Tackle, Tactics and Experience

Landing, Unhooking and Handling Pike

It started with a simple question on the Lure Fishing UK forum. Then it grew...

This is a summary of all the useful contributions that were posted on this thread. They represent a wide and often differing set of experiences. This article can never really be closed, if anyone wants to add something new, please let me know. May 2003 amendment - The reference to LurenetQFP, and especially the link to the website, is obsolete since Lurenet have ceased trading

Are there many of you out there who hand land pike in the summer months? I had no problem during winter months, but I've found that they're a little livelier during the summer and do a lot of head shaking (very risky as far as having ones hand impaled by a large treble). Should I play the fish a bit longer to ensure that it's tired enough (bit risky in summer - low oxygen levels etc) or give in and just use the net. I prefer to hand land were possible because there is less chance of damage and distress to the fish.
I used to hand-land nearly every pike I hooked, now I use the net for all but the smallest. If there are marginal weeds - when bank fishing - I like to pull them onto that and unhook them while still in the water if the hooks are easy to get at, untouched by human hands!

Hand landing is OK if you are prepared to put up with the occasional horror of pike on one hook and finger on another I've suffered that twice, neither time serious luckily, but it could be very bloody . The painful and sometimes serious consequences of this can spoil your day somewhat, nurses are notorious for having little sympathy for anglers - "Now you know how the fish feels" etc...

I don't know what is kindest to pike, but there are two ways of looking at it. Most hand-landed pike go back a little quicker than netted fish, but netted fish get dropped a lot less often. The odd one that takes a while to unhook because it is awkwardly hooked is better safely supported in the mesh while tools are being fetched from pockets etc, rather than held by a nervous hand!

When in a boat I'm always afraid I'll fall out trying to reach one so the net is definitely favourite.

From KEN L
I hand land all of my lure caught pike, with the exception of those caught from high banks. The trick is to draw them to you with the rod until they start to roll onto one side (if they power off they weren't ready to be lifted) and then insert your fingers under the gill plate on the side furthest away from the hooks - this may mean that you have to use your right hand and do the unhooking etc caggy handed but it's much safer.

The insertion of your fingers should be quite gentle and you should aim to keep your finger tips in contact with the inside of the gill plate at all times as this will minimise the chances of catching and therefore damaging a gill raker. Once the fingers are in, slide them towards the fish's snout as far as is comfortable and then get a good solid grip with your thumb over the top jaw (the best place for this is the little depression just back from the front of the mouth) and lift the fish clear of the water. If its going to try to head shake, it's usually when it's first lifted so make sure that you have a solid grip.

Hold the fish steady for a second or two over the water and if you are happy that its reasonably calm, release your thumb. The mouth should now open and you can remove the hooks. The fish can then be lowered back into the water and released. The best tool that I've found for unhooking pike is a set of cut down eight inch artery forceps. The ones that you buy at tackle shops tend to bend and twist when unhooking fish but they can be modified to prevent this. Take a hacksaw to the jaws and cut them back by about half an inch and then smooth the job off with a grinder or a sharpening stone. Other anglers recommend needle nose pliers or a Baker Hookout tool.

If you want to weigh fish, the golden rules are to do it quickly and to avoid putting the fish down on a hard dry bank. I would recommend keeping your weigh sling permanently wet in a tupperware type box so that you can take it out and set up the scales quickly. For photos the rule has to be if your on your own forget it. If you have a fishing partner, they should ideally be setting up the scales whilst your still playing the fish and then setting up the camera whilst you weigh it. Either way, the priority is a quick return to the water.

When hand landing, beginners will probably be happier using a glove. Thin gardening gloves are best but do try to abandon them as soon as possible because they tend to snag the little "teeth" on the gill rakers - you will get cut occasionally using bare hands but the welfare of the fish has to be paramount.

