The pike, an exciting adversary for the freshwater angler, is a voracious predator which feeds on a wide range of prey – its diet can include small water birds and even other pike.
Ask any freshwater angler which fish he fears most and with certainty he will say, ‘the pike’. Why the pike (Esox lucius) should be feared is debatable. The fish is by no means the only freshwater predator – the perch and the brown trout also eat other species. Indeed, the trout kills more immature shoal fish than either the pike or the perch.
Streamlined, powerful but graceful, the pike is the supreme predator in our rivers and streams because of the enormous size it can grow to. It leads a solitary life, lying in ambush to dart out and feed on smaller shoal fish – species such as roach, rudd and bream. The pike is built for speed, but only over short distances.
It prefers to wait until an unwary fish comes within striking distance, then, in a burst of energy launches its body forward to grasp its prey.
As the pike gets older and slower it becomes a scavenger, seeking out ailing fish and searching the bottom of the lake or river for dead fish. In this way the pike contributes to the balance of Nature, regulating the numbers of fish that any water is able to support. At the same time, by removing sickly or stunted fish, the feeding habits of the pike ensure the long-term health of the other coarse fish species.
The pike is widely distributed throughout the British Isles. It is found in both flowing and stillwaters. Lakes, especially those containing vast shoals of fodder fish, will hold the larger pike. Loch Lomond and similar large expanses of water have an enormous food potential. Pike there feed on salmon smolts, trout and coarse fish in large numbers. River pike, on the other hand, have to keep up a never ending battle against running water in order to breathe and maintain control over their territory before they even attempt to make a kill.
Maturity and spawning
The female pike will always grow larger than the male, which rarely exceeds 10lb in body weight. During spawning, which can occur at various times, depending on the geographical location and the temperature, a number of male fish will accompany each egg-laden female. Often these male fish are only a pound or so in weight. They become sexually mature after the third year of life, whereas female fish mature slightly later – between the third and fifth year. Spawning begins in March but may extend to June in northerly areas. Pike seek out shallow parts of a lake or stream and have a liking for flooded grassland around the perimeters of Stillwater, and for the water meadows that border some of our rivers. The slightly sticky eggs are released haphazardly to adhere to grass stems and waterweed.
If the temperature is right-about 11°C-the eggs will hatch in 10-15 days. The tiny pike will remain attached to the plant stems for a few days until they absorb the yolk sac. An adhesive pad on the head prevents their being swept away by currents. When the sac has been absorbed and the mouth fully formed, the larvae become free-swimming, moving to the surface to feed on minute water life. If the water is warm enough, the larvae grow fast over the first few months, attaining 3-7in in a year, but many of them will be eaten by other predatory fish. Over a period of two or three weeks a female pike of 14lb probably spawns around 100,000 eggs, of which only a few will make a year’s growth, with even fewer growing to the size of the female parent.
The present record pike weighed 40lb when taken from Horsey Mere, Norfolk, by Peter Hancock in February 1967, but numerous specimens of over 40lb, and one of 53lb have been taken from Irish and Scottish water. A 43lb pike was caught in this country in 1974 but following a spurious claim the fish was never credited to its true captor whose name did not enter the record fish lists. There is some evidence for the existence of pike of up to 70lb in British waters. Certainly, if you < wish to join the record-breakers, it is advisable to fish in the early part of the season when many of the female fish are heavy with spawn. But conservation-minded anglers may object to this.
Learning to ‘read’ the water is something all anglers should do. It involves studying the area and deciding where fish are likely to be found. And to do this an understanding of the pike’s habits and needs is invaluable. Pike often lie in holes in the undercut banks of rivers and streams. Where a tree has fallen into the water it diverts the flow and sets up an eddy, which produces a drastic slowdown in the current. This creates a natural lie for a predator. On stillwaters the pike will pounce from the edge of beds of reedmace, water lilies and rushes, coming out from gaps between the stalks, where it has cover.
Large lakes, reservoirs and other stillwaters lack the identifying features which aid the angler’s search. Underwater contours assume importance in this situation. Natural fall-offs in the slope of the lake bed, ledges and underwater obstructions are the places to find pike. But as these places are invisible to the angler he must locate them by plumbing.
Pike can be made to come to the angler in just the same way as smaller fish are lured. Groundbait, though not of the cereal type, can attract pike. They are able to detect blood in the water over long distances. Finely ground fish offal mixed with pilchard oil is therefore an effective groundbait.
Pike can be caught by a variety of methods. Because of the fish’s voracious appetite, it will attack both live and deadbaits. Fish, for example, can be presented either live, swimming in mid-water, or as dead-bait, lying on the bottom. Practically any species can be used as a livebait – even small pike are an attractive lure for the larger ones. The most important thing is to use a lively bait that will work well, swimming strongly in order to arouse the attention of a pike. However, many anglers consider the use of one fish to catch another as cruel.
Artificial lures play an important part in pike fishing. Spinning is both a pleasurable and successful method. Almost any material can be employed in the manufacture of lures but metal is most often used. Essentially, this is because metal can be worked and bent to the re-quired shape to provide the spinner or spoon with an attractive action when pulled through the water. Obviously metal has its own weight so there is little need to add lead to the end tackle in order to cast it. There is much controversy about the type of action that a spinner should have to make it attractive to the pike and other fish. Trout and perch will dash after a minute blade spinner that represents a small, lively fish. On the other hand, pike, especially the big ones, are only prepared to surge after a lure over short distances. Often if you cast out a ledgered deadbait, then spin a small artificial lure over the top of the resting place of the ledger bait, pike can be drawn into the swim by the lure, but fall casually to the natural bait because it is easier for them to take.
The spoon should be larger for pike and incorporate good-quality treble hooks. Bright colours seem to attract pike. A copper spoon with one side painted red will give alter-nating flashes that simulate the ap-pearance of an escaping rudd, while a silver spoon with red stripes resembles a roach. The colour combinations are never-ending and should be experimented with. Quite often a black-painted spinner is the only type that induces pike to at-tack. It could be that the pike sees the lure as a moving silhouette, which annoys it. An attack (that cannot be called a ‘feeding response’) is often made on an artifical lure. Is the pike responding to an invasion of its territory when it strikes to kill or drive away?
Plugs came to us from America, where they are used successfully to catch a wide variety of species. Made of wood or plastic, they do not really resemble anything found in
Nature. Anglers rely on the action built into the plug to attract fish. The shape of the plug, position of the diving-vane and treble hooks all serve to give the plug a motion that urges pike to attack.
One can vary pike-fishing methods by setting out to accurately simulate what pike might eat in the course of a feeding session. Lures simulating mice and voles can be made from fur and leather strips. Plastic frogs and fish are already available but their value to the pike fisherman is doubtful. This type of artificial lure rarely has the natural appearance and movement necessary to simulate the living creature’s movement.
Where the pike fisherman can score is in extending the sport of fly fishing to the species. All that is needed is to tie large flies from materials that will look like a small fish. These have been used with en-couraging results by anglers on the Irish pike loughs.
With its beautiful marbling of green and brown, the pike is superbly camouflaged. The supreme hunter in our rivers and lakes, this species needs to be stalked with care by the angler, and when caught deserves to be treated with respect.