The sun was high and it was hot. It was skins, not shirts, weather. My brother and I were standing on the torn bench seats of Grandpa’s boat hurling steel for northern pike.
With lightweight spinning gear, we drew back and unleashed wide-framed, 1-ounce and bigger spoons. And with me in the stern, I remember reaching back for a world-record cast and instead slapping the unforgiving lure square between my kin’s shoulder blades. Ouch. It left a mark – the perfect outline of an Eppinger Daredevle – and invoked a string of expletives. Best I can recall, that’s the last spoon I ever used for pike.
In reality, the back-spanking incident didn’t end my affair with spoons. Rather, it was trial and error, with alternative means and exposure to a marketplace flooded with new lures that shifted spoons to the backburners. I progressed. But suffice to say, spoons continue to draw ire from pike and should be part of every battery, but not limited to just spoons.
In the quest for knowledge of optional, maybe unusual, presentations for pike, who better to talk to than a hardened bass angler? After all, bassers catch more pike than pike anglers catch pike, albeit inadvertently. Pro-angler Karl Kleman is a different cat, though. Unless combating for slot fish in a bass tournament, he’s all about diversity. Kleman takes what the lake gives, and oftentimes that means northerns.
Kleman’s confrontation with pike begins early in the spring, just after ice-out. On designated lakes and rivers in some regions, pike season is continuous, which bodes well for engaging pre-spawn and subsequent post-spawn fish. Kleman takes advantage of these provisions, but continues his mission after the regular season opener.
As soon as the final chunk of ice leaves the bays, Kleman arrives. He slinks into both proven and probable bays. To make the grade, Kleman’s bays must be large, fairly flat and shallow, weeded and fed by a creek or river. These warm the fastest, carry the most food and double as spawning grounds.
Within such bays, he concentrates on individual features. The tributary area is the first to be scrutinized. Pike spawn there, and so do baitfish, namely suckers and chubs. Weeded humps also hold fish, especially if laden with coontail. And far be it from Kleman to pass on a point, as long as vegetation is present.
So on to the unorthodox part. This bass hound doesn’t own a single spoon aside from ice-fishing varieties. Kleman fancies plastic, actually giant tubes, 6- and 8-inch flipping tubes.
Elastic and erratic, tubes look and play like aquatic edibles. And unlike spoons and spinnerbaits, tubes can be fished painstakingly slow, which is fundamental for dealing with springtime lethargy. Kleman fishes Magnum Flipping Tubes and Strike King’s Pro-Model Flip-N-Tube. As for color, white is a bonafide pike favorite, as is black with a blue tail, says Kleman. He rigs them weedless on either 4/0 or 5/0 Mustad Ultra Point tube hooks. No additional weight either, because the hook and tube unite to offer the ideal mass for operating in less than 6 feet of water. Yes, as shallow as it sounds, that’s where pike cavort from ice-out until early to middle May, sometimes later.
Kleman hurls and maneuvers those tubes as if he were stalking bass. The casts are long and retrieves sluggish. Once the bait splashes down, he pauses and lets it sink a few feet – halfway down – and than reels up to tighten the line. The action he imparts is a duet of twitches and swims. He snaps the tube, which causes it to dart erratically. Tubes never zoom in the same direction or distance twice in a row. Between snaps he maintains tautness and a slow swim.
Strikes can be sudden and violent, but just as often ‘gators swing and miss. They’re notorious for rolling on baits, so Kleman advises that when fish roil or follow to keep the tube in the water. Most folks want to crank it in and survey the damage – slash marks. Instead, as Kleman advocates, drop back on a sniffer by letting the tube freefall. Usually, they’ll motor-up and snatch the plummeting tube.
Tubing is best performed with baitcasting gear and “superline.” Kleman wields a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-action rod. His line of choice is 30-pound PowerPro.
Pro-angler Scott Bonnema, another bass purist, occasionally strays from the straight and narrow to hassle pike. And he, too, falls back on soft plastics, but opts for swimming baits rather than tubes. Bonnema’s forecasted pike lairs resemble Kleman’s as well, keying on shallow bays, tributaries and vegetation.
Soft plastic “swims” are designed with minnows in mind, both in motion and appearance. For instance, Storm’s WildEye Rippin’ Shad and WildEye Swim Bait Shad impersonate baitfish with amazing accuracy, so too does Northland Tackle’s Mimic Minnow, which Bonnema also employs. All three varieties come out of the box with factory-matched hooks and ready to fight.
