At barely twelve years of age, our eldest son, Kristopher, has barred his mother from the bathroom while he bathes. No longer will he allow her to choose his clothes or see him without any. My wife grieves privately at this partial loss of her firstborn. Her second- and third-born, TJ and Steven, although a respective nine and ten years of age, still cling like limpets. Last week I caught her brushing their teeth while they screwed up faces she'd probably washed as well. My wife hovers around these boys like some manic maternal tick-bird - a role she fulfils literally each time we get another headlice letter from school. Her Irish ancestors have a phrase for such devotion: "She won't let the wind blow on them".
Kristopher is on his way to manhood, though, and there's nothing on this earth that will stop him. What started with the passing of his Cycling Proficiency Test, will culminate in the responsibilities of parenthood and mortgage. He's not much removed from the cycling test at the moment - a couple of swimming certificates and a teenage spot have come and gone - but Kristopher took another step up the staircase of life today; he caught his first pike.
Let the fashionably correct wince at my son's passion for fishing. His mother winced, too, and a fat lot of good it did her... The boy is utterly consumed by angling, as are most of his friends. Catching large fish has now replaced life-threatening rollerblade stunts as the standard by which these boys are judged.
Kristopher's pre-pike standing was depressingly low. After months of angling devotion, his credentials comprised two tiny bream, four macaroni-sized eels and a hundredweight of assorted whitebait masquerading as gudgeon, dace, roach and perch which, as you know, just don't cut it on the street these days. Kristopher badly needed a 'happenin" fish.
To compound Kristopher's misery, TJ went and caught himself a pike. Our middle son only got into fishing because he was jealous when his older brother got loads of new stuff. TJ's refusal to impale a maggot or remove a fish from the hook soon made him more trouble than he was worth on the riverbank, so Kristopher tied a wobbly lure on TJ's line and told him to sod off with it.
Twenty casts and nineteen and a half retrieves later, TJ's squeals had us running from all directions. By some miracle, he had a 41b pike beached and beaten at the water's edge, the hastily tied lure still jangling in its upper lip. Oh deary, deary me..! Kristopher smiled the smile of the outvoted Oscar nominee, while his mates told TJ how 'well cool' his fish was.
Next morning our wee baby, Stephen, caught one. I practically had to tether him to prevent lift off, of course. Kristopher's life meant nothing now, but he doggedly flipped out every lure in his tackle box, plus a few new ones I'd bought him on the sly. Nothing... not a tweak for a solid fortnight.
There was no escape for Kristopher, and his siblings played him without mercy. The permanent brotherly squabbles that compose the theme tune of our life, were now remixed with bouts of silence - no matter what the subject of the argument, it would be killed stone dead by:
"Well at least I've caught a pike." End-of... Knockout... Goodnight, Vienna.
My boy took this like a man: he cried, sulked, lost his temper and drew a pair of boobs on Stephen's Action Man. It was pure torture to watch and there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it. I gave him a fiver, which has always helped in the past, but not this time because he spent it on yet another pike lure which didn't lure pike.
Thus, this morning dawned without promise or purpose. Sunday is now fishing day even though my wife had absolutely forbidden us to go, due to the devastation Kristopher's quest for a pike has caused to his homework, his room and the well-being of his hamsters. At first light I pulled rank on my wife and woke the boys. They were ordered not to wash but to grab their fishing gear and meet me at the family Citroen in five minutes. They made it with three minutes to spare, which hinted that the no wash deal wasn't entirely new to them.
At the lake Kristopher hit the ground running. He'd chosen a particularly sickly looking lure, the flanks of which he'd scraped with his penknife to give it the impression of a previously bullied sort of fish. The lure bristled with treble hooks that swayed and twitched enticingly with every turn of the reel handle. Its aquatic rumba had been scientifically designed to invite pike onto its dance card.
With his brothers lobbing their own lures at safe distances from him, Kristopher trolled the ill fish past a raft of lily pads. Then he tried the deep water in front of him, then accidentally up a tree for a frustrating minute or two, then back to the lilies. Time and time again Kristopher's little head slowly shook and his bottom lip stuck out as the lure snagged nothing but strands of weed.
Then: 'Oh yesss..! I'm in!" signalled the take of a pike that, although undoubtedly sent by the Almighty to save my son, hadn't fully read the script and plunged straight into the tungsten-tough stalks of the lily forest. "You'll never get it outa there, Kris!" and, "Gutted or wot?" - his brothers offered their sincere encouragement. I just prayed to any god on duty at the time.
"Someone's going to have to wade in and net it, Dad." Were they now..? I wonder who that would have to be, then? The water where the pike now squatted was exactly crotch deep - all sorts of tackle would be on offer if I was forced to meet this lavishly-toothed predator on its own territory I was just about to go into "Why me?" mode when Kristopher coaxed the pike from its lily lair and had it heading for the landing net. I executed a deft scoop, a brief prayer of thanks, and my son and heir could hold his head high once more. The pike was caught, the glory was his.
"'S bigger 'n yours by miles!" Kristopher told his brothers, somewhat less than gracious in victory.
"I still caught the first one," TJ would not let the triumph be absolute.
"And I'm only nine," Stephen settled for playing the age card.
That was it really. We had photos and congratulations. I got bitten on the thumb while removing the hooks, then the pike was safely released. Kristopher punched the air, and received grudging high-fives from his brothers. Then we all packed up and went to McDonalds for breakfast - and we still got back before my wife woke up and caught us!
Tell me a better way to spend a Sunday morning!
(This article was previously published in Carp-Talk Number 175, 8th November 1997)