jewel in the crown as far as Pike fishing in Devon goes. It is not an easy water but, just occasionally, on those rare red letter days it is possible to catch a dozen or more fish. Half of these could be into double figures with a twenty or two thrown in for good measure. Needless to say you can return the next day and fish from dusk to dawn without as much as a single run! Pike can, and do, travel long distances if disturbed.
I have caught some of my largest Pike in the hours of darkness, particularly during the depths of winter when temperatures are well below freezing. This is when heavily scented dead baits outscore any other bait and only last November I caught four fish over a two day period. Two 9 pounders, a double of 16lb 3oz and a 'big un' of 24lb 14oz. I subsequently made four more visits and caught absolutely nothing! As with all forms of fishing it is the memories of the good days past and the promise of those, hopefully, yet to come that keep you going through the 'blanks'.
So what of the future of Pike fishing on the Canal? As any angler knows Pike are at the top of the predatory fish food chain and have no natural enemies from below the waterline and very few from above when fully mature. Paradoxically the only real enemy the Pike has is the Pike angler himself. I am sure no angler would set out to deliberately harm any Pike caught but it does happen.
As I fish or walk the canal banks I observe a lot of anglers having a go for Pike, maybe for the first time, and many have woefully inadequate tackle to deal with a big fish. Suitable sized landing nets, unhooking mats, and the correct unhooking tools should all be part of your equipment. The dentistry of the Pike is truly awesome and great care must be taken to safely unhook a fish with no damage being done to the fish or the angler! Regardless of the species you fish for you owe it to your quarry to learn all you can of its' natural history to keep it in perfect health and ensure its survival for all anglers to enjoy.
So what is the best way to learn? The best place to start is usually the local angling club, in this case the Exeter and District Angling Association. Information is available in the directory section of this guide and the club secretary will be able to point you in the direction of experienced local anglers who will be glad to give help and advice. You could also join The Pike Anglers Club of Great Britain from where you can be put in touch with the regional branch in Exeter. It is without doubt the best way to learn and trust me when I say your catch rate will improve two fold.
So remember, treat all Pike with respect. Despite their reputation as a fierce predator large Pike are still very vulnerable to deep hooking, bad handling or mistreatment of any kind. Enjoy your fishing and I hope to see you all on the Canal very soon.