Basic knowledge and tips for pike fishing
The pike is one of the largest and most aggressive predators in the northern hemisphere. Not only in Germany is pike fishing popular. In English-speaking countries, pike also go by the name of “Water Wolves.” If nothing gets in their way, pike can grow up to 30 years old and reach extraordinary sizes. Europeans are in luck, for pike grow particularly well there. The biggest pike ever caught was hooked in Ireland in 1822 and weighed in at 92 lbs (41.73 kg). A decent lump. The German record stands at over 68 lbs (31 kg). That fish was hooked on the Rhine in 1850. So where do pike live, how do they behave and how can we catch those big ones?
What is this article about?
This article is not only about pike fishing, but also about how to find them. We firmly believe that sound bait selection and fishing technique alone do not guarantee success. No. First, we have to learn to locate pike. Then, we can catch us a big one.
Throughout the writing process for our newest book “Find Fish. The Smart Way: Pike,” we will expand this article bit by bit. Gradually, topics that we describe in great detail in the book, will be introduced in this and/or other articles of the category “Fishing for pike.”
Why is it so important to learn more about the pike and its behavior?
Pike fishing is so popular because this predator can adapt to different living conditions. Anglers can catch pike in deep, cold lakes as well as in shallow, warm, muddy “puddles.” Pike do not depend on a specific kind of prey but can quickly switch between food sources.
A study conducted at the 12ha lake “Großer Vätersee” clearly illustrates the pike’s ability to adapt. Here, it hunted as the top predator without competition until the year 1997. Its diet consisted of:
Distribution of prey in 1997
- 60% crayfish
- 20% perch
- approx. 10% small roaches
Really?! 60% crayfish?? Whether the local anglers knew about that? Because if pike hunt crayfish, it means they are hunting on the floor. How many plastic baits and rubber fish must have passed those pike without eliciting so much as a reaction? After all, most baits do not imitate crayfish and are kept off the floor.
After a total of 1,083 zanders were introduced into the “Großer Vätersee” in 2001 and 2002, a significant change in the pike population occurred. Before the zander stocking, pike were at home near the shore, 3 – 10 ft (1 – 3 m) deep. In this regard, nothing changed.
What changed was the behavior of the pike’s prey. The small roaches and perches, previously at home in the open water, started to seek shelter from the zander near the shore. The pike suddenly found itself in a land of milk and honey. The distribution of its prey changed accordingly:
Distribution of prey in 2002
- 54% perches
- 7% roaches
- 1% crayfish
- 27% other fish (small pike, ruffe, other whitefish, zander etc.)
It is remarkable that within a short period of five years, the crayfish was almost dropped entirely off the pike’s diet after being the main meal in 1997. This shows how quickly the pike can adapt to changing conditions in its habitat. I think we can assume with confidence that only a few anglers on lake “Großer Vätersee” were aware of this behavior change and adjusted their baits accordingly.
This study perfectly illustrates why it is so important to examine the behavior and habitat of the pike. Changes in the habitat impact hotspots and prey. And changes in the prey must inform our bait selection and fishing technique.
To have success fishing for pike, here are the questions we must answer first:
- Which baits do pike prefer in our waters?
- What is the best fishing technique?
- Where are the hotspots?
- Better even: Where are best hotspots for each time of day and season?
Pike prefer cool waters
The pike loves cool water. The ideal water temperature for pike fishing is at 18°C surface temperature. That’s when the pike is most active and easy to catch. We have these optimal conditions twice a year. Once during spring and another time in autumn when the water cools back down. Whoever goes pike fishing during those months, likely won’t have many slow days on the water.
If it is too warm, the large pike head for cooler waters—they have a harder time cooling down their fat bodies.
It’s a vicious cycle because cooling down requires a lot of energy. To replenish energy reserves, the pike must feed, forcing it to expend additional energy. To solve this dilemma, large pike tend to dive to escape the warm water, sometimes going without food for days.
Young and small pike are able to adapt to the heat and stay near the shore almost all year. To catch pike, locate their supply of food and prey. Pike will be close by.
“He who findeth the prey findeth the pike.”
