Have you ever wondered why pike choose a particular area to group up for spawning or why fry choose an area to shoal up in large numbers in winter? The last few seasons have given me the opportunity to chew these questions over. Patterns tend to repeat themselves with monotonous regularity but it is only when you fish productive waters that these patterns emerge. On lightly stocked waters where captures are few and far between, patterns can and do appear but can be painfully slow to show themselves.
Pike do occasionally throw caution to the wind and feed ravenously, and the time when they are fry-feeding is a prime example. Year in and year out fry start to shoal in the same spots. Fry-feeding pike can at times be frustrating in the extreme for I've had 20lb fish rolling on top of fry totally ignoring any presentation I've tried. At times like this I think they're crashing into such dense concentrations of fry that if your bait isn't in the exact spot where the pike's mouth opens you don't stand a chance of catching.
An 18lb 8oz "fry-feeder" caught on half mackerel
A situation arose a few seasons ago where pike were fry feeding in just this way in a bay some 70 yards long and 20 yards wide with fry packed into the last 10 yards. I was pulling my hair out! Baits, both single and multiple, were tried at all depths on umpteen different presentations - nothing! The only way to catch these pike was, wait for it, deadbaits! This was despite these having been initially ruled out due to pike being "on fry".
By careful observation the pike were seen crashing into the fry and retreating away from the strike area to finish their meal. What was interesting was they always ran back along the sides of the arm, never more than 5-6 feet away from the bank and never down the centre of the arm. Deadbaits were placed along the edges to see if pike could be tempted to pick one up on their way out of the strike zone and this worked better than I could have hoped for with many sessions producing 3-4 doubles with the odd 20 thrown in for good measure!
A very interesting session showed how important at times floats can be, for the direction of a run can be seen immediately. Interestingly the baits were being picked up as the pike made their way into the fry as well as on the way out and this fry bashing would last for 3-5 hours at a time. The rest of the time they sat in the mouth of the bay - possibly keeping the fry herded up. The runs stopped on deadbaits at the end of the arm quite quickly, but could still be relied on at the mouth. The pike stayed in this bay for 10-14 days until the fry levels had diminished to a point where it was not worth this amount of pike staying in the area. Catches fell dramatically as the pike moved en masse but the jacks then moved in to have their fill of what was left.
I believe that the majority of the time pike lay dormant on or very close to the bottom and they are then very difficult to tempt to feed, if not impossible! This dormancy accounts for the days when you have runs in a clearly defined feeding spell then it's all over. Take a typical winter's day, a dawn start, no runs until 10.30 followed by couple of runs in the next hour and a half, then nothing. I believe those fish were inactive until their biological clock aroused their senses which in turn made them feed. Most of the rest of the day I believe they were to all intents and purposes virtually uncatchable. I don't think they switch off immediately, but over a period of half an hour or so their senses/feeding mode ebbs away and they then slowly revert to their dormant state. A number of times I've waded around shallow lakes and stumbled across pike laying motionless on the bottom. In fact I've actually been able to nudge them with my foot before they've bolted away. I'm sure these fish are in a different world!
A 22lb pike taken in the narrow bay
In ideal conditions the slowing down of their senses takes longer giving you more time to catch the pike. While the fish are in this phase I feel the best way of catching them is to paternoster or leger baits and twitch them gently along the bottom, trying to put a bait very close to a pike's nose The more twitches the higher the number of possible semi-dormant pike that should be tempted. A bait 6 feet away is very likely to be ignored, so this is the time to get off your seat and work for your fish! Leaving a bait in one spot is asking for failure.
Barrie Rickards has often stressed the importance of air pressure, and I certainly go along with this. Nature designs creatures to capitalise on other creatures' weaknesses. To give an example, prey fish feed better in a low pressure system, when it's mild and windy. I think some prey fish actually slow down metabolically during high pressure systems. The opposite happens with pike. Their body metabolism actually increases to capitalise on the "slower" prey. This might explain why Rickards believes that a falling barometer favours deadbaits, a slowing down of the pike's senses and a speeding up of the prey lending itself to easier meals. Another reason for the success of deadbaits in low pressure systems could be due to the undertow from the usually windier weather making the flavour/smell of the deadbait travel through the water, thus making it easier to find! This added water movement could also make it more difficult for a pike to hunt effectively on live items due to a "scrambling" of vibrations etc. It's a complicated topic but one which is fascinating nonetheless. It must be understood that there are no hard and fast rules for there will always be the odd fish willing to feed. The deadbait rule regarding low pressure is difficult to apply to waters that are out and out livebait ones. Sustained high pressure systems seem to have an adverse effect on pike and by far the best conditions are a steady rise after a spell of low pressure, possibly due to prey fish being harder to catch.
If you think of the amount of time your waters are "off" you can appreciate why pike are sometimes very difficult to tempt. The fry feeding scenario mentioned earlier had everyone else on the pit struggling and complaining the pit was well and truly "off". The reason for this was location. The pit in question is approximately 38 acres in size and all the pike were packed into the one very small area taking advantage of the huge shoal of fry. This bay was the furthest point from the car park (aren't they always?) and didn't get any pressure at all. You could fish all weekend on another part of the pit and be forgiven for thinking they weren't feeding. How wrong can you be!
27lb 7oz of pure predator!
After this binge the pike moved en masse to the opposite side of the pit to which I believe to be their spawning area. This pattern has repeated itself for the last 4 years, the time of year varying by a few weeks each year possibly depending on the water temperature. The pike stay on this spawning ground until the end of the season, only feeding when conditions are right. It's tempting to try other areas thinking the pike have moved but experience has shown that they're lying dormant awaiting the right conditions to feed. This fry feeding is the time when the large winter
weight gain seems to occur. The move to the spawning area allows conversion of this bulk to spawn, and this I believe is the reason why waters can go very hard normally around mid January.
This is very much a time for confidence, which isn't easy to put over on paper. The tendency is to move after a few blanks. Luckily the water in question has a very good stock of pike (approximately 30-35 doubles and upwards). This makes sorting out a pattern considerably easier than on sparsely stocked lakes. Even on lightly stocked waters the pattern repeats itself, only it's far harder to recognise. Knowing this, the pit I fished the following year showed the same pattern. This pit is totally different, being only 18 acres and an unknown quantity regarding pike size and density. I started fishing just after Christmas and managed to fluke a 27lb 12oz first trip and lose another at the net. The area I fished resembles the holding/spawning area from the previous pit, this area again being out of the wind. This is a very important point as these holding areas are generally the first to freeze up as the cold winds push down to the far end of the pit. The wave motion stops the far end freezing, but meanwhile the undertow slowly cools the water at the leeward end, and because this end is flat calm the ice forms here first.
The 27lb 12oz pike taken on the first trip to the 2nd pit
The last 4 waters I've fished have all responded to this basic theory of pike grouping up under where the first ice forms. The area where the fry are herded up are also bays that are sheltered from the cold winds. Coincidence? I think not! Other waters in my area also conform to these ideas. Stop and think if your waters also fit this theory. The previous pit gave me confidence to stay in the general area of the capture of the 27-12 mentioned earlier, and two more 27s, one being a repeat capture, made the decision to stay put a wise one. It is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a very small head of big pike in this pit, these two 27s being the only big pike caught all winter. A rumour of a 31 a few years ago, if true, will I'm sure turn up in this area. Here's hoping!