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Hotspots for pike fishing in rivers have a lot in common with hotspots for pike fishing in lakes – however they differ in a few essential ways. In the following article, we are going to look at these differences in detail. For this purpose, we will go through the results of a study in which northern pike were caught, tagged, released and subsequently tracked over a longer period of time. The experiment was carried out in the river Yser (on the Belgian territory).

But one thing we can already tell you in advance is that pikes do like rivers. So that depending on the conditions of the given environment, they can be found in large numbers. A fact that is often neglected when choosing the best place to catch a big pike.<

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Where to find pike in a river?

Source:Habitat use and preference of adult pike (Esox lucius L.) in an anthropogenically impacted lowland river.

Aim of the study

The study focused on two main questions:

  1. Which habitat do pike prefer in a river?
  2. Where do pike hide in rivers?

For this purpose, river characteristics (i.e. those of the main stream, tributaries and branches as well as flow and bank conditions) were examined to determine whether – and if yes, up to what degree – they were crucial in the territorial selection of pike.

For the study 15 adult pike were removed from the water equipped with a transmitter and released again. In the period from November 2010 to May 2011, data on the actual location of each individual were collected in a two-day rhythm. The accuracy could be determined to ±4 m. Thus, a total of more than 800 measurements were available at the end of the experiment.

Yser-river-pike-fishing
This is the main stream of the river Yser, in which the experiment about the terretorial behavior of pike was carried out.

Study area: The canal system of the Yser

The Belgian part of the Yser River is about 44 km (27,34 mi) long. It is 2.5 m (8.2 ft) deep on average, with 5 m (16.40 ft) at the deepest point. The river width varies between 8 (26,24 ft) and 25 m (82 ft). The Yser carries brackish water at its estuary, as the river flows into the North Sea. Just before the river mouth there is a 370 x 1,000 m (404 x 1094 yds) basin with a depth of 7 m (23 ft), which the river-dwelling pike can reach without any obstacles.

yser-river-system-pike-fishing
Four tributaries (NF / red) and six side arms (SA / green) branched off from the main river in the study area. They differed in depth and width. Two side arms were natural (SA 1 + 2), while the other four were man-made (SA 3 - 6). The different size of the tributaries also attracted the pike differently strong.

The sidearms were all very shallow. The four artificial arms were created since 2002 and exhibit the same vegetation as the other side arms, the main stream and the tributaries. To the left and right of the shore there were extensive reed beds including lush underwater vegetation all around.

The bank of the Yser

Eight different riparian habitats could be identified in the study area of the canal system of the Yser. They mainly differed in the vegetation on the bank itself and in how the bank was formed or fortified.

pike-fishing-river-bank-vegetation
The vegetation of the river bank: A - barely overgrown bank, B - reed-covered bank, C - bank overgrown with trees or shrubs.
river-pike-Yser-Roesbrugge
This is a side arm of the river Yser, in which the pike for this study were catched, were equipped with a transmitter and released again in order to track their location.

Bank area and reinforcement

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40 % of the banks were left natural, while 60% of its area had been artificially worked and paved. This is because the canal system drains the surrounding fields and carries away rainwater. If you look closely at both of the preceding pictures, you can clearly see the differences between the individual riparian areas. The fortifications are necessary so that the bank is not eroded. The three bank areas or fortifications could be further differentiated into:

  1. Artificial stabilization: Banks straightened and reinforced with concrete.
  2. Artificially filled areas: The bank was protected with wooden piles in the front. The piles were driven into the ground 0.7 to 2.5 m (2.3 to 8.2 ft) away from the bank. They protect the shore from currents and waves. Between the piles and the bank mainly reeds had spread. There were all types of vegetation density visible – from loose to densely overgrown.
  3. Near-natural river banks: More or less natural and overgrown with reeds. The reed belts were partly broken up by trees and shrubs.

Based on these different areas and its divergent vegetation, eight different riparian types could be determined. These occured with varying frequency throughout the study area of 1,100 square meters (11840,3 square feet) – including the main river with all of its tributaries and side arms.

  • Type 1:  Artificial bank stabilization without significant vegetation.
  • Type 2: Artificial bank reinforcement with reeds.
  • Type 3: Artificial bank reinforcement with woody vegetation.
  • Type 4: Near-natural bank without significant vegetation.
  • Type 5: Near-natural bank with reeds.
  • Type 6: Near-natural bank with woody vegetation.
  • Type 7: Artificial bank fixed with wooden piles without significant vegetation.
  • Type 8: Artificial bank fixed with wooden piles plus reeds.

We can see that over 60% of the bank types were without significant vegetation (type 1, type 4, type 7). Over 30% were covered with reeds (type 2, type 5, type 8) and only a very small stretch of the banks was covered with woody plants.

The pikes

15 individuals were caught at 15 different locations (9 female, 6 male). They were equiped with a transmitter and released back into the river. One pike died during the study. 14 were observed during all of the winter and 12 even further in spring. In total, the location of each and every pike was determined 814 times in total. Scientific methods were used to locate them, allowing a 95 % chance of correctly doing so.

