Boat Fishing for Pike Part 1 :- Natural Baits

Reservoirs and large lakes in England, lochs in Scotland and the loughs of Ireland are all waters that the pike angler has to fish from boats if he is to be successful. Over the years I've fished these big waters and I've developed a logical approach which I hope will help everyone who ventures afloat after these enigmatic pike.

Fishing from boats adds another dimension to your fishing, the first thing you have to understand is that to be successful you have first got to decide where to fish?

Being faced with hundreds or possibly thousands of acres needs an approach that can search the water while effectively fishing for pike. The first unfamiliar item of tackle you'll need to buy will be an fish finder/echo sounder this will be your eyes it will help you make ultimately the decisions that will decide whether you'll catch or not.

With the help of a fish finder/echo sounder you first look for features such as the marginal shelf, any sudden depth changes, drop offs into deep water, weed beds, underwater structures like stream beds, reefs or plateaus.

Finding baitfish around any of these features is a good confidence booster and I would spend sometime concentrating on them but do not dismiss an area just because baitfish do not appear "on screen" pike can be caught off these spots even when no baitfish are present!

You've found an area with baitfish and they are holding close to a feature but at what depth should you present your bait? Locating the depth at which the pike will be feeding is the next consideration which becomes more complex the deeper the water gets. Time of year will make choosing depth settings easier, the warmer the water the shallower I would fish the baits, pike attack from below and will take baits fished overhead during the spring, summer and autumn but this changes once the water temperature drops with the first frosts of winter.

Mobile or Static
Two distinct styles, 'mobile' or 'static' can be used with either 'natural', live or dead bait, or 'artificial' lures. I will concentrate on natural baits in this article but will cover artificial lures and methods latter, suffice to say that although the baits are different; 'natural' or 'artificial', the relevance of location and depth are the same.

I would urge you to go mobile through the spring, summer and autumn while the pike are active and spread out, often wandering miles following shoals of baitfish. Once the baitfish start to concentrate near features and the frosts have knocked the water temperature down then is the time to anchor up and fish static but I'd still troll the area thoroughly first while assessing the spot.

Often described as a "boring method" trolling is such an effective way of catching pike on big waters, that you should not ignore it. Spend so time thinking about what you are trying to achieve, get an understanding of how your baits will be seen by the pike. What follows now are step by step instructions on "how to organise the boat" through to "rigs and methods".

Getting started
It's best if you can fish with a regular boat partner, "fish as a team", help each other out, be prepared to each try different methods, depths and rigs, always searching for the winning formula until pike are located and caught and share in each others successes, remember it's a team effort.

On your first fishing sessions I would suggest sticking to one rod each until you're familiar with handling the boat. My boat partner James "the Doc" Gardner and I have fished together for many years so we would be fishing with two rods each, one on 'the float', we would set these at different depths, the other on 'the lead', this allows us to search different depths simultaneously. Trolling with 4 rods can be difficult in windy conditions so you must be organized otherwise chaos will ensue.

Boat set up
The float rigs are put out first, spill line as you motor away, no need to cast out and possibly tangle the trace, we use 12' pike rods with a "middle to tip" action with a test curve of 2.5lb or 2.75lb, these are held in trolling boat rod rests mounted on the gunnels at 90 degrees to the boat this spreads the baits apart covering a band of water 30' wide [2 x rod length + boat width]. The "Bottom Bouncers" are fished directly over the back of the boat covering the "inside" area which the floats are missing.

Float Trolling
This method works very well during the summer and autumn it gives the option of searching different depths, remember the pike are not always on the bottom! Our usual approach would be to set our floats at staggered depths say 2' and 5' off the bottom, we always fish different depths to start with until the feeding depth is found, you must both let out different lengths of line to the floats as this prevents the lines tangling as you execute tight turns, in our opinion braided line in "a must" for float trolling, braid floats on the surface avoiding tangling around the engines propeller.

Once the rod is placed in the rod rest switch the reel into baitrunner mode, set with just enough tension to stop line being pulled off by the waters drag on the line. We use large, 30-50g capacity, 'in-line' trolling floats these have a curve in the tube creating a 'trolling lock', the line passes easily through the tube when slack but once under tension it locks into place. Using these prevents the float creeping down the line when trolling into strong winds or moving at high speed.

The reason we use such large floats is to allow the use of heavy weights to hold the bait down. Don't forget when trolling the bait is lifted by the drag on the line, by using heavy weights the bait fishes nearer to the "true depth" i.e. in 20' of water set the float at 22', the bait never fishes directly underneath the float, so as a rule add at least an extra 10% to the actual depth to compensate for the lift.

