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Land even large pike safely using your hands and the gill-to-jaw-grip
When a big pike or muskie strikes and sticks to your hook, you know you are in for a great experience. These fish are fierce and strong, attack like rockets and almost always put up a good fight.
But once you see that broad neck and those smacking jaws in the surface you may start to wonder: "Why did I do this?"
And sure it can be quite a challenge to get your hands close to the toothy mouth of these often very scary predators. Pike's mouths are made to hold onto anything that gets in there, and the pike manages to do that by having a lot of teeth. A lot!
A mouth from hell
As you can see on the pictures next to this chapter, a pike indeed does have a lot of teeth. This larger-than-life model of a pike head is located on a Danish museum for fresh water biology, and it very clearly illustrates how the pike has managed to grow teeth almost everywhere.
The jaws have teeth of course. Large ones on the side, smaller ones on the front "lips". The side ones are the largest and sharpest of the lot, and the ones, which can cut even a steel or brass wire leader. A monofilament leader has little chance if trapped over these teeth, which are sharp as razor blades
...it can be quite a challenge to get your hands close to the toothy mouth of these often very scary predators
And the tongue has teeth. Most fish have a rough tongue, but on pike they are like cutters on a shredder: numerous, sharp and all pointed in the same direction: backwards.
Same thing in the roof of he mouth, although the teeth up there are quite a bit larger than the tongue ones. And to make bad worse Mother Nature has also equipped the pike with teeth on the gill rakes, all pointed in towards the mouth.
If you combine all these teeth with the size and strength of the pike's mouth and its blazing speed, you have a near perfect fish trap. Once in there, a small fish has nary a chance of escaping. The teeth will easily penetrate any scales or tough skin and will very efficiently hold the fish and transport it towards its destiny: becoming pike food.
Now, if your hand is trapped in there, it's not likely that you become pike food. You will most likely want to take your hand out. But in doing so, you will inevitably get caught on the teeth and since they both cut and point in the opposite direction of the hand movement, blood will run!
As you have probably guessed already, there's no lipping of pike!
Back to the subject at hand: avoiding this blood bath and making sure that you can land, dehook and release the pike with all fingers intact.
The trick is to get your fingers inside the gill slit from under the pike's mouth and letting them slide up into the triangle between the sides of the lower jaw under the tongue. This area is totally devoid of teeth and there are no teeth on the parts your fingers pass on the way.
If the pike is pointing right you use the right hand and vice versa.
Let your fingertips slip under the gill lid as far towards the front of the fish as possible. It is essential that you only get the fingertips inside. You don't want to get your fingers in contact with teeth or the gills themselves. And use all four fingers, particularly on larger fish.
The grip is very sure. You can easily hold even big pike with one hand and should the fish start moving - which it only rarely does when it hangs like this - you can control it with little effort. Just relax and let the fish wiggle. Without water as a counterforce it has little strength.
No harm done
It seems that the pike can be held like this without suffering any harm at all.
The lower jaw is rock solid, and very firmly attached to the skull. And the jaw and neck muscles of a pike seem to be strong enough to hold the whole body weight.
No gaffs, no grips
I have seen pike landed using large Boca grips, which of course can be an alternative. But honesty: I think the gill-to-jaw-grip is safer and better - and quite a lot less expensive! I have also seen gaffs used, but even though a gaff in theory can enter where your fingers would and hold the fish much like you would with your fingers. But if the gaff has a sharp point, which most gaffs have, there is a very present danger of harming the fish (or yourself) in the process. If you use a gaff for the purpose, you could at least file down the point or mount some ball or a similar object over the tip.
I do not urge you to hold the fish like this for too long, but I'm sure that the short time it takes to lift and unhook a fish before release has no influence at all on the fish. It is under all circumstances better than having the pike flopping around in the bottom of a boat or on a sandy bank with the risk of all kinds of harm - both to the fish and you.
Some pike anglers argue that lifting the pike out of the water in the jaw alone can severely damage and dislocate the jaw. I have personally never seen this happen, but save yourself the possible experience, and always support the fish with both hands when lifting them fully out of the water.
Should you want to handle, measure or photograph the fish, just keep your hand in the jaw and lift it by the tail or by gently supporting the belly of the fish. This is also a good grip for a safe release.
Pike are extremely robust fish, and unlike most salmonids they seem to take little notice of not being able to breathe. Again I do not endorse holding the fish out of water for minutes on end, but compared to trout and salmon, pike are able to withstand quite some time out of water and still be able to swim right off as soon as they hit water again.
Difficult on smaller fish
The pike grip only has one disadvantage: it's not that easy to perform on smaller fish. And small pike are in the 1-4 lbs. range or between ½ and 2 kilos.
The reason for this is that even though you only slide your fingertips inside the gill lids, you risk touching gills, gill rakes or teeth.
Since you are dealing with smaller fish, the alternative can be a gentle grip over the neck or simply just supporting the fish under the belly.
To safely unhook a pike you want tools! A large and really long artery clamp style set of pliers are good, but long nosed traditional pliers will do fine too.
I have tried the Ketchum Release style tools on pike, but honestly: I prefer something more sturdy.
Many sources refer to this grip as the Leech Lake Lip Lock, which may very well be its name even though the grip is not around the lip, but around the jaw.