Results: Where do pike hide in rivers?

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So now we get to the most important question of this article: Where do individual pike tend to reside most within the channel system during winter and spring?

The following pictures show some of the collected position-data and should give you an idea about the action radius of some individual pike. Note: Please do not confuse the term action radius with the one of territory.

  • Winter positions: Points.
  • Spring positions: Crosses.

In our opinion, various results were obtained in the study, which although mathematically / statistically proven left us with room for interpretation. If we firstly have a look at the habitat examined in this study (the river Yser), it was very varied with many side arms and channels. Nevertheless pike were mainly found in the main stream.

In winter, they were present there between 25% and 95% of the time. Two of the pike were even located exclusively in the main stream. Of all six sidearms, the pike only visited the two natural sidearms (SA 1 + 2). No pike were located in the artificially created sidearms (SA 3 – 6): Neither in winter nor in spring. This is very interesting, since the artificial sidearms were visually indistinguishable from the natural ones,  offering the same types of vegetation.

  • In winter, pike were found more often in the sidearms (29% of the observations) than in the tributaries (11% of the observations).
  • In spring, this changed and they were found more often in the large tributaries (10% of observations) than in the small sidearms (3% of observations).

River fishing for pike: Result 1

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At this point it is already clear that pike have quite different preferences for one or more territories in a river. They furthermore head for these territories with varying frequency – one more often, the other less.

Some precincts were apparently clearly preferred. The pike examined in this study spent most of their time in the main stream, averaging about 3/4 of the total time. Now the main stream of the Yser is not a huge rushing river, but rather calm, with a width of 8 to 25 meters. Thus, it apparently provides quite suitable living conditions for the pike in general.

Note: It should be mentioned that the spawning season probably fell within the time of the study, so that at least some of the springtime locations were visited for reproductive purposes.

River fishing for pike: Result 2

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The sidearms seemed to play a major role for the pike in this study. Only about 1/4 of the population didn’t pay them a visit, regardless of whether it was spring or winter. This can probably be explained by prey availability and hunting conditions in the main stream: Many fish leave the main stream of a river during the cold season. This is mainly due to the fact that flow velocities are much higher than in the summer months, because water levels generally rise with the onset of fall.

As vegetation starts to recede with the beginning of autumn, it is absent to slow down the flowing waters in winter. The fish therefore have far fewer flow-calming areas available for them. For this reason, many leave the main stream – at least for extended periods of time.

Furthermore, pike are nor good swimmers neither hunters in fast-flowing waters, so they generally find better conditions in the sidearms. During winter months in addition the vegetation in the riverbed of the sidearms is not as dense as in summer, so that even the large individuals are not hindered. Moreover through the sidearms the pike also have access to the ditches that are part of their hunting grounds in winter.

Which bank type did most pike prefer?

While the activity radius of a pike can be wide, its territory often only covers a few meters. However they can move their territory within their action radius. In theory, they are free to choose where they have theirs – but in practice it is not quite that simple.

  • Flow velocity,
  • vegetation,
  • availability of prey,
  • hiding places for optimal hunting
  • or the physical proximity of other territories

are also among the criteria for territory selection. External factors such as a sudden shortage of prey fish may require an equally rapid relocation.

Other pike also have a significant influence on the territory selection: If a certain area is already occupied by a pike, a newly arriving one would have to fight for it first. For this reason, pike are usually more or less evenly distributed along shorelines.

To better understand the results of the study, we need to look at the frequency of a bank type in relation to the number of pike located in it. If 40 % of the shoreline was type 4 (near-natural with no vegetation) and 40 % of the individuals were found on that type, that does not immediately convert it in a hotspot. Only if more than the average would have choosen this bank type, we could call it one.

River fishing for pike: Result 3

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If we look at the whole channel system, most catches of pike took place on the banks of type 1, 4 and 5. These results however are still not “wow-worthy” as they were pretty much predictable: If a bank type is that common, then logically that’s where most of the pike are expected to be found.

So that this information is nice to know, but it still doesn’t get us anywhere, since the three bank types together account for eighty percent of the total riparian landscape. In this case lots of pike still don’t necessarily caracterize a hotspot, if they are found on a long stretch.

What is a hotspot for pike fishing then?

A hotspot is a fishing area where there are found more pike than we could expect on average. Some numbers and a little bit of theory should make this clearer for you.

We reduce our study area to a stretch of 1000 meters. We leave the shoreline areas equally distributed so that forty percent – or 400 m – is near-natural shoreline with no significant vegatation (Type 4). 200 m are near-natural banks with reeds (type 5) and 50 m are near-natural banks with woody vegetation (type 6).

If there are now 20 pike on these 1000 m, one could assume the following, if the distribution would be uniform:

  • 8 would be found on banks of type 4,
  • 4 on the ones of type 5
  • and 1 on type 6.

