Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Devil at Yuletide

As surely as Boxing Day follows Christmas, the four Welsh boys knew that an enormous pike lurked in the deep waters under the Eight-Arch Bridge—and they meant to catch it

In the moonlight, John Lindenburgh, 19 years old, tall, thin, beak-nosed like a heron, stood swaying on the parapet of the Eight-Arch Bridge. This was on Christmas Eve or, more likely, Christmas morning, about 30 years ago.

A wild, dramatic night, fine flying weather for vampires, with tattered clouds scudding across the sky, the moon flashing on like a strobe light in the gaps, the lake pale fire. High above it, like a demented high priest, Lindenburgh invoked the wrath to come.

"Green Devil!" he howled. "Green Devil! John is after you, Green Devil!"

Not one of our group—Lindy, myself, Devan, Roy—would normally have thought of calling directly to the Green Devil like that. He lived in the deep, cold water of the Lily Pools, in the shelter of the middle span of the old stone bridge that crossed a thin arm of the lake. But now, the Newcastle Brown Ale still gurgling inside us after the party, we had moved into a kind of cleansing ritual.

A West Wales farmhouse party it had been. We had insinuated ourselves into its company at closing time at the Hope Inn. A company? Yokels in their best suits, broad-bottomed girls; that was how we saw them now, performing their clodhopping, boozy dances in the musty parlor of the farm.

"Nothing here for us," Devan had muttered, casting a cold eye over the girls, who were all too plainly spoken for.

"Except the ale," said Lindy. So we savaged their stock of Newcastle Brown and left, clearly unregretted, roaring off in Roy's father's Armstrong Siddeley with two gallon jars of the liberated Brown and a bowl of nuts. And on the way home somebody suggested we stop by the Lily Pools and wish the Green Devil a happy Christmas.

To begin with, that was all we had done: sit on the bridge, drink the ale and throw walnuts to him. The change of mood first made itself felt in Lindy, the senior man, newly a clerk at the National Bank in Pembroke Town, so far the only one of us to earn a salary.

He stood up on the stonework, and the wind tore his raincoat back from his bony frame so that it fluttered like a magician's cloak, and commenced his invocation of the legendary Green Devil.

We stopped throwing nuts. We almost expected a sign, if not Excalibur raised from the lake by an arm clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, then at least an ominous bulging of the water and the split-second revelation of a great tail cleaving the surface. But there was only the slap of frothing wavelets against the bridge.

Northern pike, even duck-gobbling, tackle-smashing pike in the category of the Green Devil, 50 pounds and more of him as we devoutly believed, do not respond to such inspired callings-up from the deep as Lindy invoked. But he continued, swaying dangerously, holding his pint pot on high. "Green Devil," he intoned. "Coming to get you! Coming to get you Boxing Day!"

One thing was certain. Boxing Day was the earliest moment when Lindy could imperil the Green Devil. For the next 24 hours or so he was in no danger whatever, because Christmas Day loomed. Whatever uncondoned foolishness we might get into on Christmas Eve, not one of us would be able to escape the bosom-of-the-family ritual of Christmas Day, beginning with the pre-breakfast assault of the carol party from the Methodist chapel belting out "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night," ringing the front doorbell and wanting money. Then the present-opening, a nice ginger-colored tweed jacket, maybe—how suitable—and the stultifying, gargantuan dinner in the middle of the day. Then the afternoon and evening of visits to, visits from, unspeakable aunts, decaying uncles, the tiny glasses of sherry or port offered along with the daunting plate-loads of mince pies and Christmas cake.

Yes, but if you could live through all that, what lay ahead was Boxing Day, good old Boxing Day.

The odd name has nothing to do with pugilism. Boxing Day was, in the old days, a time to hand out Christmas presents—or "boxes." It also has a lot to do with sport in general: it is traditionally an outdoors day, the one on which you brushed away the post-Christmas cobwebs. The brutal common ancestor of soccer, rugby and football would often be played then, a bloody affair with the "goals" two neighboring villages. Any number could play and there were no rules, though plenty of broken limbs.

