by Noel Vick
Northern pike aren’t glamorous, but neither are their terrestrial stalkers.
The typical pike angler is best associated with pickling, slime and that horrid sun-baked stench that never leaves a boat’s upholstery. He’s content with a limit of 2- and 3-pounders, so long as there’s a sharp knife back at camp for Y-boning.
There’s also a smattering of anglers who take pride in catching and releasing mammoth pike, but they’re a secretive and mysterious lot. Lately, it seems that the best pike information rains down from “closet” pike aficionados, guys who mask their backdoor pike addiction with more socially acceptable species like bass, walleyes and, yes, muskies. Rarely do they talk pike, but when cornered – and if nobody else is listening – they fall off the wagon into a bender of pike data. I nod and take notes, feeling somewhat guilty for enabling them, but continue gathering anyway.
Springtime is pike time and that’s a good place to begin. How early? Well, that sort of depends on your geographic placement, because in areas with continuous seasons, open-water pike fishing commences the day the ice goes out.
This pre-spawn period is coveted. Muscled but undersized males travel with swollen females. Together, they enter sacred breeding grounds to propagate. Really big fish are exposed, cruising ankle- and knee-deep shallows. The submarine backs of 35- to 45-inch gals occasionally break the surface. Visually, mature pike appear as darkened logs that mystically glide through the shallows.
Food runs and spawning runs often share common terrain. Swampy fields of standing vegetation that seem suited for dabbling ducks rank high, as do shallow, weeded bays and tributaries leading to said places. Bulrushes are good, as are cattails and rice paddies. No creek is too small or bottom too silted. In the spring, I’ve seen huge pike travel streams that could be stepped across. Creeks known for their sucker runs are doubly attractive. But remember, once procreation begins, feeding ebbs, so play your hand accordingly.
Back to my hidden-obsession theory.
Professional Walleye Trail angler and self-proclaimed river rat Tommy Skarlis has a surreptitious affinity for pike, especially spring ‘gators.
“First and foremost, rivers are meant for walleyes and saugers, but next in line come pike, and maybe catfish,” says Skarlis. “Pike provide backup when the walleye action slows. A lot of times we’ll fish walleyes in the morning and evening, and switch to pike in the middle of the day. That warm afternoon sun really riles ‘em up.”
On rivers and reservoirs where pike season is continuous, Skarlis scans for pre-spawn fish off steep rock breaks and below dams. Soon afterward, usually in late March and April, those fish move shallower to feed and later reproduce. The breeding process occurs in backwaters off the main channel, as well as upstream on feeder creeks into sundry backwaters and sloughs.
Dick “Griz” Gryzwinski, a renowned walleye expert, also sidetracks occasionally and hunts big pike. And like Skarlis he begins the season on rivers, usually major river systems.
“Where legal, catching pre-spawn pike is all about timing,” Griz asserts. “In the northern states, pike usually spawn around the middle of April, and that week or two before spawn can be excellent. But during and right after spawn, the fishing’s tough.”
For the rest of us who don’t have an uninterrupted pike season, spring piking comes later with statewide openers. But even then, rivers continue to produce. Skarlis stays with his backwater theme, concentrating on connector areas to the main channel. Pike fancy the flexibility of resting in warming current-free water and snatching innocent prey at the current break. His favorite backwaters also feature new weed growth (submerged) and stumps, particularly timbered points.
In the spring, Skarlis likes to camp at the entrance of a likely backwater and drag a float and minnow around – not anchoring, but slow-trolling. He rigs a large Thill Center Slider float with a good-sized hook, maybe a 3/0 or 4/0 wide-gapped live-bait hook – matching hook size to bait – and sticks the hook point into a live sucker or dead smelt. Skarlis experiments with both live and dead bait, running live suckers about halfway down, because pike will rise great distances to hit a struggling minnow. Dead bait is better fixed close to the bottom, where dead creatures often settle naturally.
Backwaters are best attacked with artificials. Casting is effective, so is trolling where legal and snags aren’t prevalent. If the water is sufficiently clear, Skarlis likes to sight-fish backwater pike. He sneakily motors around wooded and vegetated stretches, peering for cruisers. Once he sights some, Skarlis pitches big soft jerkbaits in front of them. The erratic gliding action of squishy baitfish-looking soft jerkbaits maddens even neutral and non-aggressive pike. He varies the speed of the retrieve and incorporates slides, pauses and twitches. Rigged weightless, oversized soft-plastic tubes also taunt and tease pike. Skarlis fishes a 6- or 8-inch Lindy Tiger Tube. Oversized plastics yield a large but slow-moving target, making them ideal for sight-oriented feeders like pike.
