Photo courtesy of Karl Palmer
March is a funny month on the northern plains: You want to get outside and do something — you just don’t know what. The month is somewhat limited in terms of its offerings in the great outdoors, yet it affords most of us the year’s first glimpse of open water.
Fishing opportunities are certainly limited, and when it comes to the Top 10 list, March hardly registers — unless that is, you’re a trophy pike angler.
For decades, the last week of safe ice and the first few weeks following ice-out have been synonymous with the hunt for giant pike along South Dakota’s Missouri River system. A trophy pike (generally considered to be one 20 pounds or larger) is a fish of a lifetime for most anglers — and there’s no better time than right now to try tangling with one of these bruisers.
According to John Lott, fisheries biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, many of the larger lakes and reservoirs in the state can produce trophy-class pike. “We are blessed with some truly fantastic pike fisheries, especially along the river system and a host of lakes in the northeast part of the state,” noted Lott. “But it takes more than just luck to produce a pike around that 30-pound plateau and beyond.”
Lott listed several factors necessary for a pike to grow beyond trophy dimensions. They include age, a year-round food source, and coldwater habitat. While many fisheries in the state can supply protection and forage, they do not have the final factor — lacking true depths and the coldwater habitat that is crucial to growing giant pike.
“Warm water is tough on older fish and the stress takes its toll,” Lott explained. “Big pike need to be able to retreat from the heat of summer where they can relax and feed without pressure from prospecting anglers.”
Basically, big pike need Lake Oahe, the crown jewel of South Dakota’s pike fishing. It’s established itself as one of the nation’s premier lakes when it comes to taking trophy pike. The lake produces more trophy-class pike than all other fisheries in the state combined. And when it comes to hosting those true giants in the 30-pound-plus range, the big reservoir virtually stands alone. Even the other Missouri river reservoirs can’t compete with the big lake when it comes to giant pike, basically because they lack the coldwater habitat that the massive depths of Oahe provide.
“Ice-out is undoubtedly the best time of year to catch one of these trophies,” noted Lott. “Big pike regularly cruise the shallows and back bays this time of year looking for warm water to feed and spawn in. They are pretty vulnerable this time of year and there will be plenty of big pike taken over the next few weeks.”
Veteran pike angler Karl Palmer, who guides out of the Sunset Lodge near Pierre, agreed. “We had a great bite last year and the system produced some real heavyweights,” he offered. “There are good numbers of big fish in Oahe, and everything looks good for this year as well. We saw solid numbers of fish in the 22-to-26-pound range — and those are trophy fish in anyone’s book.”
Palmer looks at the first week after ice-out as the time of year to catch the biggest pike. “The biggest fish of the year always come the first few days after ice-out,” he said. “Weather is the key to the whole game. If you can put three or four days of bluebird weather together, the bite gets pretty good. Some years that’s not easy to do, but when the right conditions occur, get ready.”
Ice-out on Oahe depends entirely on the wind and weather, but generally occurs during the last week of March or first part of April. Last year, rumors of open water on the lower reaches of Oahe were a little deceiving, as the bays always put on a good layer of ice and only the channel area remained open at times.
Palmer prefers to hit the lake on a warm, sunny day with little wind. Of course, those days are rare at this time of year, which can make planning a trip tough. “I fish when I can,” he stated. “But I love those first nice days after ice-out. I set up from dawn to dusk, but my best action is from 10 in the morning to about 3 in the afternoon.”
Spring pike fishing is very relaxing. There are no big secrets to catching them — just put in the time and have patience. Palmer prefers the biggest smelt he can find on a quick-strike rig. “I let the weight of the smelt take the bait down,” he offered, “and I rebait and recast every hour. This is also the one time of year when I am a firm believer in scent. These fish are roaming around looking for an easy meal, and that is just what I want to offer them.
Guide Karl Palmer doesn’t pull up into just any bay — he spends hours boating and graphing before he finds what he’s looking for, and the extra effort pays off in spades when it comes time to fish. But he always cautions anglers that fishing for big pike is still a tough bite.
“I think a good muskie or pike scent helps them find the bait; it certainly doesn’t hurt. I like to place my bait in the channel where it approaches a shallow shelf. Pike use these channels like roads, and so you want to put your baits on and along the channel.”
At Oahe, Palmer pointed out, low-water conditions actually make the fishing easier. “The bays are more defined now,” he said, “and a lot of unproductive water can be eliminated. There are a million bays on the lake, but they are not created equal. I look for a bay that has a good channel and easy access to deep water.
“The perfect bay is next to deep water with a 12- to 16-foot channel leading onto a shallow shelf. When I find a good bay that produces, I stick with it and let the fish come to me. These fish stage in deep water — and when the dinner bell rings, you had better be ready.”
Because of the sport’s laid-back simplicity, spring pike fishing gains in popularity every year. “It gets busy on the weekends and some of the accessible bays get a little crowded,” said Palmer. “I like to have several bays scoped out that have all the right depth conditions, then beach the boat and cast from shore. From there on it is a waiting game.”
Palmer doesn’t pull up into just any bay — he spends hours boating and graphing before he finds what he’s looking for, and the extra effort pays off in spades when it comes time to fish. But he always cautions anglers that fishing
for big pike is still a tough bite. “You are fishing for a fish of a lifetime and they seldom come easy,” he observed. “It can take a few hours to get a bite, or it can take a few days. It’s a big waiting game, but when you hook up with a fish of this caliber, all of the waiting is forgotten and it is worth every minute.”
The SDDGFP’s John Lott agreed. “The thrill of catching a 20-pound pike gets the attention of every angler in the state,” he said, “but not everyone who fishes the lake is going to go home with one; the odds are definitely in the fish’s favor. But set the hook into one of these brutes, and you’re hooked for life.”
Lott also remarked that while a good selection of larger pike is in the system, most of these fish are from the successful spawns of the mid-1990s and the system will need to refill to replenish the ranks.
Not an angler on the system isn’t 100 percent sure that 40-pound pike cruise Oahe’s shallows this month. According to Lott, plenty of forage is present in the lake, and a pike of that level is not out of the question.
Palmer’s convinced, and he went out on a limb to say even more: “This is the year! If we get a few consecutive days of quality weather immediately after ice-out, I think we will see the state record broken.”
Spring in South Dakota means trophy pike fishing at its best, and right now’s the time to get in on the excitement. Fishing trophy pike can test your patience, but hook one of the bruisers and you’ll see why a giant pike is truly a fish of a lifetime.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For information about trophy pike fishing with Karl Palmer, phone him at (605) 223-3186 or go online to DakotaWalleye.com