When I caught my first 30-pound pike in October 1974 it was one of 'only' 8 thirty pound pike caught within the UK that winter. Today, significantly more such fish are landed each season yet the overall standard of sport has declined. Today's pike angler catches fewer pike than his predecessor did in the 1970's though probably of a higher average weight. This is brought about by a number of factors including the effects of angling pressure, the maturity of fisheries and the settling down of fish stocks, the predator/prey relationships and demographic changes that affect us all.
Our tackle is certainly better than we have ever known, our techniques well proven (if over-fussy at times) and our ability to read a water significantly improved, thanks to the many thousands of published words. Yet catches, across the country, are less in number and wider spread.
We can conclude, therefore, that there are fewer pike in our fisheries these days, that the relationship between pike (as the major predator, the top of the food chain) and it's food is more settled. Fewer pike after the same quantity of food means larger pike; large pike mean fewer small pike (pike are natures best cannibals) and fewer large pike mean slower sport.
Unfortunately, the collective result of catching fewer pike means that we are making slower progress learning about this species, it's natural history and it's methodology. We run the risk, over the next decade of making a lot less progress in these areas than we made over the past 3 or 4 decades, and that will be a sad loss to the sport.
Let me offer a few examples of some pike fishing I was enjoying in the mid-80's as an indication of the level of sport that we see too little of these days.
Trip no. 1
14 fish at weights 17.8, 16.4, 16.00, 15.4, 13.00, 12.12 and 11.4 plus 7 others under 101bs.
Trip no. 2 six days later 8 fish at weights 11.12, 10.00, 12.00, 19.00 and 14.00 plus 3 under 10 lbs.
Here are three examples of summer trips. The weights don't matter, just look at the pace of sport - the times depict runs: 04.20, 04.50, 05.20, 05.50 (2 runs simultaneously). 06.00, 06.10, 06.25 and 0815.
Two days later:
04.27, 04.55, 05.15, 05.20, 05.30, 05.35, 05.50, 06.50, 06.51, 07.30, 08.459 08.55, 09.40 and 10.05.
Five days later:
04.25 101bs, 04.40 161bs, 04.55 91bs, 05.20 101bs, 06.00 16.41bs, 06.10 81bs, 06.35 fish lost, 08.52 5.81bs, 08.55 171bs and 09.25 16.81bs.
Later the same season, 2nd October to be precise:
07.12 missed run, 09.00 17.41bs, 09.40 13.81bs, 10.00 10.81bs, 10.25 15.81bs, 10.30 dropped run, 11.05 dropped run, 11.25 16.81bs and 12.00 noon 17.81bs.
In one season in the late 1980's half a dozen of us caught 2500 pike. With fishing like this and the above examples taken at random from my diaries, anglers learn a huge amount about the fisheries themselves, pike feeding spells, preferred baits and techniques. Plenty of runs give the angler every opportunity to work out systems and the chance to experiment. When the 'norm' is one or two runs per trip the learning process is slow and patterns hard to decipher. In short, we learn less and it takes longer to achieve a modest learning curve.
For a variety of reasons today's pike angler has a lot less freedom than his counterpart 3 decades ago. There is no longer the universal acceptance of live baiting; a pike anglers bait is another anglers sport and local legislation preventing the transport of live baits, the keeping of live baits and indeed the use of live baits is rife. Today, the standard bait fishing method is dead baiting; society's attitudes are changing at a pace we have never before experienced and for the pike angler these changes are profound.
Very few waters give up their pike to dead baits as readily as to live baits. The average size of dead bait caught pike is certainly much higher than live bait caught pike and any angler voluntarily going over to dead baits only has to accept that sport will be a lot slower apart from isolated, and very exceptional days. If any pike angling technique was designed to tax the brain and the inventiveness of the angler then dead baiting is that technique. It is too easy to fish a dead bait in a sloppy fashion and too easy to cause damage to the pike stocks thereby. Let us look at bite, or run, indication as an example of this.
If you cast a dead bait 30 yards in a strong cross wind and don't take up the resulting slack line as soon as the bait hits bottom you could end up with anything up to 10 yards of slack line between the rod and the bait. This sloppy approach is then compounded if poor, unreliable or inappropriate bite detection methods are used. Placing the rod in its rests with a piece of silver paper hanging in the line, sleeping in the chair or chatting with mates thirty yards along the bank is a sure-fire technique to ensure deep hooking. Deliberate deep hooking is an offence by the way! This is dead baiting at its worst and thankfully an approach we see little of these days.
However, we still see a lot of unattended rods! You can almost always identify pike anglers on a slow fishery - they are huddled together around one of their sets of tackle. (Carp anglers on the other hand are in the local pub!) Watch what happens when one of them gets a run, or when the wind blows the line out of a clip and sounds the buzzer. There is a stampede for the rod. Surely this indicates that anglers know full well that unattended rods is bad angling practice and that deep hooked pike are bad for the health of the pike, otherwise the angler would walk casually to the rod? Even today there is still too much reliance upon 'fail-safe' bite indicators and electronic circuits.
The very best run detector in pike angling is a float and the reason for this is that a float is nearest to the bait. If a float is correctly set just a little over-depth and 'balanced' by the tension of the line, it's sensitivity is incredible. It follows, of course, that the angler still needs to be observant. But, there are a number of very good reasons why it is not always practical to use a float, it isn't all laziness! Extreme range casting is hampered with a float, heavy floodwater, and fast currents pull floats beneath the surface and whilst there are ways to counteract this problem they are sometimes a compromise.
