To catch big pike you’ve first got to locate them. Easier said than done on some waters, particularly the larger ones. Many variable factors effect the location of big pike but a few factors remains the same; their primary objectives are survival, feeding & reproduction. Once you understand a little about the pike’s objectives, you can apply this knowledge to the various water types to help locate the specimens. Different types of water have their own unique features, which also has a bearing on feeding habits & location. Seasonal variations also play a major role in the movement of prey & pike. The experienced angler can exploit this information to his advantage.
As with all wild creatures, pike are instinctively cautious. Big pike have spent their entire lives avoiding being eaten by other predators from both above & below the water line. For this reason, they remain cautious even when they reach a size where they are no longer on the menu. A stealthy approach and a little patience will always improve catch rate but find the pike’s hiding places & catch rates will sour.
Unlike most fish who blow bubbles, disturb the bottom silt or roll on the surface, the pike rarely gives away it’s location when feeding. For this reason it’s often easier to locate the pike‘s prey instead. Pike are rarely far from their next meal. Knowing a little about the topography of a particular water may give clues to the whereabouts of prey fish shoals at particular times of the year & the pike won’t be far away. When in a feeding frenzie the pike’s killer instinct kicks in and their caution all but disappears. Relate this to fishing & it soon becomes clear why a water may appear to be devoid of feeding pike one day but the next day they will confidently pick up any bait offered to them. Feeding pike are therefore not particularly difficult to catch so knowing where the prey fish are at a given time of the year will greatly improve the chances of catching. The key to catching big pike on a regular basis is not only to be able to locate feeding areas but also to locate them when they are not actively feeding, but hiding away, waiting in ambush or laid up between meals.
Pike migrate to their chosen spawning grounds in the lead up to spawning, which takes place in March or April. Knowing these locations and the likely routes the pike will take can lead to huge hauls of fish. This is where the angler’s understanding of the pike and it’s objectives pays dividends. Apply this knowledge & experience to the different types of water and your catch rate can only improve.
The location & feeding habits of pike changes throughout the year. Knowing these changes and relating them to a particular water will help to narrow down the search. On some waters, the changes are so predictable that locating pike at a given time of year is relatively easy.
June to September – Pike are generally more spread out, using weed cover to ambush their prey. They will also feed more frequently to increase body mass & improve condition in the lead up to the winter. Hence why mobile methods such as using lures is so successful at this time of year. This also explains why the match angler starts to think that the water is full of pike as one fish after another is snatched from his line. Pike rarely miss out on an easy meal, especially one looking so vulnerable as it steadily struggles by in a nice straight line.
October – From the start of the traditional pike season in October, as weed beds start to die off, the presence of pike becomes more visible as they start to actively feed. At this time the pike may become so pre-occupied with chasing their chosen prey that it’s difficult to attract them with anything else. By presenting a large bait in their feeding area, big pike can often be tempted away, preferring an easier meal, to that which needs to be caught.
November to December – With the arrival of the first frosts, temperatures plummet & prey start to migrate to the deeper water, closely followed by the pike. Knowing where the deeper areas are will greatly improve your catch rate. These areas may hold a large head of pike. Find these ‘seasonal hotspots’ and sit it out to ensure you fish them to their full potential.
January to Mid February – This can often be the time of year when lakes & stillwaters are frozen solid & rivers are too high & coloured, rendering them completely un-fishable. Some hardened pikers may still brave the elements, even break the ice to fish but from my experience, the results rarely match the effort.
Mid February to March – This is often the most rewarding time of year for the dedicated pike angler. As the ice starts to thaw & water temperatures creep up to around 5 degrees, the pike start to move from deeper water and head to the shallower spawning grounds. Use your knowledge of the water to fish these areas at the right time and you could end the season in style. Not only can the fishing be relatively easy but with the larger females heavily laden with spawn, there is potential for a huge fish.
