The Pike: Esox Lucius
The Pike (Esox Lucius) cannot possibly be confused with any other British freshwater fish. Long and slender, built for sudden spurts of acceleration from ambush rather than for staying power, they are predominantly green on the flank, dark on the dorsal surface, and camouflaged to match the reed beds in which they often lurk. In the young fish this camouflage takes the form of light, often yellowish, bars.
The adult fish are marked with primrose spots. Fins and tail often have brownish, or even red, edges. Dorsal and ventral fins are set to the rear. The head is long and the jaws are powerful, with sharp grabbing and gripping teeth in the lower jaw. The roof of the mouth is covered with hundreds of rearward facing `rachet’ teeth which prevent the prey, once gripped, from slipping out again. The eyes are sited on top of the head for upward vision in attack and set to give binocular vision, which enables the fish to ‘sight’ on its prey and judge distance when darting at it. Prey fishes such as the roach have monocular vision, which gives all-round warning of approach. The pike is not so concerned with self-defence (though quite large fish of 3.5 kg — 8 lb — or more are sometimes gobbled, cannibal fashion, by bigger relatives); it needs to look forward and upward. It is the only British freshwater fish that can look you squarely in the face with both eyes at once. Many anglers find this disconcerting.
The small pike, of 15 cm (6 ins) or less, that one sees from time to time poised like little arrows over weed growing close to the surface are probably fish in their first year. The growth rate of pike thereafter is geared to the food supply available in the water, which may vary a great deal. In an extensive, shallow, weedy lake where rudd are plentiful, for example, there may be a very speedy growth rate in the first few years, perhaps as much as 2 kg (4 lb) per year, declining gradually thereafter. A fifteen-year-old pike may be very large indeed, possibly 18 kg (40 lb). On the other hand, in poorer waters where the roach are stunted, the pike may grow much more slowly and may reach a maximum of only 2.5-3 kg (5-6 lb).
Male pike are considered to be much smaller than the females; a suggested maximum size for the former is 4.5 kg (10 lb) but the matter is still open to doubt.
There are all sorts of estimates of the life span of pike, from the famous and quite spurious Mannheim pike which was said to be 267 years old (AD 1230-1497) to as little as fifteen years. So far as I know, no serious scientific investigation of the question has been undertaken; it is notoriously difficult to gauge a pike’s age by scale reading.
Pike are, par excellence, solitary fish, only pairing briefly in the spawning season. Sometimes it is possible to catch a number of pike from the same spot, one after another, but I think it is likely that their massing together is not the shoal instinct in operation but is merely fortuitous; for some reason the small fish are huddled in one corner of the lake and the pike have got to know of it independently.
Spawning takes place in the spring. The fish begin to pair in February and shift their quarters to the shallows. In lakes where the winter rains flood the grasslands pike will often move on to these. Reeds too seem to attract pike at this time. If you walk the banks of a pike lake on a sunny day in early spring you will sometimes see great swirls in the marginal reeds as you disturb the fish, or you may see the reeds knock together and a procession of pike swim out from them. A few years ago I saw what could only be described as a flotilla of very large fish move out from the bank in this way. Some of them were more than 14 kg (30 lb).
In spawning, the female pike deposits a very great number of eggs, the majority of which are swallowed by waterfowl or eels before they hatch out. The famous nineteenth-century natural historian Frank Buckland estimated that a 14 kg (30 lb) female pike might contain more than half a million eggs. There seems to be no particular correlation in size between the female pike and her spawning partner. I remember once hooking one of 9 kg (20 lb) in the shallows in late February on a floating plug. During the fight she was followed all the while by a small jack of 1 kg (21b) which, indeed waited patiently while the hen fish was on the bank being unhooked, was still there when she was returned to the water, and finally swam off in her company. Clearly at any other time of the year the small jack would have made a couple of quick mouthfuls for, the big female.
Pike feed almost entirely upon fish. Their basic diet will consist of whatever species is commonest in the water. Large pike, certainly, have a great relish for small fish of their own species, so that one of the best baits for a very big pike of which the whereabouts are known is a small pike fished dead or alive. The old fallacy that pike are not inclined to take TENCH is little heard of now; on a summer’s morning I have seen 1.5 kg (3 lb) tench skip like roach out of the water when chivvied by large pike.
Other creatures living in or on the water are not immune. Waterfowl are taken regularly in some waters (though I have noticed that coots have a peculiar immunity). Frogs and small mammals that venture into the water also fall frequent victims. All this is well authenticated, but there are other, darker stories as well, of gold watches being found in the bellies of pike (the owner having met a watery death not long previously) and of large animals and bathers being bitten. Only by the greatest freak of chance, I suppose, could anything like this happen.
We have seen how in the spring pike move into the shallows for the purpose of spawning. Where do they spend the rest of the year? The answer to this, of course, is : where the bait fish are. The usual picture given is of the pike’s taking up permanent ambush quarters, in a reed bed, for example, or under the stump of an overhanging tree, having, so to speak, its own area of domination which it will defend to the death from other pike. There is a certain amount of truth in this. In winter, fish such as ROACH tend not to move about a water so much as they do in the summer, so the pike takes up winter quarters near the roach concentrations. This is especially true of large lakes, where quite extensive areas of water which look inviting enough will be found to yield very few pike, while several fish in succession may be taken from a single swim. In the summer, however, pike tend to range about much more extensively, just as the small fish do.
Orthodox practice is to fish for pike wherever there is cover for them; a favourite place, for instance, is around the margins of a lily-pond bed. Bays of reeds and rock projections are also held to be good places for pike. This is undoubtedly true, but chiefly of the small and medium-sized fish. All the big (6.7 kg or 15 lb plus) pike I have ever taken have accepted a bait,or live, in the open water. I do not think that really big pike skulk around in ambush very much. When they decide to feed, they make a field day of it, moving out into the open water and harrying the shoals all day. No doubt they have what ‘might be called a retiring place somewhere, and if you happen to drop a bait on their noses, it may be taken there. But when they really feed they are in no way circumscribed.
In rivers, the position is rather different; clearly the pike still go where the small fish are, but their choice of lie is more limited. The haunts of pike in rivers are weir pools, eddies, and lay-bys, bays out of the main stream. By and large, pike do not like fast, heavy water or shallow riffles.