The Case For Pike

Pike have lived in our waters for millions of years, largely unchanged. They can be found in river systems, lakes and even small ponds.

In many cases, the same population of pike has probably occupied the same enclosed area of water, almost ever since that water has been there. Perhaps for many thousands of years, always living in a perfect natural balance with their prey.

The hungry ravenous pike of myth, consuming several times it’s own weight of prey per day, wouldn’t be able to do that!

‘Ah!’ says the non-pike angler, ‘I don’t care about that. Fewer pike means more fish for me to catch, right?’

Well, in the short term maybe, but certainly not in the long term, and I’ll guarantee that you will have far fewer problems in managing a fishery with pike in situ, compared to one practising a pike control policy.

‘Er?’

Given a natural state of affairs, pike will occupy around 10% of the biomass of fish, in any given water. That’s the way that nature intends it. Try to change that ‘balance’ and your troubles could be just about to begin.

That 10% biomass of pike is organised into a structure, let’s call it a pyramid hierarchy.

A few huge pike, with other pike as part of their diet, at the top. A larger number of middle sized ones in the middle, eating some smaller pike; and lots of ‘nuisance’ jacks at the bottom (eating even smaller pike).

The mechanism by which pike keep their numbers in balance with their prey is by cannibalism of the smaller pike by larger pike. When other prey is scarce, the larger pike eat a greater proportion of the smaller pike, maintaining the ratio of pike to other species.

The message has begun to get through that removing the biggies only leads to an explosion of ravenous jacks.

For a short while, after the removal of big fish, the total biomass of pike actually increases (and so does the predation on other species) as the number of jacks increases.

If a cull policy is continued, then this situation continues. You are now on an expensive and time-consuming treadmill.

Pound for pound, jacks eat a lot more of other species than big pike do. And being small themselves, they don’t eat too many other pike either. They need to pack on weight, and grow big, before they themselves are eaten, if nature gives them the chance.

Fishery owners, adopting a pike removal policy, often find that if they thought they had a pike problem before, they certainly have one now. And each year it’s likely to get worse!

Not has only the total weight of pike biomass increased, but there are a lot more individual pike. They may have a smaller average size, but they make up for that by eating more.

Even if the water management cease culling pike, it will take several seasons of inaction before things return to ‘normal’, and that’s several seasons of the members complaining increasingly bitterly that the pike are now really getting out of hand, and demanding more action from the committee.

But the more ‘action’ that the committee takes, the longer the problem goes on, and the worse it is likely to get.

‘So, the answer is to remove the small fish, say everything under 10lb, and leave the biggies alone, to do their job of helping to reduce the number of jacks, Right?’

Well, such a policy may not be quite so disastrous, but it brings it’s own problems.

Remember that nature will fight you every inch of the way, trying to re-establish that balance, 10% biomass of pike, distributed in a pyramid hierarchy, by weight of individual fish.

Take out fish of under 10lb, and you’ll see an increase in numbers of very small jacks (less than 1lb say) and it’s not too long before these small jacks are medium size jacks.

And you’ve probably forgotten that all male pike are under 10lbs!

By concentrating on removing fish under 10lbs, as well as young females, you are targeting 100% of male fish, unbalancing the natural female to male ratio.

A lot of those big girls which you need to retain, to keep the smaller pike in check, are going to end up spawnbound and dead.

By culling the under 10lbers, you will still, in effect, be extending your cull to the larger fish, only you’ll be taking longer to do it.

Having removed a considerable number of the smaller pike, have you thought about what the larger pike are now going to feed on?

‘OK, but if I remove all of the bloody pike’ I don’t have a problem, right?’

Well, yes you do.

Firstly, it’s damn near impossible to rid a water of all pike, certainly from a water of any appreciable size.

Can you be sure that you have eliminated every last fry from the margins; blocked every source of a new population of pike moving in; feeder streams, overflowing rivers, maybe illegal stockings (pike have a remarkable way of turning up in waters where they are said not to exist!)?

If you can’t be sure, you are pretty soon likely to have a water famous for jacks!

Secondly, pike have a purpose.

As a lure fisherman, I sometimes find it perplexing that, in a lake with many thousands of bait fish, I expect my lure to be taken several times during a session, even on those days when other pikers are blanking. Yet most of those bait fish will remain untouched during their whole lives.

It’s my opinion that pike have an instinct to target anything that seems not quite right, and none of my lures look quite right – believe me!

Landlocked, and living for generation after generation, in balance with its prey, it would be a disaster for pike, if their food source were to be devastated by disease, perhaps introduced by an alien species turning up in the water.

Unknowingly, nature has equipped pike with attack triggers that ensure that any fish, likely to spread disease into its larder, is ‘taken out’.

Although it’s well known that pike will go for the slowest, weakest fish, we can only surmise at the number of potentially disastrous epidemics which pike have nipped in the bud.