The trick with hand landing is definitely confidence, tempered with experience. Hard won but simple once learnt! The best way to avoid getting hooked yourself is to look at the pike's attitude. When you have it by the bank and have hold of the trace, check where the lure is. Then manoeuvre the fish so the side nearest you is the hook free one. Next check if the pike it lying benignly. if it is thinking of having a thrash it will flare it's gills just before it goes. Get your hands out of the way quick! it is lying still either grab it across the back just behind the head or under the gills as Ken described and unhook it. You have to pick it up like you mean it though, not hard but with confidence. I have had a pike on one hook and my hand on another once but I new I was taking a risk grabbing it when I did, I was rushing a little as I was " Guesting " at the time, slightly out of season, and could hear someone coming. Divine intervention? I do prefer to hand land whenever possible as netting seems to cause a lot of fin damage but although I never carry a net myself I am often out with others who can be bothered to drag a net through the jungle just in case I get a whacker that needs netting quickly.
Thanks for the advice guys. Ken you have said that you hand land all of your pike, does this include those in excess of say 10lb. My fishing buddy ran into terrible trouble early on in the season (after leaving his net in the car) when he hooked into a fish that was easily in excess of 20lb. Every time he got it to the bank it powered off again, this happened numerous times until it eventually snapped off (devastating!). You may remember his article titled 'help' . You'll be pleased to know that since this incident we have both substantially beefed up the tackle we use.
From KEN L
Yes I hand land all of them irrespective of weight. This is mainly because I do most of my fishing carrying just the rod and tackle bag. It's fair to say though that with good doubles, I do tend to modify what I said about lifting the fish. I'm a bit paranoid about the weight of a big fish damaging it's spine or internal organs with a straight chin lift, so I tend to throw the rod up the bank (or hand it carefully to someone else if this is an option) and get my other hand on the fish to support its weight. If you recall, I was the bloke who got mauled over my use of "light tackle" but even with this, I don't have to much trouble with big fish continuously powering off. I find that so long as you apply plenty of pressure whilst being prepared to give line as required, even large fish can be subdued in short order no matter what kit you use. It is however fair to say that as a river angler, fish above mid double figures are pretty uncommon for me so a net might be entirely appropriate for you if you are targeting fish in pits etc.
This is a valuable thread and I want to add a couple of things to qualify my previous comments.

I was referring especially to fishing for pike with big lures and corresponding strong tackle.

Big lures with big hooks change the rules somewhat. Firstly the lure is seldom entirely in the pike's mouth so one or more spare hooks are free to get caught in your hand. Secondly if the lure has been taken well inside the pike's mouth a big hook cannot always just be turned round, it may be caught on two points, the ONLY answer is to cut the hook.

On nets I'd like to mention that this is covered in the reviews section of the website. I was initially delighted with lure mesh netting (as originally supplied Caliber and/or QFP, I believe) because lures untangled so quickly, but soon began to have occasional problems with either the fins of the pike or it's maxilla getting caught in the mesh and causing damage that way as well as slowing down unhooking. The answer is to use a smaller mesh size, 20mm pike mesh is perfect, still simple to untangle hooks but no more tangled pike. Changing to the pike mesh was something me and my boat partner decided upon independently and simultaneously, it was the obvious move.

To me it seems crazy to fish for pike - that can turn up at 30lb (a once in a lifetime chance, maybe) in just about any water, without a landing net. Tales of "the one that got away" are a lot less satisfying than a trophy photograph.

Another important consideration is that you light-tackle chaps will generally have tired your fish a little more before you are ready to land it, so it will be more docile. Using multipliers with braid and a properly set drag I can only wind my reel handle the one way so they are often still a bit lively when they are under the rod, (I don't mess about) the net is the smart way for me. Total time from hooking to release is probably about even for either tackle set-up when these factors are taken into account.

Most bait anglers net their fish, because it is so simple and practical, and of course there is a much reduced treble tangling problem. But if your principal reason for hand landing pike is simply the desire to keep your lures untangled we are not talking about pike handling at all but laziness. For any lure angler about to land a pike my most sincere advice is to think very carefully and if in any doubt use the net.

