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.