Izaak Walton On Pike
By Tim Mead September 15, 2015

Izaak Walton - Author of 'The Compleat Angler
Izaak Walton - Author of 'The Compleat Angler

Izaak Walton, speaking as Piscator or the one who fishes, wrote, “The mighty Luce or pike is taken to be the tyrant, as the salmon is the king, of the fresh water.”

Walton published the first edition of his classic The Compleat Angler in 1653.   Over the years, he revised and lengthened it often, stretching the original 13 chapters to 21.   What Walton added over the years were quotations, songs or poems, and tales brought to his attention by others.   It became sort of a journal for Walton who plumped up the tale as suited his whimsy.

Among the fish Walton identified as worthy of an angler’s pursuit was pike.   Walton, with no experience of pike fishing in North America, did not add the modifier “northern.” Pike were in Walton’s day major fishing quarry in the British Isles, as they are today.

Pike, according to Walton, were tyrants of fresh water because “their life is maintained by the death of so many other fish, even those of their own kind.” Contemporary anglers, of course, recognize the forage behavior of pike as concentrated on other fish.   While perch, suckers and other smaller fish are the principal prey of pike, no doubt smaller pike fall victim to larger ones.   Pike, particularly big ones, are equal opportunity predators.  

Pike, Walton wrote, “will devour a fish of his own kind that shall be bigger than his throat or belly will receive.” Walton claimed pike digested part of their prey then swallowed the rest.   Whether there is any foundation for this observation, I doubt.   It is certainly true, however, as many pike anglers can attest, that pike will attack and can swallow prey far larger than most of us can imagine.   At Phelps Lake in northeastern Saskatchewan I’ve seen pike foraging among suckers averaging five pounds.

Esox lucius drawing
Esox lucius drawing

Walton reported on good authority that pike were a threat to more than other fishes.   He told of a farmer who went to a pond to water his mule, a pond devoid of fish save a monster pike.   As the mule lowered his head to drink, the huge pike seized the mule by the lips.   In turn, the frightened mule backed away and the farmer harvested the pike.   On equally reliable testimony Walton knew of a woman in Poland washing her clothes in a pond was bitten on the foot.   Other Walton sources knew of pike which challenged otters for carp.   Tyrant no doubt.  

Any barbershop in contemporary pike country will yield similar tales; not a tale the teller has actually seen, you understand, but a tale told on good authority.   When you listen to tales about monster pike (or other species) at the barber shop, remember such tales have an ancient pedigree.

Among the bits of genuine wisdom Walton offered for contemporary pike anglers was the observation, “Pikes will bite when they are not hungry; but, as some think, even for very anger, when a tempting bait comes near to them.” Further, according to Walton, pike had some sort of digestive juice, Walton called it “natural balsam,” other fishes lacked which made it possible to forage on critters others found fatal.   Pike were sufficiently voracious in Walton’s day he was assured a single pike could ingest two geese in a single feeding.   “And doubtless,” Walton wrote, “a Pike will bite at and devour a dog that swims in a pond….”

In one of Walton’s most insightful paragraphs, he wrote, “The Pike is also observed to be a solitary, melancholy, and a bold fish; melancholy, because he always swims or rests alone, and never swims in shoals or with company … as most other fish do: and bold, because he fears not a shadow, or to see or to be seen of anybody ….” While I am in no position to assess the melancholy of pike or any other critters, it is true that for much of the year trophy pike are loners.   And any pike angler who fishes regularly for them can attest to the boldness of the species.   At the same time, individual fish may be impossible to catch.   Many years ago, my older cousin Jack and I saw a pike in Lake Michigan two small boys thought a trophy.   Jack admonished me to watch the fish as he ran after a pole rigged with a lively minnow.   Several times Jack lowered the minnow ahead of the pike, only to have the fish back up.   Finally, the fish swam off toward deeper water.   Selective boldness.  

Pike, in Walton’s time, were mysterious fish.   Modern ichthyology was unknown.   Walton believed pike were generated from a species of pike weed.   He wrote, “…this weed and other glutinous matter, with the help of the sun’s heat, in some particular months, and in some ponds, apted for it by nature, do become Pikes.” Or, at another spot, pike “where none have been put into ponds, yet there have been found many; and that there has been plenty of that weed in those ponds, and that that weed both breeds and feeds them.”

Spontaneous generation, the notion that living things generated without parents, was an ancient idea.   Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher and often thought of as the first great scientist, supported the notion.   In turn, great theologians like St.   Augustine and St.   Thomas led Christian thinkers to endorse the idea.   Walton’s support for spontaneous generation put him will within the mainstream of contemporary thinking.  

Walton’s Piscator was ready with advice to Venator, his student, on how to catch pike.   Piscator lacked the advantage of metal spoons, plastic crankbaits, or soft jerkbaits.   Or revolving spool reels or monofilament line.  

Walton noted two methods of presenting bait to pike.   One he called the “Ledger-bait,” a natural bait tethered to a spot on the bottom with a weight while the bait was free to swim freely.   The other he called a “Walking-bait” which the angler could move about and keep “ever in motion.” Both methods are still common among pike anglers in Great Britain.  

Walton offered extensive instruction for rigging perch with what our contemporary pike anglers would describe as a “quick-strike rig,” admonishing his student not to injure the bait to an extent its mobility is impaired – advice well worth attention by today’s anglers.   Dad and I, in the 1950s and 1960s, often used perch as bait for pike.   And we rigged them very much with Walton’s advice, though I did not know it at the time, in mind.  

Frogs were Walton’s second choice for pike bait.   He rigged frogs much as he did perch, tying the frog’s legs gently to preserve the frog’s mobility.   Yellow frogs, Walton thought, best for pike.   Dad and I also used frogs for pike bait, but I did not like the way they pulled at the hook with their legs.

Dead baits were also among Walton’s pike fishing arsenal.   He told Piscator, however, that minimum instruction was required for the method, “for that method may be taught by one day’s going fishing with me.” But he did have a secret for fishing dead-bait for pike.   He claimed, “Dissolve gum of ivy in oil of spike, and therewith anoint your dead-bait for Pike.” Don’t all anglers have a secret?  

Walton provided extensive directions for preparing pike for the table.   He thought pike excellent fare.   Walton said, “This dish of meat is too good for any but anglers, or very honest men; and I trust you will prove both, and therefore I have trusted you with this secret.” Pike were among Dad’s favorite food.   And he was both an angler and a very honest man, deserving in Walton’s view, pike for dinner.  

Footnote: While the book is close to 400 years old, the ideas and concepts still apply.   A copy is available in a variety of formats from Amazon.com using this link.  Also a companion article on Izaak Walton is currently available on http://www.timmeadfishing.com, which was also written by Tim Mead.



      Click on the Paddles to e-mail Tim.

           Last updated on March 10, 2018