Many important soccer games are still held in the cities in England on Boxing Day, and in the country you still can see the Fox Hunt meet and follow it on horseback or on foot. The day is a public holiday, of course. If it falls on a Sunday, you get Monday off.

The only Boxing Days I failed to enjoy were some early ones, between the time I was nine, maybe, and until I was 14 or so, roughly the time span between knowing what you could do and being allowed to do it. In this period, Boxing Day was a kind of extra Sunday and you didn't even get to go to the rugby game because the crowd would be too big. By Boxing Day the wheels would have come off a fair percentage of your Christmas stuff, and the stores were closed so you couldn't use the gift certificates or spend the money the lazier aunts had sent.

The worst Boxing Day was when I was 11 or 12, the year I got the chemistry set, a fine one with test tubes and rack on rack of colored crystals and salts. Also a Bunsen burner with a red rubber tube for fixing to the gas outlet.

We had no gas outlet.

You could use a spirit burner, the book said. I had nothing like that, but aunt money could be used to get one. Only this was a year when Christmas Day fell on a Saturday. No hardware store would be open until the Tuesday. It was one of the lowest blows I can remember. Happily, a couple of years later I had discovered the northern pike and its abiding connection with Christmastime.

That was the Christmas that my grandfather, who had taken me fishing with him once in a while but was now bedridden, gave me the Phantom Minnow, a 2¾" Blue and Silver, as the catalogue said succinctly. He gave me more than that, in fact. There was also an Alcock-Stanley, one of the first-ever spinning reels, which he had loaded with silk line. I already had a rod—a cut-down, green-heart fly rod. On Boxing Day I took the whole outfit up to the canal.

It was a strange place. On the bus, as you headed there, you went by a steelworks, a power station and the cooling towers of a huge oil refinery and then the detritus of an earlier industrial age, the ruins of a copper-smelting works. Almost as soon as you stepped off the bus everything changed. You went under a little bridge to reach the towpath, and then the rising hills on one side of the canal and the acres of yellowing reeds on the other cut off that other world. It was an enclave of peace.

I knew there were pike in the canal. The previous summer I had walked along the towpath and had seen the explosive swirls in the water as my shadow went ahead of me. I had also spotted the dynamic, rakish profiles of small pike against the weed beds. As I worked along the path that Boxing Day, I got colder, my fingers numbed by the constant need to clear the dripping weed from my plug. The wind dropped, the water looked lifeless, a cold, dull gray, and the Phantom seemed ridiculous, all too clearly an artifice of man.

After an hour, nearly ready to give up, I reached an open pool, almost clear of weed, spanned by a dark bridge. Out went the little blue minnow again and I retrieved it. spinning jerkily only a few inches under the surface.

Then, flamboyantly, in a splashing, dramatic flurry, a great dappled shape lunged sideways at the bait. I yanked my rod back wildly and the Phantom flew over my head. In a moment, there was only the foam on the water and I was shaking spasmodically.

I cast again and retrieved as before. The weeds and the water remained unstirred. Another cast. This time, as the Phantom crossed the pool, in as undramatic a fashion as its previous appearance had been violent, a long dark shape slid out of the weeds, absorbed it and stayed there, looking at me. it seemed, with a wide, pikey grin.

I did everything wrong. I was too gentle with it at first, then too rough. But I had him out in the end, hauling him into some dead reeds, dragging him out by the tail. My first pike. My first Boxing Day pike of many.

The bus was crowded, standing room only. I was happy to find. It was like a Roman triumph. I was feted beerily by the rugby fans on board. At home the fish was laid out on the kitchen table. The neighbors came in to look. Pike were not commonly encountered where I lived, otherwise a 10-pounder. as this one proved to be, might not have been the object of such wonder.

It was a long time before I caught another. Soon after Boxing Day that year, the canal froze over, and it stayed that way until the pike season ended in March. On opening day of the new season, June 16th, I was there again and found many pike. They were on the surface, belly-up and bloated, because the peaceful enclave was no more. The spring and summer had been dry, an official drought had been declared. The steelworks had decided it needed the canal water, and had pumped it down to a series of shallow, muddy puddles. I hauled the biggest pike out and weighed it. Nineteen and a half pounds, nothing to speak of compared with the Green Devil standards to come. But at the time it was the biggest pike, the biggest fish, I had ever seen. And I never thought I would see its like again.

