I’ve heard the term “versatility” associated with legendary running backs the likes of the Dallas Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings. Swiss Army Knives are infinitely versatile, too. Same goes for WD-40 and peanut butter. But it wasn’t until a recent discourse with Freshwater Fishing Hall of Famer Tom Neustrom that I’d considered versatility in relation to pike spawning.
Photo by BLP Studio.
Neustrom was talking about northern pike — big, beautiful, egg-swollen females with a need to breed and an open mind as to where to drop off the kids. Such versatility, said Neustrom, bodes well for population proliferation. Pike aren’t overly selective about breeding habitat, which equates to fewer “bad years” in terms of reproduction.
Identifying pike spawning grounds directly affects an angler’s prospects in the early spring. “Shallow water is the no-brainer, but just how shallow is sometimes a surprise to some,” Neustrom explained. “Literally, pike will spawn in as little as a foot of water, so shallow you can see their backs in the water.
“Next, you need a soft, dark bottom. It can be muck or mud, even old dead weeds lying on the bottom. Just a nice, soft place where eggs are camouflaged against the bottom.”
The best areas are sheltered from wind and waves. Such locations are common in the shallow back bays of many natural lakes. Shelter begets warmth, and that drives up the value of breeding property. “Add sun to an area that’s blocked from the wind and it warms even faster,” Neustrom said. “Pike choose those places first.”
His final but perhaps most noteworthy factor is current. Pike are drawn to it. Even a spit of a creek has merit, especially if it conspires with yesterday’s weeds and a spongy lake floor within a shallow bay.
What all of this means to the angler is that pike spawn in amazingly shallow water. Neustrom notes that pike will hunker down for a while afterward and are readily available to catch.
“The recuperation period is short, only a day or two,” he said, citing the time it takes a pike to physically recover from the rigors of mating. “They stick nearby, too. Depending on the conditions, that can mean up to a month.”
Those conditions, he said, include gradually warming water temperatures, availability of food, and light — or at least moderate — fishing pressure. Fishing pressure moves fish around faster than you’d think.
The vast majority of anglers target pike on natural lakes and large river systems, so let’s begin there. Lake or river, Neustrom sets in motion an “inside-out” system. He begins searching in the hyper-shallows and moves deeper as required, tackling pike in the first of what will develop into a three-step progression.
“I get after them along the bank in 1 to 4 feet of water — same depths they spawned in,” said Neustrom. He concentrates on the largest beds of emergent vegetation, such as hardstem bulrushes, and pays particular attention to beds in the backs of bays or near river mouths. Once located, he backs off and starts hurling his foolproof spinnerbait tipped with a live sucker minnow. The spinnerbait symbolizes life. The sucker is life. The combination is sure-fire in the spring.
Neustrom’s preferred spinnerbait, a Reed-Runner from Northland Fishing Tackle, features a single No. 3 or No. 4 gold Colorado blade and skirts showing orange and yellow tones.
“Smaller spinnerbaits are easier to run high off the bottom and keep out of the weeds,” he said. “You can fish it slower, too, which is smart when the water is so cold.”
Essentially, his spinnerbait is deployed to find fish. Active fish are quick to take it. The plunk of a spinnerbait can startle fish, though, making it “feel like the bottom is coming up.” Assuming hesitancy in response to the spinnerbait, Neustrom calls an audible and switches to soft plastics.
Popularized by the bass-fishing crowd, soft-plastic jerkbaits are welcomed with open jaws by pike and muskies. Neustrom operates with a 5-inch Northland Jerk Shad in Silver Shiner. For a completely natural performance, he rigs it weightless with a 3/0 to 5/0 VMC XL Wide Gap Worm Hook, its tip barely buried to avoid the weeds, yet ready for a quick set.
He pitches it out and lets the jerkbait drop seductively slow. Despite the lure’s namesake, his ensuing motions aren’t jerky, but rather smooth left and right upward pulls with the rod kept low to the water. If the spot is immaculate in appearance or a fish has been spied, he’ll let the bait suffer motionless for more than a minute. Sometimes, the familiar shape proves irresistible to even a lethargic pike.
If the spinnerbait and jerkbaits don’t cause the weeds to part in a wake, Neustrom drops the Minn-Kota and slips deeper. In most cases, he repositions over 8 to 12 feet of water — the first break — and casts up shallower with a size 12 Rapala Husky Jerk. The pike have pushed deeper in pursuit of baitfish. Properly played, Neustrom’s Husky Jerk is a dead ringer for fish food.
The neutrally buoyant bait runs approximately 5 feet deep, and when paused, causes that same itchy trigger finger reaction.
By order of preference, his top patterns are Clown and Blue Silver. According to Neustrom, Clown does it because of its battered blood red head, Blue Silver by its ability to represent everything from a cisco to a lake sucker.
The same soft jerkbait he stroked in the shallows is an option out deeper as well. To participate, however, it needs to sink into the strike zone. So Neustrom adds weight. “The simplest way is using a weighted hook, like a Northland Weighted Lip-Stick Worm Hook. You can also doctor a regular hook by pinching split shot on the shank. Make sure you hide the split shot inside the belly of the bait to maintain the natural look, though.”
There’ll be no throwing in the towel today. If the shoreline shallows and first break seem uninhabited, Neustrom’s Plan C involves heading out to a secondary shelf in 15 to 25 feet of water. Here, he expects pike to be supervising the bottom few feet.
Neustrom fixes up a live bait bottom rig to drill down to the fish. It’s the most natural way to join the school of baitfish and offer pike an ea
sy, no-chasing-required meal. His bait of choice is a manageably sized 3- to 4-inch sucker minnow or chub, nothing massive.
The hook greets a 6- to 8-foot leader line composed of 14-pound Suffix Fluorocarbon Invisiline. The long leash gives the minnow freedom of motion. A simple 1/4- to 3/8-ounce egg sinker keeps the minnow tethered to the bottom. The entire apparatus is back-trolled boringly slow.
You know what — breeding pike don’t have the market cornered on versatility. Same goes for Emmitt, Adrian, WD-40, Swiss Army Knives and peanut butter. I’m adding Neustrom to the list.