Pike. Surely one of the most divisive species in our waters? For some it’s a devil fish whose very presence near, or even in your swim of choice can be the complete ruination of a pleasure outing or a match opportunity.
For others, it’s simply the meanest, sleekest most alluring killing machine around.
In some well-known haunts, individual fish even take on celebrity status and are given names by the locals. In one location on The Warwickshire Avon for example, double-figure “Old Jack” is regularly seen taking bank side cover in silent ambush or brazenly staring out the occupant of a chosen peg waiting for the emptying of a keep net.
For many, winter is the pike’s iconic season which, in itself is paradoxical when you consider it’s the phase of the year when its overall behaviour is at it’s most economical.
Just about all our species are targeted by obsessive hunters who’re dedicated to their cause; but somehow, the ferocious-looking pike is a uniquely different fish. The savagery of its take and fight, supremely balanced by the necessary delicacy of its handling and release.
So what drives anglers to target this stream-lined barracuda lookalike with the Marty Feldman eyes? We spoke to three highly skilled and celebrated pursuers for their views.
Neville Fickling is a fishing writer and broadcaster with more than sixty years of angling under his belt. He once held the British record for a 41lb 6oz fish caught in Norfolk in 1985.
Gary Palmer is a professional guide and competition organiser who works as Head Marshall at the annual World Predator Classic in the Netherlands. In 2019, he caught the Warwickshire Avon’s biggest ever recorded pike of 31lb 10oz.
For Ceri Thomas, the pike is just one of several species he targets on the fly. As Marketing Manager, regular contributor to the Fishing In Wales website and writer and blogger, he can often be seen catching double figure species in some of the most iconic venues in the British Isles.
In general, Neville, Gary and Ceri prefer different primary methods for the hunt, but each has developed a deep and understanding of the pike’s habits and lifecycle. So what’s the attraction?
“The key thing with pike is never to over think the matter,” says Neville Fickling who’s mainstay, although not exclusively, is a dead baiting approach.
“Like most fish, you’re not trying to outwit something that’s got any serious amount of brainpower but it has got well adapted instinctive behaviour.
“As a human being you’d think it would be easy to outwit a pike at any time of any day. But it’s not as simple as that because although they’re instinctive, they’re also a bit random.
“They’re opportunists and the only way they’re going to get a meal is to slowly move around the water until they either get within range of something they can attack or by pure luck, find something that’s died and has sunk to the bottom. I’ve experienced a pike picking up a discarded bait in a previous swim a hundred yards away from where I’d moved to and then I’ve caught it with the discarded bait still in it’s mouth. It was obviously perfectly capable of picking that bait up and then homing in on my bait. So I think their sense of smell is very good.”
“Big pike grow big for a reason,” says Gary Palmer. They’re switched on and they know what they’re doing. Intelligence is probably the wrong word; it’s more a pattern of behaviour. I’ve had the same fish on the same lure three times in the same day and that tells you something. I was once fishing with a pal who lost one of his favourite lures to a fish and fifteen minutes later the same pike hit his replacement and he got his original lure back.
“In winter, the pike are far less active and the metabolic rate has slowed down so chasing them with small fish baits or lures that are moving fast is not how to do it. They’re looking for quick easy meals.
“if I’m out on the boat with the fish finders in winter, I’m not looking for pike, I’m looking for big shoals of bream. I know the pike will eventually find those shoals. They’ll follow that shoal and just pick a fish off when they want one. Maybe once a week, maybe once a month even, but they’re using minimal effort to get what they need.
“This is where lure fishing scores in my personal opinion over any other style of fishing. In the winter, we can put large lures down that mimic what they are looking for. That’s how I got my Warwickshire Avon record.”
“With a lure, it’s not just trying to trigger a feeding response. You’ve got the added advantage of being able to trigger an aggressive response which you can’t do with a dead bait. We lose out because we can’t put the scent in the water, but we have got the benefit of trying to get them to hit lures by being aggressive.”
So for Neville and Gary, dead baiting and lures in winter are ways of fishing that target the pike’s winter lifestyle and in very general terms centre around smell and sight. Natural instinct is of course omnipresent whatever the season and that, says Ceri Thomas is where fly fishing targets the aggressive gene from a slightly different angle.
“I can place a fly right on the edge where it’s snaggy. It’s the only presentation where you can tease them over decayed weed beds and stuff like that on a floating or intermediate line and retain that extra movement. I’d say the fly is one of the best methods to convert a following fish into a take. When it gets to your feet, you can use ‘the hang’. You can’t do anything more with a lure as it loses the action. Whereas if you get a follow to your feet with a fly and you pause, that fly is still sinking through the water and all the fibres are moving and doing stuff. You give it the tiniest little twitch and it comes back to life. I would say you get more conversions from follows on the fly than lures.”
Whatever method used, the pike is caught by teasing a creature that’s a hunter and an unremitting survivor. But it’s also one that requires handling with the greatest of care.
“It’s a fragile fish, despite it’s sinister appearance,” says Ceri Thomas. “You’ve got to have the right unhooking gear and treat it with respect. If you’re a beginner, do a lot of research and if you can, go with somebody who’s been pike fishing before so they can show you the ropes. That’s probably the best way to do it if you’re a first-time pike angler.”
Gary Palmer sums up the obsession of winter fishing for pike. “The more you understand what a pike requires, the more your winter fishing becomes easier. In the summer, they can be almost anywhere and sit below weirs and in oxygenated water but in the winter, it’s in the angler’s benefit to understand what a pike needs so you can work out where that fish is in the water. The one thing you need to do is to slow everything down. What they are looking for at this time, are big easy meals.”
So to understand the pike is to understand the natural world. The pike is a predator motivated by necessity and perhaps on that basis, even those who think of the pike as the devil fish, might be persuaded to think again?
As an Apex Predator, the pike plays an important role in a water system’s natural food chain and retention of the overall balance of that chain can be achieved by a responsible approach to the correct handling of the species and through general conservation practises.
- Correct handling protects the pike AND you from potential injury. Important advice is provided in the video; “How to safely unhook and handle pike” on the Fishing Buzz channel.
- Invasive plants and animals can carry diseases that kill fish and are easily spread on damp clothing and equipment. Pike – and other species – will always benefit from a pro-active, all-year-round adherence to the campaign, ‘Check, Clean, Dry’ which can reduce the spread of contamination across the waters you fish.
- Rural conservation starts on the bank side as well as in the water and litter-picking parties can assist in the safeguarding of our waterways and general fish stocks. Our Anglers Against Litter Campaign has further details of how the Angling Trust might help in your area.