Rigged weightless and with a 3-foot leader of 12-pound fluorocarbon line, Bonnema gives the bait a ride. The soon-to-be walloped-plastic touches the water and is allowed to sink a spell. The retrieve is initiated with a few twitches, not snaps, to which Bonnema follows up with a straight swim, and then a respite, allowing the bait to settle once more. Throughout, he incessantly monitors for tics or redirects in the line, because that not all strikes are felt.
I’m sure by now you’re begging for references to a protective steel leader. Well, bear in mind that these are bass guys. They know how to put the screws to fish quickly and savagely, gambling that even a mongo pike isn’t going to get over the top of their lure. Also consider that Kleman uses a strong and abrasion-resistant superline. And with Bonnema’s program, if you quite frankly fear the fury of teeth, upgrade to 14- or 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
Now, not all answers are soft. I, for one, open hard and finish soft, opting for stickbaits – long, slender, shallow-running crankbaits. They too look and behave like minnows and can be used at slow speeds.
The shelves at sporting goods stores are packed with stickbaits, but that doesn’t mean all are created equal. For pike, it’s tough to outdo a Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue, the 4 1/2-incher in sunburst or tiger minnow. They roll and wobble just right while emitting a tantalizing clatter. Storm’s 4 1/2-inch ThunderStick also gets high marks.
Stickbaits present other upsides. They don more hooks – prickly trebles – than a tube or swim bait. Stickbaits also hold up better. Plastics get sliced and diced, necessitating occasional re
placement and frequent readjustments.
In the spring, long casts and leisurely-uninterrupted retrieves do the deed, although the sporadic twitch doesn’t hurt. On the cast, the aforementioned stickbaits will run right where you want them. Long-line trolling is another practical tactic, where legal. With 50 to 80 feet of line spanning behind the boat, engage the motor – electric or gas-powered – and crawl around at a reserved pace. Drag the bait past tributaries, around points and across weedflats. There’s no better course for exposing pike.
All right, so we’ve licked springtime and haven’t needed to chuck a spoon or stare at a bobber. Well, not quite yet. Kleman says that once the sun reaches its apex during vernal equinox that spinnerbaits take the field. It’s high skies and hairpins, or so to speak.
Again, fishing the same spots, Kleman throws 3/8- to 1/2-ounce bass-styled spinnerbaits. He leans toward white and chartreuse body patterns and certifies that pike are obsessed with the combination of a copper Colorado blade with silver willow.
Spinnerbaits kick tail in autumn as well. In fact, Kleman recounts a particular outing from last fall.
“It was late September and I was throwing spinnerbaits for largemouths on a lake,” said Kleman. “The lake is loaded with both bass and pike, so it’s no bombshell when you hookup with teeth. The wind was blasting a shallow but large shoreline point, one that had patches of grass – still green – over sand. The perfect place for predators and apparently baitfish, because I did catch a number of perch, which I imagine the bass and pike were feeding on.
“In a three-hour period of chucking a Northland Reed-Runner Spinnerbait, the tandem one, I smoked over 40 pike that ranged from 2 to 12 pounds, not to mention a couple dozen nice bass,” continued Kleman. “And everything hit in only 2 to 4 feet of water.”
It was the wind. It was the baitfish. It was autumn. And it was the presence of a substantial and glitzy lure amidst a feeding frenzy.
“Something else I did that day and do quite often to convert follows and whiffs into catches is stop reeling when I see a boil or the dark silhouette of a pike,” continued Kleman. “Some guys preach to speed up the retrieve, some say to maintain constant speed, but I have better results by letting the bait helicopter down. The blades are still working for you, and pike really get turned on by the change in action.”
Ditching autumn and migrating back to summer, the conditions call for deeper and different presentations. For the most part, pike have abandoned the bays, aside from the deeper lake-like sorts. As well, there will always be a reserve of scrawny hammerhandles in the warm weeds. But these aren’t what we savor.
The bigger adult fish re-establish in the main lake – along deep weedlines, around humps and bars, and off amply structured points. Additionally, a contingent of pike elect to maneuver in no-man’s-land, suspending and inflicting misery on drifting baitfish.