I didn't for some years, until we moved from the city to rural Pembrokeshire, on the last southwesterly peninsula of Wales. I scarcely met another pike fisherman, let alone pike, until, down there, I came on the Green Devil worshipers. That gave me a long time to nurture an obsession.

It is not extraordinarily difficult to become obsessed with pike. "More lies have been told about the pike than any other fish in the world," declared the great Victorian ichthyologist, Frank Buckland. The all-time champion lie was perpetrated in Mannheim, Germany. The Mannheim pike, from Kaiserweg Lake, was said to have grown to a length of 19 feet when it was captured in 1497. What is more, it was 267 years old, something easily verified by the inscription on a brass ring found attached to its gills. Translated from the Greek, it read, "I am the first fish that was placed in this pond by the hand of Frederick II, Governor of the World, on the 5th October, 1230."

The ring and the skeleton of the fish were exhibited in Mannheim Cathedral for many years before it was noticed that a large number of extra vertebrae had been added.

If it was no longer possible to go to the canal on a Boxing Day, the story of the Mannheim Pike made fine Christmas reading, as did that of the pike of Lillishall Pool, Newport, Isle of Wight, included in the fourth edition of Sir John Hawkins' The Complete Angler, published in 1784. It was a mere 170-pounder, and it stood out from the ranks of other fictitious middleweights only by virtue of the throw-away paragraph with which Sir John ended his account: "Some time ago the clerk of the parish was trolling in the above pool when his bait was seized by this furious creature, which by a sudden jerk pulled him in, and doubtless would have devoured him also, had he not by wonderful agility and dextrous swimming escaped the dreadful jaws of this voracious animal."

Naturally I did not believe any of this stuff, but I would have stood up anytime for the 72-pound Loch Ken, Scotland pike, the 60-pounder washed ashore after a storm on a lake near Ballina, Ireland, and other monsters of 50 pounds and more that were (and remain) unrecognized by any fish-recording body. Denied the reality of pike fishing, I became a pike romantic.

And always I saw the fish in a wintry, Christmas context. I never found a pikey Christmas card: the fishing ones were always absurdly unseasonable, featuring men in plaid shirts and high boots fly-fishing for trout. A true card for the fisherman would have shown the primrose dapplings of a great pike—the cruel, undershot jaw, the golden eyes against a background of new snow—and with it, for color, a classic red-and-silver pike spoon. And maybe a champagne cork or two.

The tradition of pike fishing on a Boxing Day was certainly not mine alone. Part of it, if you read 19th-century fishing books, was that you saved the champagne corks from your Christmas dinner and used them as live-bait bobbers next day.

I think it was Francis Francis, one of the great mid-Victorian angling writers, who declared that the loud pop a champagne cork makes as it is pulled violently under the surface by the strike of a big pike is more joyous and seasonable than the pop you get when you open the bottle on Christmas Day.

The Mannheim pike, champagne corks and the rest of it became like a half-remembered, feverish dream when I came to real winter pike fishing again, five years following my retrieval of the 10-pounder from the canal. That was when I left the city and went to live in Pembrokeshire.

The Lily Pools are only six miles from the little town of Pembroke. On the map the water looks like three fingers joining a central pool—the palm of the hand, if you like. Until the beginning of the 19th century it was not a lake at all but a tidal creek. The local landowner. The Earl of Cawdor—this was during the height of the Napoleonic Wars—feared the French might sneak in from the sea one night and attack him. It was not a completely unreasonable fear; it was he who in 1797 had led the Pembroke Yeomanry at nearby Fishguard to repel a somewhat comic-opera French force in the last invasion of British soil. So he blocked off the creek with a dam. Three little fresh-water streams flowed in and made a lake. A clergyman planted the lilies, but no one knows who stocked it with fish: yellow perch, roach (a fish not unlike a shiner) and pike.

