River Fishing Techniques: Pike

My first pike rod was a makeshift contraption to say the least. I whipped the eye of a big safety pin to a 2in piece of dowel which I stuck into the ferrule of the second section of my prized general-purpose cane rod. My fishing mate went one better: he was lucky enough to own a proper pike rod. Well sort of, for it was labelled ‘General Purpose Pike and Pier Rod’ and had an action not unlike a garden hoe.

Gone are the days of poker-stiff rods and equally crude techniques. Now a huge army of pike fishermen specialise in the one species and, with this increase in the pike’s status, have made many advances in tackle and techniques. More important, conservation and safe handling are key issues. Throughout the same period, the swing has been towards stillwaters -gravel pits especially – and one result is that a good deal of the sport available in our rivers remains largely unexploited.

In general it is true that stillwaters produce the biggest pike, not to mention the occasional huge river fish. A double figure specimen from any river is a fish to be pleased with. A twenty pounder is a great achievement – one that still evades me! Although they average a smaller size, river pike offer their own brand of appeal. They are leaner, fitter and they fight like demons winter and summer. Their Stillwater counterparts do not fight anywhere near so hard in the colder months.


River pike are easy to find because they live in swims that are predictable and fairly easy to recognise. Bends, slow wide stretches, slacks, holes, marginal rush beds and areas in and around weedbeds are generally worth exploring. Like chub, pike enjoy holing up in undercuts and beneath overhangs; unlike chub they prefer quiet water. Large slacks and slow eddies on the side of weirpools are very reliable.

Spots where tributaries or sidestreams enter the main river may hold pike in the last two months of the season when fish shoal up prior to spawning. They often move right up the feeder streams, though slack water each side of the entrance is more likely to be your best bet. You can also locate pike by talking to match fishermen who frequently are pestered by pike invading their swims to attack small fish.

The colouration and patterns on small and large pike shows that their camouflage changes as they grow. Small jacks have regular, stripy figurations on the flanks which provide superb camouflage among weeds and rush-lined swims. Bigger, older pike have mottled, blotchy flanks instead of stripes, which suggests they are camouflaged to hunt in open water dappled by light reflected from the water surface.

Being sensible about it then, we anglers ought to concentrate on open water for river pike. Experience tells me there is some truth in this idea, but I have hooked enough big river fish from weed and rush swims to be a little wary of the theory. River pike are by no means always found in slacks and slow areas, for when feeding they obviously must hunt where the food fish live – sometimes in surprisingly fast water. I recall trotting baits down the white water of foaming weirpools with gates wide open, taking pike one after another.

I learned long ago that the sudden opening of floodgates can turn a dour day into one where pike are spurred into short but hectic feeding spells when it seems that every fish living immediately downstream of the gates is driven into a frenzy. I do not know why a sudden heavy push of water triggers the pikes’ reaction. Perhaps they capitalise on the sudden activity of bait fish stirred up by the extra current.


Unlike a Stillwater pike fisherman, the river enthusiast does not need a combination of rods of different actions. A 10-lift rod f slow action and 2 ½ lb test curve is adequate for virtually every swim and any method. An exception is for fishing the far bank of a fast-moving river. Here a stiffer, longer rod is more suitable because it holds line high off the water and prevents the powerful midstream current from dragging tackle out of position.

Pike are not line shy so it pays to err on the safe side by loading the reel with 10 -12 lb monofilament. Sylcast is popular because it is one of the toughest lines and well able to withstand the pressures of hard piking. Treble hooks in the range 10 -6 handle all my pike fishing. Partridge extra-strong outbends and the extra-strong Drennan patterns are among the best available. On barbed patterns, nip out two barbs of each treble, leaving the third for holding the bait. I believe I have never lost a pike through fishing barbless hooks; even if I had, the ease of unhooking and the satisfaction of knowing that a pike’s jaws are not damaged would be well worth the occasional lost fish.

Ready-made traces complete with trebles can be bought but I never feel confident in them. I make my own instead, which is not only cheaper but far more reliable. Marlin Steel is one of the best cable stainless wires on the market, and is less prone to kinking. It also twists up well for making traces. Kinks seriously weaken the trace and must be watched for, otherwise a big pike will discover the problem foryou.

