I know that I am not alone in this, so it is a good time to talk about the welfare of our pike and zander stocks. Although often portrayed as ferocious predators, once on the bank these fish are amongst the most delicate you will ever come across.
Big pike and zander are rare creatures. Most waters will only support around 10 to 40 pounds of predator per acre, for twenty pound pike you can probably half this figure. Big fish are generally far outweighed by smaller fish, so you can see that unlike carp, which can be found at densities of 400 to 600 pounds per acre, big pike are very rare. Couple this with the fact that pike have a relatively short life-span and you can see that the welfare of the fish is paramount. The maximum life-span for pike is perhaps twenty years, although fifteen may be closer to the norm. A twenty pounder is likely to be at least ten years old, a thirty nearer fourteen years. So it is easy to see that we are talking about fish which are not going to be around for very much longer.
Piking is going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment. For many years the poor relation of carp fishing, more anglers appear to be turning to pike at the moment and this is no doubt putting the fish under even more pressure. With more anglers targeting these old girls, it is essential that our handling of the fish is meticulous, as the one or two big fish in a water can be lost leaving the water barren for years to come. Not only does this spoil other anglers sport, it also means that the ecological balance of the fishery may be disturbed. Big pike tend to prey upon smaller pike. So if the big fish are lost, there tends to be an explosion in the numbers of tiddlers, this not only stops any big fish from coming through, but also leads to increased predation on the prey fish.
CORRECT ATTITUDES : Safe pike fishing starts with having the correct attitude to your fishing. When predator fishing you need to be close to the rods at all times, as takes can at times be incredibly delicate and show only the slightest movement on the indicator. Many is the time that I have landed a fish after watching the line at the rod top slowly twitch. You might think that all that is required is good bite indication, but believe me, I have tested most systems and all have their own failings under some conditions. Keeping aware of what the tackle is doing is by far the simplest means of ensuring that fish aren't deeply hooked. This in turn will ensure that you have fewer problems when the fish are on the bank.
Big pike are powerful fish and you need to plan in advance how you are going to land them. Are there any snags in the vicinity? Will you need to wade out to net the fish? Make sure you have a plan in your head and when the time comes, stick to it. This obviously means that you must know where all your gear is, particularly you're landing net and unhooking gear. Get into the habit of keeping your gear in the same place on every trip. This will not only make it more difficult for you to forget bits of tackle, but also will mean that playing and landing fish becomes second nature. Can you reach your landing net, are your forceps to hand? All of these things will eventually become second nature once you have established a system which suits you.
INDICATOR SET-UPS : Normally, when ledgering, I use a combination of a bite alarm and drop-off indicator set parallel to the rod. By always setting up the indicators in this manner I know as soon as a fish picks up the bait. If the rods need to be fished further apart, which is sometimes the case, especially on Fenland drains, I will swap to an ET backbiter alarm, as this alarm will signal a take with a single tone, which will only stop when the alarm is switched off. Having an alarm which continues to sound when the line has stopped moving is especially useful when the wind is howling as it is easy to miss the occasional bleep of a slow take. It is important though not to become too complacent and rely upon the alarms. Treat them as a last resort and keep watching the line is my advice, as it will not only mean the fish are hooked cleanly but it will catch you more fish too.
FLOAT FISHING : Most of my float fishing uses a sunken float in combination with the alarm and drop-off described above. The beauty of this method is that you do not have to disturb a swim by continually casting while setting the depth on the float. Although I have tried the various designs of self-locking floats on the market I have not found one that I am happy with, but such a system would be an ideal alternative method.
When I do float fish I still normally use the alarms and drop-offs. The reasoning being that I cannot fully concentrate on three or four rods at one time and the audible alarm is a back-up for when my alertness falls. Using the same system for all of my piking also means that I don't have to think about my tackle, it is always there ready to go.
CORRECT TACKLE : Ledgering rigs are generally kept as simple as possible. For close range work I just pinch a couple of swan shot on the trace to give me something to tighten down to. For longer range work I will use a semi-fixed bomb for weights up to 1/2 ounce. I rarely use weights bigger than this, but occasionally I will use a small bait with a two ounce lead when fishing at long range. This bigger weight is fished on an ET nylon run rig, to allow the fish enough freedom to move off with the bait.