Greater river systems are undoubtedly some of North America’s finest pike rookeries. They offer opulent forage bases, which generally include nutrient-packed suckers, shad, sheepshead and sometimes whitefish. Major rivers invariably feature extensive backwaters that bloat during the spring thaw, creating all sorts of feeding and breeding habitat. And their sheer size and wealth of structure also factor into why rivers nurture such large pike.
Enough about rivers. Effectively, the vast majority of spring pike fishing occurs on lakes, but not just any old body of water will do. Pick big ones, something in the thousands of acres, because they simply hold more and bigger fish. Check Department of Natural Resources data and search for lakes containing baitfish like ciscoes, smelt, suckers, whitefish and even jumbo perch. That same spreadsheet of data should also reveal information about the pike population. Pay particular attention to creel surveys (angler catches), because net samples aren’t always fair indicators of average pike size – big pike often elude traps and meshing. Information from area bait shops and resorts can also be instructive.
Spring piking on lakes – like spring piking on rivers – is about warm and shallow spaces with an abundance of eats. Shallow bays are tailor-made. First, they provide the egg-laying environment that attracts pike from far
and wide. Second, said bays host sufficient rations, namely panfish. Bluegills and crappies also invade shallow soft-bottomed bays, but to their dismay, hostile pike are there to greet them. Remember this: Where there are crappies, so will there be pike – spring, summer, winter and fall. Call it the crappie connection.
Not all bays are created equal either. Super-shallow ones – those not dipping past, say, 4 to 6 feet – provide supreme breeding habitat, but a short-lived bite, as choking weeds invade and water temperatures escalate into uncomfortable zones. These are excellent for pre-spawn fishing, and during cool and high-water springs when weeds remain manageable through May and into June. Hyper shallows also rejuvenate in the fall, after heavy greenery collapses and temperatures become comfortable once more. Visit them again at first ice with tip-ups and a bucket of suckers.
Overall, multi-dimensional bays are preferred to slough-like coves. I look for ones featuring good depth, 10 feet or more, and abundant features like humps, points, weedlines and inlets. They harbor more pike, and fish linger there longer, not being forced out by early-summer heat and subsequent lack of oxygen and forage. Many are lakes unto themselves, sporting deep flats and offshore bars. In lake-like bays, pike spawn in the shallows, recuperate and then gradually move to the bays’ deeper areas, notably weedlines.
A mention of inlets gets me thinking about the relationship between pike and tributaries. In a lake setting, areas with current rate above all others. This notion is further realized in the spring because current invites pike to feed and spawn. Spring thaw and accompanying rains nourish creeks and rivers, and eventually it all ends up in our lakes. The warmed and fertile water establishes groundwork for an entire food chain that concludes with top-line predators, like pike. Even the conspicuous seepage of water through a bog and cattails constitutes an inlet because, again, the warmth and richness spur a chain reaction of foraging.
Decades of fishing and thousands of pike later, Griz has the spring pike binge narrowed down to 6, 7 and 8 feet of water. Griz gets duly jazzed if his magic window of depth appears in a known spawning bay. Surely, variations exist but it’s a pretty reliable range, and pike will use it for several weeks.
Fishing educator and muskie hunter Chip Leer also keys in on vegetated tracts.
“Early on, like middle and late May, weeds are just beginning to come up, and that puts premium value on any greens you can find,” Leer said.
Leer also explores shallow bays, but he knows pike won’t dawdle there forever. At some point he converts into a main-lake guy, looking for pike close to but not within shallow bays.
“It’ll be obvious when pike have cleared spawning bays – a couple of trolling passes or a smattering of casts without getting bit is all I need to see.”
At which point, Leer simply runs outside the bay and begins picking apart features on the big-lake side. Beginning at the mouth, Leer searches for vegetation, hoping to find an emerging weedflat, and continues working out to the first significant break. Leer also batters shoreline points within proximity of the bay’s mouth.
Often, the areas Leer addresses double as spring walleye spots. This is an important concept. The May to early June interval is marked by a commingling of walleyes and northern pike. It’s also at this time that faceless interlopers, your pike, swallow countless walleye jigs. Leer explains that when there’s a coexistence of walleyes and pike over hard-bottomed shallows – sand and gravel – he can count on finding larger pike close by, over adjacent weedflats.
