Why is it so important to learn how to unhook a pike?
Although pike have a fearsome reputation and hundreds of razor sharp teeth, they are actually rather fragile for such a large fish. If you don't know what you're doing, it's easy to make a mistake that could cause a pike to suffer, so it is essential to learn how to unhook a pike to ensure that they go back safely and recover quickly from their ordeal.
What gear do I need to unhook a pike?
Before you even consider going pike fishing you'll need several things in order to unhook a pike safely: a good unhooking mat, a large landing net, some unhooking pliers and some croppers known as side cutters, just in case you get into difficulty and need to chop the hooks or trace out.
Obviously, it's also vital that you always use a wire trace when you're fishing for them, otherwise you risk getting bitten off and leaving your hooks inside a fish.
How should I land a pike?
There are three main ways to land a pike - by using a landing net, by picking the pike up behind the head, or by "chinning" the pike and picking it up via the jaw. There are pros and cons to each method and which approach you use will depend on your access to the water and the fish, the size of the pike you've caught, and your personal confidence and experience in handling pike.
Why land a pike by hand?
Landing a pike by hand and unhooking it in or above the water means that it is less likely to hit itself against any hard objects, like the ground, and its coating of protective mucus which is used to fight infections won't get rubbed off by your net or unhooking mat. It also means your hooks won't get caught in the net, which could extend the amount of time you'd require to unhook and release the fish. Therefore, if you have the experience to do so, it is quicker and safer to land by hand and unhook a pike in the water.
How should I land a pike by hand?
If it's only a small jack pike and you can reach it easily, it is often easiest to pick up the fish by gripping it just behind the head. Depending on how it's hooked, you can then use your unhooking pliers to carefully remove the hooks from its mouth, or if it's hooked more deeply, you can chin the pike or transfer it to your unhooking mat so you can remove the hooks there. Be careful not to drop the fish, as a fall onto hard ground could really cause some damage - it's best to do this over the water if you can, or just above soft ground or an unhooking mat if you can't.
How do I chin a pike?
Chinning is the preferred method of pike handling larger pike that can't be gripped behind the head and it's the one you'll commonly see used by most experienced pike anglers. However, I wouldn't recommend chinning a pike to anyone who is not already experienced in handling pike and feels confident doing so. Wait until you've got a few years' pike handling experience under your belt first.
Chinning a pike is potentially risky to both yourself and the fish if not done correctly. When chinning a pike you need to know exactly where to put your hand to avoid getting cut by the teeth or the gill rakers. You also risk getting the hooks stuck in your hand or arm while they're also attached to a thrashing pike, which is obviously not going to be a pleasant experience for either of you.
Step 1: Get ready to chin the pike
To chin a pike you should bring the fish carefully towards your hand on a tight line with the fish's head just above the water. Before putting your hand near it, try to figure out where the hooks are and make sure you avoid this area. You really don't want to get the hooks stuck in your hand while they're simultaneously attached to a thrashing pike.
Step 2: Slide your fingers in the pike's mouth
When you've got the fish in the right spot and it's calm and ready to be chinned, slide one or two fingers up along the inside of the fish's gill cover or operculum. Take care to avoid the hooks and the sharp edges of its gill rakers which could graze your fingers. Keep your fingers away from the delicate tissues of the gills. Move your fingers forward until you find a soft area within the mouth cavity of the pike - this is free of teeth and you'll be able to support the fish here without getting bitten.
Step 3: Lift the pike
Carefully lift the fish clear of the water. Ideally, when you do this you'll also support the fish's belly so the full body weight isn't placed on the jaw when you lift the fish out of the water. Pike generally remain fairly calm after they've been chinned, but do watch out in case the fish thrashes and always keep an eye on where the hooks are located so you keep yourself out of harm's way.
Step 4: Unhook the pike
You can either unhook the chinned pike in the water or transfer it to an unhooking mat to be unhooked there. Where you can unhook a pike depends on how close you can get to it, how big it is, how experienced you are at unhooking pike, and how deeply it's swallowed your hooks. The method which is likely to cause the least stress and damage to the fish is unhooking in the water. Unhooking above the water only really applies to smaller pike you can comfortably hold in your other hand, while unhooking on the bank is reserved for everything else. If in doubt, move the pike to the safety of your unhooking mat.
How do I unhook a pike on an unhooking mat?
Whether you've landed your pike in a landing net, picked it up behind the head or chinned it, the next step is to get the hooks out. This is a bit scary the first time you try it - so your legs will probably feel like jelly and your hands will probably be shaking - but it's quite simple really. Just follow these steps:
Step 1: Position the pike on the mat
Gently lay the pike down horizontally along the centre of the mat. Keep your rod and line out of the way and make sure you've got all your tools immediately to hand. You don't want to be rummaging around in your bag looking for a tool when you've got a fish flapping around on the mat and it's vital that you unhook the pike quickly and efficiently.
Step 2: Straddle the fish
Carefully kneel down on the mat with one knee either side of the pike with the head facing forwards. You can move your knees together a little which will minimise its movement and stop it from thrashing around and leaving the safety of the mat, where it might damage itself on the ground.
Step 3: Open the mouth
The next step is to open the mouth of the pike. Before doing this, check again the position of the hooks and make sure you avoid them. Then carefully slide one or two fingers along the side of the pike's gill cover and move them forwards until you feel the soft, smooth cavity of their jaw. This is located on the bottom jaw of the fish between the two gill covers. Once you've got your fingers there, gently open the mouth.
Step 4: Remove the hooks
With the mouth open wide, insert your unhooking tool into the mouth, locate the hooks and turn them. Pike have really bony mouths and the hooks usually come out very easily when using this method - especially if you use barbless hooks. Carefully lift out the hooks and move them away from the unhooking mat so you can't accidentally hook yourself. Then you're ready to take a quick snap and return the fish to the water.
What size landing net should I use for pike fishing?
The Pike Anglers' Club (PAC) recommends that you use a large net with arms measuring 90cm/36" and made from knotless mesh. To be honest, that's pretty massive and it's going to overkill for most situations. I use the large Savage Gear Rubber Mesh Folding Landing Net and it's plenty big enough for my needs.
It handles double-figure pike no problem, and in the unlikely event that I'm ever lucky enough to catch a forty pound pike, I'm sure I'd squeeze it in. I wouldn't recommend pike fishing with anything much smaller though. I've had to shoehorn a few unexpected double figure pike into smaller nets while perch fishing before and it does represent something of a challenge, especially if you're fishing alone.
Should I wear a glove when unhooking pike?
A lot of people prefer to wear a leather or kevlar glove when they want to unhook a pike. This can protect you from getting scratched or bitten and reduces the likelihood of getting hooks stuff in your hand.
Personally, I prefer not to wear an unhooking glove when I unhook a pike. By using your bare hands you have a greater feel of where you're putting your fingers, so you can keep them away from the pike's delicate gill tissues. You may get a little bit grazed, but it's nothing too painful. Not using a glove makes you be a bit more careful. Just man up!
How should I return the fish after unhooking?
Pike are one of the fastest freshwater fishes over short distances and they put up an impressive fight. However, they're designed for short bursts of speeds not marathon-like fights and they lack the endurance of fish like trout. This means that they can tire quickly and lactic acid can build up, causing them to become exhausted. When that happens, it's normal for them to take a little time before swimming back.
After you unhook a pike, get the fish back in the water as quickly as you possibly can. Hold the fish upright in the water and support the head and tail. Hold onto the pike until it's able to support itself and when it's ready it will give a kick off the tail, spray you with water and then glide off.