Kleman goes to town on deep weedlines, viewing said vegetation as homestead to myriad game-fish species, including bass, pike, walleyes and muskies. And in true bucketmouth form, he ties on a bass jig – jig-and-pig – to mine the edge. And although it might not say so on the packaging, pike appreciate the weedless and spidery jigs, too.
Extended and bland sweeps of weeds will hold fish, but Kleman isn’t wasting time with the basics. He focuses on fingers and hooks that protrude from the primary weed edge, and then proceeds to scour the inside and outside turns, as well as the tip. Historically, coontail and milfoil yield the most and biggest pike, because they tend to grow deeper, which is crucial as summer’s swelter boils the water.
With 30-pound-test braided line, Kleman works the jig-and-pig not unlike he were angling exclusively for largemouth bass, pitching it out and hopping it back. Most impacts occur right as the bait leaves the bottom. And they hit with little hesitation, so be prepared.
As for colors, black and blue take a beating because they work in virtually every set of circumstances. But with solely pike on the brain, a white jig with white or chartreuse/green grub body or pig is just what the ‘gator ordered.
From a jig-and-pig to a jig-worm. In similar conditions but where the weeds are thinner, Kleman tosses a jig-worm. A big jig-worm, too, 8-inchers in brash colors like white, chartreuse or anything that’s overloaded with glitter.
Typically, the best spots for jig-worming are off sandy breaks on shoreline points. Essentially, any hard and fast shoreline break caters to the jig-worm and its exposed hook, because more than likely there won’t be a forest of foliage to contend with.
John Peterson, a pro walleye angler, isn’t foreign to jigs and pike either. When not chasing walleyes, Peterson searches for pike with heavy bucktail jigs, Northland Bionic Bucktail Jigs specifically. Outsized and colorful bucktail jigs are ideal for dancing along deep weedlines and swimming across vegetated flats. Peterson fastens his with either a large soft plastic or a small to medium sucker minnow. Swim it. Hop it. Jerk it. It’s tough to go wrong with a bucktail jig. Spectacularly underutilized on giant pike, large meat-bearing bucktails might be the single greatest tool for summoning summertime pike. This garish tribute is based largely on the lure’s versatility.
With big jigs – whether fished with spinning or baitcasting equipment – it’s prudent to incorporate a steel leader, 12 inches being plenty. Straight wire or seven-strand suffices, and the accompanying swivel will help reduce line twist, which can be problematic while jigging.
Surprisingly, another pattern that explodes in the summer takes place in the shallow greenery. Pike find oxygen, coolness, shade, forage and a place to loiter inside standing rows of cabbage and deeper patches of hardstem bulrushes.
During July and August, guide Dick “Griz” Gryzwinski targets trophy pike in the weeds. In particular, he fishes 9 to 12 foot deep tracts of cabbage. And because the most pike-plagued runs are so long, he likes trolling crankbaits. He prefers a 3-inch No. 2 shad-patterned Rattlin’ Rapala.
Gryzwinski trolls at 3 or 4 miles per hour. He courses along the weedline and sporadically runs right through the greens. Strikes are violent and fish set themselves, so long as your rod and line both flex. Gryzwinski uses a medium-action St. Croix baitcasting rod and 14-pound Berkley XT with a steel leader.
Once a pocket of fish is uncovered or cranking simply fails, Gryzwinski exchanges his Rapalas for real suckers and begins slip-bobber fishing. He nose-hooks 6- to 8-inch suckers and slow-trolls and drifts them beneath a Little Joe Pole Float, a towering and visible bobber indeed.
Another steadfast and successful guide, Brian Brosdahl, prefers to smother emergent weeds. He finds colossal pike nestled amongst deeper
stands, ones in 4 to 7 feet of water. A number of baits will extract pike from such dense cover, but none better than a magnum-sized spinnerbait or inline bucktail, especially models with single hooks. Multiple trebles are sure to get snagged. Brosdahl fishes the Northland Bionic Bucktail Spinnerbait, a dual-bladed 1-ounce beast, as well as the Eagletail and new Bionic Bucktail Spinner.
The imprint of the spoon finally faded from my brother’s back, and fortunately the treble never penetrated a patch of flesh. But as stated, that was my last recallable spoon-casting trip on the open water. Since then, I’ve discovered a whole host of alternative and more productive baits and means to procure pike. Hopefully you will, too.