A few floats complete the basic equipment. Mine are sliders with either a swivel at the bottom or a hole through the centre. A slider can be locked into place on the line with stop knots or shot when a fixed float is required. Polystyrene balls (Polyballs) of 1 in and 1 ½ in diameters make economical and efficient pike floats and can be bought ready-bored and painted or plain for the do-it-yourself enthusiast.

Other bits and pieces include Berkeley or Drennan swivels, leads weighing up to 1 1/2 OZ (loz is the most useful), beads with small holes, and a good hook sharpening stone. The angler who fails to sharpen his hook points cannot complain when they fail to sink into the pike’s hard, bony jaws.

Gaff and pike gags are definitely not needed. Neither has any place in the modern pike scene and should join the ranks of redundant hoe handle rods. A large landing net with small knitted meshes does minimal damage when you hoist fish on to the bank. Unhooking requires nothing more than a glove and large pair of forceps.

Livebaits are an emotive issue these days. It is the individual’s decision to use them or not except in the few areas where live- baiting is banned already. Livebaits catch more pike than deads, and I use them when I must. 1 admit increasing pangs of guilt, now strong enough for me to seriously consider imposing my own personal ban. Deadbaits catch plenty of pike as well, with sprats a consistent catcher along with herrings, mackerel, smelt, sardines and freshwater species. Unusual sea fish are worth a try ifyou can get them and could well be effective when a stretch of water has been flogged with ordinary baits. Small whiting, whiting pout, mullet and gurnard have all taken pike.


River piking is often a mobile game, so I prefer a simple tackle arrangement which, with slight alterations, is versatile enough to be used for several presentations of live and dead baits. The first step is to tie a stop knot on the line. Use a simple water knot with Dacron. Next slide on a bead, then the float. Tie the line to the swivel on the trace, and finally add enough swan shot just above the trace to cock the float. With the stop knot set at less than water depth, the rig can be used to trot live and dead baits; sliding it up the line to 24in above water depth permits laying on with a dead-bait. Should a float paternoster be necessary, tie a piece of 8 lb line between the swivel eye and a leger bomb. For straight legering the float, shot and stop knot are replaced by a bomb.

One drawback is that float paternosters are likely to tangle when the bait twists around trace and line. One solution is to tie in a revolving swivel link, or a three-way swivel; this is an idea 1 devised for sea fish which is just as good for piking. When you use this, the swivel at the top of the trace should be replaced with a snap link swivel which clips to the bottom of the anti-tangle link. Tangles are very rare with this system.

Trotting is one of the most enjoyable methods and is particularly effective in summer when pike are raring to have a go at any moving target. Start with the bait trotting 9 —12in off the bottom, and adjust the depth if no takes come. Where trees and obstructions line the bank, the float can be systematically trotted down as far as control permits to cover all the potential pike lies. On clean banks you can follow the float downstream until the bait finds a pike for you.

Stret-pegging works well in streamy water. Set up a float paternoster carrying just enough lead to hold bottom and work it downstream in steps by leaving the bait to rest for a while, then raising the rod tip so that the lead lifts from the bottom. Let out a bit of free line, then stop the float again. Repeat the pattern to send the bait downriver in a straight line from the rod tip.

I notice that many pike anglers habitually cast into midstream and ignore the water under their own bank or tight into the far side. Many of the best pike swims are along the river’s edge and that is reason enough to tread quietly and first explore the water under your feet. Pike may congregate in areas of river containing none of the usual clues, and by working the margins and trotting baits downstream you can find the hotspots. Once you have found one, hectic fishing is on the cards.

Float paternostered livebait reigns supreme among the static techniques. One danger of using surface-loving baits like rudd is that pike may engulf the line above the trace because the bait has swum upward. The line breaks, and at worst the pike swims away with a mouthful of hooks. It is therefore a wise safeguard to tie in an additional piece of wire slightly longer than the trace and attached above it so that the pike grabs wire not nylon.

