Pike Conservation & Management Information
The Truth About Pike – Esox lucius
Pike are an indigenous species and the apex predator in a naturally balanced ecology some 25 million years old. Pike do not over-predate but serve an essential purpose in scavenging diseased and dying fish. Bigger pike also predate upon their smaller brethren – thus naturally balancing the pike population. Difficulties arise, however, when man interferes with this critical balance.
There are infinitely fewer pike in all waters than most people realise. The pike’s markings are unique, enabling individual fish to be identified. If handled correctly, repeat captures are invariably a regular occurrence on most waters. The same feeding pike can sometimes, in fact, be caught several times in one day! When anglers are affected by pike striking in their swims throughout a session, this does not, in fact, indicate a water over-run by pike. More likely it is one or a very small number of pike feeding simultaneously.
How much do pike eat? Former pike record holder and fishery scientist Neville Fickling provides that answer: ‘We know from research and fishery management what a big pike will eat. A 20lb pike will eat around three times its own bodyweight per annum. That 60lb of fish will comprise many small fish, other pike, and dying or diseased fish’. The crucially important thing to remember, however, is that fish populations are not static, as Neville explains: ‘Our coarse fish species produce millions of eggs and therefore millions of fry. These grow – and if all survived every fishery would be knee-deep in fish. What happens is that predators consume the surplus’.
For centuries pike have been misunderstood and killed. Things changed in 1977 when the Pike Anglers’ Club of Great Britain was formed. From that point onwards an increasing amount of scientific research, accurately contextualising pike was published – changing attitudes. As more specialist tackle and information became available many more people began to recognise pike as a superb sporting fish, realised why indiscriminately killing them was wrong, and returned them alive. Over the last three decades, trout and other commercial waters have opened to pike anglers – producing huge pike, which are rightly recognised as both a valuable ecological and economic asset. For all of these reasons pike conservation has become of increased importance and cannot be ignored.
Historically, if the controlling body of an angling club does not understand that actual facts regarding and significance of pike, a removal takes place. This, however, creates many more problems, as the late Professor Barrie Rickards explained: ‘The removal of sizeable pike from a water results in an explosion of smaller pike. There are two controlling factors involved: one is that big pike eat small pike, often; the second is that even when not eating them they tend to keep the small pike corralled into certain areas of water, especially the middle of big weed beds… Because of the lack of control by big pike the smaller pike overbreed and you have a population explosion of jack pike (a pike under eight pounds). Further “culls” of pike simply make the matter worse. Nature got it right millions of years ago… Clubs which value their roach fishing be warned: do NOT remove pike’. Neville Fickling succinctly adds that ‘… in a balanced fishery predators such as pike will actually have no impact that will affect those fishing for smaller species such as roach and bream’. Today, a new trend has recently developed with pike not necessarily being killed upon removal but moved to another venue. Nonetheless, the fishery from which the pike were removed has still entered a counter-productive and on-going negative cycle. The basic rule of thumb where pike are concerned, therefore, is ‘leave well alone’.
Fortunately an increasing number of club’s are recognising their predators as an asset attracting more members. Neville Fickling writes that ‘All anglers of whatever persuasion have to make the most of the waters we have. No individual faction should dominate over others in an angling club. We have major collective problems at the moment: hydropower, the sale of big fisheries, and nature trusts closing an increasing number of waters to anglers, added to which difficulties is extra predation by otters and cormorants. If we do not pull together then the future looks grim for all of us’.
Are There Alternatives to Pike Removal?
In short: yes:
- Improve handling, unhooking and retention of all species, to prevent mortalities.
- Increase water fertility, habitat diversity and improving fish welfare generally, rather than resorting to haphazard and counter-productive pike removal, the decision for which action often has no scientific basis.
- Allow the fishery to recover and maintain a balance by ceasing pike removal. This represents a financial saving from reduced fish stock damage due to the decreased predation arising from the natural reduction in pike numbers and pike-on-pike predation.
- Re-assess the fishery’s stocking policy. Financial savings from pike removal could be invested in greater stocking.
- Recognise the pike as an important sporting fish and encourage pike angling, thus increasing membership.
I Still Want to Remove Pike. What Shall I Do?
Pike removal should only be considered as a last resort and in exceptional circumstances.
A process of inclusive membership consultation must take place, taking into account the views of all members.
Any decision to remove pike should only be made on the basis of irrefutable scientific evidence justifying this drastic course of action.
Remember that in a natural environment prey numbers ultimately control predator numbers too. In sum, nature strikes its own balance if left well alone!
Sustainable Pike Fishing
Having recognised that pike actually play a crucial part in the ecology of any fishery, and that they are a popular sporting fish in their own right, pike need to be looked after. In spite of their ferocious appearance, pike are, in fact, very delicate creatures, requiring careful handling. The following factors should be observed:
- Only fish for pike using strong and appropriate tackle – a minimum of 15lbs breaking strain monofilament line or 30lb braid is recommended.
- Always use a wire trace – 28lb minimum breaking strain with matching swivels – of an appropriate length – around eighteen inches when bait-fishing and at least eight inches for lures.
- Generally, an unhooking mat is recommended. These are widely available today, many being lightweight and easily rolled up to fit in a sling or holdall. If a mat is not available, then ensure that your catch is unhooked on thick, soft, grass. Experienced anglers, especially lure anglers travelling light, often unhook their catch in the water; for the inexperienced, however, consideration must be given to using a mat.
- Never go pike fishing without appropriate unhooking tools. These include long forceps (at least ten inches), wire cutters (for cutting hooks, if necessary) and long-nosed pliers. Unhooking gloves are also useful.
- Never use a pike gag – this Victorian invention is completely unnecessary (and now illegal in Scotland), cruel, and is damaging to pike – or American line grippers.
- Always use a large ‘specimen’ type landing net of at least 36 inches, with a soft mesh, and remember that the use of gaffs is now illegal.
- If weighing your catch, use an appropriately sized and shape weigh sling.
- If photographing your catch, never keep the pike out of the water from any longer than is absolutely necessary. This especially applies during the warmer months, when oxygen levels are low, water temperatures high – and pike fight so hard that they exhaust themselves. If a pike has fought particularly hard, and you need time to sort out handling equipment, consider retaining the fish in a pike tube or floating weigh sling; this gives the fish time to recover before weighing and photography. In the main, however, be organised, work quickly and only retain pike if absolutely necessary and for the minimum length of time –and only let the fish swim off when fully recovered.
- If in doubt, it is best to seek advice from an experienced pike angler. The PACGB has Regional Associations in most areas of the UK, and Regional Organisers will happily work with local angling clubs to provide pike-fishing bankside teach-ins with qualified angling coaches.
In sum, minimum handling = maximum conservation.
Further Reading and Information The following books provide much information regarding pike and fishery management:
Buller, F., Pike, MacDonald, London, 1971 Rickards, B., Angling: Fundamental Principles, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1986
The document Pike in Your Waters (second edition, 2003), providing a wealth of scientific and other fishery management information, can be downloaded free from the website of the Pike Anglers’ Club.