The first time I went to the Lily Pools it was to walk the shoreline, not to fish. That would have been in the fall. Much of the water was of extraordinary clarity. Vivid green weed covered the bottom except for a series of clear patches that extended in a chain down the middle.

I had followed a path through furze bushes that ran along one side of an arm of the lake and then rose high, until it emerged onto short, sheep-cropped turf that covered a high limestone bluff from which it was possible to look down, from about 80 feet, into a kind of natural aquarium.

I saw two pike right away. One was small, two or three pounds, lying near the bank. The other was bigger, 15 pounds, I reckoned. It lay motionless. And close by played a shoal of roach, a weed bed separating them. As I looked on, there was a great tumult in the water. The pike had accelerated so fast that I had missed the movement. All I saw was the eruption, the roach exploding in a silver shower.

A second later there was peace again. The pike had returned to its original position and it lay there, tail gently fanning. The roach, living from second to second, were playing again. Obedient to the well-known imperative human impulse to break up this kind of serenity, I hurled a stone from the bluff, causing the big pike to surge off.

That fall day I went no farther, not realizing I had covered no more than half of the lake. I had seen enough. I was in a fever to get back there with my tackle and take out that 15-pounder.

Francis Francis might have used champagne corks as pike bobbers, but I was now into toothbrushes. Cut the head off and what have you got? If you pick the right kind, a translucent, attractively colored pike plug, that's what, once you have fixed tin spinning vanes to the forward end and a treble hook to the rear.

At any rate, that was what the fishing magazine had said in its angling-tips feature. Working with two old toothbrushes, I reckoned I was in business. One of my lures was blue, the other pearly pink, and when I took them down to the Lily Pools the next weekend, they flashed and wobbled in the water just as the magazine claimed they would. But perhaps there was something not quite serious enough about them. Although I caught pike, they were far from formidable size. If the 15-pounder was still hanging around below the bluff, he showed not a sign of interest.

But on the whole I was content. I cycled back to town and, having recently become old enough to do so legally, turned into the Hope Inn, the first pub you came to on the straggling Main Street of Pembroke. As rural a little town as it was, I couldn't leave my rod tied to the crossbar of the bike, so I took it in with me.

I didn't plan to linger in the Hope. This was a Saturday night, and what you did in Pembroke on a Saturday night was go home, eat supper, change, go to the pub for an hour and then head to Haggar's Ballroom for the dance. You could spend only about an hour in the pub because Old Man Haggar wouldn't let anybody in after 10 p.m.

As usual on weekends home from college, this was my plan for the evening. The bar was almost empty. I ordered my modest half pint of ale and took it to a corner. Looking up, I caught the eye of a fellow about my age. There was a fishing rod propped in his corner also. For a few moments we summed one another up. I was first to break the silence. "Do any good?" I asked.

The one I was addressing had a wild, buccaneering look about him, emphasized by a wind-reddened, predatory beak of a nose. He was very tall with lank black hair. He gave my question full consideration, then replied carefully, "Nah."

When I came to know John Lindenburgh better I would realize that this kind of monosyllabic reply was not discourtesy. He considered that he had not done any good and saw no special reason to enlarge on that. At this first encounter I was a little put off, but the chance to talk with another pike fisherman made that irrelevant.

"I got six," I said, nonchalantly.

"Six pike?" Lindenburgh asked. "How big?"

I told him that the biggest was maybe five pounds. The great nose twitched. "I thought you said you got pike" he said. "Five pounds is a little jack pike."

A silence followed. I finished my drink and got up to leave. A long red hand pointed at my empty glass. "What was in that?" Lindenburgh asked.

Much later I remember looking at the pub clock, which said it was a quarter past nine. "I'd better call up my..." I started to say for the umpteenth time.

But Lindenburgh was forging on remorselessly. "...all frozen over," he continued, "but there was just this one clear patch, right under the Eight-Arch Bridge. I saw him come swimming out." He paused, thought, then held out a hand, crooking forefinger and thumb so that they almost, but not quite, made a circle. "As big as that," he said. "The yellow spots on his side. As big as that."