‘Essex’ float system
I'd like to introduce you to another float trolling method I've seen used successfully by Bill Palmer and Steve Wells, two very experienced pike anglers from Essex. Forgive me if I haven't got the detail exactly right, I can give you the flavour of the method, and you can use your own imagination when you see it’s potential.

Set up a standard in-line sliding float with the bait mounted "head first", the float doesn't have a trolling lock so when you increase trolling speed the float is forced down the line towards the bait by the water pressure, as you slow the boat the bait slowly flutters down through the water held back by the tension of the float as it slides back up the line to the stop knot.

By injecting speed occasionally you can get your baits to "rise and fall" through the water, this method lends itself to the summer and autumn when the pike are active enough to come up in the water to attack a bait yet need tempting into biting, Bill and Steve sometimes slow the boat almost to a stand still over features that they feel worthy of more attention, they pick up each rod in turn from its rod rest and by using the rods length "lift and tease" the bait through the area before returning the rod to its rest and letting the bait settle again.

Both anglers would have 2 float rods each, it's possible to fish 4 rods quite easily by using boat rod rests 2 rods can be fished at 90 degrees to the boat, 1 each side, this spreads the baits far apart covering a wide band of water, 2 further rods are fished off the back of the boat again held in rod rests, tangles are avoided by staggering the distances from rod to float and depths.

Hooking the bait
The bait should always be mounted "head first" up the trace so that it appears to be swimming. Hook the top treble through the lips while the bottom treble is hooked along the back directly above the anal vent, the hook spacing is critical if necessary make your own traces to suit your bait sizes. The pike aims for the middle of the bait but as its still being drawn through the water it actually hits towards the back end of the bait around the vent area, so to hook these fish the bottom treble must be further back than normal, on big baits do not be afraid to use 3 hook rigs!

Bottom Bouncer
The "Bottom Bouncer" rig is the method we use to keep our bait fishing close to the bottom at all times, it's especially useful when the depths are uneven requiring frequent depth adjustments. Tackle up as follows, slide a Fox trolling stem and bead on your line first, we recommend 30lb Fireline braid due to its abrasion resistance "its bullet proof", then tie on a strong swivel as a stop, add 4' of 30lb fluorocarbon, then attach your trace.

Use the lightest lead you can, 1/2 or 3/4oz is perfect unless conditions are very rough, you want the rig to trip bottom making the rod tip nod gently, in snaggy areas tie the lead to the trolling stem with 6lb line as a weak link, better to lose a weight rather than pull the rig into the snag when trying to free it.

The stiff abrasion resistant fluorocarbon link allows the bait to swim from side to side and keeps the trace away from the lead, use 30lb wire and good quality trebles but not 'extra strong' on your trace. You'll notice that we use strong terminal tackle "at all times" but our hooks are not the 'extra strong' variety this is so we can spring the trebles open enough to retrieve any snagged rigs, its vital not to leave baited traces on snags as these could become death traps!

How the Bottom Bouncer works
Lower the rig until the lead is just tripping the bottom and the rod tip is nodding gently, we recommend holding the rod at all times this allows you to check depth easily and for detecting takes. The beauty of this rig is that the bait follows the bottom, as you move over deeper water you pay out more line or for shallower water you shorten the line.

To check the lead is on the bottom occasionally lift the rod tip high enough to pull the lead up through the water then lower slowly keeping the line tight, watch for the line to slacken this indicates the lead has hit bottom, otherwise spill line until this occurs. Takes are felt by holding the line over the index finger with bail arm open, when a take is felt or anything else unusual happens spill line immediately, the bait is now stationary giving the pike time to take it, if you don't spill line you will pull the bait out of the pikes mouth.

The addition of an attractor blade, Colorado size 1, to the trace just above the top treble is an option we use to encourage the pike to hit the bait towards the head which increases the hook ups when the pike are taking short. Another thing we've found that works extremely well when the livebaits are not very active in cold water is to add a bait popper to the bottom treble of our trace, tie the popper to the eye of the treble with Fox riggin wire, the popper lifts the bait by the rear which it doesn't like much and promptly swims back down again resuming its resting position only to be lifted by the popper again, so the bait works harder attracting more hits, don't use too big a popper as this will tire the bait quickly you just want to knock it off balance.

The bullet rig
A great method in the spring, summer and autumn when the pike are more active. This rig is simplicity itself just an egg sinker/bullet weight fixed by silicone tubing to the swivel of your trace, lower the bait to the bottom then wind in 2-4 feet of line so the bait in well off the bottom, troll at faster speeds than other rigs this has the advantage of catching pike that are actively feeding, this method can safely be used above rocky reefs and snags, places where the bottom bouncer rig cannot be used.

