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The Devil at Yuletide
Clive Gammon
December 24, 1979
As surely as Boxing Day follows Christmas, the four Welsh boys knew that an enormous pike lurked in the deep waters under the Eight-Arch Bridge—and they meant to catch it
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December 24, 1979

The Devil At Yuletide

As surely as Boxing Day follows Christmas, the four Welsh boys knew that an enormous pike lurked in the deep waters under the Eight-Arch Bridge—and they meant to catch it

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The ring and the skeleton of the fish were exhibited in Mannheim Cathedral for many years before it was noticed that a large number of extra vertebrae had been added.

If it was no longer possible to go to the canal on a Boxing Day, the story of the Mannheim Pike made fine Christmas reading, as did that of the pike of Lillishall Pool, Newport, Isle of Wight, included in the fourth edition of Sir John Hawkins' The Complete Angler, published in 1784. It was a mere 170-pounder, and it stood out from the ranks of other fictitious middleweights only by virtue of the throw-away paragraph with which Sir John ended his account: "Some time ago the clerk of the parish was trolling in the above pool when his bait was seized by this furious creature, which by a sudden jerk pulled him in, and doubtless would have devoured him also, had he not by wonderful agility and dextrous swimming escaped the dreadful jaws of this voracious animal."

Naturally I did not believe any of this stuff, but I would have stood up anytime for the 72-pound Loch Ken, Scotland pike, the 60-pounder washed ashore after a storm on a lake near Ballina, Ireland, and other monsters of 50 pounds and more that were (and remain) unrecognized by any fish-recording body. Denied the reality of pike fishing, I became a pike romantic.

And always I saw the fish in a wintry, Christmas context. I never found a pikey Christmas card: the fishing ones were always absurdly unseasonable, featuring men in plaid shirts and high boots fly-fishing for trout. A true card for the fisherman would have shown the primrose dapplings of a great pike—the cruel, undershot jaw, the golden eyes against a background of new snow—and with it, for color, a classic red-and-silver pike spoon. And maybe a champagne cork or two.

The tradition of pike fishing on a Boxing Day was certainly not mine alone. Part of it, if you read 19th-century fishing books, was that you saved the champagne corks from your Christmas dinner and used them as live-bait bobbers next day.

I think it was Francis Francis, one of the great mid-Victorian angling writers, who declared that the loud pop a champagne cork makes as it is pulled violently under the surface by the strike of a big pike is more joyous and seasonable than the pop you get when you open the bottle on Christmas Day.

The Mannheim pike, champagne corks and the rest of it became like a half-remembered, feverish dream when I came to real winter pike fishing again, five years following my retrieval of the 10-pounder from the canal. That was when I left the city and went to live in Pembrokeshire.

The Lily Pools are only six miles from the little town of Pembroke. On the map the water looks like three fingers joining a central pool—the palm of the hand, if you like. Until the beginning of the 19th century it was not a lake at all but a tidal creek. The local landowner. The Earl of Cawdor—this was during the height of the Napoleonic Wars—feared the French might sneak in from the sea one night and attack him. It was not a completely unreasonable fear; it was he who in 1797 had led the Pembroke Yeomanry at nearby Fishguard to repel a somewhat comic-opera French force in the last invasion of British soil. So he blocked off the creek with a dam. Three little fresh-water streams flowed in and made a lake. A clergyman planted the lilies, but no one knows who stocked it with fish: yellow perch, roach (a fish not unlike a shiner) and pike.

The first time I went to the Lily Pools it was to walk the shoreline, not to fish. That would have been in the fall. Much of the water was of extraordinary clarity. Vivid green weed covered the bottom except for a series of clear patches that extended in a chain down the middle.

I had followed a path through furze bushes that ran along one side of an arm of the lake and then rose high, until it emerged onto short, sheep-cropped turf that covered a high limestone bluff from which it was possible to look down, from about 80 feet, into a kind of natural aquarium.

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