Most dead baits are fished on the bottom and it's not a bad premise with which to start (most dead fish are found on the bottom) and despite the frequency we are told that pike can only look upwards and forwards, they do a very good job finding and eating fish hard on the bottom. They do this partly by smell, but more of that later.
Pike on the receiving end of a lot of angling pressure may develop a suspicion of certain species of dead baits, or of dead baits fished in particular ways. It is perfectly reasonable therefore, for anglers to go right back to basics and to use the most natural of all pike angling methods - the free lined dead bait. As simple and as natural as it may be, a free line dead bait is a conservation nightmare. The risks of deep hooking caused by poor bite detection methods simply and quickly rule out the technique in today's pike angling. Most species of fish are more tolerant of some built-in resistance than many of us used to think, and whilst pike are amongst those species intolerant of a lot of resistance, it is quite possible to include some weight to the terminal tackle that quickly transforms a free lined dead bait into an efficient, and safe, end rig. The important thing to remember is that pike may be scared off by the sudden introduction of resistance felt after they take the bait. If they feel the resistance as they pick up the bait they seem to accept it as part of the weight of the 'food' and are not alarmed. The answer, therefore, is to place the lead close to the bait.
All sorts of traditional and 'exotic' species are used by the modern pike angler in the search for a universally accepted dead bait. Whilst herrings, sprats and mackerel are still deservedly popular, eel sections, lamprey, gurnard, and many other salt and fresh water species are experimented with. Over time this becomes a little self-defeating however. Pike may find some of these new offerings to their collective liking and in cases such as eel sections and lamprey significant catches are made at early stages. Pike in some waters seem to like certain dead bait species for a longer period of time than pike in other waters. Smelt are perhaps the best example of this - on some fisheries this bait out fishes all others but on just as many, it is nothing more than an also-ran.
The problem with slow fishing is that it can take several seasons for these kinds of patterns to emerge and often enough that is too late - the pike have already 'gone off' certain dead baits.
Currently there is much renewed interest in pop-up dead baits and in added colours. Coarse fish dead baits can be easily popped up simply by air injecting them, though salt-water dead baits will not take air so polystyrene, balsa or some other buoyant material has to be used. Some anglers are adding colour either directly to the dead bait with a dye, or using coloured tags on the hooks or trace. Each of these added value methods works in the short term; each may work in the long term depending upon local preferences.
The problem we have is properly evaluating these issues.
Sprats, herrings and sardines are each similar to one another in appearance but are markedly different in pike catching ability. Take a look at the extent of the oil slick as each of these baits hits the water and it is obvious that one species is more oily than the next, than the next. The amount of oil dispersed into the water appears to be directly in proportion to the effectiveness of the bait and so, if this is correct, colour doesn't matter. So why are some anglers colouring their baits bright red or yellow, or even blue?
We were using popped up baits (mostly dead coarse fish air injected) in the early 1970's. On some waters these baits out fished all others, on other waters it made no difference. Over a period of time the technique faded away only to be rediscovered by each new generation of pike angler, each with renewed vigour to use something different than the next angler. Yet, at the end of the day the most successful, all-time, all-water dead baits are natural coloured, natural flavoured sea fish species. If you used no other dead bait than mackerel you would catch as many pike as anyone else would, all things considered.
But back to our terminal tackle!
We should add weight to our terminal tackle for just two purposes. First of all to get the bait where we want it. This embraces distance and depth and ignores for the purpose of this discussion the use of drifter techniques. The second purpose of adding lead is to ensure that even a gentle take is registered. It is this latter that causes the greater concern because anyone can cast and decide where the bait is to be placed. Good bite detection is central to pike conservation and pike conservation is central to the future of decent pike angling!
Just enough weight should be added to pike tackle to get the bait to where you want it and to hold it in position. The only other purpose is to add enough tension to the line to overcome the weight of water on the line between the rod and the bait. In this way the bite detection methods in use can be carefully balanced to indicate the shortest of movements, the merest of lifts and the most delicate of drop backs. I don't like 'swingers' and rigid-arm drop-back indicators because of the inertia built within them and inherent in their design. Most drop-back 'arms' are placed at the furthest point away from the bait too (clipped to the back rod rest!) which in simple terms means that a run, or drop back take is not registered as quickly as it needs to be for efficient hooking and to avoid deep hooking. The rigid nature of the arm also lacks sensitivity.
With the line carefully balanced against a lead close to the bait, the most efficient bite detection method I have ever found (after a float that is) is a 'bobbin' made from a cylinder of plastic placed immediately behind a sensitively adjusted bite alarm. Full-blooded runs are obvious and need no further comment, but drop-back takes, and any finicky feeding pike, are indicated by subtle movements of the bobbin and audibly by the alarm. It is essential to register a take as soon as possible after the pike has picked up the bait. A lead positioned close to the bait doesn't frighten off the pike and is also needed to register a run that goes slowly to one side. These takes are often the most remote of all to see an indication.
We have taken a moderately close look at just a few of the problems facing the modern dead baiting pike specialist. We have only begun to scratch the surface, though I hope to have opened a few eyes to the problems.
There is a lot more to discuss in the future!