There are three times during the open-water period that can be considered prime for big pike.
Each of these windows of opportunity lasts from 10 to 14 days and is key for large-sized northerns because during this time, the bigger fish of this species are more concentrated in the shallower water. Here’s where they can be found easily and caught with lures that allow anglers to cover some ground in their search. Once these big pike head to the cool depths where they spread out and suspend, finding and catching them requires tremendous amounts of luck. It’s better to time your fishing for big pike to these three periods to take advantage of factors that give the edge to the angler instead of the pike.
Adam Johnson is an aquatic biologist who chases pike all over the country where they can be found. Through his efforts, he has discovered the three prime times to focus on big pike in open water. The first period is right after ice-out, which can be a problem in many states where the season is closed on inland waters. The second period is as the shallows warm, when the big pike transition from shallow water to deep water. The third is right before a water body turns over in the fall, when big northerns will move up into shallow water after spending summer in the depths.
“Right after ice-out, you find huge northern pike in the spawning areas,” said Johnson. “These will be shallow weed-choked bays in lakes, and weedy backwater bays in rivers and reservoirs.”
Johnson lives in Minnesota, but also fishes in Wisconsin and Michigan. In his home state, pike fishing is closed during the ice-out period on most bodies of water, but not all.
“The Mississippi River is one of the best spots I know for ice-out pike,” said Johnson, “and the border waters are open for pike year ’round. Most states will have lakes or rivers that are open to pike fishing right after ice-out. You just have to check the rule book to find them.”
Gregg Melstrom runs a guide business called Pike Dreams from his bait and tackle shop. He’s a well-versed multi-species angler but is quick to admit his favorite fish are big northern pike. “Little northerns aren’t hard to find and catch, but the big pike are a challenge and they put up one heck of a fight,” said Melstrom. “When you hook into a really nice pike, you can’t make any mistakes.”
Melstrom said you cannot let the cold water temperatures right after ice-out deter you from using an approach that allows you to cover some ground. “This is the perfect time to be tying on a spinnerbait,” he said, “because it’s a lure that works well in shallow vegetation.”
The pike move up into whatever vegetation is still standing from the previous year — and any newly emerging weed growth that can often be found in very shallow depths. “I’ll use a 3/4-ounce spinnerbait with a large Colorado blade,” Melstrom said. “This lure casts a long way and can be retrieved slowly, if that’s what’s necessary. You can also burn it a little faster just below the surface in the real shallow water.”
According to Johnson, some of the pike will have already spawned, more than likely while ice still covered the surface. Others are still spawning or are preparing to. “While I occasionally catch a big pike that I can tell is post-spawn, most of the really big pike after the ice has just gone out are still fat with eggs and just on the verge of spawning,” he said. Because of this, Johnson releases all the northerns he catches during this early-season period.
It’s the transition period when the shallow shoreline regions are warming and the big northerns are moving into the deeper, cooler water when most anglers get their first shot at big pike. This period usually falls into a two-week time frame a couple of weeks after the traditional opener. Anglers who can be on the water at this time can capitalize on big fish that are still in reaching distance for a spinnerbait or crankbait.
“It’s no secret that big pike like the colder water,” said Johnson. “You seldom find the bigger pike in the shallower regions in most lakes, rivers and reservoirs in the summer months, because the water temperatures there are just too warm for their liking. If you miss this transition period, you’ll likely be into fall before you get another chance at a really big pike, because those bigger fish get hard to come by when they disappear into the depths.”
“This is when I like to get out my Spoonplugs,” Melstrom said. “Any lake that has a well-defined deep weedline is a prefect candidate for Spoonplugs.”
The Spoonplug is a lure that was promoted years ago by famous angler Buck Perry, and is a staple of many diehard big-pike anglers. It allows an angler to troll a weedline or breakline precisely at speeds of 1 to 4 mph.
“You can cover some ground and find out where those pike are,” said Melstrom, although he explains that during the transition, it’s more important to have your lure in the right place than worrying about the speed. “I’m not speed-trolling right now, but those Spoonplugs let me get the lure to the right depth and stay on the weedline, no matter what speed I find triggers the bite.”
So how does an angler know when the transition starts and ends? Water temperature signals the start. “When the surface temperature hits about 67 degrees, you know it’s going to start pushing those fish out,” said Johnson. “This could be early June in some states, early July in others. The weather is the biggest determinant in when this transition period occurs.”
“You can tell it’s over when the fish quit biting,” Melstrom said. “You’ll have a week where the weedline and shallow rockpiles are producing big pike with some consistency, then one day you go out there and they’re gone.”
Because Melstrom gets out on the water every day, he will know this day to the exact date. Anglers looking for the hot bite but who are limited to certain days on the water may hear, “You should have been here yesterday.”
The pre-turnover period is when those big pike come out of the deep water as the shallow water cools, just prior to the lake rolling over.
“Turnover is a tough time to call,” said Johnson, “which is why the guys who can get out on a body of water often generally hit this time just right. If you miss it, then there is a period for a couple of weeks after turnover when the fishing is tough all over a lake or reservoir. It’s just luck and timing.”
Melstrom digs back into his spinnerbait bag for this fall pattern, bu
t his presentation is reminiscent of a summer walleye technique, as in backtrolling. “The big pike are roaming over the tops of the vegetation,” said Melstrom. “I just want to be ticking the tops of the cabbage, coontail or milfoil with that spinnerbait, and if the blade is just a nice slow thump, that’s perfect.”
Melstrom backtrolls his boat slowly over the vegetation, with only about 25 to 35 feet of line out — the line from the reel at a 45-degree angle toward the lure and the spinnerbait right above the vegetation. By wearing a good pair of polarized glasses, an angler can watch the bait as it dances in and around the stalks and branches. As the boat moves from shallower to deeper water, Melstrom just drops his rod tip or lets out a little more line until the lure starts ticking weeds again.
“If I see an opening in the weeds, I’ll drop the rod tip and let the lure settle in,” said Melstrom. “It’s amazing how often you see the big pike react to the spinnerbait and come out of a big pile of milfoil or coontail and attack that lure.”
“These big pike are the top predators in a lake and they fear nothing at this point,” said Johnson. “You’ll see them swim right into the prop wash to hit a spinnerbait or spoon as it’s trolled out from the boat.”
“Backtrolling allows me more depth control,” said Melstrom. “I find it easier to get the speed down and work a depth more thoroughly when I’m backing the boat. If the pike are deeper and I switch to crankbaits or Spoonplugs, then I’ll front-troll. But when I’m pulling spinnerbaits over the tops of the weeds, I’m backtrolling.”
If you figure that the open-water season in the Upper Midwest lasts about 28 weeks or so and that the time frame for quality big-pike fishing is between five and six weeks, you can see it’s imperative that you be on the water for these peak times. As Melstrom said, “Those big pike don’t give you many opportunities, so you need to take advantage of every one.” Which is why you can find him on the water during these times — even when he’s not getting paid to guide someone.
Adam Johnson’s Web site is at www.adamjohnsonoutdoors.com, and Gregg Melstrom can be reached at (952) 470-8800.