Takes are very bold rod slammers!

Troll-a-noster rig
I use this rig where snags like sunken hedgerows and fences are present I cannot straighten my trebles on these snags as the hooks penetrate past the point, on wood or rocks the hooks do not penetrate past the point so its fairly easy to spring them open enough to retrieve my rigs.

The troll-a-noster is very easy to fish and the rod can be put in the rod rest with the reel in baitrunner mode. Set up a sunk float paternoster rig, use a large sunk float fixed to the top of Fox rotary paternoster up-trace with a 2oz bomb weight on a 3' x 6lb weak lead link, hook bait head first onto trace. Lower rig to the bottom and spill line as you motor away, pay out between 30/50 yards behind the boat.

Whatever the depth you start at doesn't matter because if you move into deeper water the rig follows the bottom down and comes closer to the boat whereas if you venture into shallower water the bait bumps up the shelf and fishes further back, if snags are present you know the bait is safely fishing above the bottom, the depth you bait fishes off the bottom is determined by the length of your lead link.

Fleger rig
This method was designed by James Gardner to induce takes from inactive pike that were either "off the feed" having feed recently or were ultra cautious due to angling pressure.

Tie a power gum stop knot at least 10' deeper than the maximum depth you're fishing, slide on a bead, then a small slim in-line sliding float, next a leger boom, attach a 1/2oz lead to the boom tied on with 6lb line as a weak link finally attach pike trace with bait popper tied to it [as bottom bouncer rig]. Lower the rig to the bottom keep spilling line until stop knot reaches float, spill more line maybe another 30 yards.

How it works
The float keeps your line on the surface because of the very shallow angle in the line from float to lead means that the lead trips over the bottom even though it's massively over depth occasionally the rig will jam in the bottom, as the line is drawn down the float is pushed towards the stop knot with the increasing line pressure the rig and bait is usually pulled clear of the bottom this sudden movement can induce a take, if the rig stopping was in fact a pike take then the slack in the line due to the over depth setting will give even ultra cautious fish time to take the bait before it becomes aware of any line tension.

Takes are usually indicated by the baitrunner giving line very slowly, wind down until everything is tight and pull into it, often it will be snagged but every so often the snag comes alive. Another advantage of this rig is that it fishes totally different water than your other bait due to the long distance it is set behind the boat, when changes of direction are made the bottom bouncer rod follows the boat movements closely where as the fleger rod takes a entirely different path. One word of caution the method should never be used where snags are likely to be encountered!

Fishing at Anchor
As mentioned we tend to fish at anchor when it's too windy to troll in a controlled manner or at the back end of the season when the pike are less active due to low water temperatures. Do not think this is a negative way of fishing, practiced with some thought you can search water at a variety of depths while staying in one position.

We position the boat across the wind, if its not too windy, we use two anchors one each end this give us both room to spread our rods out, the end rods are fished in rod rests angled at 45 degrees giving us that little bit extra spread on our baits. Our anchors are the metal folding variety attached to a couple of yards of chain, this pulls the anchor into the bottom, the chain is linked to the bottom of the anchor and the top loop is tied to the chain with "green garden twine", this acts as "the trip", if the anchor gets snagged the twine breaks and the anchor is pulled out backwards!

The methods we use are as follows. I will have a sunk float paternoster rig positioned on the "deep side" of the drop off, I will also have a second "visual" float on this rig, the sunk float ensures that the rig is held under tension whatever the depth, the visual float is there for bite detection, thanks go to Derek Macdonald for this tip.

My second rod will be a drifter which I will use to search the water, I will start with the bait fishing a few feet off the bottom and each drift will gradually increase depth until it drags bottom. When using the drifter in the summer and autumn I let the float run through at wind speed but as the water cools I'll slow the bait down by paying the line out under tension and occasionally stopping the float completely putting the rod in the rod rest with the reel in baitrunner mode.

My boat partner will float ledger dead bait positioned on the drop off while his other rod will be free roving live bait. With these different methods we can explore the area thoroughly.

The methods I've described in our opinion are most effective when using live baits but where rules do not allow their use dead baits can be fished effectively.

Barometric Pressure
Barometric pressure affects the weather and how pike feed or maybe the weather effects how pike feed? whatever you or I think the accepted rule in pike circles is that high pressure makes the pike more inclined to chase so active methods like trolling and float fished baits should be successful while low pressure heralds windy unsettled weather when static "legered" methods should be employed.