Float paternostering is an excellent sit-and-wait method and does offer a good chance of a pike eventually homing in on the bait’s erratic struggles, but it does not have to be an immobile system. One of the most productive ways of fishing a river is to creep quietly to the edge of each likely looking spot on the nearside bank and low- er the bait directly under the rod tip. Pike rarely resist chomping a bait that appears out of nowhere.

Boat Fishing

Trolling is a highly effective method if you have access to a boat. You can cover virtually every pike haunt on the river. Trolling calls for a meticulous arrangement of tackle, net, etc. in the boat because once a pike is hooked the fisherman must stow the oars, drop anchor, grab the rod and strike all at the same time. It does not help to have bits and pieces of gear lying all over the boat. Carry the minimum of tackle, keep the boat tidy and work calmly and methodically when the pike takes the bait. It will rarely let go, so there is no need to panic.

A wobbled deadbait is the normal trolling bait, but livebaits do work if you troll very slowly. The bait should trail about 20yd astern and run at about two-thirds of the average water depth. Slowing the boat allows the bait’to sink into the deeper holes, and speeding up lifts it over shallow patches. Meanwhile the rod is propped on the stern and the bale arm is open with the line clipped onto the rod handle above the spool. John Roberts line clips are perfect for the job. A pike pulls line out of the clip and takes line freely from the reel.

A small multiplier flicked into free spool, with the ratchet engaged is far su- perior for trolling. Clips are unnecessary because bites are registered by the ratchet suddenly bursting into life. My Penn 940 Levelmatic incorporates a quiet, sensitive ratchet with just the right amount of tension for trolling. Some reels have ratchets that sound like football rattles; they register the take well but give the fisherman so great a shock that he’s likely to jump over the side! Other tackle requirements are the same as those used on the bank, though a very short landing net handle is useful in the restricted space. I use a 30in extra-strong bank stick.

Boats are such excellent sound resonators that tackle banging against the hull will be heard for long distances underwater. Padding the bottom boards with old sacking or carpet serves a dual purpose. It deadens the sounds and acts as a soft surface upon which to lay the pike for unhooking. A responsible pike angler never allows a fish to tear itself to shreds on the bare hull.

Feeding Times

What are the best times of day (or night) to catch river pike? Fish and find out is the only answer, for what applies to one river may be totally wrong on another. Early and late are generally good in summer or winter, and winter time often sees more frequent but shorter feeding spells. Weather conditions have a largely unpredictable effect. A light, warm breeze on a damp, overcast day sets the tingles of anticipation going for me. But one of river piking’s attractions is that a fish or two are possible in almost all conditions.

Handling Pike

Perhaps the cold, almost defiant glare of a pike turns some inexperienced anglers’ knees to jelly at the mere thought of taking out the hooks. A pike cannot blink with fear, and it does appear to fix you with its stare – unlike most fish its eyes are positioned towards the front of its head. Despite that, unhooking is easy if the captor goes about the job boldly and calmly.

First, turn the pike on to its back. Lay a wet sack or cloth over its body and up to the gill covers. Kneel astride it to prevent it thrashing. Now slide an index finger into the gill arch and lift up the pike’s head, whereupon the bottom jaw gapes open. Alternatively wear a thick glove, grip the protruding end of the lower jaw and pull the mouth open. Maintain a firm grip with your knees and finger especially if the pike goes tense, which is a sure preliminary to thrashing. Be the boss – a firm hand will easily restrain your fish.

The only unhooking instrument required is a large pair of forceps which are clamped on the hook shanks. The hooks are pushed free to enable the trace to be withdrawn. If the hooks are set in the throat, insert the forceps through the gill arch. Turn the hooks upside down and they will pop free. Gut-hooked fish should be a rarity for the diligent pike angler, but if it does happen pull gently on the trace until the hooks appear. Then the upside-down treatment works. If it is impossible to reveal the hooks, your only course is to snip the trace as close to the hooks as possible.

