Traditional country pursuits reimagined for a modern world
The pursuit of aggressive, beautiful and awe-inspiring killing machines in the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea with Matt Harris.
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Photographer / MATT HARRIS
It was 2am. Driving back to Berlin Schönefeld through the foul winter night, the wipers slashed ineffectively as the rain lashed savagely against the windscreen.
Either side of me, a vast forest of the impossibly tall wind turbines that sprawl across the remote plains of Northern Germany soared into the stormy sky. Their flashing red safety lights loomed through the rain and the low, purple storm clouds, creating a surreal, futuristic nightscape.
Ahead of me lay the balance of a wretched four-hour drive through this wild, stormy night, to make my 6am flight back home.
I should have been tucked up in bed at an airport hotel but instead had stayed on to enjoy one last day on the water. Perhaps I’d been mad to squeeze in an extra day of fishing.
But no, on reflection, I hadn’t. Not on your life. I took another deep draft of service station coffee, squinted through the rain, and thought about the pike of Rugen Island. Esox lucius.
The northern pike has held a special place in my heart since the very earliest days of my long fishing life. As a young lad, putting together that first crude combination rod and threading up the ridiculous springy mono that burst in uncontrollable, quick-tangling coils from my excruciatingly cheap little Intrepid reel, Esox lucius inspired awe and dread in equal measure.
My fevered imagination conjured images of the pike that swam in the darkest pools of the tiny River Frays – the stream that played host to my first stumbling efforts as a fisherman.
Like all young anglers of my generation, I imagined my first encounter with a pike with excitement, trepidation and not a little fear. What vast leviathan lurked in the reeds, skulking unseen and waiting to burst up through the surface to attack an injured roach, a dawdling duckling, or, perhaps, just perhaps, a young boy with a fishing rod...
Long before I’d even heard of tarpon, giant trevally or the monstrous arapaima of the Amazon jungle, I was pouring over pictures of fearsome, long-dead pike, rightly dispatched for the safety of all, and hung up like tigers for everyone to marvel at.
How I longed to catch one. I just didn’t know where to look.
Rugen Island clings to Germany’s northern shore. During the summer, half of Germany seem to descend on the little island for their holidays, but in the late autumn and early winter months, the place is abandoned, grey and bewitchingly wild.
Its sandy beaches and myriad coves and inlets are utterly deserted, and as such, they are a fisherman’s wonderland, surrounded as they are by the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea. And fish. Lots and lots of fish.
The Baltic is a strange anomaly. Bottled up by the Danish islands that crowd its mouth into the infamous Skagerrak, it is very much like a giant inland lake. It has little tide and little by way of salt either.
The upper layers of this shallow sea have a salinity of just 0.3 to 0.9 per cent. As such it plays host to not only cod, herring and flatfish, but also to huge shoals of bream and roach. Fed by these limitless whitefish stocks, a host of bristling perch and zander, and yes, some truly spectacular pike, await the adventurous angler.
There are hundreds of miles of shallow sandy flats all around Rugen, and knowing where to find the fish is a daunting proposition.
You can ‘Do-it-Yourself’ but I would strongly advise against it – there is every chance that you will go home empty-handed. Instead, find yourself a guide. The guide: my friend Bernd Ziesche.
Let me tell you a little about Bernd... I rarely run into a fly fisher who possesses the same degree of passion for the sport as I, but Bernd Ziesche is one such man. To give you an idea of just how keen he is, Bernd reckons that he will rack up 350 days of fly fishing this year. 350 days! Think on that!
Needless to say, Bernd is an absolutely obsessive fly fisherman and, in the true German tradition, he is relentlessly analytical and ultra-technical. His exhaustive studies involving slow-motion cameras have left him with controversial but very persuasive theories on the physics of fly casting. Bernd doesn’t just talk the talk: his excellent casting technique is testament to the veracity of his ideas.
His attention to detail extends to his kit and terminal tackle, and if you are interested in pike fishing with a fly rod, a few days with Bernd are an absolute education.
Crucially, he also knows where the pike are. Having fished Rugen for nearly 20 years, Bernd knows this vast fishery backwards. He has befriended many of the locals, and the tips that he receives from his friends on the ground prove invaluable. The pike of Rugen hunt in packs, and if you can locate them, you have every chance of a field day. They move around frequently, and every year – indeed every day – can be different.
As a result of his long years on the island, Bernd’s guiding services are hugely successful – this year every last one of his guests caught at least one pike, and he and his guests rattled up well over 1,600 pike – a remarkable figure given the short, two-month season.