On hot days, large pike remain in deep waters. With the Navionics web app you can quickly map out the terrain of your water.
Depths of up to 30ft (9m) are easy to spot in white.
We divided the area into three zones. Depths of 30ft+ (9m+) are sufficiently cold for the large predators. The red line marks the subjective edge between deep and shallow waters. Here we are most likely to find the big ones.
A – At high temperatures, this area would be our second choice in our hunt for large pike. The area towards the shore provides sufficient space for a medium number of small fish to feed on.
B – This is the best spot for medium-sized pike. The shore area is large and has a gradual drop-off—the distance between the depth contours visualizes this. The shore area is likely populated by many plants that attract small fish. The large pike can cool down in the depth and have plenty of food available—large pike feed a lot.
C – This is the last spot we would look for large pike. The sharp drop-off—closely spaced depth contours—offers little space for vegetation, so the hiding spots for the pike are limited. However, at dusk, the big predators only have to cover a short distance to get to their prey.
Where are the hotspots for pike fishing on the lake?
To locate the hotspots, you must understand the ins and outs of the lake. Especially the trophic state is of importance.
Clear or murky? What effect has the water?
The turbidity level of the water influences our choice of bait and fishing technique. The trophic status describes the turbidity level, defining how clear or turbid—nutrient-poor or nutrient-rich—a body of water is.
The trophic status in brief
Oligotrophic waters are nutrient-poor, often deep, with visibility above 30 ft (10 m). Agriculture near those waters is usually not very developed. Vegetation is underdeveloped due to the low nutrient content. The pike can see over far distances, however so can its prey. Speed is of the essence for the pike to succeed in its hunt. For this reason, we may reel a bit faster when fishing on oligotrophic lakes. Sparkling and flashing lures are the right choice here.
Mesotrophic waters have moderately nutrient-rich waters. These waters often have a depth of 15-130 ft (5-40 m). The visibility is about 10-23 ft (3-7 m). Agriculture is present in the area. The vegetation is well developed. The shore offers food and shelter to many fish. Pike can sneak up on their prey or attack from a lurking position. Fast advances drive the prey together. If fishing in the right spot, anglers should be in luck.
Eutrophic waters are turbid. These waters usually have a depth of up to 15 ft (5 m), with visibility restricted to only a few centimeters, maybe a meter. Around these waters, agriculture is well developed. The vegetation is blooming and not only limited to the shore. Pike can sneak up very close to their prey. On the abundantly plant-covered lake floor, they are camouflaged and can attack from a lurking position. Since visibility is limited, the visual senses of the pike play a subordinate role. Baits that produce a high vibration and rattles should be at the top of your bait box in these waters.
Pike fishing from the shore
Steep shore edges also are great hotspots for pike fishing. Large pike like to wait near these edges to catch fish drifting in the slow current.
Why do pike position themselves underneath these edges?
The pike has eyes pointing upwards, equipping it well for attacks from below. From below the edge, the pike can speed up and launch a surprise attack.
Pike fishing in open waters
Pike fishing in open waters is a tricky business and demands a good understanding of the pike’s behavioral patterns. The equipment—boat and echo sounder, season and weather conditions also play a significant role. We have dedicated numerous chapters to this broad topic in our newest book “Find Fish. The Smart Way: Pike.”
- The prey (Chapter 3.4.2 Roaches)
- The thermocline (Chapter 4.3. Pike fishing a thermocline)
- Habitats for all ages (Chapter 5.4. Finally Grown Up)
- Echo sounder (chapter 5.2 Echo sounders for boat anglers)
- The Year of the Pike – Hotspots after the spawning season (Chapter 6.5)
- The Year of the pike – Hotspots at the end of spring (Chapter 6.6)
- The Year of the Pike – Summer Hotspots (Chapter 6.6)
- The Year of the Pike – Late Summer Hotspots (Chapter 6.9)
- The Year of the Pike – Winter Hotspots (Chapter 6.11)
What are the river hotspots for pike fishing?
The best river hotspots are those where the current is very slow. Pike also prefer clear waters to spy on their prey—pike rely on their visual senses to hunt. The current of a river is subject to physical principles. Those who understand them can use this information to their advantage to locate hotspots. The current varies spatially as well as temporally within the river. This knowledge is elementary for us anglers.
