Joseph Mary Mooney, ex-senator of the Irish Republic, looked up from the slice of toast he was plastering with vitamin-enriched spread. "Tell him about the big fella, Pat," he said.
A turf fire flickered brightly in Mooney's kitchen, though in the west of Ireland November is a soft, mild month; outside, in the woods around Drumshanbo village, the leaves were still green on the trees.
Pat Reynolds, silver-haired and sturdy, a master of the narrative art, hitched his chair forward. "Come here till I tell you," he said, and I leaned toward him as if hypnotized, though it was only mild narcosis brought on by the turf smoke and the strong tea that Mooney brewed.
"It was back in July he hooked him," Reynolds began. "An Englishman from Derby, or someplace, and he was using one of them copper spoons with a touch of blue to it. I was just rowing him along the shore of the first island out from the pier when this huge beast of a thing grabbed hold. It was 2½ hours before we had him beat, then didn't this bloody ijjit of an angler think he'd like a movin' film of his fish lying on his side in the water, waiting for the gaff." Pat took a long suck at his tea.
October 4, 1970
"I don't want to hear any more," I said, anguished.
"He was over half the length of the oar," Pat went on inexorably, "and he was lying there in the water near dead. Your man was trying to keep his head up while his missus took the pictures. He didn't jump, nor anything like that, but he just rolled over, and the wire leader broke at the swivel."
We sat in silence for a while, thinking of the great fish lost. "How big do you reckon he was, Pat?" I asked.
"I was coming to that," he said. "A week after, it would have been, I was out with this same man, and we got a good one, 24 pounds, and this time we went in to the shore to get the photographs. Then a farmer comes strolling down. 'Do you think that's a big one, lads?' says he.
" 'It's big enough for me,' says your man.
" 'Well, there's a bigger one nor that lying dead on my shore these last three or four days,' says the farmer, and off he walks.
"It was our fish, I'll swear it. When we got down to him the spoon had gone, but you could see the scar. The birds had been at him, and the smell was awful, but we shoved the lot into a plastic sack and brought it back to the village. The remains," said Pat reverently, "weighed 58 pounds."
"A new world-record northern pike," I mourned.
"World record, is it?" asked Mooney from behind his late breakfast. "We'd have that broke fast enough on Lough Allen if the boys would leave the trout alone for a bit and concentrate on the pike."
From his kitchen in Drumshanbo, Joe Mooney runs the County Leitrim Local Development Association, in intervals of tending to his real-estate business. Leitrim is a small, beautiful county, very green and soft, with curlew-haunted mountains and pike-haunted lakes, but it is far away from the Killarney-Gal-way Bay tourist track, which troubles Joe a great deal. That was why he hadn't hesitated when I'd called him the previous evening to ask about the pike-fishing prospects on Lough Allen. Naturally, he is also secretary of the Drumshanbo Angling Club.
"What time can you get over in the morning?" he shot at me.
It was all a little difficult, really. My quest for a big Irish pike was already running into trouble. I'd had a firm tip-off about a small, hundred-acre lough below the hills of County Sligo called Templehouse Lough. Unhappily, the night before I arrived a storm in the mountains had sent down thousands of gallons of floodwater that had turned the lake so rich a brown you couldn't see a spoonbait six inches under the surface. Already I'd fished Templehouse for four days, and the biggest pike I'd had was a four-pounder. But slowly it was clearing. Next day it could be just right.
"I'm not sure about tomorrow yet," I told Joe.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll have Pat Reynolds in to meet you. He's the finest pike man in Ireland."
"I'll have to think about it," I said.
"Right," said Joe. "Call round to me in the morning. The yellow house opposite the church. Nine-thirty."