Pike will readily take dead fish too; again removing a potential source of disease.

Thirdly, if you do succeed in removing all of the pike from your water, you are probably going to end up with a lake full of stunted fish, prone to disease, and to fish kills in hot or thundery weather.

Pike as pollution control!

And pike have yet another role to play in keeping a fishery healthy.

Nutrients, coming into water, cause excessive phytoplankton growth.

(Excessive nutrient levels often arrive courtesy of farm run off, via a feeder stream, or perhaps via the water table sustaining a lake).

Unrestricted phytoplankton growth can cause a crash in the water’s night-time oxygen levels, causing fish and weed to die off, and leading to eutrophication, when bacteria feeding on the black, stinking, dead mess at the bottom of the lake, starve the water of all oxygen and render it lifeless.

Normally, zooplankton feed on the phytoplankton, preventing this situation from arising.

This mechanism, protecting the water from such disaster, suffers when the ‘planktivorous’ fish life, their numbers swelled by so much available food, and unchecked by natural pike predation, reduce the amount of zooplankton below the threshold necessary to keep the phytoplankton growth in check.

A healthy balanced population of pike, keeping down the numbers of smaller planktivorous fish, prevents this ever happening.

On more than one occasion, fisheries have discovered this aspect of unbalancing their prey/predator ratio to their great cost. Having spent their member’s cash culling pike, and boosting stocking levels of ‘desirous’ species, they have ended up loosing much of their stock, and have had to spend even more money re-introducing pike to get the water back into balance.

Even where the situation is not so disastrous, the introduction of pike can in turn limit the amount of phytoplankton in a water, making more nutrients available to plant life and increasing the amount of insect life, and therefore food supply for the fish, leading to larger, and more healthy fish of all species.

Moving Pike

"I’ve argued the case against culling pike until I’m blue in the face, but the committee remains adamant. At least I’ve got them to agree to moving the pike to another water "

Personally, I’m very uneasy about moving pike.

Remember, the 10% total biomass, and the hierarchy which nature fights so hard to keep in balance?

Well as well as working hard to get pike numbers back up to the ‘natural’ balance, you can be sure that nature will work just as hard if the balance goes the other way.

By moving pike from one water to another, all you are doing is unbalancing two waters instead of just one.

A pike that has lived in one water, and has reached any size, has successfully adapted to the unique conditions in that particular water. Perhaps establishing a territory of its own, and a place in that water's hierarchy.

Perhaps it’s become a specialist, feeding on dead winterkill rainbows.

Introduce that pike to another water, and it’s got big problems. And so have the resident pike.

What studies there have been, all seem to show that relocated pike do not usually do well.

Instead of a quick death, the pike may suffer a slow lingering battle, trying to establish itself in what to it is a totally alien world.

The cullers may feel a little better in the belief that the pike they have rid themselves of weren’t killed, but the result is often much the same in the long term.

Add to this the risk of transferring disease and parasites from one water to another, and on balance I’d say that it’s best to knock the unfortunate creature on the head to begin with.

In my opinion, the only exception which I believe warrants the moving of pike, is where the receiving water needs to have its balance of pike restored. Perhaps in belated recognition that a previous policy of pike culling has only damaged the water, now full of nuisance jacks, or stunted and disease prone fish.

Trout Waters

‘My members pay to catch trout, not vermin. It’s hard enough to balance the books as it is, without feeding vermin, and losing anglers to waters where pike aren’t a problem!’

Hmmm! You might not have noticed, but attitudes are changing fast.

Trout fishing is no longer the elitist sport it once was, and fly fishers are tiring of fishing for obliging rainbows all of the time. They are looking for new experiences.

Pike fishing, and lure fishing in particular, are becoming very popular pastimes. There is a lot of money to be made from good pike fishing. And trout fisheries can make good pike fisheries.

It’s known that on waters, regularly stocked with rainbows that fail to overwinter, the habit of pike in mopping up many of the casualties which would otherwise rot on the bottom, leads to improved water quality, when compared to such fisheries where pike are not present.

And pike grown big and fat on winter kill rainbows, are prized by specimen hunters, many who are willing to pay a lot of money for the privilege of landing and releasing such big fish.

As well as damaging your fishery in the long term, you are probably losing a fortune by culling pike. Not only are you suffering the cost, bother and politics of the cull itself, but you are missing out on all of that additional reve
nue that you could be bringing in.

Try not think of the pike as eating your stock. Think more along the lines of anglers willing to pay good money to catch and return your ‘water guardians’.

Although it’s true that pike will take a proportion of stocked rainbows, particularly early in the season, the experience at Ardingly Reservoir, when it was being stocked with trout and a ‘put pike back’ policy was introduced, was that the catches of trout actually increased year on year.

