Livebaiting for pike: how, why and where

There are always occasions during pike fishing when deadbaits and artificial lures are not successful. Predator specialist Mick Brown explains that livebaiting is a weapon which should be in every pike angler’s armoury.

Pike are predators and their natural food is live fish, but they are nevertheless regularly caught by anglers using either deadbaits or artificial lures. Situations do arise, however, where livebaiting proves to be the superior, or indeed the only, successful method.

When is it necessary?

On some waters pike show a preference for a living bait. This can be seasonal or due to localized conditions. For example, pike in trout waters are noted for their preference for baits which are alive.

Similarly, when water temperatures fall a lethargic pike can be spurred into action by a livebait when other baits and lures have failed. In venues where there are huge gatherings of small fish, such as in river backwaters in flood conditions, a living bait often proves to be the deadly method. (For sizes and types of livebaits to choose, see Baits, lures & flies, 131-134, Coarse.)

Basic tackle

Rods A general purpose, through-action 12ft (3.6m) rod with a21/4-2 1/2 lb (1-l.lkg) test curve does for most situations. Care is needed when casting to prevent the bait from flying off. The stiffer the top section of the rod, the more likely this is to happen – a gentle lobbing action is preferable to a sharp powerful one.

For casting small baits short distances on snag-free waters, a l3/4-2lb (0.8-0.9kg) test curve rod is more pleasing to use, but for drifting baits at long range a more powerful 2%-3lb (1.2-1.3kg) test curve rod makes contact with a taking fish more positive. Reels These need to have a spool capacity of at least 150m (165yd) of 12lb (5.4kg) b.s. line. For drifting, bigger capacity spools are required. Ideally, reels should have a roller bail arm and smooth clutch. Bait runner facility is not vital except perhaps when trolling, where it gives line freely when a pike grabs the bait.

Line A minimum of 12lb (5.4kg) b.s. is recommended. Step up to 15lb (6.8kg) under snaggy or weedy situations. Use lines with high abrasion resistance where you can see weed, snags, rocks and gravel bars are likely to be a problem. water and a deep bait may not be noticed.

The same rig is used for trotting a river. Try holding back against the flow to make the bait rise higher in the water if takes are not coming deeper down. Sometimes fishing overdepth and dragging the bottom with the bait tempts pike that are lying up and not actively feeding. Beware of snags when river fishing in this way!


Sliding floats are most widely used nowadays. You can adjust depth quickly by means of a sliding stop knot. A small bead between the float and knot prevents the float from sliding over the knot. Round, 30-40mm (1%-I%in) diameter floats with vanes are used for drifting. Long thin cigar-shaped floats are best for trotting baits on rivers or when trolling.

Popular methods

There are several methods of presenting livebaits. These are the most popular. Roaming livebait The live fish is simply supported under a float and allowed to roam around the swim under the influence of wind and current – this explores lots of water. The bait is held down by swan shot on the trace. Depth settings can be critical, so experiment to find the right level. In summer, for example, pike are high in the principle to the roaming livebait except that, by the use of properly designed floats with vanes and greased line, the bait’s progress across the water is controlled. It’s a useful tactic that can, under suitable wind conditions, take a bait distances in excess of 150m (165yd). You may need binoculars to follow its progress in dull or rough water conditions.

This method is not as effective where depth varies a lot or in weedy water since, to prevent snagging, the float has to be set too shallow. Pike are not always prepared to rise up high in the water to intercept a bait, particularly in cold weather.

After sending the bait to its maximum range, walk a short distance along the bank and inch it slowly back. This takes in unfished water. When almost back to the bank, walk a short distance farther and let it drift out again, this time to cover a new, unfished piece of water. Paternostered livebait Sometimes you need to tether a bait as close as possible to a feature known to attract pike – a steep drop-off, perhaps, or a sunken branch. This rig does the trick admirably. The modern practice is to fish the float beneath the surface and this rig is referred to as a sunken-float paternoster.

The buoyancy of the float keeps the rig tight and prevents tangling. The rig commonly incorporates an up-trace which prevents a bite-off, should the bait tangle above the pivot swivel. If fishing is slow, try inching the rig slowly back to you.

Legered livebait This is ideal for tethering a bait near the bottom at range and in weed-free water. The latest technique incorporates the use of a poly ball off the trace which keeps the bait from settling on the bottom and makes it more conspicuous and attractive to pike.

When used with a heavy lead which won’t drag easily, run indication is veiy positive. Again, try inching the rig back to cover more water or provoke a pike into investigating it.

Free-lined livebait Here the end rig is simply a trace and perhaps a couple of swan shots to take the bait to the bottom. It’s a very resistance-free rig, but has the built-in problem that poor indication of a take often leads to deep hooking. It’s usually relegated to fishing under the rod tip on a short line or cast to a pike that can be watched taking it. Trolled livebait Vast expanses of water can be covered simply and effectively by trolling livebaits behind a boat. Tackle-is similar to the roaming livebait rig except that the float is prevented from sliding down the line by another bead and stop knot – the bait wouldn’t be fished at the right depth if this happened.

Where the water is deeper than the length of the rod, ensure that the bottom knot slides easily without damaging the line. This means it won’t stop a pike from being landed due to the float jamming in the top ring. A piece of elastic band tied into a simple granny knot is best for this.

Trolling can be done with the aid of an electric motor, but rowing gives better control of the very slow speed needed to be most effective. On big, deep waters, special trolling techniques have been developed which don’t use a float, but simply drag a weight along the bottom with the bait paternostered at a set depth. Bite indication comes from a bait-runner reel.

Traces for livebaiting

Obviously, you need wire traces. For normal pike fishing situations, 20lb (9kg) b.s. multi-strand wire is suitable. For snaggy conditions and where very big pike are expected, go to 30lb (13.6kg) b.s., used in conjunction with stepped-up tackle. Traces should be at least 50cm (20in) long.

Go for top quality high carbon steel hooks which have been well sharpened. These can usually be used over and over again, often with minimal re-sharpening. Match hooks to the size of baits you use and the pike you expect to catch. Finicky pike caught several times before need smaller hooks than usual. Use barbless or semi-barbless hooks for ease of removal. In each case, one barb is retained to hold the bait. Popular sizes are 10s, 8s and 6s.

Small baits are best lip-hooked on a trace with a single treble hook. On soft-lipped baits, pass the hook through both lips to prevent it from casting off. Attach bigger baits to a trace with two trebles, usually set about 8cm (3in) apart. For trolling and running water, insert the top treble into the lip and hook the lower treble lightly near the pectoral fin. With all other methods, position the top treble below the dorsal fin and the lower treble in the root of the pectoral.

Indication and striking

Whichever method you choose, it is essential that an immediate indication of a run is signalled. Most times, pike hit a bait quickly and decisively. As the fish moves away, it quickly manoeuvres and turns the bait for swallowing head first. This process normally takes just a few seconds. Any delay in your reaction results in a deep-hooked fish.

With roaming, drifted and trolled baits, the take is pretty obvious – the float should shoot under straight away. Free-lined, legered and paternostered baits need careful setting of the rod on two rests to show indi- cation of a run, not only as the fish moves away from the angler, but also as a ‘drop-back’ should the pike move towards the angler and create a slack line.

After casting, tighten up, open the bail arm and clip the line into either a sight bobbin attached to the back rest or a back-biter type electronic indicator. But however indication is given, vigilance is vital to keep reaction time to a minimum. Properly rigged, sensible sized baits can be struck after a delay of no more than ten seconds.