While I agree with most of what you have said I believe that netting pike causes them more damage than hand landing. I haven't seen the 20mm mesh you are talking about but would be amazed if the fins and maxilla cannot be damaged by using slightly smaller mesh. I would always prefer to use a net on any bigger fish that I really wanted to land just because it means you have more chance of landing the fish but unfortunately the vast majority of fish I catch are run of the mill fish between about 3lb and 8lb. While these fish are always appreciated I am not heartbroken if they come off while I am trying to get a hand on them. If you hand land them they suffer no more damage than the hook has inflicted but a net almost always causes secondary damage, and for what purpose? Most fish are better served by hand landing if it is done properly but if it's a whacker, get me the net quick!
The 20mm mesh size is vastly superior to the 35mm despite us lure blokes being seduced by the big mesh for fast lure untangling. If you try it you will be very impressed! I was seduced by the big size, now I really wish it wasn't available, it does pike no favours.

I would agree that a pike hand landed and quickly unhooked ought to suffer less damage than one netted. But, and it's a big but, netted pike won't get dropped if they thrash at the wrong moment.

I strongly believe that the sort of superficial damage caused by hooks and nets are far less than the routine damage that pike inflict upon each other during spawning. These wounds usually heal quickly, evolution has obviously equipped the pike for this.

I share some of Ken's misgiving about lifting pike, but I've no direct observation of them suffering, or appearing to suffer from this. Dropping pike seems the one accident that must hurt them, there is no equivalent injury that they can suffer in the water.

And I therefore advocate netting all but the smallest fish, say up to 2lb, because the chance of dropping one is much less with the net. After the pike is unhooked the problem is much reduced because we will all hang on a lot tighter if our hands are not in danger from hooks.

Allowing that nets must cause some superficial harm I still prefer that to the increased chance of a dropped fish. If 100 pike loose a bit of slime they'll all survive but if one gets dropped, who knows. Having hand landed a lot of pike over the years, and being above average in the hand strength department I know that I dropped a few, despite being as careful as possible, I find it hard to imagine that others do not suffer the same mishaps.

These messages are all opinion, based on our experiences, which is fair enough but it is a shame that there is no concrete research into this matter. The only fish welfare issue I've seen research on was for salmonids (NOT pike) in North America where released fish were seen to suffer and sometimes die if the fight had been prolonged, the research was at an early stage but seemed to be leading to a plea for stronger tackle. This is not a dig at light gear because the circumstances discussed were quite extreme with very big fish played for over thirty minutes on very light gear.

If there is any research by scientists (not treehuggers) into this issue I'd like to know about it.

If Pike welfare is important to you please note that the following items are ESSENTIAL, not OPTIONAL extras. They may not be needed to deal with all or even many of the pike you hook but there will be instances when they are.
  1. A suitably sized landing net fitted with 20mm ("pike mesh") or less mesh.. not "lure" mesh. (See Dave Pugh's earlier thread.. he's right.) It's interesting to note that Dave Lumb has dropped the 35mm "lure mesh" from his catalogue -& added the "..even more fish friendly.." 10mm "specialist mesh".
  2. A suitably sized unhooking mat, whether fishing from bank or boat.
  3. Good quality bolt cutters (I can recommend Knipex). These are a must if you use lures fitted with big (over size 1) hooks. It's often quicker -&- better to cut hooks especially if you fish with the barbs intact. They come in very handy also if the hook ends up in you rather than the fish.
There are occasions when hand landing pike is preferable, -& equally those when using a landing net is the best (or only) option, but in all circumstances fish welfare not fish size should be the deciding factor.
From MARTIN G I must confess I prefer to land fish with the net partly for my safety, it seems inevitable that knowing my luck I will sooner or later get a hook in me. As some people who fish with me will tell you I don't like it when fish get away, of course I have to accept it is inevitable from time to time. At times when using a net with a small amount of slack fish often fall of the hooks inside the net. Until recently I was very happy with a net I had bought from Helen and Rollies with a large mesh that had a coating that claimed to be lure proof, all the time I used it this was true. The coating was soft and rubbery even though the net felt stiff this also helped to prevent the fish wrapping to tightly when they spun in the net I could usually untangle fish and lure easily. Just recently I have to give it up as the coating has now worn down to expose the fact it is a knotted mesh, so I have gone on to the usual kind you see lots of people use from Harris's and other suppliers. It's OK but it feels more abrasive than my old one even with the knots.
I have been using nets from Quality Fishing Plugs (now LureNetQFP) for nearly a decade and I don't want to sound like a big head but I just don't see what all the fuss/probs are about. LureNet's nets are wide mesh, soft and kind to fish and are pretty treble-hook-resisting. Not perfect my any means but which net is?