The revenues you get from pike fishermen should more than compensate you for the number of rainbows taken during the season – stock a few more as pike food, and get a good return on the additional investment. Let the pike anglers pay for the rainbows which the pike eat (and perhaps make a bob or two on top, to keep the trout anglers membership fees down too!).

You may not have noticed, but the Game Fishing magazines, have long ago caught onto the fact that pike offer good sport when taken on the fly. And a lot of your members are probably sneaking off to have a go at flinging fluff amongst the lily pads, in the nearby river, not to your rival’s pike free trout water after all (not that they will ever admit that to you!).

Education

‘Our club has an enlightened attitude to pike, it’s the pike anglers who are killing them’

Few pike anglers start their angling career fishing for pike.

We were mostly all ‘noddys’ once, ‘having a go’ at pike fishing, with inappropriate and dangerous tackle, lacking what has come to be considered as basic tackle, and completely unaware at just how vulnerable this tough and (to some) evil looking creature is, to stress and bad handling.

However, it is extremely upsetting to find a fish of a lifetime, maybe with future potential to have been a record fish for the water, lying dead amongst the reeds.

It’s even more upsetting to look into its cavernous mouth to see an inadequate 6 inch trace, tied to a broken length of just 7lb bs line, protruding from its throat, and to find its throat stitched together by trebles.

The angler who played and lost that fish, will probably regale his friends for years to come with the story of the monster that got away, after a titanic and lengthy battle, forever unaware of the damage they have done to the fishery through their ignorance.

Many clubs will ban members fishing for pike without the proper equipment or knowledge. However, as I’ve previously said, we were almost all noddys once.

Far better to get together with the pike fishing members of the club, ask them to form a ‘pike interest group’ and ask these members to provide an annual teach-in, aimed at both juniors and novice pike-anglers, and to provide help and advice to the club bailiffs. (Perhaps patrolling together with bailiffs, to give advice to novices fishing with inadequate tackle and techniques).

Mind you, anyone not taking advice aimed at ensuring the safety of pike deserves to be thrown off the water, banned from pike-fishing club water in future, or thrown out of the club completely.

You might find the information I’ve written in a previous article (Pike – The Basics) useful (see https://www.anglersnet.co.uk/Coarse-Fishing-Articles/pike_basics.html )

There may even be a local branch of the Pike Anglers Club nearby, always willing to help in educating novices, and to advise the committee on issues regarding the welfare and management of pike.

(see http://www.pacgb.com )

Summary

Pike have existed. Largely unchanged, for millions of years. They have evolved strategies for living in balance with their prey.
Nature maintains a natural balance of around 10% pike, organised into a pyramid hierarchy. Should the balance be disturbed, nature will fight to restore the natural balance, to the detriment of the fishery.
Pike will help to maintain the health of a fishery by eliminating diseased and dead fish.
Pike-free waters may end up full of stunted and diseased fish, prone to fish kills in hot weather.
Pike will keep insect-eating fish numbers down to safe levels, thus avoiding the disaster of eutrophication when excessive phytoplankton growth leads to water pollution and fish deaths.
Moving pike unbalances two waters, instead of just one, has a risk of transferring disease and parasites, and probably results in the lingering death of most relocated fish anyway.
Pike fishing can bring in additional revenues to trout only fisheries, and provide more varied sport for today’s fly fishing enthusiasts.
Pike mop up a proportion of winterkill of rainbows, leading to better water quality.
Try to involve local pike anglers and/or the Pike Anglers Club in a programme of education and management.
Lake Davis in the USA has suffered from the introduction of pike, a species previously alien to the region, and rigorous efforts have been made to eliminate/reduce their numbers. After 3 years, the pike seemed to still be winning.

From the report produced by the authorities there:

“Pike have evolved several compensatory mechanisms to ensure survival.

They may, for example, mature earlier if no other spawners are in the area or if fishing pressure reduces their numbers (Diana, 1983).

They tend to grow faster and produce more eggs when the population is less dense.

They will have higher fry survival rates when their numbers are scarce, in part because there are fewer chances for cannibalism (Foin, 2003).

All these strategies make it difficult to impact the population.

If more pike are pulled out of the reservoir, these compensating mechanisms kick in.

One modeller estimated that it would be necessary to remove 50 percent of the adult pike on an annual basis to keep the adult population from growing (Foin, 2003).”

See http://www.dfg.ca.gov/northernpike/summary_repo
rt.pdf


Note: A far more authoritative article regarding the culling of pike, written by Dr Bruno Broughton, can be found at https://www.anglersnet.co.uk/Miscellaneous-Articles/pike_culls.html
I would urge anyone reading this to read Bruno’s article too.

Please feel free to copy and reproduce this article, all I ask is that you include the text:

‘First Published on http://www.anglers-net.co.uk '

Why not send a copy to your club committee, or water owner etc?

Tight Lines - Leon Roskilly

(article last updated November, 2001)