Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The jack


In a previous paper[1] I have spoken of the extreme voracity of all fish, and of some fresh-water species in particular, and indeed the magnitude of the subject, “fish,” requires little apology for its re-introduction. I have mentioned in the paper to which I above allude that the voracity of the fish known as the pike, or jack, is something almost astounding, and as it is now the season for taking this river tyrant, it is also the fittest time for inquiring into its natural history.

The jack, pike, or luce, as it is sometimes termed, is common to all European and American waters (whether rivers, lakes, ponds, or other bodies of water, provided only such be fresh); but the largest fish of the kind ever taken are those of the American rivers and lakes. The Danube is also famous for its fine jack, as are some of our own Cumberland and Westmoreland lakes, and the Thames itself abounds in these fish, but they do not run to the size at which they are found in the lakes and rivers referred to above. Jack—for I will so term them—may be, and are, caught throughout the year, excepting in the “fence” or spawning months; but their proper season is from September until the end of February, when they separate into pairs for the purpose of reproducing their species. In the autumn they afford fine sport to the angler, as they will take almost any bait greedily throughout the day, whereas in the warm, sultry months they are lazy and disinclined to feed, excepting only very early and late. From September until March the angler may take his four to six brace in good waters without much difficulty; but be it understood October is the month of all others best suited to the sport; indeed it is the best month throughout the year for fishing of all sorts, both in salt and fresh water, except for trout, salmon, or mackerel, although the last-mentioned (which, by-the-way, are now called “Michaelmas mackerel”) are taken in considerable quantities with the herrings. October is the harvest-month for both sea and river fishermen, and in fresh water especially, now that the weeds are decaying and being carried away, there is (with the exception only of trout and salmon) no fish that is not in first-rate condition and season for sport.

The jack is taken in various ways with hook and net (the latter being unworthy of all true sportsmen, and only excusable when practised by those whose livelihood depends on the quantity of fish they take), but the methods most in use with anglers are “trolling,” “spinning,” “live-bait fishing,” and “snap fishing.” The first and second are those generally preferred, but the “live-bait” fishing is, in my opinion, the most exciting, and is consequently the one I myself practise. There is but little real sport in either “trolling” or “spinning,” for in the former the poor jack so gorges the bait that escape is next to impossible, and in the latter so many hooks are used that it is a hundred to one no fish once hooked gets away. I prefer myself—and so I am sure do all true sportsmen—to give the animal or fish I endeavour to capture a fair chance of escape, or, in other words, fair play, which is the true principle of all sport. In live-bait fishing for jack the same means are used as for perch, only that your cork float must be larger, as must the hook, and this latter must be gimp-fastened, as the jack would make short work of gut. Of course a larger bait is used for jack than for perch, and, indeed, at this period of the year, a large bait is rather “killing” than otherwise. I have taken jack with a roach of almost half-a-pound weight, still I do not recommend so large a bait as a rule. A very fine gudgeon or a small dace is the best bait of all—the latter especially attractive. I have taken jack at the foot of Walton Bridge almost at pleasure with this bait at this time of the year. Some people have been so cruel as to use a small perch for a bait, after cutting off its back fin, the formidable spikes of which deter a jack from seizing it. This is a piece of unnecessary barbarity, for the dace, gudgeon, and roach are all more attractive baits to the jack than the perch is. I may here remark that a live-bait can be put on the hook through the upper lip or back fin without causing the little creature any more pain than we ourselves suffer from cutting our nails. The only cruelty to the bait is in the moment of suspense and terror it endures when the jack flies open-mouthed towards it, and it finds itself unable to escape. As, however, the jack takes its prey by the head in most cases, death immediately ensues, and the little fish’s sufferings are soon ended. I remember one instance (mentioned in the number of this periodical before referred to) where a jack seized a large chub by the head without injuring the latter. That, however, was altogether a most singular and exceptional case. To describe in these pages the methods of taking the jack to which I have alluded, would be little better than to inflict a treatise on angling on my readers, whom I must therefore refer to an “Angler’s Guide” on the subject, which may be procured at any respectable tackle-shop.

The size to which this fish attains in British waters varies from half a pound to twenty-five pounds, but all fish under a pound weight should be thrown back into the water. The average size is from three to seven pounds. One was recently caught in one of our northern lakes (Windermere) weighing thirty-seven or thirty-eight pounds, and this would be esteemed an uncommonly fine fish. On the Continent forty pounds is a not extraordinary weight for a large jack. I have alluded to taking one of six pounds in a curious manner when fishing for perch in the Isis, and I may mention that the father of the writer took a jack of eleven pounds weight in Walton Deeps when angling with a single gut line and perch hook. The fish was preserved, and is in the possession of my family. The Thames, from Walton to Henley, is an especially good fishing-ground for jack, and Shepperton, Reading, Wargrave, Marlow, Medenham, Henley, Walton, and Weybridge are particularly noted.

