Pike eat fish. A dead fish, better known in pike angling as a “Dead bait” is probably the most common form of pike bait in use in the UK. This apex predator will usually exert energy in a sudden explosive burst in order to snatch a meal. What, then, can be more enticing than a juicy free meal, temptingly placed in their path?
Pike dead baits can be split into two categories; Coarse Fish and Sea Fish. Each type of bait, whether it is a sea or coarse fish, has its own special qualities that make it suitable for catching pike. Those characteristics can make them better suited to a particular method or type of fishery and should be considered by pike anglers before they set out for a pike fishing session.
Over the past few years the growth of the pike bait industry has made it easier for pike anglers to buy dead baits. There is a wide selection of dead baits available on-line, just waiting to be delivered to your door whilst still frozen.
Most local fishing tackle shops contain a freezer with some vacuum packed offerings from one of the specialist pike bait companies.
The big supermarkets have fish counters offering a choice that typically consists of sardines, herring, mackerel and sprats. Just make sure to buy them whole and intact.
Pay a visit to your local fishmonger and see what they have on display. Let them know you are a pike angler looking for bait. They might have some smaller fish under the counter that they are keen to get rid of. It’s all or nothing Keep your eyes peeled for their more unusual choices.
The choice of bait that you can find at the Fishmonger is subject to seasonal variations. Sometimes the fish you are looking for are too large or there are none at all, and at other times they will be plentiful. If you are looking for a regular supply of pike sized dead baits the tackle shop is a more reliable source.
All this availability has advantages for the pike angler too. The choice of baits is staggering and you don’t need to go to the effort of catching and dispatching them first. They all come frozen in vacuum packed bags ready to transfer straight into your own freezer. You can buy pike baits in small packs, typically of 3 to 5 baits, larger bags with 10 to 15 baits, and even in bulk 10 or 20kg packs.
Sea Fish Baits
Despite being a freshwater species, pike love to eat sea fish. The fact that no pike throughout history has ever seen a mackerel shoal swimming amongst the lilies does not prevent Esox Lucius from making a meal of a tail section lying on the bottom of your local pond. Sea baits have been the downfall of many thousands of pike over a number of years and will continue to tempt many more in the future.
Smelt are a pale yellow fish that live in estuaries around the UK. They have a slim body and fairly tough skin that allows them to stay on the hooks, even when subjected to repeated casting. Smelt are also very supple so they don’t interfere with the hooking of the pike when you get a run. The smelt found in pike bait packs vary in size between about four and twelve inches long, with the bigger baits sometimes called super smelt.
Smelt are one of my favourite pike baits as, not only have I caught plenty of pike on them, they are versatile. They are a light weight fish that can easily be made to float though being injected with air just under the skin, or the addition of a fox popper or dead bait stick. Smelt are instantly recognisable by their unique smell which is more than a little bit like a cucumber.
Mackerel have light and dark blue stripes on their back and a silver belly and are one of the most popular pike baits in use today. Their solid, streamlined shape, built for speed when in a shoal, is excellent for casting. The reasonably tough skin of the mackerel helps to keep the hooks in place when going for a big cast, but once split, the skin will tear along the length of the body quite easily. For this reason you should hook mackerel through the tail root to take the strain of the cast, or through the mouth when using a head section.
Smaller “Joey” Mackerel average six inches long and make nice sized baits. At ten to twelve inches long, the mackerel that you would see in a supermarket can be used whole or cut in half. Many anglers prefer to use the tail section, but the heads also make very effective baits. I have used quite large whole mackerel to good effect, catching several nice doubles from close range.
A neat trick is to cut the throat of the mackerel to allow the juices to flow out. Mackerel are a very oily and smelly fish which helps to attract the pike. You may also see an oil slick appear just before getting a run on as the pike disturbs the bait.
At around six to eight inches long, and silver in colour, sardines are the ideal sized pike bait. They are an oily fish with very soft skin and they will disintegrate quite quickly in the water. Keep them frozen until you are ready to use them. Once they are in the water leave them alone. They will fall off the hooks if you keep casting and reeling them in. To combat this I always hook them the wrong way round with the top treble in the head. I used to get glazed baits from supermarkets but I have not seen them for a while. Don’t try to use tinned sardines like one person I know tried to do!
Herring have been used as pike bait for many years. Although they are the same silver colour they are larger than sardines and possess more durability. Bigger fish are often cut in half to make two baits, but like the mackerel, whole baits make an excellent change from the norm. Smaller fish of about six inches long can be found in the freezer packs from specialist pike bait companies. Fishmongers and supermarkets will usually have larger specimens of around ten to twelve inches long. Herring can be easily modified with colourings and flavourings.
