Tackle, Tactics and Experience

Pike Handling

Look After Your Pike!

I'm sure everyone has read many graphic descriptions of the pike portrayed as the freshwater shark or water wolf, conjuring up powerful images of the lean hunting machine that we know so well. Unfortunately for the pike too many anglers are so scared of this toothed terror that when they catch one they handle it so roughly and with such a lack of confidence that they often cause it serious, sometimes fatal, harm. I hope these words will help anyone inexperienced with pike to treat them a little more gently.

In the first place use adequate tackle, a rod that is man enough to land a pike quickly, good quality line that is renewed before it is weakened by age, and a wire leader strong enough and long enough to prevent a bite-off. I have little regard for people who rave about ultra-lite tackle for pike, I have used light rods and spinners myself and they are not the tackle to deal with anything but the smallest pike. If you must fly-fish for pike use a sensible rod, something strong enough to cast a #10 or #11 line, remember that the fly anglers who fish for big rainbows on #7 rods inevitably kill their trout, so they never see them turn belly-up with exhaustion when they are released, pike deserve better than this.

Use lures that are strong enough to stay in one piece when that big pike decides it is not quite ready for the net and plunges under the boat. I have lost pike when a jointed plug has turned into 2 straight plugs or a screw hanger has opened up. Check your line, wire leaders, clips and split rings regularly for damage or signs of wear, and replace any less than perfect parts. We probably all push our luck a little from time to time when we can't be bothered to replace a leader because the clip is a little tired, with luck a lost plug will be all that it costs, but a plug left in a pike probably means a dead pike.

Having hooked and subdued your pike you will have to land it, do you use a net or risk hand-landing it? There are many factors to take into account in making this decision; firstly: how big is the pike? If you have a big fish, possibly a personal best, ready to land, I'm sure you would want to net it. Your net must be big enough, a triangular net with 42" arms seems ridiculously big to carry around, but it seems to shrink dramatically when you have it in the water with your "twenty" thrashing about in front of it. When you are ready, pull the pike into the net, taking great care not to catch any loose hooks in the rim of the mesh, try to get the pike right into the net before lifting it with the mesh, rather than the handle.

If you want to hand-land your pike, it should be perhaps a little more tired out before you try to grab it. There are a lot of things that can, and will, go wrong with this process. Can you safely reach into the water without joining the pike for a swim? High, steep or slippery banks can be very amusing for the onlooker as you try to prove how brave you are, but not at all funny for you. Can the pike be grabbed without impaling your hand on the spare trebles hanging from the lure, and will you be able to lift it without overbalancing, it can be difficult to let go once you have lifted the pike because the trebles are now above your hand and as you drop the pike they are going to get very close to your tender fingers! I have had the dubious pleasure on two occasions of having a lively pike on one treble of a plug and my finger on the other, it hurts quite a lot, gets blood all over the place and you might end up curtailing your fishing trip with a visit to hospital, where they will have very little sympathy.

Apart from the net or your hand there are other options sometimes. If, when bank fishing, you have weed at your feet it is often possible to pull the pike into this and then grab it for unhooking or even sometimes to reach down with the pliers and unhook it without touching it. They are usually quite placid when they are wrapped in weed, so there is little danger to your fingers.

Lightly hooked pike can be unhooked without touching them!

I've mentioned grabbing the pike, by grabbing I don't mean making a mad snatch, but carefully gripping it from above, just behind the head, with thumb and forefinger in line with the top of the gill slits.

It will depend on the size of your hands and how strong you are as to the maximum size of pike you are comfortable with, I am confident with fish up to low doubles.

Small pike are easily held like this

Assuming you have a pike on the bank, or in the boat, you need to unhook it. You should always have carpet in the bottom of the boat to rest the fish on in the net, on the bank find some thick grass or use an unhooking mat.

A netted fish will always, to some extent, have the lure tangled in the mesh of the net, although quite often they have unhooked themselves and can be lifted from the net leaving the lure to be sorted out once the pike is safely returned. Use a special lure mesh to make it easy to untangle lures.

You must use an unhooking mat on rubble-strewn banks like these at Chasewater

To unhook the pike lie it gently onto its back on the soft surface and carefully grip under the gill cover furthest from the hooks. The mouth will open easily and you will have plenty of room to work. If the pike threatens to get lively it is best to straddle it with your knees to stop it thrashing about and injuring itself.

Forceps are of little use for unhooking most lure-sized hooks, you need something stronger, I recommend a "Baker Hook-Out" for smaller sizes and long nosed pliers for the big stuff, although I find I use the pliers for just about every size, they are faster. Be firm and positive, grip the bend or shank of the hook, give a quick push and then twist the hook backwards to get it out without rehooking.
Use soft vegetation to support the pike if there is some handy

Occasionally a pike will take a lure well back into its mouth and a hook will be caught in the gill rakers and out of reach of the pliers. Don't panic, you have to push the pliers in through the gill slits, there is plenty of room, simply turn the pike onto its back and all will be revealed. You might be able to use forceps here for extra reach or precision, you don't need strength, just confidence. Simply tease the hooks out and push them forward into the front of the mouth, then remove the lure from the front. This is usually very easy, and quicker to do than to explain, the hooks will only be loosely hooked in the gaps between the rakers so take care not to damage the gill filaments, when you have tried this once you will realise how easy it is, and how much quicker than trying to reach from the mouth.

Another infrequent problem is a hook that is inaccessible because the lure is in the way and you can't get a grip on the hook or the hook has found a hold where you cannot push it free, the fast answer to this is to cut the hook with bolt-croppers. It sounds drastic with trebles being so expensive but it is sometimes the only way, although you may get lucky and be able to cut the split ring to get the lure out of the way, then use the pliers with a clear access to the hook.

If you want to weigh your pike, use a proper weigh-sling, wetting it first so that you do not remove too much protective slime from the pike's scales. Never hang the pike from the hook of the scales. If you want to take a photograph, don't take all day about it, you should be concerned to get the pike back into the water as quickly as possible. When posing with your pike you should make sure that if it should start to kick you do not drop it onto a hard surface, hold it over the unhooking mat, or the water, so you can put it down quickly if you have to. When you return the pike you should support it upright until it kicks and swims away, just hold the wrist of its tail, it only takes a few seconds usually for the pike to wake up and move.

There is a lot you can do to improve your pike handling before you even go fishing. Use fine wire hooks, they are easier to remove, as well as being easier to sharpen. Crush the barbs on your hooks, you will hook and land more pike as well as making the unhooking process a simpler and kinder task. Have a look at the size of the hooks you are using, big hooks are necessary on some big plugs and jerkbaits, but hooks that are too big will damage pike around the head, they might also prevent the pike from mouthing the lure properly in the first place so it will be hooked outside its mouth and be more likely to be lost, as well as scarred. How many hooks do you need on a plug? Two trebles are enough, even on a big 10" crankbait, you do not hook fish in the mouth with the tail treble but you often find that it has caught in the flank of the pike, it also gets tangled in the net or sometimes on snags and weed as the pike fights. I have several times seen small pike hooked with all 3 trebles on a 9" plug, it is totally unacceptable as well as being unnecessary and easily avoidable.

Finally, good pike fishing is a precious resource, looking after your pike will preserve that resource, and I'm sure you prefer to land pike that appear never to have been landed before. Put them back in the same healthy condition that you caught them so that others can enjoy that pleasure.