Ted Piggin 1900-1966
Ted Piggin was keeper of Hickling Broad (picture), one of the shallow lakes formed in medieval times by peat quarrying in the east of Norfolk. The Broads are popular leisure sites today, and Ted, who lived in the village of Hickling, worked for the Norfolk Naturalists' Trust which had bought much of Hickling Broad in 1945. The magazine British Birds reported (vol. 31, page 31) his appointment in 1945 as successor to the previous keeper, Jim Vincent, who had died.
Colin Willock (1919-2005), the television producer and writer on nature conservation, fishing and hunting, met Ted in 1961 and wrote an article based on Ted's anecdotes. He submitted the piece to the Sunday newspaper The Observer, which published it on October 22 of that year.
Willock describes catching four pike fish with Ted while the two of them were out on the lake during a gale. The trip began with an encounter with a water rodent, the coypu or nutria.
Something rolled like a porpoise and crashed in the reeds. "Damned old coypu," said Piggin. "Good day for pike, though. We'll get among the big stuff."
They made the outing in the same "toothpick" punt in which Piggin had 24 years earlier nearly managed to haul a record pike out of the water. Ted told a story about Jim Vincent, Ted's predecessor as keeper of Hickling Broad, who had been a famed expert on the pike, a big predatory fish that inhabited the lake and was much desired among sport fishermen.
"When I were a young chap," says Piggin "I could lift any weight you like to mention. With one hand. Well, old Jim hooks this pike at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of November 1937. I could see it was something special. Jim kept saying it was, and, mind you, it had to be extra special for him to say it was special. This chap in the other boat yells out: 'Hold hard, Jim. Remember the lads.' It were Armistice Day, see. Old Jim was as respectful as the next man, but he bawls back: 'I'm not forgetting the lads, but I'm not letting this booger get away neither.'"
"Well Jim and I never went the same two roads about nothing, though I'll allow he knew more about big pike than anyone before or since. He could smell 'em in the water. I rowed the boat for him for years, and gaffed most of his fish, but the one thing that drove me dotty was the way he used to talk. When we got this thing alongside - I could see it was at least 40 pounds - he would keep telling me what to do.
"'Don't scrape it up the side of the boat,' he says. 'Get your hand down to its tail and lift it out gentle.' I had the gaff in under its jaw lovely by then, never mind tailing it. Well, I told you I was strong, but I couldn't lift that fish with one hand. I'd have got it in the boat somehow if he hadn't kept niggling me. 'Don't bash it,' he shouts again, and while I were fumbling about trying to get hold of its tail, the old pike give one flip and he's away.
"Jim didn't say nothing - then nor never after. He knew it were his fault."
Willock described Piggin as "a tall, baldish giant with a complexion polished red by the razor blade winds of East Norfolk", adding, "When he talks of the giant fish of Hickling, the myths about pike which attacked bathers, bit off hands and killed horses by holding their noses under until they drowned seem almost believable."
While Piggin did not make any of those claims, he did tell stories which could beat any of the trumped-up "folklore" told by fishermen about their experiences with pike, and Piggin's stories were true, proven by witnesses and photographs, said Willock.
The broad at Hickling was scarcely more than 1.5 metres deep at any point, most of it shallower. Willock described the lake in almost magical terms thus: "It holds enormous shoals of bream which graze the bottom like sheep. Its pike are the wolves that raid this herd as and when they feel like it.
"Apart from the superabundance of bream meat, there is undoubtedly some special growth factor in the water, for the entire pike population was wiped out by an inundation from the sea, just before the (Second World) War. Vincent restocked the Broad with 61 fish." By the mid-1950s, the pike had multiplied.
Willock retold another Piggin story in indirect speech:
Ted Piggin's first experience with Hickling pike was enough to put anyone off for life. It was like a novice poker player being dealt four running flushes in a row.
His first strike produced a 20-pounder. Within 20 minutes he had had a 4- and a 9-pounder. Hardly were these tiddlers off the hook than an 18-pounder took him. While he was landing this, another pike came up and tried to grab the 18-pounder.
"It looked," says Piggin, as unemotionally as you might expect of a man who has been talked into letting a 40-pounder go, "as big as a pig."
The Vincent Method, as employed by Piggin using "a powerful 10-foot split-cane rod and a centre-pin reel loaded with 15-pound line," was then set out, more or less in Ted's words.
Jim Vincent evolved a method of luring Hickling pike which has never been beaten and which still bears his name. Piggin declares he cannot imagine why pike anglers everywhere don't use it instead of relying on a lot of fancy baits.
It is simply this: catch and kill some four-inch roach. Thread them on wire with a very large treble hook pulled in close to the vent. Make a long cast to your fish if you see him move: if not, search the deep holes and edge of the bream packs.
Ted explained to Willock how to reel the fish in.
"What we like in Norfolk," he says, "is a long, lazy wobble. I don't hardly touch the reel handles. Just a turn or two as I lift the rod point. That keeps the dead roach coming in nice and staggery. If I see the old pike swirl, I stop winding and let him have it. I give him time to catch hoId, then don't I just pull the hooks home.
"Some of the big 'uns don't fight much. The little fellers - 15 pounds or so - are the game boys. I don't reckon to have any pike on for more than seven or eight minutes, I like to see 'em in the boat. Then you know you've got 'em."
Piggin is convinced that the big fish hunt and live in definite spots just as in a river. He says he once watched a 15-pounder, whose lair he'd spotted, catch and eat a pike practically its own size. The whole meal lasted a week, at the end of which only the tail was left.
Piggin, whose job included looking after the preserves of the Norfolk Naturalist Trust (now known as the Norfolk Wildlife Trust) at Hickling, had a "naturalist's" regard for his quarry in the opinion of Willock, who also saw no contradiction between nature conservation and hunting.
"I've never killed a big pike, nor never will. We don't went fish killers here. I had a chap come out with me once that ripped a 20-pounder open with a gaff so as he could take it home. I reckon he was soft in the head. Soft as winder lead. He never come out with me no more. When I've beat 'em I like to see 'em swim away and I say: 'Good luck to you old feller.'"
© Jean-Baptiste Piggin 2000-2009
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