Small, dynamic men like Joe Mooney are difficult to argue with, especially when they train on vitamin spread, and even before I'd talked with him I was half convinced that I'd have to change ground. That in itself would require a little moral courage. I had booked in for a week at the hotel in Ballymote, the village nearest to Templehouse Lough, and Jimmy Hogg, who kept it, and the locals who drank in the bar each evening were following the progress of my pike quest with the absorbed interest that Irishmen have in any sporting event. If their goodwill had had anything to do with it I'd have had a 20-pound specimen already. Now I was going to have to tell them I would be fishing another lough 30 miles away and, worse still, in County Leitrim. But I steeled myself. It was big pike I was concerned with, not a public-relations exercise. And Lough Allen would surely have big pike. It was deep, wide and Irish.
The Irish have the biggest northern pike in the world and, with odd exceptions like Pat Reynolds, they resent it deeply. Pike are interlopers. They were introduced as recently as the Middle Ages, probably by the English. They also eat salmon and trout, which are the only freshwater fish that Irish anglers consider worth catching. Some of the more liberal-minded will concede that in winter a man may amuse himself by towing a big spoon round the lake for pike, but it's not done in the best circles. It will be a long time before I forget the shocked silence in the bar of the Sheelin Shamrock Hotel when a man came in and reported that a couple of Frenchmen were out on the lough trolling for pike. This was at the height of the mayfly season, the brilliant fortnight when the biggest trout rise from the depths of Lough Sheelin to feed on the surface, for which boats and hotel rooms have to be booked a year ahead.
I said nothing at the time, but I could understand the obsession that kept the Frenchmen systematically working their pike spoons while heavy trout rose noisily around their boat. I could understand it because I shared it.
An English fishing writer named Jack Hargreaves once came near explaining the mystery of the pike's fascination when he said that it was the only fish that looked you straight in the eyes. There is a scientific explanation: unlike most fish, a pike has binocular vision. He does look you in the eyes. But no zoology textbook can convey the sheer menace of a pike, its murderous streamlining, its lonely, tyrannical personality. Pike, huge smashers of tackle, attain to individual names. The Green Devil occupied a high proportion of the waking thoughts of my friends and me when I was 16 or so. He lived under the arches of a bridge that spanned an arm of a lake we fished, and he was hooked maybe twice a year. He always broke away. Was he 50, 60 pounds? In fact he was just under 30. A farm worker shot him in the reeds along the shore at spawning time. But we never really believed that the once and future Green Devil had gone forever.
Trout have only a brief individual existence, from the time they are hooked until they are in the net. Trout fishermen talk about limit bags, pike men about once-in-a-lifetime monsters. And if they haven't told too many lies about the giants they have hooked their souls finally migrate to the wild, gray acres of Irish pike loughs.
If they are lucky they may get there sooner, of course. Their tackle boxes will be crammed with expensive plugs and spoons, all of which will be condemned as useless by their gillies, who will also fall about laughing at their ridiculously light tackle. But they are sustained by thoughts of monsters, like the 53-pounder that was said to have been taken in Lough Cong in 1922. Sadly for big pike legend, the Irish Specimen Fish Committee withdrew recognition of the Lough Cong monster on Jan. 1, 1970. It was insufficiently documented by present-day standards. But this fish existed. Its huge preserved head is still to be seen in the Natural History Museum in London.
Big Irish pike are not as numerous as they once were. Since 1957 the trout-oriented Irish have waged war on them through the agency of the Inland Fisheries Trust, whose net crews have taken almost half a million northern pike from such major trout fisheries as Mask, Corrib, Conn and Sheelin. Their catches included some huge fish, the biggest a 50½-pounder from Lough Mask. This pike was a mere eight years old. It had at least five more years of growth in it.
Nevertheless, one last great redoubt remains for the Irish northerns: the Shannon system, which is too vast and complex to be turned into a pure trout fishery. The loughs of Derg, Ree, Key and Allen and the river that connects them hold huge pike still, arguably the biggest in the world.