I have tried several others including the ones from Harris and despite what Our Barrie says, I think that they're too rough but anyway there's no need to use them or argue when there are nets available like those from LureNetQFP. I must get shares in them from the way I'm sounding like an ad for them .. but I'm just speaking as I have found. They're at www.lurenet.co.uk I never leave home without one!

I too found the nets supplied by Harris Angling a bit on the rough side but it is the size of the "lure mesh" that concerned me most. With the 35mm "lure mesh" occasionally some fins -&- maxilla of smaller pike would protrude through the mesh on landing. This in itself does not necessarily mean that the fish were damaged but it was a concern to me. Since changing to the smaller 22mm "pike mesh" this has not happened, which, if nothing else, makes me a happier bunny.

Martin S. Acceptance over a long period of time does not mean that something cannot be improved upon, -&- that you consider a matter of genuine concern regarding pike handling a "fuss"... is sad.

I think you have misconstrued my comments about nets. Of course anything can be improved upon! I am talking about what's available to lure anglers today. I can assure you that no-one has a greater concern for pike than me, period! Judging by your comments, though, I gather that you simply cannot have evaluated the nets of which I wrote and which I use, very successfully I might add, with very few if any of the problems of which your wrote re fins going through the mesh etc The reason why I mentioned "fuss" is that this hoary old debate has been going on for ages, and I believe there are very real answers out there. Nope, Seb, I'm not the one who's sad! I love my pike fishing and have got some great nets. It's the others .....
The misunderstanding here has been over the my use of the term "lure mesh". In my postings I thought I had made it clear that I had concerns over "lure mesh" of 35mm. The information posted by Dave S. indicates that you are using nets with the smaller 22mm mesh which is what myself -&- Dave Pugh were recommending. Sorry for any confusion here -&- no offence intended.

Regarding the cutting of hooks -if it is necessary to cut hooks don't forget to remove the bits.

Just to put the story straight, the nets supplied by QFP in the past and now LurenetQFP are the 22 mm mesh size , they are very soft and in my opinion kinder to the fish that the Harris net , which by comparison is very rough. No net is perfect , but this is currently I believe the best on the market.
PS - I think Dave Lumb is also now selling this type of net.
Many thanks Dave S for confirming what I thought I had said in the first place. Like I said, the QFP mesh nets were/are soft so why use a hard mesh? I've never had any problems with fins getting stuff through the mesh. OK, sometimes trebles do get stuck but if the fish is in any danger I cut off the hook with side-cutters in a jiffy.
Sorry. It's just been pointed out to me that maybe I didn't make myself very clear when I wrote about cutting hooks free. You cut hooks that get stuck in the net NOT that are stuck in the pike! This helps get the pike back into the water ASAP with the least problems to all. Hope that clears up any confusion
And yes I agree that this thread is very useful. Thanks to all (well almost all!) and more please
With reference to an earlier posting of yours why are hooks that are stuck in the pike NOT to be cut. What are your concerns with this practice?
No concerns at all, in fact sometime it's essential and quickly too. Sorry if I misled you. Anyway, I always have an ace pair of side-cutters with me, I'm sure you do too
As a recent purchaser of the Harris net that everyone seems to have slated perhaps I should keep out of this thread but as my job involves me handling live fish every day of the week I hope my comments will be of some use.
The first thing I was told about handling fish many years ago was never to touch them with dry hands. OK, maybe having dry hands is a bit unlikely after landing a pike but a dry bank or even a dry unhooking mat or sling will remove the protective slime that inhibits fungal and bacterial infections and resists the attacks of skin parasites. So make sure that anywhere you lay your fish even for a second is wet; I find that despite all the fancy unhooking mats on the market I get good results using a wet heavy-duty polythene sack. The fish go back unmarked and, just as important, with their protective slime intact.
Well, I reckon you're right about most things and in your job, you should know ... but ... eeerr .. I reckon you'd be much better off and so would the fish if you used one of the latest nets from www.lurenet.co.uk
Hi everyone, I've been following the recent discussion on handling of pike and the use of nets for the last few days. It seem s to me that we all share a common cause, the welfare of old Esox. Each of the threads on the message board are all in their own way correct to the individual but not shared by other anglers as to their own experiences. Which brings me to my point. Some years ago, like a lot of other lure anglers out there, I used to carry both a net -&- mat to both land and unhook my quarry as safely and quickly as possible. NO ! I still remember vividly on the very last time I used a net, the fish rolled over -&- over entangling itself in the mesh so tight that I was forced to take a knife to the net and cut the fish free. This took a couple of minutes and upset me great deal. Fortunately the fish was okay and bolted as soon as it was returned to the water. Anyhow, some years have now past and I haven't used a net since, choosing to hand land all the fish I now catch be it Pike, Perch, chub or whatever. My technique has somewhat changed though over the years. instead of fishing from the bank, I spend most of my time fishing in the river, up to my waist. This allows me to access water that I wouldn't usually be able to get to from the bank. It gives me the freedom to leave both the net and the mat behind. And it allows me to unhook safely all my fish whilst standing in the water, so even if I drop the fish, it can`t hurt itself on a hard bank. The fish is returned to the water literally within seconds of been caught, Its okay, I`m happy and all's well. The bottom line being, Personally, I don`t like nets and therefore choose not to use one. But this doesn`t count for everyone.