Where along the river is the current the slowest?
If we take a look at the cross-section of a river, we get a clear picture of the current. The water flows very slowly near the shore and at the bottom of the river. Here the flowing river water is slowed down by the river bed. For this reason, most fish, whether predator or prey, are more likely to stay near the shore or at the bottom of a river than in the strong current.
Pike prefer the calm waters on the shore. Here, the vegetation helps to reduce the current. Especially those spots between groins are a favorite. As zander prefer to stay close to the current, both predators are not competing for food. While zander hunt those prey fish which are carried by the current, pike prefer the prey that have sought protection near the shore.
How to spot steep shore edges in a river?
We use the web app from Navionics again. The free online tool allows us to identify where the shore drops off. In case the edge is near the bank, we may even be able to catch some big ones from land.
We set the depth range of the Navionics Web App to 10 ft (3 m)—see the blue arrow. Everything deeper than 10 ft (3 m) is displayed in white.
Area D is one of the best spring hotspots for pike fishing. Here, the water warms up fastest and magically attracts many fish. Towards the summer, when the water temperature approaches 70°F (20°C), pike like to stay in the area of the river inlet (below point D). In the main river itself, pike choose quiet areas. Between groins, pike stay close to the shore (point C) and in the main stream, often on the shallower bank (points A).
The bigger the pike, the more important the steep shore edges become (green lines).
More information to follow on:
- fishing strategies
- special features
- bait selection
Why look for obstacles in the river?
Obstacles in the river cause a change in the current. Near these obstacles, we can find calm patches that are great for pike fishing. Bridge piers are a good example. Here, the water swirls behind the piers, causing sediment to get carried off over time. As a result, the current around the piers starts to intensify. However, behind the piers, calm patches of water emerge. Large predators lurk in these spots, enjoying the calm water while waiting for prey to drift past.
Also useful is the Deeper, a mobile fishfinder for the fishing rod. Casting the Deeper towards the middle of the river helps you to locate big fish and to observe depth changes along the river bed. The current keeps the Deeper moving, allowing you to scan a wide area of the river. To find the falling edge, you have to reel in the Deeper while watching the screen. If you use the Deeper Pro Plus, you can consult the GPS map at a later point to find the edge again.
Pike fishing for all seasons
For pike, spring season is spawning season. The pike, especially the large ones, prepare for reproduction. Food intake is reduced to an absolute minimum come March. The large, female pike surface from the depths of the open water to meet the pike males—mostly smaller in size—near the shore. The bridal show begins.
In most waters, pike tend to rest till April. Feeding continues after the exhausting spawning season.
At the beginning of the year, as the ice cover breaks, many fish are attracted to the shallower areas of the lake—the shallower, the better. Narrow thin side arms, protected from the wind, are the best spots to fish for pike in sunny weather. Pikes prefer this shallower water (3 ft / 1m) because here it is warm and cozy compared to the rest of the lake. Point B is the first choice—it’s shallow, narrow and sheltered from the wind.
The best hotspots at the beginning of spring, when the water temperature has risen to about 50°F (10°C), are close to the spawning grounds near the steep shore edges (Point C). As spawning season approaches, pike start to populate the shallow bays. Here, sufficient space is available to accommodate all spawning pike. Bay A promises enough space. Never again throughout the year will you find so many pike in one area. Good plant growth will offer protection and food to the pike offspring as the year progresses.
At the end of spawning season, some pike remain in Bay A to rest while others will have already returned to the deeper waters. The edge at Point C offers a good resting spot for large pike before they return to the open water in the middle of the lake.
These edges will provide excellent hunting and hiding opportunities for small and medium-sized pike during the year.
The area around point C is less attractive because the vegetation is not as well developed. Few prey fish and pike will stay in this spot.
Which fishing technique to employ after the spawning season?
The slower, the better. The pike are still in recovery mode. They do not attack quickly. It will take time for them to get back to 100%. Reeling in your baits too fast will cause you to go home empty more often than not.
Which baits does the pike prefer in spring?
