Steve Partner: Why the cloak of secrecy must remain

A week after news broke of the death of the 40lb-plus Boddington Reservoir pike, Steve Partner takes a look at who was responsible…

Here’s a moral dilemma for you. Imagine you’re a journalist, working for the leading national fishing publication, and you receive a call from an angler who says he’s just caught a 40lb-plus pike.

He gives you chapter and verse, sends over the picture via email and tells you exactly which day-ticket venue he caught it from.

Not much dilemma in that, I hear you say. But think about it.

If you take the obvious route and run the full story and name the venue, you won’t just be delivering a fantastic scoop – there is a damn good chance you will be playing a significant part in condemning that fish to death. And if that sounds melodramatic, evidence this week suggests otherwise.

I describe this scenario after the body of a pike in excess of 40lb was found washed up on the banks of Boddington Reservoir in Northampton.

In the early part of this year that same fish was swimming around, as it had done for years, growing fat on the neglect its anonymity provided. Six months later, after the captor opted to publicise the pictures, it was dead – the victim of angling pressure it found impossible to withstand. In very simple, very spare, but undeniably true, words – it was killed by anglers.

So, let’s briefly refer back to the original dilemma. Now what would you do? Still publish the full facts, or suppress your instincts and hide its whereabouts behind words like ‘undisclosed pit’ or ‘secret stillwater’, thus denying the reader – and would-be pursuer – the full picture? What seemed like an easy decision suddenly isn’t quite so straightforward, is it?

First things first. No blame at all can be attached to the man who first publicised the fish at such a huge weight. Stephen Davis, by his own admission, was a relatively inexperienced predator angler who was there in search of his first 20-pounder. To expect him, in what was probably his first and last brush with fame, to have either buried, or diluted, his news is unfair.

In the euphoric glow of success, the consequences of his honesty/naivety/stupidity (delete where you see appropriate) were probably a million miles away from his mind. 

So if he wasn’t culpable, who was? The ruthless glory hunters who descended on the venue with the sole purpose of adding a statistic to their personal best list, or the angling press for printing the details of the venue?

Openness in angling, particularly big-fish angling, is a rare commodity, with much of what is reported nowadays either distorted by the need to please sponsors, or hidden behind vague – and sometimes downright misleading – information. Not many dedicated specimen anglers like to give away all their edges and, perish the thought, the venue in which they caught their fish. Publicity is one thing, honesty quite another.

So when journalists do have the opportunity to tell their readership exactly where a specific fish came from, they naturally jump at it. To give the average man information that enables him the chance of targeting a giant fish, is to allow him a rare opportunity to gatecrash an increasingly elitist world. I know, because I’ve been there. 

But, with certain species like pike, I think different rules need to be employed. Rules that dictate discretion, secrecy even, should actively be encouraged rather than shunned. And, in individual circumstances, when the fish are huge and access is via day-ticket, a genuine need for complete ambiguity.

Why pike? Simple. They are not capable of withstanding heavy angling pressure, especially when the standard of angler can vary hugely. It’s not necessarily recaptures that kill fish, it’s accidents and incom-petence – two unavoidable bed-fellows in a side of the sport where so much metal work is employed - that are to blame. Using big treble hooks aren’t in themselves dangerous, but they can be in the wrong hands.

History is littered with examples of pike, and the waters in which they live, that have been destroyed when they’ve entered the public arena – and now it’s happened at Boddington too.

That particular fish had lived, like those in the other venues before it, more or less unmolested, for years, with only a handful of clued-up and local anglers aware of its whereabouts.    

Yes, those ‘in the know’ probably had a good idea of its existence (as they always seem to do where big fish are concerned), but the wider public were largely ignorant. If that had remained the case, the fish may well have still been alive today.

As an interesting aside, pike fishing is only allowed at Boddington between October 1 and March 31, so for the creature to turn up dead would indicate one of two things. Either coincidence is at play and it died of natural causes (highly unlikely), or it was the victim of poachers (highly likely). Given we’re talking about pikers here – a body of people with a reputation for cut-throat skull-duggery – I know where my money is.  

So what about other species? Don’t they deserve the same level of protection as pike? Not always, no. Take carp, the most sought-after fish of them all, for example. Almost an opposite mentality exists within this branch of the sport, with lake owners actively going out of their way to ensure maximum publicity for their most famous residents. The more people who know where individual carp live, the more anglers will come through the doors. And that means profit. Crucially, though, this doesn’t compromise the welfare of the stock because carp, and other cyprinids like tench, are extremely durable creatures. You only have to look at perhaps the most famous example, Benson, who was caught in excess of 60 times, to realise that fact.

Other species, of course, are still vulnerable. Barbel, particularly in the height of summer, require careful attention, and there is a level of care that should always be extended to all fish of specimen size. But pike are particularly susceptible for a variety of reasons above and beyond their physical state.

Firstly, big ones are an increasingly rare commodity nowadays and, as such, they are among the most coveted of all our specimen fish. A 30-pounder is, and always has been, a truly enormous predator, and the desire to catch one is consequently extremely high. Waters in which they live are normally either a closely guarded secret, or difficult to access, so when the whereabouts of a day-ticket venue becomes public knowledge, it comes under pressure. Not many anglers display a conscience when a 30lb pike is a target.

Secondly, despite what is written by many experts, pike – even big ones – are relatively easy to catch. They don’t wise up in the same manner as carp, barbel or even perch, and a well-presented livebait is something even a regular visitor to the bank finds hard to refuse. 

The death of the mighty Boddington Reservoir specimen should serve as a lesson. Contrary to the well-worn cliché, sometimes, it seems, honesty is not always the best policy.