I would just like to add that this technique isn`t up everyone street -&- its just my own personal view (and yes it can be dangerous, walking the riverbed) I myself have in the last 2 years been bowled over 2 sets of rapids whilst fishing the fast waters at Trimpley on the Severn -&- the Mill on the Teme at Eardiston.

From KEN L
Yes Dave (JH) and very silly you looked too when you came up sputtering and bedraggled at the bottom of the schute at Eardiston.
I've been following your interesting discussion threads about handling pike and landing nets. For the life of me I just can't understand the argument that says that heavy, tough, firm net meshes are better than soft woven ones for netting pike because they don't remove as much slime or scales from pike etc. and minimise handling. If this IS the case, I have one very simple but rhetorical question that I hope the proponents of these firm, heavy meshes will answer, please: Why then aren't unhooking mats for specimen fish such as carp, pike, barbel, tench and especially those ultra-slimy bream, made from the same heavy, tough, firm material as these nets? Or am I missing something here?
The main reason I use the large coarse mesh for pike and the fine mesh for barbel is down to what gets caught in the mesh. When I use the soft mesh the treble hooks get caught in the mesh and result in increased unhooking time. Bolt cutters are usually unavoidable at this point. With barbel the dorsal fins can get caught in the large mesh tearing the fin. As only single hooks are used for barbel there is no untangling with the soft mesh. I dont think it has much to do with the mesh, more to do with efficient handling of the fish.
Isn't it amazing the impact that one question can have? It's obvious that there will be many differing opinions and levels of consideration for the welfare of old esox. At the end of the day we fish for our pleasure and not for the benefit of the poor old pike, who in real terms is a victim. But as any boxer knows - on most occasions after a hard fight he heals up and then comes back for more! On rare occasions one doesn't recover and dies. Our sport has already been branded by many as cruel and to a certain extent, I have to agree. Having said that, it is within our interests and the interests of the pike that careful handling should be applied in an effort to minimise the suffering of pike. Once again we all have differing opinions as to what is acceptable and what isn't and therefore we can only apply handling recommendations that we as individuals feel are appropriate.
...if we don't take care of pike, there'll be nothing for you to fish for pleasure for! Don't believe me? Well just take a look at what non- catch 'n' release has done for river trout, sea-trout and salmon fishing. Ask anyone ... catching a salmon is a bonus these days and why? It's not difficult to work it out, is it?
I am really glad that this thread came up, thanks Rich, it has opened up some avenues for future exploration.

I reckon we are trying to look for a percentage solution that most times causes least damage to pike and allows for the quickest release. If everyone is honest we know there is no wholly right answer because every pike we hook and every bank we fish from is different.

The original issue was hand-landing or net-landing and I think I appreciate the differences between the two approaches a little better now. But I don't plan on changing my own pragmatic approach of "If in doubt use the net".

