The Northern Pike is not a fish known for subtle ways. Anyone who has spent time chasing these apex predators knows Pike can and will do just about anything to eat. That includes leaping clear of the water to chase a topwater or smashing a spoon at boat side and taking rod tip with it. They are unpredictable creatures and that is true in the eater and out. However, Northern Pike – especially trophy sized specimens – are surprisingly delicate. Too much handling out of the water, too many drops on its head, and healthy fish becomes a dead fish. That’s fine if you are keeping it, but not so much if you want to release it alive. And we all should release trophies. These are long lived, slow growing animals. It takes two decades to grow a 20-pound Pike, it has earned its release.
Use the wrong net when Pike fishing and you create a disaster for the fish and yourself. If you have an old school nylon or cotton mesh net in your boat, throw it away. That sounds like a waste, but old school nets are bad for all fish, especially Pike. Pike will wrap in nylon and cotton mesh, usually getting the lure entangled at the same time. The net becomes a Pike coffin. A net with rubber or rubberized mesh is much easier on the fish and it will be ten times easier to get the hook out of. I recommend investing in a large net with a deep bag. This way, you can net the fish, keep it in the water and most of the handling is done with the fish wet. This will increase fish survival a ton.
Large nets are expensive, but they do multi-duty for Lake Trout, Salmon or Muskie. I’ve never regretted spending a bit of extra money on a good net. Some Pike anglers like to use cradles, which is basically a net strung between two long wooden poles that float in the water. I’ve not had great success handling and unhooking fish in cradles, but they do keep the fish in the water.
There is no fish (the exception being Muskellunge) that requires more forethought about handling than a Northern Pike. If you are not properly prepared to safely unhook a Pike, you are doing yourself and the fish a huge dis-service. You also are putting yourself in actual danger. We have not really discussed that actual business end of a Pike yet but suffice to say it has a long mouth full of needle-sharp teeth. Pike crush what they catch and eat and keep the prey pinned with razor sharp teeth. Get a hand or finger anywhere near a Pike’s teeth and you will pay a dear price.
When a Pike engulfs a spoon, spinner or fly, it is almost impossible to get at the lure without opening those long jaws. This cannot be done safely by hand. You will need a pair of jaw spreaders to do the job. Jaw spreaders basically are two metal rods on a spring that pry the mouth open and hold it there. This allows you to go in with a pair of long handled needle nose pliers and pull the hook and lure out. Do not, ever, stick your fingers in that pike’s mouth. If the spreaders fail or pop free, your hand will be shredded. It’s no joke. I’ve learned this the hard way.
I’d also recommend wearing a wet cotton glove to handle the fish. This will give you some extra protection and won’t take slime off the fish. Hooks that aren’t coming out easily can be snipped with side cutters. If a Pike is badly, deeply hooked, and you want to release it, leave the hook in and do so. A study done several years ago showed pike have an uncanny ability to get rid of a lure, often within 24 hours. Even those hooked deeply in the throat.
Smaller Pike are terrible things to hold, as they are slippery and tend to wiggle non-stop. Be very careful with these little guys. Trophy Pike have large jaws that you can use as handle to hold them with. Slip your hand up under and inside the jaw but be careful to avoid the teeth and gill rakers. Those rakers can cut you too. Wearing a glove to do this is a smart move. With the other hand, support it under the belly. If you want a vertical picture of the Pike, support the weight of the fish with your other hand while holding it tight by the jaw.
If a Pike’s body starts to tremble, that is often a sign it will struggle. Hold it tight. A Pike bouncing around the bottom of a boat is not a good thing. Don’t keep Pike out of the water for too long. Larger Pike are especially sensitive to being out. In the warmer water of summer big Pike can die from stress due to over-handling.
When releasing, hold them by the tail and support the fish under its belly in the water. Allow it to breathe on its own and don’t push it forward and back. Keep the fish upright and be patient. When the fish starts to fight your grip, gently let it swim off. In some situations, if a big Pike is stressed, leaving it in shallow water with belly to the bottom to recover on its own is best.
Northern Pike are a great fish, and the trophy specimens are one of Superior’s Country’s most prized trophy species. Care, handle and release Pike with respect, and the fishery will be here for the next generations to enjoy.