“The Crocodile of Northern Rivers”: Eurasian Pike and Pike Fishing

The pike, as a matter of fact, is not the biggest freshwater fish in Europe. The catfish can grow much longer and heavier, for instance. But it is the predatory looks and behavior of the pike that impress the European anglers and make them pursue the species with vigor.

Almost every European country has a legend about a pike, released by a monarch, and captured a couple of centuries later, having attained a truly monstrous size. Reliable sources, however, suggest a life span of about 30-33 years, with about 30 kg. (66 lb) maximum weight and a length of over 1,8 meters (6 feet), and the official angling world record pike weight close to 25 kg (55 lb.). In real world, the pike is a trophy starting from about 5 kg or 10-11 lb. A 10-15 kg (20-30 lb.) pike already looks like a monster. The pike’s body is long for its weight, and its mouth is way bigger than its long, flattened snout suggests; once you open its wide, gaping, fanged crevasse, you’ll stop wondering why many European anglers refer to the biggest, “trophy” fish as “crocodile”.

mouth of a big pike

Where to Find the Biggest Pike

One of my friends, whose words I have no reason to doubt, was out duck hunting once on a small lakelet in the Volga River basin, half overgrown with reeds and water lilies, and hardly waist-deep. He shot a duck, and it fell on a small clearing in the middle of the lake. Other ducks were in sight, so he did not retrieve the bird immediately. Before he did, though, there was a huge splash, and the unfortunate bird disappeared in the enormous mouth of the biggest pike he’d ever seen. He swore he’d come back with a spinning rod, but I don’t think he ever did.

Accidents like that are the cream of any outdoorsperson’s life, but you probably realize that you shouldn’t count on catching a big pike in a small lake, unless it is connected with a much larger body of water, permanently or temporarily (e.g. during spring floods). “Crocodile” pikes are caught in big, deep lakes and rivers. In a river, the pike is much more likely to be found in a bayou or an old bend than on the main current. The pike is mostly an ambush predator and requires cover to hide its long body. When we’re talking about big pike, the best cover for them is fallen trees and sunken logs. Breaks in depth, and deep pools are also good.

You can catch a big pike from the shore, but you’re much more likely to succeed if you fish from a boat, especially on a new-to-you body of water, where you have to actively search for the places where the pike is. You can simply drift downstream, sending a lure to any place where you see or can expect an underwater cliff or area of depth, sunken logs or other similar obstacles, as well as the edges of and water. The pike are not precisely territorial but won’t let a good log go wasted; a proper spot vacated by one fish will be immediately occupied by the next one in the pecking order. So, when you catch two or three trophy pike, you can be reasonably sure you can catch another on the same spot a few days later.

My Dad used to have a sweet spot, the position of which he determined by drawing imaginary lines to certain dead trees in the neighborhood, where he never failed to catch a pike… until one year something went wrong, and he never got a bite there again. Probably the shape of the bottom changed, as it often happens with big rivers, he didn’t have a fishfinder so couldn’t be sure. In any case, a successful pike angler never fails to mark the sweet spots on their favorite river, but doesn’t hedge every bet on them.


How to Catch the Crocodile Pike

If the old-timers’ tales are to be trusted, perhaps the most exciting way of pike fishing was the currently illegal spearfishing with artificial light after dark. Another old way, that can still be practiced in some countries, is fishing with live bait and set rigs, which can be both floating and secured to the shore; it is still allowed in many areas, but does not meet anyone’s definition of “sporting”. Ice fishing for pike can also be very effective. Trolling requires perfect knowledge of the shape of the bottom, so that you can take the lures precisely where the fish are waiting for their prey in ambush. But by far, the prime method of pike fishing is spinning.

The weapon of choice for pike fishing seems to be a 10–40-gram test rod, about 6-7 feet in length, with a stout open reel. When selecting the test weight of the line bear in mind that you will catch 10-20 logs or rocks for every pike you land. The pike is known for biting through the line, so a fine, stiff lead is advised by many experts. Jig heads and wobblers are the choice for modern angler, but I’ve been quite successful with old-fashioned spoons either. The pike is the big-game hunter of the underwater world; it prefers big prey and may swallow a fish half as big as itself, so don’t be afraid to think big. In most cases, when debating between two lures, pick the bigger one.

There’s no set-in-stone rule on how to lead the lure for big pike, although moderately fast and slightly erratic manner is usually more likely to result in a strike. Normally, the pike catches its prey across the body, makes sure it is dead or stunned, and then turns it lengthwise in its mouth until it can swallow the other fish. The first strike is strong, and the fish is reluctant to let go of the jaws; in pike waters it happens not infrequently that as you reel a fish you’ve caught in, a pike attacks it, and holds on it with such tenacity that you can actually reel in, and, with swift and precise work with the landing net, land both fishes.

Therein lies the problem with setting in the hook when pike fishing. In the best-case scenario, the fish snaps the lure where the hook is, and sets itself. In the worst-case scenario, you try to set the hook at precisely the moment when the fish tries to reposition what it thinks is prey, and you jerk it right out of your mouth. Many people will claim it can be worth. Sometimes the pike may hold the lure without being hooked, and will follow the lead as you reel it in, reluctant to let go. But when it realizes something is up, it opens its big mouth and…

a pike jumping out of the water

Often the “hasta la vista, baby” moment comes as the pike makes its dramatic leap out of the water, showing itself to you just a few paces away, in all its green, striped and spotted glory, and at times you can even see the lure fly off the fish’s wide open, as if in demonic movie-villain laughter, mouth, right before the pike rejoins its natural watery home with a big splash and is gone. But this moment is so emotional that I can’t possibly rate it as “worst-case scenario”.

If the fish is hooked, this is where the real fight begins. The problem of landing a big pike lies in the fact that it is used to escape from danger into the cover, rather than bet on its speed in the open water. Therefore, it will make for the nearest bunch of reeds, water grass, lilies or maze of sunken logs, and your job is not to let it vanish there. Otherwise you can bet on your line getting tangled around or between whatever obstacle is available, and the fish escaping with your most prized lure in its mouth.

The best time for pike fishing is late fall, when the water grass goes down on the bottom, and does not prevent the play of the lure; at the same time, the pike feeds like crazy for the winter. Cloudy, rainless, calm, warm days usually provide the biggest catch, yet I have a soft spot for pike fishing during the time of year that the Russians call “The golden autumn”, when the leaves turn yellow and a sequence of calm, sunny days sets in. The water is as calm and blue as the skies above; the world is peaceful and tranquil, only a family of migrating swans may break the silence with their mournful cries. Your boat seems tiny and lost in the grandeur of the outdoors, and as you breathe in the lucid autumn air, it feels so good you almost don’t care if you don’t catch anything. Almost.

a fishing boat on an autumn day

Pike on the Table

For all the angling qualities of the pike, it’s not everyone’s favorite table fish. It is bony, and can smell like scum. Being a long-living species (it can live to up for 30 years), the pike is, therefore, a good case for catch-and-release fishing. However, there are delicious pike recipes – check out these pike and pork cutlets.

–       1 big (10 lb. as caught) pike, or equivalent weight in smaller fish

–       2 lb. fatty pork.

–       ¼ loaf of white bread (somewhat dry or even stale for choice)

–       ¼ lb. onions

–       Breadcrumbs or corn flour

–       Salt and spices to taste

Clean, skin, filet, and debone the fish. Run the fish filets, pork, onions and bread through the grinder, add salt and spice to taste. Form cutlets, roll in breadcrumbs or flour, and fry on a skillet till ready.

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