What I am actually saying is THAT WE SHOULD practice good conservation techniques, that fall within our own conditions of acceptability (after all we all differ in our opinions). We can't ask any more than that. Quite often it is just a case of us learning from one another, hence discussion boards like this are really useful. Sorry for any confusion.
Does anyone know where I can get hold of a large round landing net? I already have a 24'' round net specifically designed for lure angling but the other day I caught a fish that was too large to go in and had a hell of a job!

I am thinking of something at least 32'' or more. Can anyone help?

Yep, you can get a 30 inch circular frame and lovely soft mesh from www.lurenet.co.uk
Check out the Sportfish catalogue (01544 327111). A 30 inch aquarex by Sharpes is for me the business. it has a 48 inch sliding handle which extends to 72 inches overall. It's a very mature product, robust and is fitted with a soft knotless mesh. It's big advantage is it's portability as it has a very clever leather shoulder sling which keeps everything high on your back. Pop a fastex snap and it's ready for use but still attached to you.
From JaMES C
I've been using one of these Sharpes Gye nets for a while They are good but quite expensive. Also the handle isn't a long as I often need I also use one of the old QFP nets that others have written about. It is much cheaper because it doesn't have a handle but I use this with a long landing net handle that cost me 12.
In my experience lures and nets do not generally mix well. I am sure that many pike anglers, when they started lure fishing, like me used their old nets which had been fine when bait fishing. First pike that rolled in the fine mesh taught you that you and the pike did not want to go through that too often.

I got myself a rubber coated musky net. As mentioned in previous postings, I found that the large mesh size was causing damage to fins and mouths. Also tried a rubber mesh (not rubber coated cord) bass net. This was much better. Even if the pike rolled, the stretch in the rubber allowed you to slip the mesh easily over hookpoints. Being smooth and with relatively large diameter rubber it was kind to the pike. Unfortunately they don't come that big, and despite the meshes appreciable stretch, had real problems getting a 26lb fish in one day (made it - just). Also the mesh was snapping and getting cut by pikes teeth.

These days I mainly use a Boga Grip tool. Modified the jaws, which could poke through the soft skin under a pikes mouth, by aralditing 2 large, drilled-out, brass beads to the ends. This gives a much larger radius to the jaw ends. Once the Boga grip is in place (usually at the tip of the pikes lower jaw) and released, a spring loaded sleeve slides forward, locking the tools jaws shut. They cannot open. However, there is no pressure on the pikes lower jaw, there is still a small gap, its just locked on position.

Despite what the manufacturers say, its not a good idea to lift a pike out, especially a reasonable sized fish, this way. There will be a lot of weight hanging on one point of its lower jaw, and there is also some evidence that fish like pike and musky can experience a lot of strain, and even displacement of their internal organs, when suspended like this. What I tend to do is use the Boga Grip to steady and make safe the fish, get a good grip with my gloved had, release the tool, maybe slip the hooks out at this stage, then lift the pike out, supporting its body with my other hand. By the way, all my pike fishing is from a boat. Surprisingly quick once you get used to it. Its also safer as it keeps your hand away from lure trebles. Once locked on you can assess the position of hooks and steady the pikes head before you get a good jaw grip with your other hand.
Works for me!

And finally...

To close this piece I'd like to thank everyone who made constructive contributions to the debate. I've learned a few valuable lessons about the diversity of opinion and experience along the way. We are all lure anglers but we all have unique experiences, we all want to do what's best and what's simplest. None of us have all the answers.

The confusion about landing net meshes did indicate that we can be too parochial in our outlook, and that not everyone is aware of the huge choice of tackle available. The success of Harris Angling has been an important part of the lure fishing boom during the 1990s, but they are not the only tackle suppliers.

Since the debate began I began to look at what I really did when landing pike, despite writing that I netted the vast majority I found that I did not in fact. Many of the smaller fish I unhooked without even lifting them from the water, some were so lightly-hooked I never touched them at all, just grabbed the hook with the pliers and pushed it free. I used marginal weed to support some bigger fish while I held their mouths open, but the net was never far away and I can still think of no wiser statement than: "If in doubt - use the net"..

Thanks to all the contributors.
Dave Pugh