Pike – The Basics

Pike - the biggest, strongest, most aggressive fish you are likely to come across in our fisheries, but also the most delicate and easily damaged fish you will encounter.

Pike will die more easily than any other freshwater species, even when not particularly badly handled. (Did I hear a muttered but triumphant ‘Good’ from all those matchmen?).

Having spent a fortune on baiting a swim (well thrown in half a bag of groundbait and a few score maggots), just started getting bites, then found the better fish showing an interest, only to have the whole swim go completely dead following the swirl of a hungry pike, believe me, I do sympathise.

However, pike do far more good for our fishing than they do harm, despite their fearsome reputation.

20 years or so ago, most anglers believed that the only good pike was a dead ‘un’. "They'll eat every fish in the lake, scoff double their own weight every day" - Utter Rubbish!

Pike have been around for millions of years, more years than any of our existing species (or us). They (unlike us) have evolved to fit into their environment. Pike Survival Rule number one is, you don't destroy your own food source - you achieve a balance which maximises the water's potential to provide you with food, and allows as many of your kind to flourish as the water will support.

There are two strategies in particular which pike employ to achieve this: -

Keep the food source healthy

There is plenty of good evidence that a pike will take a lure when it is not hungry. Try tempting a sated pike with livebait or deadbait. It's often not interested. Run a lure in front of it, behaving like a sick fish, and WOW! - Hang on!

I have seen a pike cut straight through a shoal of healthy roach to take out the one fish showing early signs of fin-rot. I was impressed.

I believe pike have a deep-seated instinct to take out any fish that may be in danger of spreading disease to the rest of the stock, whether the pike is hungry or not.

I don't believe that chub or perch do the same job so effectively. I catch so many more pike on small lures, even when I know that there are many more chub and/or perch around.

Perch and chub will seemingly only take a lure when hungry. Sure, when they are hungry, they are likely to take the weakest and slowest fish, but pike will go for a sick fish - hungry or not.

And I don't think that there are many chub or perch that will be likely to tackle a sick 5lb plus bream or carp.

Pike are pretty lazy; they like an easy meal. If they feel peckish and there is a dead fish lying around, they'll find it and remove that potential source of disease as well.

(PS Anyone know how to make a lure that sneezes?).

Clubs and fisheries trying to maintain over-stocked waters without an effective predator to remove any fish showing the first sign of disease, are asking to have their stocks wiped out completely.

Keep your own numbers under control

If a hungry pike needs to chase a meal, it will go for the biggest potential meal possible, which often means another pike (sometimes one bigger than themselves!).

Male pike don't usually grow to more than about 10lbs. Once a female gets to about 15lb her diet can consist mainly of jack pike from 5lb or so upward.

Big pike regulate the number of small pike. The number of small pike available depends on maintaining a healthy stock of prey fish. Mess about with this balance at your peril.

Particularly on smallish water, the death of one or more large pike can signal a disaster.

The population of jack pike explodes as each try to grow bigger faster than their competitors, in order to occupy the now vacant position at the top of the food chain.

Unless the water is exceptionally productive, this explosion of small jacks can cause a crash in the prey fish populations. It can take several years before a natural balance is restored.

Those ignorant anglers who in past days (and sometimes even now) threw the local monster granny pike into the bushes in the first place, are the ones who then blame the pike for ruining their fishery!!

To my mind, the best and most challenging fisheries are the ones that contain pike, whatever target species you're interested in.

It’s no coincidence that, apart from the bagging up pools so beloved of kids and beginners, the best specimens and bags often come from waters containing a healthy population of pike.

Otters, kingfishers, dragonflies and pike are all part of the intricate balance that makes the waterside environment so wonderful. All have a part to play. We, as anglers, should do all we can, whenever we can, to preserve the rich variety we enjoy.

Fishing for pike

There is no doubt whatsoever that angling pressure reduces both the quantity and quality of pike in a water. Pike do not take well to repeat capture - they often die.

Pike anglers must each make up their own minds whether to continue to target the species. There are waters that contain pike, which I will not fish, knowing that the resident pike there are already under too much pressure. Poor handling only serves to increase the pressure.

I get a lot of pleasure from my own pike fishing, so I cannot criticise anyone else who is determined to start (or to continue) pike-fishing themselves. We must all accept that, however carefully we fish for, and however carefully we handle these fascinating creatures, there will be occasions when our capture of them will eventually lead to the death of an individual pike, no matter how strongly it seems to swim away.

If you are unsure about how to fish for pike safely, try to arrange to go on a session with an experienced piker. If you don’t know anyone, contact your local Pike Anglers Club group or talk to your local tackle shop.

In the meantime here are a few guidelines: -

Pike fight hard in winter. In summer they go mad!
Taking a Summer pike on a lure is often the start of the most spectacular thrill you'll get with rod and line, as pounds of tail-walking fury scares you to hell.

Unfortunately the pike will literally give of its all. A summer pike beaten is really beaten.

If you really must fish for pike when the water is warm, use a lure; the chance of deep hooking is much less (most lures come with huge hooks for American species, consider changing these. I always crush the barbs on trebles). Use a heavy line (15lb bs min) and get the fish in quickly.