Early in the year, small prey fish do not exist in abundance. Therefore, the pike cannot afford to be picky and are hunting both large and small prey. Pike even feed on their own species during this time of year. By the end of spring, the pike start to stalk everything that moves in or on the water. That is why for no other predatory fish, do we have available such an abundance of alternative baits—mice, ducks, rats, and snakes. The pike is an absolute “top predator” in our waters.
You can also try baits that imitate pike. Especially now, when small prey fish are scarce, own conspecifics are often the first choice for large pike.
Large pike are quite stressed during hot summers. Amongst some anglers, pike have the nickname “coolest of the coolest.” It is a cold water fish and loves water temperatures between 50-65°F (10-18°C). As soon as temperatures rise, it struggles to maintain its ideal body temperature. Particularly large pike struggle, for they must expend a lot of energy to circulate the blood through their bodies. They are forced to dive to lower depths and to move as little as possible. The logic is quite simple: If pike limit their movement, they do not have to feed and hunt as much—hunting, eating and digesting the prey is exhausting and increases their body temperature. A pike can survive several days without food and often does so throughout the summer. The longer the temperatures stay cool, the better our odds to hook a big one.
Fishing for pike during a hot period is not so easy if you aim for those large ones. Anglers need patience and perseverance—reel slowly. Baits that stay in the same position or move slowly promise the best chances of success. For pike, these baits are easy prey. A large pike knows that and will choose this prey over others to expend less energy.
Pike are not superficial, are they?
Well, nobody really knows their character traits, however, in summer we can easily stalk them on the surface. Surface baits, also called “Poppers,” promise great success on sunny days. On clear lakes, you might be able to spot pike close to lily pads and other water plants. Hanging trees tend to attract the pike, too. During summer, pike often stay very close to the surface. However, remember our distinction between those pike that live near the shore and those that hunt in open waters. Both habitats are very different and demand a different way of life and hunting strategies.
Surface baits are therefore only intended for those pike that live near the shore. Rip the “Poppers” across the surface bit by bit with quick, strong twitches of your rod. The “Popper” will pile up the water in front of it and produce loud “Plops.” We use this bait to imitate jumping fish. These baits are especially attractive to lazy pike as they attract attention with loud noises and movement.
What does "Walking the dog" have to do with fishing?
Besides “Poppers”, “Wobblers” have been proven effective for pike fishing. These baits are presented below the surface to those pike that stay near the top. Due to the lack of a diving shovel, “Wobblers” do not dive to the floor. When reeled in, the bait is designed to move in a zigzag motion, imitating a migrating fish. A big advantage of the “walking the dog” bait is that you can cover a large surface area without risking to get hooked in the vegetation.
The pike lurking in the vegetation then pounce at the artificial bait. You can also leave the bait in one spot for a while, keeping it in the pike’s vision for a longer time. By twitching the rod tip, we can then move the bait in a zigzag course.
Note: Slow-moving bait can cover a large surface area and remain in the pike’s field of vision for a longer time.
Peak season for pike fishing has arrived! As the outside temperatures start to cool down the water, the large pike get on the move. It is their time now. Autumn is the time when all fish prepare for winter. It is time to fatten up to survive the cold, long winter ahead.
Of the millions of fish hatched in spring, only 20-30% will have survived by autumn. The majority has already fallen prey to predators. Having defied all odds, the young fish have reached a measurable size. Of course, for pike and other predators, this only means that the meals have gotten bigger.
When fishing for pike, it is imperative to pick bigger baits now. If you are fishing for large pike, baits of 20cm or more in length should be at the top of the bait box now. The pike’s conspecifics are on the top of the menu. You might still be able to fish near the shore at the beginning of autumn but will have to move to deeper waters as it gets colder. The vegetation that previously provided hiding spots for pike has gradually died off, rendering surprise attacks less effective.
The pike no longer have cover to hide. The same is true for the prey fish. They have to find a new habitat that offers sufficient protection. Slowly, all life moves to dark depths.
As the water cools down considerably, most fish gather in the deepest spots of our lakes and rivers. Here, the temperature is at its highest with 40-46°F (4-8°C)—the surface might have already cooled down to 34-41°F (1-5°C).
