Very little compares with the gentle ebb and flow of the surface as you glide out over a pike lake in the early springtime. Just knowing there are big pike somewhere in the depths gets the heart beating a little faster. This is the time of year for pike; right now is your best shot at tangling with trophy-class northerns.
Understanding a bit of pike biology and how these razor-toothed predators relate to habitat during the post-spawn period is the key to success. Many waters are just opening up to anglers and the pike are ripe for the taking.
The first thing to know is that while pike are aggressive in the summer, they can be downright finicky while recovering from the rigors of spawning activity.
The second thing is that these “water wolves” aren’t always ravenous. Most pike begin feeding heavily when the water temperatures reach the 55- to 60-degree range and go into the spring feeding frenzy when it climbs to 65 degrees.
Spring may be the best time of the year to be on the water but some anglers still go home empty handed. If you’re wondering about the best way to tempt a big pike in the spring, here are some tactics that you can take to the bank.
Find green vegetation and you’ll find pike. Submerged weeds that have wintered over and remained green are pike magnets. Developing bulrushes in shallow water hold their share of pike as well. Combine these features with deep water and you’re on high-percentage spots.
Admittedly, several tactics work in the weeds as the water warms up but in the post-spawn period, finesse is the name of the game. Set the dinner table with offerings of slow-moving soft plastics that big northern pike just can’t resist.
Toss oversized plastic minnows, lizards, and grubs on 1/4- or 1/2-ounce jigs to the outside edges of the weeds. Green beds of cabbage and other long-stalked weeds in water 6 to 10 feet deep are ideal. Let the bait glide naturally to the bottom and rest for a moment before shaking it with your rod tip. Repeat the process as you lift and glide the bait along the outside edge. Anything that appears to be dying qualifies as a meal worth chasing as far as early-season pike are concerned. Plastics fished that way seldom get slammed and a little tick on the line may be all you’ll feel.
Soft baits also produce well in the old bulrush stalks that were broken off just below the water’s surface by the ice. Once the fresh growth begins showing above the water, pike move to the outside edges adjacent to sloping points, dropoffs, and breaklines.
Pike are addicted to submerged weeds and the deeper and thicker they are in the spring, the better.
Ticking the tops of developing green is another hot ticket for springtime pike. Reel Dardevle spoons, floating Rapala Original Minnows, shallow-running Mepps Magnum Muskie Killer in-line spinners, or a spinnerbait with Colorado blades just deep enough to bang the weed tops. Retrieve the bait at a steady speed for about two-thirds of the distance back to the boat and then give the rod tip a twitch or two. After that, pick up the speed. Northern pike sometimes follow a bait without hitting it, and the unexpected change can trigger a strike. Spoons have an added dimension of attraction. If a pike strikes and misses the spoon stop reeling and let it glide backward. The northern assumes the bait is injured and moves in to finish it off.
Emergent and submerged weedbeds in river backwaters are fished the same way. Target the bays, sloughs, and sections off the main current as pike aren’t particularly fond of moving water. If the weedbeds are in current, cast from downstream and retrieve with the current. A shallow-running spinnerbait or weedless spoon skims over the stalks and isn’t likely to foul.
If you have to fish across the flowing weeds, try a heavy plastic worm rigged with the hook buried inside the worm body. Skim the bait across the surface and let it drop down into holes and gaps in the vegetation. Northern pike dart out of cover to make short work of such hapless-looking creatures.
Remember that weeds are important, but pike key in on variations of the vegetation theme. Shallow lake basins that harbor stump fields, dropoffs, steep bars adjacent to weeded flats, and clumps of emerging weeds are the perfect places to try yet another spring tactic. The secret weapon here is the lipless rattle bait. Rattle baits cover lots of water quickly, tick the tops of weeds, and probe the deeper edge habitat. The combination of tight vibrations and quick wobbles pique the interest of pike and result in smash-and-grab strikes. Even lethargic pike get excited over the antics of a Rapala Clackin’ Rap or Daiwa Game Vibe Beauty.
Knockin’ the wood is a technique more commonly employed by bass anglers, but there are spring pike applications as well. When the weeds are sparse, northern pike move into woody tangles of fallen trees and docks where they border deep water. Timbered points and stump fields are a real draw. Getting a big pike out of that mess can be tricky, and so floating crankbaits that cast accurately and can be danced through the wood are called for. Pike aren’t particularly fussy in the wood so just open the tackle box and use what you’ve got.
As the water warms, don’t be shy about banging the wood with a weedless Dardevle. Northern pike don’t seem to mind a lot of commotion and the louder the ruckus, the more interested they become. Pike ambush plenty of tough critters and a loud spoon isn’t going to intimidate them.
There’s a special place for Countdown Rapalas and similar controlled-depth baits. As the bigger northerns begin to migrate out to weeded bars, flats, and break lines, cast or troll from 10 to 20 feet down. Pike in the 30-inch-plus range can almost be classified as cold-water fish with temperature preferences down to 50 degrees. To reach these fish you’ll have to go deep. Fishfinders are invaluable during this period.
Occasionally, you’ll have to think outside of the box in order to catch pike in the spring. Pike are recovering not only from the stresses of spawning, but from a depleted pantry as well. These top predators can eat creatures up to a third of their own length; due to a feisty disposition and a rumbling stomach, pike will attack baits up to 8 or 9 inches. Toss muskie baits as large as a Storm Thunderbeast or a 10-inch plastic grub into holes in the vegetation and slowly drag them over developing weed tops. Give a big northern time to size up your offering. Ignore the chuckles from your fishing buddies when you tie on a whopper-sized bait. You just might get the last laugh.
Angler preferences toward fishing gear vary considerably, but the fact remains that fighting big pike requires medium-heavy to heavy gear with muscle. Fast-action tips to cast lighter lures are OK, but heavier rods are needed for 1 1/2- to 2-ounce baits. A good rule of thumb is to use a rod in the 7-foot range for maximum control. Spool reels with 15- to 20-pound monofilament or an equivalent super line. Strong leaders are required equipment. A pair of needle-nosed pliers for hook removal is a given to avoid teeth that can easily shred a finger.
The best spring pike tactic is the one that happens to be working at the moment. Experiment with a variety of baits and presentations in good habitat and it won’t be long before you’re on the money.