Many of Leer’s favorite pike waters are fairly shallow basins, averaging less than 20 feet deep across their bellies. On these lakes, he exposes springtime pike over offshore weedflats and weeded bars. And according to Leer, you don’t need groves of weeds either. On his home water, one of Leer’s hottest spring pike venues is an offshore flat that sustains only spindly clumps of cabbage in 12 to 14 feet, but it’s the only vegetation around. Consequently pike frolic there.
The frequent loss of leadhead jigs to slime and teeth should trigger the conclusion that pike like what they’re seeing. But a change needs to be orchestrated for you to secure the upper hand. Reach for larger haired jigs and tether them with stronger, more abrasion-resistant lines. Big jigs, like the soft plastics mentioned earlier, maintain a large profile and can be presented languidly. Sizable 3/8- and 1/2-ounce bucktail jigs are marvelous. Leer rhythmically pumps a Northland Bionic Bucktail Jig tipped with a 3- or 4-inch sucker minnow. The meaty dressing adds visual stimulation, bulk and flavor. Griz does the same but with a Griz Jig – his own creation, featuring feathered marabou instead of bucktail and thereby achieving a similar dancing effect.
Operating larger jigs demands an upgrade from conventional walleye gear. Where you might have spooled 6- or 8-pound-test monofilament for ‘eyes, use 10- to 14-pound-test strengths. Overall, in a jigging scenario, mono outperforms the current wave of superlines, which impress in other arenas. You’ll want to tie in a leader, though. Spring pike aren’t known to be “leader shy,” likely due to their aggressiveness and usual springtime water coloration, so factor in a 12- to 18-inch seven-strand steel leader. Make your own and crimp the jig on, or go with a factory rendition. Leer likes a Berkley 14-inch leader with a steel ball-bearing and cross-lock snap, thus preventing line twist and allowing him to switch jig sizes and colors.
Spinning gear is preferred for jigging, although some anglers do prefer baitcasting equipment on drifts. I like a long 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-heavy rod with a forearm-length cork handle. Long handles ease wrist-fatigue and provide a fulcrum during battle. You needn’t be as persnickety with reel selection, as long as you pick one that will spool heavier lines, run drag when it’s supposed to and not backpedal on hookset – instant anti-reverse.
Pike also succumb to spinnerbaits and inline bucktail spinners, although rarely do I choose them before a jig-and-minnow. Griz throws white and chartreuse spinnerbaits, or anything with a splash of red – pike are chumps for red. Typically, the more blades and body hair the better, but you should certainly downsize under tough conditions, such as stormy spring weather. While casting, employ a steady retrieve, bulging the surface occasionally in a chop and running your lure midway down otherwise. Remember, you’re fishing pretty shallow water and pike have keen eyesight – they’ll surely bust five feet from the bottom to whack a seductive wobble or flash.
Speaking of wobble, crankbaits and stick baits (long, shallow-running cranks) are the next line of offense. Beginning with the latter, let’s focus once more on big and slow. Baitfish-mocking stick baits, like spinnerbaits and bucktails, can be cast or trolled. A healthy-sized Rapala Husky Jerk, Bomber Long A, Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue or shallow-running Storm ThunderStick can be lethal. Realistic minnow finishes – gold and silver – are reliable, as are patterns involving white and red. Fire-tiger, a bright perch imitator
, also smokes pike, and most manufacturers offer it. I utilize straight retrieves with infrequent twitches, modifying as conditions warrant.
Unquestionably, springtime pike react more strongly to lipless rattling crankbaits than any other variety I’ve soaked. Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps, Rapala Rattlin’ Raps and Frenzy Rattl’rs score big time. They’re wide-profiled and highly visible, plus the incessant clacking and wickedly tight wobble cause pike to come unglued. Because they sink, you’re able to control running depth. Unlike stick baits, which I retrieve methodically with occasional twitches, lipless cranks should be burnt through the water. Cast, point your rod tip at the splash and bear down.
Griz runs a No. 8 Rattlin’ Rap with unparalleled success. He’ll cast them at designated targets, but what he really enjoys doing is trolling Rattlin’ Raps at high speed, say 4 or 5 miles per hour. With a short leash, letting out only 30 or 40 feet of line behind the boat, Griz zigzags across weedflats and edges. Although it might sound more like a midsummer pattern, Griz’s tactic really maddens springtime pike. Trolling this furiously requires a long and soft-tipped rod and line with a little give. Griz uses 10-pound Berkley Trilene XT.
There. The boys have come clean, and the first step was admitting their addiction to pike. So here’s to springtime, big pike and no shame. And please be responsible by allowing the big girls to swim free.
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