How to find the deep spots?
Either you know your territory, or you use technical aids. When fishing from land, we employ the Deeper for this scenario. At home, you can always consult the Navionics web app. Depending on the water, you should be able to find some deep areas near the shore.
During winter, everything changes. Both prey and predator are primed for energy preservation now. Every unnecessary movement requires additional energy intake and is avoided at all costs. So modify the speed of your baits accordingly. Advertise the bait as large, easy prey to the pike.
If nothing works, you may also speed up your bait from time to time to elicit the defensive instincts of the pike. You will have to work hard to catch pike in winter.
The equipment — the best baits for pike
We distinguished between two types of bait for pike fishing: some move quickly and irritate the pike and others move slowly and promise to be easy prey.
The dead baitfish falls into this category. It stays in the predator’s field of vision for a long time and is attractive to straying pike.
Amongst artificial baits, floating plastic baits promise the most success. As you reel, the “Wobbler” start to dive, an effect of its diving shovel. Hard plastic baits stay deep if you stop reeling. Soft plastic baits, on the other hand, will start to float to the surface. With these baits, you can scan the upper layers of the water.
Other baits sink to the floor. If you choose a slow sinking bait, you will be able to scan the lower layers of the water bit by bit.
Fast-moving baits should animate the pike’s hunting and territorial defense instincts. Pike react quickly to these baits, striking out of nowhere.
Bait types for pike fishing
The dead baitfish
Dead baitfish are real dead fish. Pike are visual hunters, so dead baitfish arouse little suspicion. The smell of the dead fish is attractive to the pike. Pike like to scavenge, making the dead baitfish the perfect prey. When fishing for pike, this bait is the first choice for many anglers.
Especially those looking for a relaxing day on the lake enjoy this bait. Use a pose or a sinker to fish for pike with dead baitfish. Make sure the pose is a little bigger as it has to hold the baitfish. Both methods help present the bait in mid-water or near the floor—where exactly depends on the season and the depth of the river or lake. In rivers, you may also leave the pose to float.
The spoon – a classic
The spoon is the great-grandfather of artificial baits. It is the ancestor of all baits. As the first spinning rods were invented, this bait was still made out of spoons. Today, it has become a classic. Seriously, who came up with the idea to weld a hook to a spoon? Ingenious.
The spoon rotates through the water as it sparkles and flashes in the rays of the sun. When the water is clear and the sun shining, this flashy bait attracts the eyes of many predators. You can scan long distances with this bait and may even lure some tired pike from their hiding spots.
The spinner is just as flashy as the spoon-bait. Its main feature is the spinner blade which generates large pressure waves that spread widely—pike are very sensitive to pressure waves due to their lateral-line organ. Although they mainly rely on their eyes when hunting, they can perceive the waves of wriggling fish from many metres away. The spinner attracts pike from a great distance. Spinners are a great choice in turbid water and also promise great success on cloudy days.
We have entered modernity. Our sole option to adjust the depth of spoon-baits and spinners is to reel faster or slower. Wobblers are different. Equipped with a diving shovel, we can guide the wobbler to depths of 30-40 ft (9-12 m).
Wobblers enable us to keep our bait at a certain depth over a wide area.
Since the treble hooks are attached to the bottom of the bait it is essential to understand the structure of the floor. If you fish at the wrong depth, it is all too easy to get hooked in the underwater vegetation. As these baits cost $ 15-30, a loss is always painful. Especially, as most losses are preventable with a little research.
How to unhook your bait
If you fish a lot with artificial baits, you may wish to purchase a bait retriever. If you get hooked, place this on the line and lower it towards the bait. The idea is for the loops of the retriever to get caught in the hooks, hopefully enabling you to retrieve the bait with a strong pull.
When fishing near lily pads or other forms of vegetation, use the spinner. Due to the fringes and the rod with the spinner blade, you will rarely get hooked accidentally. You can throw the spinner right in there. Just be sure to reel it in carefully.
