Some anglers believe that big baits equal big pike. Others use smaller baits on the basis that what is attractive to small pike also appeals to larger ones. Most sensible pike anglers go for the second option.
Sprats, smelts and sardines are three of the most useful of the smaller baits for pike. All three are sea fish. Freshwater predators don’t usually encounter live sprats and sardines, but they do feed on smelts which enter fresh water on occasion. Smelts run up-river to spawn in March and April. At this time they may be the staple diet of pike in rivers. They often die soon after spawning, so pike probably recognize that a dead smelt is easy food. This may account for much of the smelt’s outstanding success. It’s probably the best all-round river pike bait there is. Sprats are small and silvery with a fairly oily flesh. It is difficult to get them big enough these days, hence the preference of most anglers for sardines. Sardines are distant relatives of sprats, but much more oily. Their most attractive feature is their rich oily smell, which pike come to investigate from considerable distances. Sardines are on average about 10-15cm long- an ideal bait size.
Smelts, which aren’t oily, attract and catch a far wider range of pike sizes than sprats or sardines when fished static on the bottom. No-one knows why this should be, but all the oily baits seem to select the larger fish, avoiding the smaller ones.
These three baits are of a size that allows pike to be hooked easily. But they have some disadvantages, compared with half a mackerel which is a much better option for long-distance fishing. Sardines, which are soft, can only be cast any distance when frozen and sprats need a heavy lead to get them well out from the bank.
When, where – and how
The choice of when to use these baits is very much down to your own individual choice of water. Any water where the pike regularly
Finding ‘em fresh enough
Obtaining these baits depends on where you live. These days most tackle shops stock ready-frozen fresh pike baits, but not all the smelts sold are all that fresh by the time they are put into the freezer. They are most effective when they still smell strongly of cucumber. Smelt are netted from estuaries or the lower parts of rivers. If you live anywhere near these you will get really fresh smelt. Otherwise you should buy only from the reputable bait companies who have a lot to lose if their smelts aren’t fresh.
Sprats and sardines are netted at sea and have usually been kept on ice for several days. They are still fresh when they reach the fishmonger and you can freeze them for use later. Otherwise buy them from your tackle shop when you get the smelt.
Whichever bait you use, it pays to keep them frozen at all times – this way they are easier to transport, easier to keep and easier to cast. Carry them to the water in a freezer box or insulated bag so that you can cast them while still frozen.
If you cast baits off regularly, you are casting too hard with thawed baits. Either switch to a tougher bait, such as mackerel, or tie the bait firmly to the hooks using elasticated thread. take deadbaits responds well to all three small fish baits. All the baits can do well in both summer and winter.
However, in coloured water you would do well to opt for sardines because of the greater amount of scent they release. On waters where deadbait runs are rare, choose smelts. On waters where runs on sprats and sardines are almost non-existent, the smelt seems to manage to bring a few bonus fish to the net.
You needn’t limit yourself to fishing these baits on the bottom. Sprats are quite a useful bait to drift under a float, while smelts are easily mounted on hooks for wobbling. Sardines are rather too soft to be of much use for methods that require frequent recasting. Once thawed out, they are best mounted head up the trace, with one hook in the head of the bait so that it can take the strain of casting.