Bernd will tell you that the trick with this fishing is to travel light. So, what do you need? Well, to start, a steely fast-actioned 9wt rod is perfect. Couple it with a solid reel, preferably featuring light, quick-change spools. I like to carry three spools with different fly lines so I can change the speed of the retrieve or fish in different depths of water. A full floater allows you to fish slowly or in the shallowest water, where even the biggest fish can be lying on warmer days. An intermediate tip is perhaps the most versatile, and a full intermediate is perfect for deeper water or faster retrieves when the fish are most active. Short, powerful tapers like the Rio Outbound are perfect for throwing big flies, but try to fish with the maximum of stealth. Couple this set-up with a line tray, a small wallet of flies, a spool of 25lb fluorocarbon, some titanium wire and some long, needle-nose pliers, and you have all you need. Sling a good waterproof rucksack over your shoulder, and don’t forget your camera.
There are special fish here.
Wrap up warm, don some neoprene mittens and make sure your waders are not leaking and that your jacket will keep you properly dry. Throw some extra layers in your rucksack. You might want to take a nip of something warming in a hipflask, too.
Let me tell you about that last day on Rugen, the day that meant I was now obliged to drive through the night to make my early morning flight.
We were out early, and it was still dark as we left the car and shuffled through the dense curtain of high reeds that bordered the shore.
The first blue light of the December dawn crept into the east as we stepped into the frigid waters of the Baltic, and waded through the shallows towards the drop-off. After long minutes forcing tired limbs through the knee-deep water, finally, the water deepened.
The three of us spread out, and lengthened our lines, sending the big, flashy flies arcing out over the surface. The water had chilled during the clear, frosty night, and, understandably, for the first hour or so, the fishing was slow.
We kept moving. As we edged along the drop-off, searching out the deeper water, the sun came winking through the leafless winter poplars behind us.
Suddenly, there it was... A big, aggressive boil, and then that classic wrenching grab. The first fish of the day.
People say that pike don’t fight. They should come to Rugen. The fish thrashed up through the grey waves, and then cartwheeled away towards the horizon. The steely 9wt was hooped over for a fair while, but slowly the crisp carbon did its work, and finally the lithe, lean predator lay snarling and sullen and beaten.
I heard a whoop of excitement and looked round to see my friend Bernd hooked up, too.
Our fish weren’t the big, metre-long beasts that we were hunting, but both were a handful, charging ferociously across the shallow flats before we could finally bring them to hand. Bernd hollered to his friend Hansi, a wonderful character – a warm old Rugen veteran whose English is even worse than my German. No matter – Hansi’s relentless smiles and laughter couldn’t be impeded by any language barrier, and we got on famously. He waded over and pulled out his little compact camera. We held up the lissome jack pike and mugged up for a picture.
So began the most astonishing session of pike fishing I have ever been fortunate enough to enjoy. Under Bernd’s expert guidance, we roamed a wide channel between two islands and ran into pike after pike. The gleaming sunshine disappeared behind a vast grey blanket of wintry cloud, and the lower light levels seemed to switch the pike on to attacking the myriad shoals of roach, sticklebacks and sculpin with even greater gusto.
Fish after fish came to hand, and finally, I found the fish I was looking for. Hunting a big fish, I’d changed up to a bigger, flashier fly, and it was the right move. First cast, a double figure fish came greyhounding through the surface after the fly. I abruptly stopped the retrieve – as Bernd advises – and the rod suddenly buckled around.
Armed with my new fly and the big dose of confidence that this first cast had given me, I worked my way along the drop-off into deeper water, and two more sizeable fish came to hand. There was no doubt that the larger fly was picking out bigger fish.
Two handsome fish of 95cm and 97cm followed, and then, finally, I had what is considered a Rugen trophy – comfortably over a metre long and around 18lb of gleaming green and gold killing machine. I reached out carefully and grasped the fish behind the head. Snugging my hand through the gill cover, my fingers found the one safe spot inside the pike’s toothy maw, and I lifted the fish’s head gently clear of the water to ease out the barbless hook.
Something stopped me. Suddenly, the frenzied excitement of the fishing fell away, and for a moment I was lost in awe at this visceral predator. “Killers from the egg” as Ted Hughes described them, and he was right – pike have a unique primal quality that, even when the fishing action is relentless and prolific, will suddenly stop you in your tracks. The ‘iron in the eye’, the ‘malevolent aged grin’ – the whole experience of looking at this perfectly evolved predator instantly transported me back to those innocent early days of my fishing childhood, dreaming of pike by the tiny little River Frays.
We fished on until dark, and even the rabidly keen Bernd had to drag me off the water. As I retrieved the fly one last time, yet another pike grabbed my offering and as I wrestled it in, I was grinning like an idiot, in the wind and the rain and the icy waters of the Baltic Sea.
Had I been right to squeeze in that last day? You bet. We caught well over 30 pike that day, and every one was special.
There really is nothing like a pike. Get yourself to Rugen next winter and catch one.
Matt Harris will be hosting a group with Bernd Ziesche next year – if you are interested in this or any of the other trips that Matt hosts, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact Bernd Ziesche directly, email email@example.com or call +491766849992
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