There are fine pike, too, in lesser strongholds, small lakes in the western hills that have never been developed for trout fishing, and the first problem the big pike hunter has to solve is whether to fish small, manageable waters, which he can read and interpret if he is experienced, or to attack the wide, anonymous waters of such a lough as Allen, which is eight miles long, three across and deep and rocky to boot. On the big lakes, trolling is the only possible method of covering the ground. On the small waters, there is scope for the niceties of tossing a plug between lily pads or rowing silently into a promising bay in the reeds and working a big copper spoon along the shore.
Had not Templehouse Lough suddenly turned the color of drinking chocolate, maybe I would never have gone near Allen. As it was, after four bad days it was good sense to change.
"I think I'll give Templehouse a rest today," I said carefully to Jimmy Hogg, picking my words. "I might give Allen a try."
He looked at me as if I'd walked into church with my hat on.
"A lake that size wouldn't color up so easily," I explained.
"I hope," said Jimmy obscurely, "the weather holds for you."
I backed out, still apologizing, but I felt better three-quarters of an hour later, sitting in Mooney's warm kitchen, listening to sagas of the great pike fights of the past as the clock ticked the forenoon away.
"You'd better have a look at my lures," I said to Mooney, breaking the spell. I wanted to get this bit over early, having had my tackle insulted by local experts in many parts of the world. Pat wasn't too scathing, though. I had a couple of the traditional six-inch copper and silver spoons, and these were approved of. "I'll just get my Magic Marker," said Pat, "and touch them up a little." Returning with a thick, felt-tipped pen in his fist, he began daubing the undersides of my spoons. "A small bit of blue is what the big ones love," he said. "Have you anything else at all with blue in it?"
From the bottom tray of my tackle box I disentangled the pride of my collection, a long Swedish plug, blue and white with black bars. "What in the name of God is that?" said Pat, recoiling theatrically. He knew what it was, all right, but it is an article of faith among Irish boatmen that Irish pike, unlike those of any other nation, will not take plugs.
"You haven't seen anything yet," I told him, dragging out a couple of wildly colored American creations with the engaging name of Bump 'n' Grind. The main feature of these plugs was a vast silver diving lip almost half their length.
"They would go just fine on top of a bloody Christmas tree," said Pat sardonically.
I didn't rise to that one. The battle of the plugs was going to be fought out later, when the fishing started. I closed the tackle box and waited to be cross-examined on rods and reels, but Pat was more liberal in this sector. Eleven-pound-test line was acceptable, so long as I had plenty of it.
"I have scales here," said Joe Mooney, as we left the womblike coziness of his kitchen. "Call back with the big one and I'll weigh him."
The kitchen was a lot more cozy than Lough Allen. Irish lakes are usually softly beautiful, with green shores and gently wooded islands. Allen, though, is very different. The black foothills of the Ox Mountains hem it in to the west, and the eastern shore lies at the foot of Slieve Anierin (Iron Mountain). Its islands are piles of dark, slaty rock, and when the north wind is channeled down the lake big seas run and the slim-built local boats cannot be used.
The waves were breaking white when we hauled Pat's boat into the water, but the blow was sou'westerly, a good fishing wind. "We'll head up north to start," said Pat. "There's a bit of an island up there that's a great place for a big fish." He started the motor so that I could run the trolling baits out fast without fouling the bottom of the lake. After that, though, it was going to be all oars. You can catch big trout trolling on the motor because they always like a fast, straight motion. For pike you need the slow, erratic progress of a spoon towed by oars.
It was the spoon I was trolling, naturally. The time had not yet come for independence. We came up to the island, white froth from the waves blowing across the black stones, and Pat brought the boat round so that the spoon would swing across the point. He rowed rhythmically, and the slow throb at the rod tip showed that the spoon was working well. Mallards went spluttering up from the island shore within easy shot. "Wouldn't those fellas know we haven't a gun between us?" Pat asked philosophically. If I hadn't been watching the ducks, I'd have seen the rod dip, but the first thing I registered was the reel click screaming. I grabbed the rod, and Pat stabbed the oars down in the water to check the boat. It was hard to judge the fish in the first second or two. "Is there any weight in it?" Pat shouted as he brought the boat around.