In recent years the Lamprey has risen from an unknown fish to become one of the most popular pike baits around. They have a silver blue colouration and a long thin body that gives them the look of an eel. Although they breed in fresh water, they live in the sea and use their protruding mouth to latch onto other fish and live as a parasite. They are tough skinned and amazingly bloody, which makes them very attractive to pike.
Lamprey can be used whole or in sections. A neat tip is to use them almost whole with just the last inch cut off of the tail. This allows the blood to seep from the bait and leave a scent trail for the pike to follow. Lamprey can be bought from most specialist tackle shops.
The sprat is a very small silver sea fish that has can easily be overlooked as pike bait in favour of the larger species such as Mackerel, Herring and Sardines. Those in the know would never ignore the sprat as it is has accounted for plenty of large pike.
Sprats are very cheap and readily available from the fishmonger or supermarket. They are, rather surprisingly, not so commonly seen in freezer packs from tackle shops. This must be due to the low demand from pike anglers; a sure sign that you should get on them. Buy them in bulk and select the better fish for hook bait, keeping damaged bait for chummy or ground bait.
A Bluey is a long thin silver sea fish that has started to appear in the vacuum packs of some specialist bait suppliers. At about twelve inches long they can be fished whole or in half. They have a vivid silver and blue skin, a solid body and oily flesh. I tried a pack on the advice of Ian Swannock at The Tackle Shop in Gainsborough and I wasn’t disappointed. They went like hot cakes and will only become more popular in my opinion.
Coarse Fish Dead Baits
A few years ago you would have to go to specialist pike tackle shops to get your coarse dead baits, unless you caught your own. The common species are now much more widespread but if you want something unusual you will still have to catch you own.
Small trout are readily available from fishing tackle shops and online bait suppliers. There are several varieties which all have the same qualities but offer a different appearance. Both Brook and Brown Trout are brown, Rainbow Trout are silvery with a pink stripe. Golden Trout have a deep yellow colouration that offers something very different to other pike baits.
Their tough skin is quite thick and firm and holds injected air very well, although they are prone to splitting if they are bashed around. Trout are very floppy when thawed out and the insides are soft. This means they are not very suitable for wobbling or trolling as they end up feeling like a bean bag.
Roach are a firm fish with silver flanks and a rubber like quality. Their durability makes them an excellent choice as both a wobbled bait and for distance fishing. They can be repeatedly cast out without falling apart, although the tiny scales will fall off over quite quickly. Roach are particularly good when popped up off the bottom. This can be easily achieved through the use of a dead bait stick or when injected with air.
I have had some success using roach popped up more than three feet from the bottom. They are readily available from tackle shops and online bait companies.
Bream, or more accurately, skimmer bream, are a deep bodied thin silver fish that are relatively light for their size. They are durable but not very aerodynamic and therefore don’t cast too well. I like to use them on rivers and drains where distance is not required. Bream can be effective as when wobbled as they are slow sinkers. They are not as popular as other types of silver fish such as roach but don’t let that put you off as the pike don’t mind.
Perch can be very effective as they are widespread throughout the UK and have a distinctive and unique stripy colour that pike seem to like. Just take a look at the number of lures that come in a “perch Pattern” if you are not sure. Their skin is very tough and abrasive which makes them very durable too. Be careful of the spines on the dorsal fin and gill covers when handling them. Perch are not as commonly seen in tackle shops as other coarse and sea baits, which suggests they are not very popular with pikers. This is another good reason for you to try them out.
Pike eat pike. Think about all of the times you have seen a photo of a pike with its jaws locked onto another. In my experience they love them. When I was offered a dozen 8 to 10 inch pike for bait I didn’t have any expectations but figured they were worth a try. The pike loved them and seemed to pick them up far quicker than any other bait I have tried. They only lasted a couple of sessions. They are rarely seen in the tackle shops.
Gudgeon are a very small fish that are similar in shape to barbell, but there the similarities end. They have a soft texture and grow to about 4 inches long. Do not be deceived by their size though, they can be a very effective pike bait. In my experience pike will readily pick up a Gudgeon. You will have to catch your own though as they don’t appear in the tackle shops.
Eels are an extremely tough skinned, slimy fish that have been one of the most reliable and popular pike baits for many years. They should be fished in 6 inch chunks and lightly nicked onto the hooks. Eels are now an endangered species that cannot be harvested for bait.
Baits should be individually wrapped in cling-film or kept the vacuum pack they were bought in. Put them in sealed Tupperware style plastic boxes to prevent their smell contaminating other food in the freezer. They will keep better and for longer at lower temperatures. Frozen fish is susceptible to damage known as ‘Freezer Burn’ which is a yellowing of the skin caused by dehydration. Bait with freezer burn can be used but may not be as effective as a fresh ones.