This article was published in the October 2017 issue of The Countryman magazine
My first sighting of a pike was on a cold autumnal day made danker still by the location; a muddy towpath by a bridge whose underbelly and black sides dripped with water. Without warning the sunlight breached the chill and lit up the oil topped waters of the canal to reveal its’ depths. Suddenly I saw it: unnervingly large and with a predatory purpose. Most shocking was the face; its’ long snout deeply scarred and disfigured, with areas of empty blackness where parts of the jaw should have been. Just a momentary glimpse before, as if angry at such a lapse of concentration, it slipped Bill Sykes like back into the darkness. This killer of ducklings and psychopath at loose in all the waterways of Britain had done nothing to improve its’ reputation.
The pike’s reputation as a gratuitously violent bully comes from its’ appearance and behaviour. It is a predator that works by ambush; patiently lying in wait in the darkness and relying on surprise to launch an attack. The pike’s long body and pointed snout is designed for speed; once the predatory instincts are triggered an attack instantly follows. Intelligence and strength create confidence; we are both unnerved and impressed by the pike that fights the angler for a catch. Territory equals survival so is defended fiercely; other pikes are fellow hunters as well as tasty treats .We can now add “cannibal” to their reputation.
Size makes it a greater threat and creates advantage; large pike catch big prey and so grow faster. For anglers a big fish requires a large lure, and the pike will hit that territory invading lure with full on aggression .It is no disrespect to an angler that such an experience needs to be told, and that the words necessary to capture the experience fuel the pike’s notoriety.
The pike is also a victim of the contradictory behaviour of humans towards other animals. This is anthrozoology which looks at the interactions between humans and other animals; we like certain animals more if they look “nice” and are “cute”, or we feel a child- like helplessness in their big eyes. The pike is neither cute nor helpless; it also favours a fluffy duckling as a meal time treat.
Humans tend to project their morals and expectations onto others so we see the pike’s behaviour as immoral when really it is instinctive; attacks are the result of something triggering the pike’s predatory instinct. People bit while swimming or fishing is the pike confusing the person’s foot or hand with their normal prey. The pike, living on instinct and fiercely territorial, cannot have the luxury of hesitation so defends or tastes first and thinks later.
The pike is not designed for gratuitous attacks; it may have razor sharp teeth but their role is functional rather than psychopathic. The pike swallows prey whole so bites to hold not kill; the hold relinquished when the meal is not to their liking or a threat. The pike’s “anticoagulant” bite explaining why the slightest nip bleeds profusely and dramatically.
Ted Hughes encompasses the truth and solution to our confused relationship with the natural world in his poem about the pike. Making no apology for the violence of nature and hinting at parallels with the human world, it has the narrator reach an understanding of the natural scheme of things; how to live in harmony and not in judgemental superiority with the natural world.
The pike has never been a self- indulgent sadist or psychopath just a brilliantly evolved survivor designed for speed, predation and empire building. These notorious “freshwater sharks” are shy creatures hiding in the dark depths inadvertently mistaking fingers and toes for meals, or asserting a territorial right in a tussle with an angler and their catch.
Perhaps ultimately it’s about how hard they bit or what really happened….
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