April to May – Spawning takes place during March or April. The males gather in wait in the shallower waters to be joined later by the larger females. During spawning, much the same as other species, the pike is too pre-occupied to be interested in feeding and responsible anglers will have hung up their bait rods in march to leave the pike to it. Following spawning the condition of the pike will be at it’s worst but it will soon be feasting heavily to improve it’s condition. All predators feast on the competition & whatever food source is readily available, so young perch & pike will be high on the menu. Interestingly, perch spawn at the same time as the pike and their spawn looks very similar. Perhaps this is nature’s way of deterring these predators from eating each others spawn, giving both species a head start. This will not last long, as soon as the fry appear the immature predators will soon be feasting on each other. The pike will of course come out on top as the off-spring grow bigger and more quickly. This is why most commercials who have adopted a policy of routine netting to remove pike, see a massive increase in other predators such as perch and in some cases zander. The pike’s earliest prey will be the closest available, which are perch and other smaller pike. Perhaps this is imprinted for life, which would explain why pike self-predate to such an extent & perch remains one of the most successful pike baits.
Understanding what prey the pike prefer, seasonal variations, migration of prey fish & feeding habits is only one aspect of successful pike angling, but a very important one. Combine this with local knowledge of a water, a little water craft, a good dose of luck and an even bigger dose of effort and you’ll soon be catching more pike on a regular basis. Your chances of catching big pike will also greatly improve.
We are surrounded by gravel pits, which have been left as a result of local mineral extraction. These are littered with under-water features and once mature can produce huge fish of all species, pike included. Mapping the topography of a pit is essential to locate features which may hold pike. The bottom will be uneven and irregular with platos, deep drop-offs, holes, channels and shallows. Plotting the position of these features is the key to success.
Channels between shallower areas or islands can be real ‘hot spots’ on all gravel pits. Prey fish can easily be ambushed in such channels and pike often herd huge shoals of prey fish into these areas in the winter to feed on at will. Roach often migrate to deeper water in the winter and the pike will not be far away so it’s important to know water depths throughout the pit. Plotting features can be very difficult and time consuming but the time spent doing this will greatly improve your understanding of the water and the increased catch rate will make it all worthwhile. If you have several hundred pounds to spend on a bait boat equipped with echo sounder, plotting the main features can be done quickly and accurately. If, like me, you can’t afford one, traditional methods of plumbing will have to do. Sketch a plan of the water and mark this up as you go along. You may well be surprised at your findings and your patience and hard work will pay dividends in the end and greatly reduce the amount of time sat waiting for a run in the cold of winter.
Do the ground work, find the key features, put in sufficient hours on the bank and you’ll get results.
Pike are rarely far from their next meal, either waiting in ambush or holding prey into a feature to attack at will. Understanding the behaviour of river pike will greatly improve catch rate. Pike are rarely found fighting the full current, it’s too much like hard work and burns up too much energy for this somewhat lazy fish. However, they often use the current to their advantage to effortlessly swim down stream to the next ambush point. They much prefer to sit in slack water alongside the main flow to pick off passing prey which are caught in the turbulence. Drops-offs provide good river habitat, where the pike can lay at the bottom of the ledge to avoid the strong current but still be in the main river.
River pike in particular, will not waste valuable energy chasing a small meal. The nourishment gained would be less than the energy exerted in catching it. This is why they are renowned for taking large baits in obvious preference to smaller ones in fast flowing rivers such as the Idle or Trent. I prefer to use whole mackerel, sardines and lamprey of at least a foot long and make up special traces for these larger baits.
Rivers have many under water features, which can easily be found by observing features above the water line. As a river meanders it lifts silt from the outside of bends, creating deeper channels and deposits silt on the inside of the bends to create shallow areas. Often the deeper channels will hold resident pike, laying on the bottom to ambush prey which passes above. Under water features such as deep holes & ledges can be found by plumbing the depths and this can easily be done by counting down a bait till it hit’s the bottom. This will give a rough idea of the contours of the river bed so you can select a likely spot to drop a bait to.
Any areas of slack water are prime places to find big pike. Whether a bay set aside from the main flow, adjoining dyke, rear of an island or behind a man-made structure, these features create the perfect slack water where pike like to lurk. Back eddies are also prime spots, where the river swirls to form a slower paced current, which is heading in the opposite direction.
Over-hanging trees with submerged roots provide the perfect habitat for ambush predators. Bridges & other structures give cover to prey fish such as roach, particularly in the winter where they may form huge shoals. Some areas may consist of a combination of features such as a weir, outlet or junction. These are the ’hot spots’ which are likely to hold a good head of fish all year round.
A mobile approach will give the best results. If using deads, move on every half hour or so but extend this to an hour if you catch. Other pike may well be in the same area.
Locating big pike on canals can prove very difficult to the newcomer. They are usually fairly shallow, uniform in depth and may initially appear to be void of any features which you would associate with big pike. Above the water you may find reed lines, lilly pads, over-hanging trees & bridges. These are all good places to try.