Assuming an uniform distribution, there would be a pike located every 50 m. The individual bank areas therefore only count as hotspot, when there is more than one pike to be found on this exemplary stretch of 50 m. 

Now one of the eight pike moves its territory from the banks of type 4 to the near-natural ones with woody vegetation (type 6). Although this means that seven pike still remain there, so that most specimens are located in this area, we only find one every 57 m (400 m / 7). Less than on the other bank areas.

This proves two things:

  1. Many pike do not necessarily mean a hotspot.
  2. But with this the riverbank area of type 6 became a hotspot, because there are two individuals every 50 m. So every 25 m a pike is waiting four our delicious baits.

Note: A hotspot for pike fishing harbours more pike than we would actually expect from it.

River fishing for pike: Result 4

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According to the study, the near-natural bank with reeds (type 5) clearly dominated – especially in winter. This type was more frequently occupied by pike than the other bank areas. In spring and particularly in winter, in this riparian area there were more pike found than could be expected.

This is further supported by the results of other studies. Pike in a river are generally attracted to sites with reeds, especially during the cold season. Thus, most individuals are likely to be close to type 5 edges (20% of total bank area) during winter. As they follow their prey seeking slow moving water to avoid wasting energy by having to swim (and exert themselves) unnecessarily. And slow moving water is to be found in the shallow areas close to the bank and in the side arms.

This was similar in spring in the examined study. Again, the near-natural bank with reeds were far ahead, although not as much as in winter. We therefore can reduce the possible hotspots for pike fishing in spring and winter to 1/5 of the total riverbank length – which in the end is still a long distance to be fished, but not as long as five times more.

Note: Not every bank type can be occupied by lots of pike. Let’s take type 3 as an example, with its artificial stabilization through trees and / or shrubs. This type was found on only 1 % of the total bank area. If type 3 were the ultimate hotspot, there would be too little room for all the pike present in the river.

River fishing for pike: Result 5

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Let us come to the last results – and start with the question, which type of bank do pike prefer amongst those that are present in its individual action radius or territory?

One thing must be pointed out at the beginning: Not every bank type is equally present. For example in the Yser study there were only artificial and natural banks without vegetation (type 1 – 20 % and type 4 – 40 %) present for several hundred meters in many areas. Sometimes these shorelines were interrupted by one or the other tree (type 3 + type 6). But that was it.

Now it gets exciting.

Spring 

The shoreline of type 1 (artificial banks with appreciable vegetation) covered only 20% of the river area. Occasionally you come across a tree or shrub (type 3). And this is a jackpot in spring: When pike resided near artificial unvegetated banks, they were magically attracted to the scattered trees and shrubs.

Conclusion: Under such conditions, you can simply stop at any tree or shrub and fish the area around it extensively.

Winter

In winter, type 7 stood out (unvegetated and artificially designed with wooden piles), although it was present on only 2 % of the study area. Few pike could set up their territory here, but if this type of bank was present, a pike was likely to be found.

Note: The study shows very clearly how territories or the activity radius of pike in a river system can look like. It is easy to see that they do not look for the best location in general, but for the best available location.

Especially when it comes down to fishing, general statements are made very quickly: In a river the pike has to be here – or there. However, such generalisations should generally be taken with a grain of salt, as we can see through this study. As, while certain sections are preferred, pike are still more or less present in all sections.

In summary it can be taken down, that during winter and spring, near-natural banks with reeds probably harbour the most pike. Those without boats, in winter can look for smaller obstacles without much vegetation in the water. In spring, sections freely accessible from the river bank with a tree or shrub are interesting. At least this was the case in the Yser.

Too bad the study ended in spring. It would have been interesting to see what the results would have been in summer. Unfortunately, this season was not included. But I’m sure we can find another one from another river that might fill that gap.

When can you fish for pike on rivers?

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Autumn is the best time for pike fishing. Because during this season the predators are gorging themselves in order to put on reserves for the winter. Therefore they hunt most agressively – not only on prey fish, but also on our pike baits. Here you can read more about the best time to catch pike.

However: Even though autumn is considered the ideal season for pike fishing, it is not always easy to locate them. As temperatures drop, the water circulates and the pike change their position. Where you can find them the pike depends strongly on the structure of the water. Basically, you can distinguish between two types of water structure:

  • Waters with strong structures: Here pike can be found mainly on steeply sloping edges, as these offer them protection on one hand. And on the other enable the ambush-like attacks that are typical for them.
  • Waters with weak / little structures: Here applies the old saying – “Where there is the prey, there is the pike!”. The prey fish again can be found mainly close to the shore (or similar shallow areas) because of the sinking water temperatures.

This brings us to the end of our article about pike fishing in river. If you have any questions, additions or comments, please let us know – we are looking forward to your feedback. Or have a look at the fish finder reviews in our extensive fish finder test (including the newest models of all important fish finder manufacturers like Garmin, Lowrance, Humminbird or Raymarine). Have fun on your next fishing trip and “Petri Heil”! – Martin and Jens.

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