There are several alternative sunken float paternoster rigs, all of which do a reasonable job. All must be fished with an uptrace. This is a longer trace above the point at which the paternoster tail is tied to the trace. The purpose of the uptrace is to stop a pike taking from below chomping through the line above the trace. For lively baits, such as rudd, I fix the paternoster to the leading treble. This holds the bait nice and tight and stops tangles. For less lively baits, I prefer a bit more leeway and fix the link about a foot up the trace. Pike aren't particularly afraid of resistance when livebaiting, so I use a weight of between one and two ounces, more in a strong current, to hold bottom.
Float fishing rigs are equally as simple. I generally use the smallest float I can get away with, which will generally require no more than four swan shot to cock it. The weight is placed about six inches above the bait. The weight of the bait and the shot is then enough for me to tighten up to. When a pike picks up the bait the float will lay flat on the surface before moving off. Self-cocking floats are out, as the float doesn't lay flat when the bait is picked up. Although I don't always strike immediately, I like to at least know what the fish is up to.
There are many other fancy rigs, some of which, like the drifter, you will have to add to your armoury, but these more specialist techniques can be discussed in more detail at a later date. Tackle is generally the same for all methods. Rods are twelve foot 3lb test curve ET driftmasters, line 15lb synergy, traces made from 30lb ET seven strand wire and hooks size four or six ET semi-barbless. This may sound like overkill, but your next fish could be a thirty pounder, and I for one want to put it on the bank. This gear has never let me down and I have 100% confidence in it's performance.
HITTING TAKES : When the drop-off falls off, the alarm sounds, or the float rises I am never in a hurry to hit a take. It will take some practice to remain calm at this point, but try not to panic. Unlike carp fishing, where the weight of the lead is enough to drive the hook at least partially home, you need a firm strike to set the hooks in the bony mouth of a pike. When I receive some indication of a pick-up, I collect the rod and slowly wind up any slack. When the line is fairly tight I gauge the direction of the pike before sweeping the rod back firmly. This only takes a couple of seconds, yet you will find that it allows you to successfully connect with far more pike than would otherwise be the case. Once the fish is hooked, keep the pressure on and play them quite hard. I always try to get the fish on the bank as quickly as possible, so that the fish is not exhausted.
HANDLING SKILLS : Once in the net give the fish a minute to regain it's breath and also for you to regain your composure. Place the fish on the mat and if it is a reasonably large fish, kneel with one leg either side of the fish. Don't put any downward pressure on the fish, but be prepared to restrain it if it should start to kick. Next, place two fingers just into the gill cover and slide the fingers forward until you reach the jaw bone. A little bit of upward pressure will now force the fish to open it's mouth. You should now be able to see the hooks. Using your forceps flick the hooks free and put the trace to one side. If the hooks are deep in the throat you can, with great care, insert the forceps through the gills to gain better leverage. Whatever you do avoid touching the gills as they are very delicate organs that are easily damaged.
If the hooks are further down in the gut, all is not lost. The gut of a pike is a long tube with plenty of slack. Grab the trace firmly and slowly pull. This may take a few seconds, but the gut will slowly unroll and eventually the hooks will appear. This sounds a bit barbaric, but believe me, it does the fish no lasting harm. Once the fish is unhooked, get it back into the water as quickly as possible. If I am on my own, I use a pike tube to retain the fish while setting up the scales and camera. If you have a friend with you, get them to take the pictures as soon as possible. Getting the fish back in the water quickly will ensure that it suffers no damage.
I hope the contents of this article gives you some pointers about the way I go about my pike fishing. I have never had to leave a trace in a fish, and I can see no reason why anyone else should. Unfortunately, some of the techniques described are much easier to describe than they are to perform with a lively pike on the bank. If you have any doubts about your ability, please contact your local Pike Anglers Club region who will be happy to show you first-hand how to handle the fish. Enjoy your fishing, and above all, ensure the fish go back in the same way they came out.