In our experience high pressure during the autumn and early winter [Nov-Dec] generally fits the accepted rule we have noticed that pike will at times during the day move up in the water and sometimes go into shallower water especially at the end of the day as dusk falls. In winter we expect the pike to be on the deck at first light but later in the morning they will often move up in the water as much as 10 feet off the bottom take notice of the depth the baitfish are holding at if you see the baitfish consistently at one depth make sure you position a bait at that depth, finally in late afternoon the pike will drop back down on the bottom again.

The best thing about "high pressure" is the fact that the pike are hunting and are easier to tempt with a moving bait. When fishing during a "high" float trolling scores well because you can follow the pike up and down through the waters layers. We've caught pike on baits fished two foot down over thirty foot; admittedly the bait had been reeled to the side of the boat whilst playing another fish!

Low pressure brings windy unsettled weather, a boat anglers worst conditions, it's always difficult mainly because boat control is so hard to maintain, the pike generally will be on the bottom and more importantly less inclined to chase, this is a time when the fledger rig can excel. Later in the winter after December, when the water temperature is at its lowest, the barometric pressure doesn't seem to have as much effect on the pikes feeding mood as much as the waters temperature. The fishing at this time of year is always hard the fact that the pike especially the big females seem to be conserving their energy as they prepare for the spawning time ahead.

Anchor up and fish a variety of live and dead baits on static rigs, float legered or paternostered, on the marginal shelf between deep water and any shallow bay that's stream feed, bays like this will eventually be the spawning sites in spring and the pike will be gathering in preparation for this event, it's the one time of year when the pikes desire to hunt and feed is not a priority.

Speed Control
I've covered the methods but for anyone boat fishing for the first time I can't impress upon you enough the importance of speed control while trolling. Always troll into the wind as this keeps speed to a minimum it also makes steering easier. If using an electric engine try to just creep the boat forward balancing the speed against the wind.

This is easy if you own a Minn-Kota which has superb speed adjustment, if not rowing is the other means of power, unfortunately petrol engines are too fast. In fact rowing can be highly successful as you can change speed and direction infinitely. Another useful ploy is to troll upwind then drift downwind using a drogue to control the speed. The drogue is positioned off the back of the boat so the rods fish in the same positions as trolling. Another advantage with droguing is the silent approach particularly useful when covering shallow water!

To conclude big waters hold big pike! To be successful on these waters will require you to learn many new skills, mastering a variety of methods including boat control and the ability to visualise the information the echo sounder provides you, the most important skill you will have to develop is the "mind set" that lets you tackle these vast waters will confidence and resolve, do not be put off if you don't succeed at first. Learn about pike, what makes them tick, how water temperature affects them and learn about the behaviour and movements of the most common bait fish.

I know these tactics work, they have worked for me and my friends, and they will work for you too! So give them a try and be lucky and safe, always wear a life jacket!

Andy Lush


I use only the best most reliable tackle I can lay my hands on, these waters give up their biggest fish so rarely that you cannot afford to skimp on anything. I can toughly recommend the following items.

Rods for Float Trolling, Fleger and Troll-a-noster.
E.T. Ultimate Pitmaster 12’ 3lb T.C. or Fox Xtreme 11’ 6” 2.75lb T.C. or Fox Xtreme HD 11’ 9” 3.25lb T.C.

Rods for Bottom Bouncing and Bullet Rig.
E.T. Boatman 10’ 6” 3lb T.C. or Fox Elite Boat 10' 3lb T.C.

Shimano Baitrunner BTR 4500B if you prefer a front drag or GTE 6000 if you prefer rear drag.

Berkley Big Game or Fox Soft Steel 15lb - 20lb mono, I prefer 30lb Berkley Fireline or 50lb Power Pro braided line.

E.T. 30lb 7 Strand, E.T. 35lb 49 Strand or Fox 30lb Easy Twist.

E.T. King Sharp size 4 & 6 and Fox Carbon trebles, which can straighten on snags!

Boat equipment
Tite-Lok boat rod rests, Wychwood Drogue.

Minn-Kota Maxxum 55T

Echo Sounders
Humminbird or Garmin.

Bait Care
Power Bubbles Bait Pump, E.T. Bait Tube.

Pike Care & Unhooking Equipment
E.T. Pike Tube and Jumbo Pike Mat, Lindy Glove, E.T. Forceps & Hook Cutters.

Other essentials
Fox System Drifter floats, Fox Inline Trolling Float & Egg Sinkers.