A Frosty Day’s Piking

One winter’s day I peeped through the curtains as the alarm went off to see a snow-like carpet of thick frost, the gaunt branches of the apple tree swinging restlessly to the beginnings of a north-easterly wind. By the time I arrived at the river the wind had increased to a howl, almost cutting off my ears as I emerged from the car. Upstream was a long, wide, very exposed rush-lined straight with good depth and slow flow where I knew lived a lot of pike. Downstream a tree-girded pool contained fewer pike but offered some respite from the icy blast. I reckoned my comfort was more important than abundant pike, so I made tracks in that direction.

I set up two rods, one with floatfished deadbait which I intended to trot down the far bank, the other with float paternos-tered livebait which would be positioned in six feet of water in a slack just downstream on the near bank. For any method of presenting a static bait even when a float is used, I recommend that a butt indicator also is used as a precaution against deep hooking should you not notice the bite on the float.

Drop off indicators are best. The line clips into a brightly coloured polystyrene or table tennis ball which itself is attached to a retaining string anchored to the rear rod-rest. With the line clipped up, the bale arm is opened to allow a fish to pull free line on the take, which pulls line out of the clip so that the indicator drops off. If a pike moves towards the rod as it takes the bait, the indicator slowly falls in response to the slack line.

With the float paternoster in position and the indicator set, I was attempting to blow some feeling back into my frozen fingers before putting out the trotting rod, when the indicator dropped. Must have set the clip too loose, I thought. The float was nowhere to be seen, and indeed line was spilling steadily from the reel. Still uncertain (the current itself will take line from a spool) I picked up the rod, took the line between finger and thumb and felt for the fish. As the line tightened I felt the unmistakable tap-tug of a pike on the business end. Clicking over the bale arm I wound down until the rod tip bent into the pike, then heaved the rod into its fighting curve.

Striking as such is unnecessary. Just wind in until the rod is well bent against the fish. Even a hefty clout with powerful tackle is ineffective because the pike’s vice-like jaws are clamped on to the bait. The power of the strike is thus transmitted into the jaws rather than to the hooks. As you wind down, the pike feels the resistance and opens its mouth to eject the bait. Rod tension then pulls the hooks home.

River pike rarely fail to put up a hard fight even in cold conditions. The one I had hooked had me backwinding the reel furiously and the light lVilb rod buckled double as the pike accelerated in an unstoppable rush downstream. But river pike do not run far, so when it stopped I showed the fish who was boss and inched it back by pumping the rod. It surfaced in front of me and looked ready for the net; but I should have known better. The pike surged away again. Trying to stop a sizeable fish in its tracks is just asking for trouble, for pike have incredible speed and power over short distances. In this cold water the fish could not fight for long, though; next time there was no mistake and I pulled it over the rim of the net and on to the bank.

The long, lean bundle of fun I had just caught dragged the scales down to 14 ½ lb, a fish to be happy about on this stretch of river. I returned her straight away. I fished the paternostered bait in the same slack as before, and trotted a deadbait down the pool’s far bank. Forty-five minutes of working the bait into all the lively-looking spots confirmed that a moving bait was out of order in such temperatures. So off with the float and on with a bomb to present the seafood flavour injected roach on the bottom. Half-way through a smoke I heard a click and saw the indicator of the paternoster rod swinging around the back rest. The float slowly submerging toward the middle of the river.

Never wait for second runs before hitting a river pike. Few fish are missed if the tackle is right, and those that are were probably jacks. This time it was a smaller fish of 5-6 lb, but welcome anyway. Half an hour later away went the deadbait, making me think I had found a winner by flavouring the bait. Indeed, I believe there really is some scope for experimenting with all sorts of flavours. This pike weighed a shade under 10 lb and was hooked nicely in the tip of the lower jaws. Takes slowed but still came at intervals through the morning on both rods. No pike was larger than the first. The last that took a flavoured bait, a fish of 8 lb, proved to be totally blind in both eyes. Healthy pike feed mostly by an amazingly sensitive system of nerve endings on the body which sense water displacement of the prey: they home in, then switch to eyesight for the kill. Yet that blind pike confirms the species’ ability to obtain a living by smell alone when it has no alternative.