I could feel a sullen thumping deep in the water as the pike held its ground, then the line slackened. "We'll see him now," I yelled. He was going to come up. I knew I hadn't lost him and, yes, he came out of the water 50 yards away, lashing on the surface, shaking his head. A nice fish, but not a big fish. A good lively one of 12 pounds or so. "We won't write home about him," said Pat, and in five minutes he had the small, sharp gaff slipped into the V of the fish's jaw so that we could put him back uninjured. I looked at my first pike from Lough Allen—sleek, primrose-mottled flanks and the lethal jaws clenched tight, the only movement the curl of the raked-back dorsal.
I eased him back over the gunwale. A golden flash in the water, and he was gone. "It's the touch of blue that does it," said Pat. "Let out the spoon again."
But we fished back down the island shore without response, nor was there any action in the next hour until we started to cross the lake for a reef on the far shore. Then the reel screamed again, but there was no life in the rod. "Gone foul," I told Pat. The spoon, working deep, was hung up in weed. I hauled it free, then retrieved fast. I thought there was certain to be pike-repelling weed on it. Halfway to the boat, though, it was grabbed hard, and I was into a fish, not big but swimming and changing direction faster than any pike. I guessed what it was before it broke surface: a good thick trout of about three pounds—and a month out of season. Committing, as far as I know, my first offense against the fishery laws of Ireland, I got it into the boat and asked Pat to tap it on the head. "I've got plans for this one," I said.
It was time to get the big rod out, the one I'd brought for such a moment. With wire and treble hooks I rigged a formidable harness for the trout. I tried him alongside the boat, and he trolled sweetly.
We went ahead again fast, with the bait and the spoon astern. There was a good mile of barren water to cross before we reached the islands of the western shore. Though the central deeps of Allen are black and mysterious, the theory is that they hold no actively feeding pike, so we crossed on the motor, with the lures working faster and shallower than I would have allowed them to had we been fishing seriously.
If we weren't serious, though, whatever grabbed the trout was. The rod came over, and there was a three-second shriek from the reel. By the time I had the rod in my hands, though, everything had gone slack. I reeled in. No trout, and the treble hooks and wire mount dangled limply at the end of the line.
"It could have hit a log," I suggested. Pat gave me a look. He knew as well as I did that waterlogged timber floating below the surface does not have the capacity to pull a three-pound trout away from a wire mount. He said nothing, but he cut the engine and picked up the oars again. From now on even the barren water was going to be taken seriously.
When we got to the nearest island we went ashore for lunch, dragging the boat up onto the pebbles and hunting around for driftwood to make a fire. When we had it blazing, Pat filled a smoke-blackened kettle with lake water and set it on top. "I'd rather be sitting here," he said, "than over beyond." He stubbed a thumb in the direction of another small island a couple of hundred yards to the south. It looked like a perfectly normal island to me. "What's wrong with it?" I asked him.
"There's a fella living over by Drumshanbo could tell you," he said. "He went in there one time, and he thought he'd take a souvenir back with him, one of them old skulls that's lyin' there in the shallow water."
"The skulls belonging to the old monks that used to be in it one time. Anyhow, the first morning after he brought it home didn't he fall downstairs and break his leg. And late that evening there was an awful rapping at the back door and nobody there when the missus went down. That went on for three nights, and then his brother-in-law put the skull in a plastic bag and he rowed over to the island and put it back where it came from. They were never disturbed after that."
For a while we sat silently, drinking the thick, dark tea and eating homemade bread and thick slices of ham. The wind had softened, and the waves no longer broke white. "You could get your big one this afternoon," said Pat, and I had the same intuitive feeling that the water had come alive.
"I'm going to try a plug," I told him, choosing a moment when he'd be feeling mellow. I fished out the long blue Swedish job and set the lip so that it would swim deep. "Try it," said Pat magnanimously, "but keep the spoon on the other rod."