Extraordinary instances are on record of the excessive voracity of the jack, one of which, well authenticated, is to the effect that a fish of large size seized by the head a swan, which was feeding on some aquatic plants, when the one was suffocated and the other choked. Good old Isaac Walton tells a somewhat doubtful story of a girl who, whilst washing her feet in a river in Poland, was seized by a jack; as, however, the famous “brother of the angle” was, it must be owned, somewhat addicted to “stretching the long-bow,” I place little reliance on the probability of such an occurrence, although it is possible that the good man (who was also exceedingly credulous) may have implicitly believed the “tale as ’twas told to him.” I have myself seen a large jack seize ducklings from a piece of water, and I have mentioned that a comparatively small fish taken by me had, amongst the other contents of its stomach, a king-fisher and a young rat or mouse. It has also been, I believe, proved that a jack caught in Bavaria contained the watch and seals of some drowned person. This I the more readily believe as I have taken buttons out of the inside of cod-fish, and I have in my possession a sailor’s rusty pocket-knife, also taken from the inside of a cod-fish in my sight, and I may add that I have caught hundreds of these fish, and that the curious contents of some of them were incredible. Experienced as I am in fish and fishing, I am continually encountering some new surprise or making some fresh and astounding discovery.

One word more with regard to the jack. The jack proper should be under five pounds weight: over that it is termed a pike; anglers, however, usually in conversation speak of these fish of all sizes as “jack,” and hence I have used that term throughout this paper. Jack are sometimes taken with night-lines, called “trimmers,” baited with a small fish, which method, however, is but little better than poaching, and should never be practised unless a piece of water be overstocked with large jack, and the renter of it, to preserve his other fish, has recourse to the “trimmer.” “Trimmers” are usually set in the neighbourhood of a mill-wheel, a spot in which jack, trout, eels, and perch all delight. “Hoop” nets are also used for the taking of jack, and are so constructed as to admit fish, but not to allow them to return against the stream. They are sunk with heavy stones, and left down all night. A very fine jack, weighing nearly twenty-six pounds, was thus taken in my presence in the May of the year 1854 by Mr. Lipscombe, of Godstowe, and was afterwards exhibited in Oxford. Large perch are taken in “hoop nets,” but I cannot refrain from saying that the practice is most reprehensible, and calculated to spoil the angler’s amusement, as the largest fish are invariably those taken in the “hoop” nets.

Since penning the above remarks I have seen a small jack, not three pounds weight, caught near Windsor, which contained two smaller fish of its own species, an instance of the singular voracity of the jack, which curious trait I have before spoken of. The bait used for catching this particular fish was a minnow; indeed, the angler was perch-fishing at the time. With anecdotes of the voracity of many fresh-water fish I could fill a volume, as I have made notes for my own pleasure when extraordinary instances of it have come under my observation, and indeed have studied fish and their habits all my lifetime. I am sure that I could relate many facts concerning the jack alone that only a very close observer of Nature would have discovered, and can number the fish I have taken by scores of hundreds.

Jack mostly delight in still deep water, especially such as is to be found near a mill-pool, or under the arches of a bridge. Where the water-lily is abundant there you will find this fish to a certainty, and where the weed known as “jack-weed” (from the circumstance that it is always found where there are jack) is plentiful, good sport for the jack-fisher is invariably the rule, rather than the exception. Jack have sometimes been found where it was known there had previously been none, that is to say, in a piece of water not before containing a single fish. This I apprehend is by water-fowl in some manner conveying the spawn from one water to another. Waterfowl all greedily devour the spawn of fish, and whilst so engaged it is not impossible some of it should adhere occasionally to their feathers, and be conveyed from one body of water to another without the bird itself being aware it was the medium of conveyance.

The jack is by no means unpalatable when properly cooked, and I subjoin an excellent recipe for attaining this desirable end. Take a jack of not less than three pounds weight, clean and scale him well, but do not leave him long in water afterwards, as some do, or the flesh will get flabby. Then stuff with sweetherbs as you would a fillet of veal, and (if you like) add onions, shredded very fine. Cover with a rich brown gravy (beef), and bake till done. When done, add more gravy, and two tablespoonsful of good port wine, and a little allspice. Serve very hot, with mashed potatoes, and slices of brown bread-and-butter. Or you may use plain melted butter, and a little parsley or fennel, as for mackerel, of course omitting the wine. Haddocks may be similarly cooked, and a jack so dressed is a dish that need only once be tasted to secure a repetition of its appearance on the table. Many other ways of cooking the jack are made use of, but none are so successful. Having thus brought my fish from his native element to the table of my readers, I there leave him to be discussed by them at their leisure. May “good digestion wait on appetite!"

Astley H. Baldwin.