These are wobblers with a round belly. This shape helps to intensify the wobbler’s natural movement. This bait is easy to fish with for beginners. Just reel it in steadily. Study a few Youtube videos and get comfortable with the characteristics of the bait before you cast it towards those large pike. Large crankbaits have a long diving shovel, allowing you to skip them along the floor. You should not have to worry about getting hooked as the rear end of the crankbait always stands upwards.
Fishing with jerkbaits requires a lot more skill. The angler must move the jerkbait in a specific fashion for it to appear appealing to pike. Jerkbaits are often narrow but tend to have a high back. This bait demands a lot of practice, but once you have mastered it, you should be able to outwit one or the other pike. Nature has designed predators to eat small but also weak and sick prey.
That is why jerking is so valuable. By twitching the rod with the wrist, the bait flicks from left to right, imitating a dying or sick fish. The pike is a top predator and knows that this is easy prey. It will likely follow this bait for a long time until eventually, it strikes aggressively.
We should add a short statement regarding the equipment at this point. Jerkbaits intended for large pike are big and heavy. You will have to throw that weight. Additionally, the constant twitching of the rod can tire out your wrist. Therefore, your rod should be short and light. This will reduce the effort required to breathe life into the bait. Keep in mind, you are not just casting once but for two to three hours.
Keep your rubber fish close by
Rubber fish appear quite simple. While other artificial baites come preassembled, you will have to rig this bait yourself. That requires a bit of skill but also allows for complete freedom in regards to bait design.
Which hook and hook size to use?
If you are using a jig head, the fear hook on the rubber fish can be slightly smaller than the hook on the jighead itself. Common hook sizes for pike are 2, 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, 4/0. The fear hook is attached to the jig head with a small steel wire—steel or titanium leader—and hooked to either the side or underbelly of the rubber fish.
If you are fishing without a jig head, attach a double treble hook to the rubber fish. Connect both hooks with a tear-resistant material. Classically, we would use steel or titanium leaders.
How to fish with a rubber fish at different depths?
If you wish to fish the middle and upper layers of the water, you likely will not need a jig head. Of course, that depends on the depth and current. A pike bait of 8 in (20 cm) in length will sink on its own due to its weight. You only have to pull lightly for it to rise again.
During the cold season and in open water, jig heads of different weights come in handy, as you will have to fish a bit deeper. The heavier the jig head, the quicker the bait will sink. If we are out on the open with only a small breeze and calm water, we generally use jig heads with a weight of around 1 oz (30 g) for rubber fish of 8 inch (20 cm) or more in length. In case the wind is a bit stronger — 12 mph (20 km/h) upwards — you will need to pick a heavier weight of 2 1/4 – 3 1/2 oz (65-100 g).
Which bait and bait sizes work the best?
There is no reliable answer to this question. Pike change their eating habits continuously throughout the year. Like all predatory fish, pike adapt to their environment and habitat. Many anglers consult their bait boxes without first understanding which baits promise the most success for each time of day and season. Once bait XYZ has hooked a couple of pike, that bait is immediately dubbed a secret weapon and used for the rest of the year. In reality, it is not that simple. With a little basic understanding of the pike’s behavior, you can increase your catch rate considerably.
What is the best bait size?
The bait size should vary from season to season. In spring, you can fish with smaller baits. However, as the year continues, the baits will have to get bigger to accommodate the increasing size of the pike. If you are fishing for large pike in autumn and winter, your baits may even end up longer than 30cm. Naturally, as the baits get bigger, you will have to adjust your rod as well. A soft rod might be great for pike fishing but reaches its limits as the baits break the 8 inch (20 cm) barrier. That is when it pays to review your equipment and to find a more suitable alternative to go after those large pike.
Which baits promise the most success?
There is no easy answer to this question as pike hunt different prey based on their habitat. It may even be that the pike changes its preference from one year to another, so what works today might not work the next year. We know for example that in the lake “Großer Stechlinsee,” American crayfish made up 70% of the local pike’s diet in 1997. By the year 2002, that number had declined to less than one percent.
The fact remains, you have to change your bait across the seasons. In spring, you can experiment a lot with mice, frogs, and young birds. At the end of the year, fish will work better. The dead baitfish, attached to either a pose or a sinker, usually works quite well for pike fishing.