GREAT EXPECTATIONS

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

In more ways than one, Ryan Janssens bled his way across the UK fly fishing for pike. When he returned home, it was with a deeper, unexpected, piscatorial passion. Photos. Ryan Janssens, Stephan Dombaj

I’ve worked in the film and photo industry for close on 20 years now. A career which has taken me to some pretty incredible places. One of my most frequently visited spots has been the UK. Working behind a camera had me travelling there two to three times a month, pre-Covid, during our South African winter. On every trip I would lug around a 9-weight and box of flies tucked into my camera bag. I got some very strange looks from the models and stylists. But despite all that effort I never managed to sneak off from the crew for long enough to actually try my luck at fly fishing for pike in UK waters.

“I’m all about throwing big shit at fish that have anger complexes to see how pissed off I can make them.”

You see, ever since I watched the film about fly fishing for pike set in Alaska called A Backyard in Nowhere back in 2011, I’ve been obsessed. Big, ugly, bad-ass, toothy crocodile-looking freshwater barracuda, I’ve had pike higher up on my bucket list than some saltwater species, even a GT. What’s not to like? They are the absolute apex predator of freshwater and they eat some of the biggest flies you can throw. You know Kant’s line, “Know thyself”? Well, this is me as a fly angler. I have no time to stuff around trying to delicately place a size 20 something in front of a 3-inch trout and hope it doesn’t break my 2-pound tippet. I’m all about throwing big shit at fish that have anger complexes to see how pissed off I can make them. 

Fast forward through Covid and as the world felt like it was getting back to normal, a UK-based company invited me to the UK during the British summer to shoot their next campaign. This time I wasn’t going to mess around, I extended my stay by 10 days and started reaching out to as many people as I could think of to finally get my pike fix. 

Fly fishing for pike – sacrifices had to be made

The trip wasn’t going to be easy. I had to be able to move around, but my bags were full of camera gear before I even packed anything to fish with. Some sacrifices had to be made. No boots, tekkies would have to do. Definitely no waders. It was summer so I figured I’ll just fish in shorts and wet-wade, assuming that the reason Brits don’t do that is because they are not hardy like us Saffers and they don’t have magnificent pins like me.

I packed one 8-weight, one 9-weight, both a floating and an intermediate line, and a box of Game Changers and big articulated streamers that I had tied for a peacock bass trip that never happened. I’ll spare you the details but what followed was a painful marathon of planes, trains, tubes, automobiles and photo shoots (complete with heavily loaded bags) until eventually, four days later, I was finally within sniffing range of some fishing.

Salmon?

Stephan Dombaj of Fly Fishing Nation (above) comes into the picture right about here. I assumed that at the mention of a pike everyone would froth and jump at the opportunity to catch one of these toothy monsters, but for reasons that would only later become clear, no one seemed that keen. The general response seemed to be that they are “shitty, lazy fish”. Stephan was keen to meet up and fish with me, but he wouldn’t stop talking about how well their salmon season was going. I’d keep changing the subject back to pike, then he’d switch it to salmon, and on we went.

Up where Stephan and his fiancée Marina Gibson live, in the north of England, he had a monster pike reservoir lined up and had also organised access to a farmer’s private pond that hadn’t been fished in a year. But first he insisted I need to meet Fergus Kelley, the organiser of the London Fly Fishing Fair, who was going to be my first port of call for pike. 

Tekkies and chinos

Post-shooting, Fergus, myself and Andy Leek, a UK street artist, jumped into Fergus’s Mini Cooper with Union Jack tail lights (straight out of Austin Powers) and bombed out of London for two hours to a town called Biggleswade. The name seemed a little ominous for a small guy without waders. I got a bit of a weird look when I shared that I was wader-less, but I figured so what? It was summer, it was not that cold, and I was gonna be just fine. When I jumped out of the car and landed knee-deep in stinging nettles, it dawned on me what the waders are for. There were literally nettles everywhere, up to my neck in some spots. Dressed in tekkies and the chinos I brought just in case I got invited to dinner by clients, I looked and felt like a kook.

It wasn’t long before we were on the water, a tiny little creek that looked more like a trout stream, but which Andy assured me held loads of pike. Within minutes I had a Game Changer on and was letting it cruise past every visible piece of structure. I gave it a few seconds to sink and then stripped it back. Then I got stuck in the weeds. I stripped back the heavy chunk of weed against the current, then my line changed direction. Nothing was pulling so I felt I like was imagining things.

Box ticked

Nope, there was a pike on the end. He had taken the fly and given up before I even set the hook. A small fish, maybe 60cm or so, pulled like a wet sock and ended up in the net. That’s it? It was a pitiful effort on his part, but I figured it was an anomaly. I didn’t care, I’d ticked the box.

We fished Biggleswade for the rest of the day. Pushing our way through the nettles and picking up a couple of fish here and there. Some of them pulled a bit harder than others, but I can’t say I was impressed. Pike eats were great. Very visual and most likely to happen right at your rod tip. But after that I felt like a bully with a 9-weight. Still, it was a great day in the countryside. No huge fish but more than enough medium-sized models to keep the stoke up.

Back on the trains, six hours into the northern countryside, I met up with Stephan in Skipton. We headed to a spot called Raygill, a series of quarry-style lakes that double up as a duck-hunting venue during the hunting season. We were definitely in the countryside now, there was no more traffic and the crowds were replaced by livestock.

Follow the rest of Ryan’s journey in The Mission Issue 42 below. As always, and forever, it’s free.

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