As we rowed away from the island, I let out line and watched the plug bob away in our wake like a small lighthouse. I let it go 50 yards astern, then I tightened up. It dived purposefully. I sent the spoon over the side after it, and it couldn't have traveled a hundred yards before it was firmly taken by a pike a little bigger than the one we'd had in the morning.
"Didn't I tell you?" said Pat, slipping him back a while later. "You'll never beat the good old spoon."
I was just thinking out an answer to this as we rowed along with the lines out again when there was a heavy strike on the plug. "You'll never beat the good old plug!" I shouted as Pat got the oars in fast, took up the other rod and brought the spoon in.
By then I was standing in the stern, yielding line in long bursts. I could see how it was dwindling on the spool, and I yelled at Pat to get hold of the oars as fast as he could and bring the boat round. Every few seconds came pulverizing thumps at the rod tip, more savage than either of the other fish had been able to manage. There couldn't have been much more than 30 yards of line left on the reel when Pat started to gain ground for me.
After that the fight was more sullen for a while, as the fish sounded and I thought of the tumbled black boulders and snags of the lake bed and the way the line could be taken round them. But Pat kept moving in on the fish, and I finally had him within 50 yards of the boat.
Then he exploded the water and showed himself, breaching clear, standing on his tail and shaking his great head, gill covers wide open to show the scarlet underside and the white cavern of the mouth. He sounded again, and moved fast into me as I madly recovered line to keep in touch. "He thinks the boat will give him shelter," said Pat, and he was right. For 10 minutes his tactics were the same. Wild flurries at the surface that turned our hearts over as the dappled flanks showed clear, then short runs of 20 or 30 yards before he turned again and tried to get under the boat. Then the runs became shorter. The tail-lashing fury on the surface dwindled to heavy rolls. Pat laid the gaff ready across the thwarts, and soon there came the first gleam underwater of the white belly.
"You have him now," said Pat, but when he loomed out over the fish, gaff in hand, there were enough reserves left for a last despairing run in the shadow of the boat before he was on his side defeated, his great golden eyes looking up at the boat and the awful jaws unmoving. Pat slipped the gaff into the V, then used two hands to get him aboard. The fish lay quietly in the bottom of the boat, and I put the rod down. My hands were shaking. Pat got the hooks out and looked at the plug. "Didn't I tell you?" he said shamelessly. "It's the touch of blue that does it."
The Swedish plug took three more pike that afternoon, but where I wanted to be now was in Mooney's kitchen, getting the use of Mooney's scales. Any northern pike over 20 pounds is a trophy fish. Mine was certainly that, but I wanted to know precisely.
Twenty-six and a half it went, a hen fish, naturally. All big pike are, but when you are fighting one and it comes up in the water and shakes its great head at you, you can never think of it as anything but masculine.
"Look at the belly of it," said Mooney. It was loose and empty. "That fella had just started to feed when you hit him. If you'd given him half an hour you'd have had a 30-pounder on your hands."
It was still a fine fish, though, and we took it to the convent up the road. The nuns were glad to see it. It would make a great feast for the poor children, they said. At least I hadn't killed it just for the satisfaction of weighing.
All over Drumshanbo my pike was good news. That wasn't going to be the case in Ballymote. I drove back slowly, planning my excuses. I parked quietly and took as long as I could to change upstairs. But I couldn't stay in my room all evening. I had to face them in the bar.
"Did you do any good?" Jimmy Hogg asked me, polishing a glass.
"I, uh, had one or two," I said.
"Was there any size in 'em?"
"Biggest 26½," I muttered. "Six fish, average around 14."
"Is that right?" said Jimmy, flatly. "You won't be wanting the boat on Templehouse tomorrow, then?"
"Well, I thought it might be, uh, just worth taking a look at Allen again," I said. Most of that evening I watched television.
Pat and I had a small but appreciative crowd to see us off at the pier next morning. The word had got round. "If you get a nice little fella about six or seven pound would you bring it back for us, mister?" a small boy said. Next day was Friday, I remembered. Other, slower-thinking, boys pushed round to press their claims. "No more orders," said Pat. " 'Tis unlucky."