The running water from a lock will hold a good head of prey, particularly in the winter when some areas may be frozen over. However, under water features may not be quite so obvious. Most canals are dredged on a fairly regular basis for boat access and this usually includes the removal of fish-holding snags, branches & shopping trolleys. For this reason we need to look at subtle changes in the topography to find the slightly deeper areas where pike may be laid up or prey fish may migrate in the winter. Wider areas at the entrance to locks and moorings are usually slightly deeper and offer some cover for prey fish. They also act as a holding pen for pike, which may hold fish in a small area for months. Where boats pass under bridges, they often have to swing the stern about to get lined up with the bridge. This creates small pockets of deeper water at either side of bridges. Exactly the type of subtle change to the canal bed we are looking for when trying to locate pike on a stretch of water where there may be no obvious features.
A mobile approach is best when searching such waters for pike and as they’re usually quite narrow, a lot of ground can be covered in a day. Lures are a good method to adopt but winter dead-baiting will sort out the bigger fish. Even when using deads, keep mobile. If a swim is not producing, move on to the next after about 15 minutes or so. Once you catch, sit it out for up to half an hour. There could well be a few pike held up in the same area. On heavily fished or match stretches, larger pike often patrol the margins well into dark looking for any injured fish (easy meals).
Large reservoirs have a reputation for producing some truly enormous pike. Due to their expanse, depth & lack of obvious features, these are also the hardest waters to master. Few anglers have great success on such waters but for those who specialise in fishing them, the rewards can be great. Gord Burton ‘The Piking Pirate’ is one such angler who has dedicated many years to these daunting waters and had more success than most.
For those who are thinking of having a go at a reservoir, you will probably be going afloat & may have the advantage of a sonar to help find underwater features. There are many aspects to fishing these waters, whether from bank or boat so I’ve covered only the very basics here.
Stick to the shallower waters, bays & obvious features such as the dam wall or areas around any other structures. Don’t ignore the margins though. Many big pike have been caught within a few feet of the bank on huge reservoirs. The surrounding topography may give you an idea of the likely depth and gradient in the margins. Use water craft to locate prey fish. Grebes & cormorants often give away the location of fish shoals. Again, find the prey fish & you’ll find the pike.
Deep diving lures or trolled baits will allow you to cover large areas from a boat. Statics from the bank can also give results, particularly if you can find a drop-off or channel to fish to. Autumn & early winter are good times to find pike feeding on young fry in the shallows & margins. Once the temperature falls, the prey fish will head for the deeper water & cover of the dam wall. Large pike will head for the shallow spawning grounds from around the end of February. Find these areas and, as with smaller waters, you could be in for the catch of a life time.
Location is again the key to success here. Estate lakes are usually formed by damming off a small stream in much the same way as a reservoir but on a much smaller scale. The stream continues to feed them with an over-flow system at the dam end so they can have a constant supply of fresh water. As a general rule, the wall (dammed end) is deeper, tapering off to the feeder stream. The bottom will generally be of soft mud & silk, making the perfect medium for weed growth so not surprisingly, weed, rushes & lilies may be the only obvious features. An abundance of vegetation encourages prey fish to spread out rather than shoal up. Over-hanging or sunken trees & roots form the best features to target first. The ecology of well established estate lakes can be very rich and diverse so most species of fish will thrive. For this reason, even the smallest of lakes can produce surprisingly big pike.
Hopefully this article will give the reader a little more insight into the behaviour of the pike, it’s objectives and what influences it’s movements & location. Of course, locating pike is only the start. You then need to identify what it’s eating to be able to present an appropriate bait. As with all fishing disciplines, you get out of it what you put in. Anyone can go to a water and catch fish, but the angler who studies his quarry and puts in that extra thought & effort will inevitably catch far more fish on a regular basis, with a few real specimens along the way.
Alan Dudhill is regional organiser for the North Notts branch of the Pike Anglers’ Club of Great Britain.
For tips on the safe handling and unhooking of pike, and much more, visit the PAC web site. Better still, join online and help fight to preserve our sport for future generations.
For quality pike tackle buy online Pikemaster tackle.
If you have any pike fishing questions you can e-mail the author, firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll try and cover them in a future article.
Alan also runs a busy tackle shop in Retford. Feel free to check out the web site.