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"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.