"Listen," I said.

"Where are you going?" Lindenburgh asked. It was more command than question. "I saw him closer than that once, though," he resumed. "That was the time I hooked him."

"The time he went under the tree?" I asked.

"Wait a minute," Lindenburgh said. "Did I tell you I was using a spoon? Well, that's what I was using. I cast it up alongside the middle arch, and I was bringing it back, nice and slow, a sort of slow, throbbing action."

"And you saw him follow it?" I said. I was under the spell again.

"Nah," said Lindenburgh. "I brought the spoon nearly to the bank. There was a big old beech tree fallen in the water there. I'll be showing it to you. The spoon was nearly out of the water when he slid out and grabbed it. Came out from under the tree.

"That was the only time I got a real close look at him. He was as big as...damn, he was huge! And I could see a couple of inches of wire leader, somebody else's, hanging down from his jaw."

"The Green Devil," I said.

"The Green Devil," said Lindenburgh. We paused reverently.

"Listen," I told him. "my mother probably thinks I'm at the bottom of the lake."

This time I managed to get as far as the pay phone. When I returned, my ears still buzzing with that special maternal mix of guilt-inducing concern and reproach, Lindenburgh was ordering fresh pints.

"I was going to go to the dance," I said. "And Old Man Haggar drops the shutters at 10."

"We can go to the dance anytime," Lindenburgh said. "Roy will let us in."

Roy Haggar, on leave from his national service in the artillery, son of Old Man Haggar, close friend of John Lindenburgh, and co-pilgrim in the quest for the Green Devil, as it developed. A small, neat fellow he turned out to be when I finally met him, and his first words to Lindenburgh were, "I made that plug. It's in the office."

Turning our backs on the band playing Adios, Mariquita Linda and the girls in from the country waiting to tango, we went to inspect it.

The plug was vast, in three sections, painted to resemble a young pike, about 12" overall. It was a magnificent gesture rather than a plug, and later when Haggar tried it out on the Lily Pools, it fought on the retrieve like a fair-sized rainbow trout. Also, he needed a surf-rod to cast it. But the fact that he had lovingly fashioned it in camp after exhausting days out on the firing range proved his fitness for the quest.

Devan Preece was not there that night. He was also doing his stint in the artillery, but he had no weekend pass. Lindenburgh implied that he was not as sure of Preece's dedication as he was of Haggar's. Sometimes, when it had looked to be a good Green Devil day, he had shown his colors by going duck shooting. All the same, though, he was a member of the group.

And now it seemed that I had been recruited also.

"Devan will be home for Christmas," Lindenburgh said later that night as we stood in the fish-and-chip shop on Main Street, which had run out of fish, "but it could be all over by then." The Green Devil campaign, he meant. We ate our way steadily through a dozen sausages deep-fried in batter, the only substitute for fish that the shop could offer. "You make it next weekend?" he asked.

Well, certainly I could.

That was, I suppose, sometime in October, and through the early winter up until Christmastime, Lindenburgh and I spent most Saturdays and Sundays on the Lily Pools. Not all of those trips were expended on hunting the Green Devil. Normally we would start at the Eight-Arch Bridge, give him an hour or so and then wander off along the shore, reserving the last hour of the day for another shot.

Not once did we see him, but we had other, smaller victories. The far end of the middle finger of the lake was the most inaccessible part of it, because no boats were permitted. There were Sleeping Beauty thickets of bramble and thorn trees along much of the bank, and eventually the lake petered out into shallows, marked by twisted and whitened dead trees on which pale green lichen grew.

One Sunday we forced our way almost to the end of it, where the lake was very narrow. I tossed the floating green plug I was using (the toothbrush handles had been vetoed on sight by Lindy) into a sparse growth of spiky yellow reeds that lined the far bank, and it was engulfed almost immediately in a heavy boil. That fish crashed the thorn bushes twice on my side, but each time, as I prodded with the gaff handle to scare it, it shot out into open water again. In the end Lindy was able to lift it out, the gaff nicked under the point of the lower jaw so that it could be released again. Eighteen and a half pounds. "That is a pike" said Lindy.

