It was a strange place. On the bus, as you headed there, you went by a steelworks, a power station and the cooling towers of a huge oil refinery and then the detritus of an earlier industrial age, the ruins of a copper-smelting works. Almost as soon as you stepped off the bus everything changed. You went under a little bridge to reach the towpath, and then the rising hills on one side of the canal and the acres of yellowing reeds on the other cut off that other world. It was an enclave of peace.
I knew there were pike in the canal. The previous summer I had walked along the towpath and had seen the explosive swirls in the water as my shadow went ahead of me. I had also spotted the dynamic, rakish profiles of small pike against the weed beds. As I worked along the path that Boxing Day, I got colder, my fingers numbed by the constant need to clear the dripping weed from my plug. The wind dropped, the water looked lifeless, a cold, dull gray, and the Phantom seemed ridiculous, all too clearly an artifice of man.
After an hour, nearly ready to give up, I reached an open pool, almost clear of weed, spanned by a dark bridge. Out went the little blue minnow again and I retrieved it. spinning jerkily only a few inches under the surface.
Then, flamboyantly, in a splashing, dramatic flurry, a great dappled shape lunged sideways at the bait. I yanked my rod back wildly and the Phantom flew over my head. In a moment, there was only the foam on the water and I was shaking spasmodically.
I cast again and retrieved as before. The weeds and the water remained unstirred. Another cast. This time, as the Phantom crossed the pool, in as undramatic a fashion as its previous appearance had been violent, a long dark shape slid out of the weeds, absorbed it and stayed there, looking at me. it seemed, with a wide, pikey grin.
I did everything wrong. I was too gentle with it at first, then too rough. But I had him out in the end, hauling him into some dead reeds, dragging him out by the tail. My first pike. My first Boxing Day pike of many.
The bus was crowded, standing room only. I was happy to find. It was like a Roman triumph. I was feted beerily by the rugby fans on board. At home the fish was laid out on the kitchen table. The neighbors came in to look. Pike were not commonly encountered where I lived, otherwise a 10-pounder. as this one proved to be, might not have been the object of such wonder.
It was a long time before I caught another. Soon after Boxing Day that year, the canal froze over, and it stayed that way until the pike season ended in March. On opening day of the new season, June 16th, I was there again and found many pike. They were on the surface, belly-up and bloated, because the peaceful enclave was no more. The spring and summer had been dry, an official drought had been declared. The steelworks had decided it needed the canal water, and had pumped it down to a series of shallow, muddy puddles. I hauled the biggest pike out and weighed it. Nineteen and a half pounds, nothing to speak of compared with the Green Devil standards to come. But at the time it was the biggest pike, the biggest fish, I had ever seen. And I never thought I would see its like again.
I didn't for some years, until we moved from the city to rural Pembrokeshire, on the last southwesterly peninsula of Wales. I scarcely met another pike fisherman, let alone pike, until, down there, I came on the Green Devil worshipers. That gave me a long time to nurture an obsession.
It is not extraordinarily difficult to become obsessed with pike. "More lies have been told about the pike than any other fish in the world," declared the great Victorian ichthyologist, Frank Buckland. The all-time champion lie was perpetrated in Mannheim, Germany. The Mannheim pike, from Kaiserweg Lake, was said to have grown to a length of 19 feet when it was captured in 1497. What is more, it was 267 years old, something easily verified by the inscription on a brass ring found attached to its gills. Translated from the Greek, it read, "I am the first fish that was placed in this pond by the hand of Frederick II, Governor of the World, on the 5th October, 1230."