Return the fish to water as soon as possible, and be prepared to nurse it for some time, until you are absolutely sure it is fully recovered.

When dead/live-baiting, forget the old advice of waiting for the float to go under, then counting. You'll most likely get dropped runs, or worse, a deeply hooked fish.
Whatever method of bite detection you use, strike on the first indication. Believe me the fish does have the hooks in its mouth.

Pike will often eat dead-baits in-situ, make sure your bite-indication will cope with this, as well as with drop-back bites.

Never leave a rod unattended, or take your eye off a float.

(Pike know when you are not paying attention • just try pouring a cup of coffee if runs are slow!).

You need the right equipment:

  • At least 18 inches of wire trace (whenever fishing with deadbait, livebait or lures. Even when you are targeting chub or perch - unless you are absolutely certain that there are no pike in the water that you are fishing).
  • Minimum 15lb bs line (I use 16lb braid, 25lb-40lb if using heavy lures) - you need to be able to pull baited hooks out of most snags, probably with a damaged and weakened line (you'll be amazed at how many swimfeeders etc you'll salvage!). Check your line and knots frequently for fraying or weakening, and discard at the first sign of problems.
  • Landing net of at least 36 inches - preferably with a big mesh.
  • Long forceps for hook removal. (A second pair of forceps, long-nosed pliers and wire-cutters are useful too)
  • If you have a pike gag, throw it away - learn to unhook a pike properly
  • Never use a gaff
  • An unhooking mat (A large piece of bubble-wrap, wet carpet or hesian sacking etc is cheap)
    Pike have no eyelids. Lay them down on soft grass and you risk a hidden dried grass stem piercing the eye, especially if the fish thrashes on the bank, twisting its head in the grass.

Be prepared

Once you have a fish in the net, you're priority should be to get it back into the water as soon as possible.

Now is not the time to unroll your unhooking mat, dig your scales out of the bag and unwrap them, then find your camera and put in a new film.

Think what you need to do, and what you need to do it with, beforehand.

Before starting to fish, take just a few minutes to make sure that everything is ready and to hand before you put the bait in the water (I once had a fish dive out of the margins and grab my dead-bait, which dipped into the water as I was preparing to make my first cast!)


Don’t be afraid. Be firm.

Best way to unhook a pike is to turn it on its back, sit astride it holding it firmly between your knees to keep it still, slide your gloved hand under the gill cover and along towards its chin (avoid touching the gill-rakers). Feel for the chin bone and grasp it firmly. Once you have a good grip, gently lift the pike’s head upwards.

Its mouth will open and you can go in with the forceps, or better still, very long nosed pliers, quite safely.

If the fish is deep or awkwardly hooked, you can go in through the gill-rakers with forceps. But be careful those gill-rakers are vital organs and can be damaged easily.
If the fish is really deeply hooked, you can pull the gut into the mouth.

A steady, slow pressure will bring the hooks into view.

If possible, get someone to hold the gut gently with a second pair of forceps whilst you remove the hook. Afterward, the gut should drop back on its own, especially if you hold the fish head high by the chin bone.

In rare cases, you may find that you have to gently poke the gut back down with a blunt object (don't worry if you can't, the fish will swallow it back to normal anyway)

If it is going to make hook removal easier and speedier, don't hesitate to cut through a wire trace, split ring or hook with wire cutters.

At all costs, avoid returning a fish with hooks still in place, especially where two or more hooks of a treble have 'stitched' the pike's gullet closed - it will almost certainly die of hunger.

Once you have released your hooks, check to see if there is any sign of someone else’s tackle still in the fish.
If you need help or advice don't be afraid to ask nearby anglers sooner, rather than later.

Returning a fish to the water

Never lift a fish higher than necessary, or without an unhooking-mat beneath it.
It may have lain as good as gold, but a sudden wriggle could mean a fish dropped onto hard-ground. My unhooking-mat has handles so that I can carry the fish to the water safely, then immerse it to let the fish swim away.

Never retain a pike unnecessarily. Never retain a pike in a keep net. Use a pike-tube or sack if you have to (avoid it especially in summer months). Never retain multiple pike for a group photo at the end of the day - they'll thrash about hitting each other, and turn belly up once back in the water.

Hold the fish in the water gently, upright with its head pointing upstream. Grasp the 'wrist' at its tail and don't let go until it swims away strongly.

Usually, a well-handled pike will be ready to swim off within a few minutes, but be prepared to nurse a pike for some time if you have to.

If after five or ten minutes of nursing it is still in trouble, consider jury-rigging some kind of cage (i.e. four bank-sticks, two either side of the fish) which will keep it upright and facing into the current - check on it every few minutes or so.

Beware the situation where a pike swims away weakly, then goes belly-up in a weed-bed out of reach - you might have to make the decision between a dangerous and cold swim or a life-time's bad conscience).

For more information consider joining the Pike Angler's Club, (details on their website at http://www.pacgb.com) and get a copy of the Angler's Code from the Specialist Anglers' Alliance (SAA)

Every Angler should join the SAA - www.saauk.org

Leon Roskilly - 1999