That would really have been enough for one day, but just before it was time to leave for the ritual cast at the Green Devil, there came a wild yell from Lindy. The first thing he noticed, he said afterward, was a kind of dry rustling in the reeds. I was there in time to see what followed. Swimming slowly, unalarmed, out of the reed bed at his feet came a procession of pike. There were eight or nine of them, the smallest perhaps 10 pounds. Not one of the three leading fish, though, could have been much under 30 pounds.

As they moved out across the lake they ignored the plugs we threw. Pike sometimes mass in the spring, in spawning time, but this was early winter. It was a mystery. But the Lily Pools were mysterious waters.

That was easily the most dramatic moment in the pre-Christmas fishing, not that the biggest of the pike we had seen, according to Lindenburgh, began to compare with the Green Devil. The smallest the Devil could be was 45 pounds. More than likely it was more than 50. Early in December we had had a bad moment. A huge pike, it was rumored, had been taken at the Eight-Arch Bridge by the local barber, known to us as Howell the Pig both because of his corpulence and from his habit of knocking small pike over the head and taking them home in a sack. To eat.

Never having heard of quenelles de brochet, those feathery pike dumplings for which the Loire Valley is famed, Lindy and I considered pike to be bony, insipid and tasting of mud, which, of course, would not deter Howell the Pig. More important, though, he imperiled the possibility of there being future Green Devils, and it would be a vile injustice if he had been chosen to land the present one.

The West Wales Guardian brought relief. On an inside page, smiling greasily, Howell was featured holding a large pike. Twenty-eight pounds, according to the caption. "Twenty pounds, maybe," Lindy said as we examined it closely. In either case it was only a small cousin of the Devil.

We had had a fright, though. It was time, Lindenburgh said, that we start forgetting those excursions to distant parts of the lake and pay more attention to the mighty fish of the Eight-Arch Bridge.

And so, for the coming Boxing Day, we planned a major assault. Preece would be home. Haggar would be available. All day long we would not move from the vicinity of the bridge. We would lay siege with plugs, spoons, live bait even. Lindy would have liked three full days, but the Scrooge-like bank kept him at it until five in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, and of course Christmas Day was impossible.

"So, Christmas Eve, we'll take out the guns then," Devan Preece said. Lindy looked at him disapprovingly. Preece had come home, torn off his uniform, rushed down to the Hope Inn for the midweek Green Devil planning meeting, and now he was going to prove to be a disruptive influence.

"What you three could do," Lindenburgh said, "is, Christmas Eve, you could go to the lake and catch us three or four dozen live baits."

"O.K.," Preece said, "and I'll ask Father Williams if we can keep 'em alive in the font until Boxing Day. I don't think he has any baptisms over Christmas."

It was Haggar who kept the peace. "Boxing Day, you lot make a start with the plugs and spoons and I'll fish for bait," he said. A noble gesture. Lindy still grumbled, but he could do nothing about it. On Christmas Eve, while he slaved at the counter, we would be walking the lake shore for mallard.

It was no great day when it came. There were a lot of ducks down at the middle finger of the Lily Pools, but, with this and that, we barely got a shot. Haggar told Preece that he was going through the bushes as if he were on the parade ground. Preece said that Haggar's yellow Labrador must have been brain damaged. And so on.

As the light started to fail, we headed away from the lake and into the woods. When Lindenburgh found out we'd got nothing he would be impossible, clearly, and now it seemed there was no chance of even a rabbit. Then Devan whispered harshly, "Hold it!" We froze, eyes following his pointing finger up the trunk of an oak. Squirrel, maybe? No. Now Preece's finger was directed right at the top of the tree. "Can't you see it?" he demanded.

Haggar spotted it first, then I did. A great clump of mistletoe growing on a bough of the oak, a mass of pearly white berries.

"Uh, mistletoe," Haggar said. Both of us looked at Preece, trying to catch his drift.

"You know what mistletoe is fetching?" Preeced demanded. "A sprig of mistletoe? Plenty of holly in the shops, but no mistletoe. And this is high quality mistletoe."