We fished the blue plug right from the beginning this time, and we took seven pike for the day, failing, however, to get one small enough to match our client's specifications. The biggest took the plug at 3:30 in the afternoon, almost at the same time the big one hit the previous day. This time it was a shorter, thicker fish that fought strongly but very dourly, keeping deep and sulking a lot and not showing itself until it was almost ready for the gaff. I had a pocket scale with me this time, so we didn't kill it. A shade over 25 pounds.
We put back the pike with care, and it sank slowly out of sight in the dark water. "They'd have made a fine pair," said Pat.
They would have, too, set up in a trophy room. The odds against taking two 20-pound-plus pike in two days must be very high. But I had other things on my mind.
"How the hell am I going to explain this one away back in Ballymote?" I asked Pat.
He kept a prim silence. It was not for him to comment on the shortcomings of pike fishing on the wrong side of the Sligo border.
I tried to carry it off as best I could. "Not so good as yesterday," I told them that evening. "More fish, but the biggest was 25."
The shoulders of the clientele, which had relaxed over pints of black stout at my first words, stiffened again. That evening I sat through the news in Irish, then a vintage Spencer Tracy movie, before retiring early for the night.
I was up early in the morning, too, all packed and ready. When I went down to breakfast Jimmy Hogg was waiting. He had a resigned look about him. "I had your bill made out early," he said. "I thought you might be wanting to leave."
I told him truthfully that I had never eaten finer T-bone steaks than those supplied in his restaurant. Somehow that didn't seem enough.
"I suppose you'll be moving across to Drumshanbo now," he said.
Only for one day, I assured him. The Canada geese had just started to fly into Allen. From Saturday on Pat would be out shooting.
"The pike are mere in Templehouse," Jimmy said.
"It's just that the water's colored," I told him.
"Big ones," said Jimmy.
"I'll have to come again," I said.
I didn't stop feeling guilty until I was 20 miles east and saw the first signpost for Drumshanbo. Then I realized the stupidity of apologizing for catching big pike.
As Pat and I dragged the boat down into the water, he said, "I hope you brought the plugs with you." I could see that the long process of converting the Irish had begun.
We fished blank for the first hour, then round a small complex of islands on the east shore we began to meet fish. By lunchtime we had boated seven good Allen pike. Secretly, though, I was hoping for the near impossible—a third trophy fish, to make three in three days.
Reading my thoughts, Pat said, "Wouldn't it be something to talk about if you got another big one?" I laughed deprecatingly. I was sure that voicing the wish would kill it stone dead.
Through the good hours of the afternoon we had no action, except when the smallest fish of the trip hung itself onto the Swedish plug. Slowly the light was beginning to fade, and the clouds were darkening over the Iron Mountain. "What about that funny-looking fella you showed me on Wednesday?" Pat asked.
"Is it this one?" I said, holding up the psychedelically colored Bump 'n' Grind.
"That's him," said Pat. "Give the Yankee bait a chance."
I snapped it on. We had maybe half an hour before the light went altogether. Skeins of gray geese passed over, calling like hounds in full cry. The wind had dropped. Pat picked up the dripping oars again, and we started to troll close in to the shore, where the bottom fell off steeply.
The rod tip checked, then came hard over. "This is the one," I said quite confidently to Pat. I could feel the weight in the fish.
By the time Pat got the gaff in him it was dark, and we homed in on a cottage light beside the pier. Ashore, I checked the weight by torchlight. The needle flickered just below the 23. "Call him 22½," I said. I waded in knee-deep and slid him back into the lake.
Later we sat in Joe Mooney's kitchen in the red light of a lamp hanging on the wall. "It's a shame, now," said Mooney, "that you wouldn't be going out again tomorrow."
"Pat's after geese," I said, "and I've been fishing long enough to know when to stop. You can't improve on the miraculous."
"In Drumshanbo," said Mooney firmly, "the miraculous has always been our specialty."