And so, as the winter gloom gathered, we moved through the wood, hunting down the wild mistletoe, blasting it off the oak boughs with the guns. When we had all we could carry we headed back to Old Man Haggar's car, borrowed for the holidays, loaded the trunk and sped back to Pembroke to catch the shops. Preece proved entirely correct. They couldn't take enough of it.

We were, for us, astonishingly well off when we met Lindy in the Hope. Even he, examining the small bundle of one-pound notes had to admit that. We had even kept a little mistletoe, which provided an entry into that crowd in from the country, to their party and to their Newcastle Brown. Mistletoe is a plant the ancient Druids of Wales held to be holy. Some of its influence must have rubbed off on Lindenburgh, so inspired did he become at the Eight-Arch Bridge on our homeward journey.

He flung a last challenge to the Green Devil:

"Six-foot two, eyes of blue, Big John Lindy's after you!"

We knew he had simply adapted an old rugby chant. But we knew also that he meant it.

There was still some exaltation among us when we met on Boxing Day morning, but it was more soberly directed. The wind had died on Christmas Day and the weather had turned colder; there was frost on the grass and a thin skim of cat-ice at the margins of the lake under the overhanging trees.

Keeping his promise, Roy began to fish for roach. I took my position north of the bridge as planned. Lindenburgh worked the south side. Preece had a plan of his own. He walked to the far end of the bridge, dropped a floating plug into the water, let out line, then walked back across the bridge towing the bait. An original form of trolling.

When he came along, as we knew he would, Howell the Pig found there was no room for him. He walked past us without even a "Happy New Year." True happiness would have been to hook the Green Devil in his presence, but that was not to be.

Indeed, the whole morning passed without action. "It's the sudden frost," said Lindy. However, he ate a cold turkey leg without putting down his rod. When he finished, he said, "Time for the live bait."

Normally we did not care for live-bait fishing. However, the cold had turned the Green Devil sluggish, he might not chase a spoon but could well grab a plump silver roach if it swam within easy range. Roy headed over from his roach-fishing spot with a bucketful of them.

Lindy had no festive champagne cork but a regular hot orange pike bobber, which we tried to stare into invisibility. For 10 minutes it stayed serenely on the surface. And then, suddenly, the roach itself was struggling on the surface as if it wanted to get up and sit on the bobber. Then there was a great boil, and the little blob of orange disappeared.

Lindenburgh let line out, counted a slow five, and hit. Brick-wall resistance. The hooks were in. The huge pike, olive-green, dappled pale yellow, came out of the water and shook its head. Then it surged toward the fallen beech tree in the water to Lindy's left.

This time, though, I was standing out on the beech as far as I dared, making a commotion, slapping the water with the gaff. Twice more in the half-hour fight it went for the tree and twice turned away when it saw me. The rest was textbook stuff. No shouting from Lindy. Stolidly he worked the fish until it was showing its great flank, and then he was guiding it to the gaff.

On the bank it looked huge. "The Green Devil," said Preece, awed. "You got him." We hoisted the fish onto a hand scale. Thirty-four, nearly 35 pounds.

"Hey, Green Devil!" said Roy.

So far, Lindy had said nothing. He was red-faced and catching his breath. But at that he said, "Nah."

"What?" I asked.

"Not the Green Devil," Lindy panted. "Very big, uh, huge, uh, ordinary pike."

He would not be shaken. He didn't want it to be the Green Devil.

He wanted to be able to go on fishing for the Green Devil.

But I think that secretly, he knew it was. It was the last Boxing Day pike trip for our crowd. Roy had a row with his father over the Armstrong Siddeley and went to live in London. Devan quit fishing and only hunted. And, extraordinarily, as if life held nothing more for him, Lindy quit also and got married to one of the country girls who came to the Saturday dance.

Twenty years later, on a Boxing Day morning, I was set up to go fishing in a small lake in County Monaghan, Ireland. A man called Kevin Linnane was showing it to me. "In that corner by the reeds," he said, "there's a pike as big as a little horse."

He didn't give it a name. I know what it was, though. The Green Devil had found a new home.