March 21, 2022
A rim of ice lined the edges of the deep river hole and I struggled to keep the eyes of my spinning rod free of the same. But a sudden, strong tap on the end of the line buffered the modest handicaps that go hand-in-hand with March open-water river fishing.
I responded to said tap with a snappy hookset, feeling the weight of a good fish. In the river I was fishing, the source likely had teeth, the possibilities being either a musky, walleye or pike. The suspense ended when a chunky northern slid over the rim of the net.
For the four-season angler, certain species are in play when the water temperature is still frigid. Northern pike certainly fit this bill, providing sport under hardwater throughout the winter months as well as now, as ice reluctantly leaves the lakes and flushes from river surfaces that had frozen.
Pike are one of the first species to spawn each year, and early-spring fishing for them is closely tied to this annual rite of procreation. The spawn draws pike into the shallows, a zone often shared with other species attracted to the warming water. As such, pike not only provide sport on their own, they can be an added attraction for folks targeting fish such as largemouth bass.
Additionally, the adaptable northern pike can be found everywhere from rivers, small lakes and reservoirs to large lakes and Great Lake estuaries. Consider these early-season pike tactics as they apply to these many venues.
As just mentioned, ice-out pike fishing occurs in the shallows. This applies to smaller lakes and reservoirs as well as large natural lakes and embayment portions of Great Lakes such as Erie and Ontario. The key is finding sections that warm up early.
“On the waters I fish, these are shallow, muck-bottom bays that feature expanses of lily pad stems,” says skilled multi-species angler Chris Cooper.
Such cover is the remnants of any floating vegetation that was present the year prior. It could also be newly emerging milfoil or pondweed. But the presence of such growth is an indicator of the fertile, heat-absorbing bottom composition that draws spawning, early-spring pike.
“Yellow perch [are another draw] at this time,” says Cooper. “The water temperature is in the low 40s when this pattern starts, and it continues until it gets up into the low to mid-50s—usually a three- to four-week window.”
Cooper keeps a variety of lure options available, depending somewhat on the exact type of cover and daily mood of the fish. Among them is the lipless crankbait.
“I tend to work a lipless crankbait rather fast, ticking it along the tops of the old lily pad stems and snapping it free when it hangs up momentarily, which can be an important trigger,” he says. “I will also occasionally pause them to emulate a struggling shad in the cold water.”
Similarly, year-round angler Jason Wagner works lipless crankbaits over and around emerging milfoil beds over shallow flats within the waters he fishes in early spring. While the milfoil beds feature both inside and outside edges, he finds active pike utilizing all zones of the low-growing cover. He continues to catch pike over the milfoil beds until they grow too close to the surface to be properly fished with a lipless crank.
Vibrating chatter-style jigs and swim jigs also play heavily into Cooper’s early-season forays. He prefers vibrating jigs in more open water and swim jigs in heavier cover. When the water is dark, he prefers a white skirt; in clear water he opts for perch patterns.
Cooper has found that jerkbaits such as the Bomber Long A will take early-season pike when fished as a wake bait, imparting a slow but steady retrieve on or near the surface. It’s an exciting pattern that often includes a visual of the pike following the lure prior to striking.
Both Cooper and Wagner prefer softer-action, crankbait-style rods for this type of fishing. They tend to result in better-hooked fish as well as a higher percentage of landed fish, as the loaded rod acts as a shock absorber, preventing the fish from throwing the heavy bait.
In many cases, warmwater rivers of low to medium gradient are home to northern pike populations. Depending on where you live, these flows might be your best option for hooking up with an earl-spring pike.
The deal with river-based northerns can be a bit different than lake situations. Pike often migrate to shallow, backwater river sloughs to spawn, which are often still under the ice. If open water is available, the fish can be taken with the same tactics described for lakes, though I’d suggest adding a spinnerbait to the lure options.
Typically, early-spring river pike fishing involves targeting post-spawn fish that have relocated back to main-river areas. I expect to find post-spawn, river-dwelling pike in larger, deeper holes—ones protected from the force of the main current. It’s likely pike use such low-current spots to both recuperate from spawning stress and feed on the wealth of food fish found in such places.
Look for deeper, low-current areas to be found below obstructions that divert the main flow. These can be islands, wing dams, rocky points and sandbars. Deep holes gouged along the outsides of river bends can also collect post-spawn pike. If the river you’re fishing has northerns and is impounded by dams, it’s a good bet some pike will be found in the first deep hole downriver of a dam.
While deeper river holes will hold pike now, when the fish are actively feeding it’s common for them to move to the shallow edges of the hole. This could be simply closer to the bank or along a flat near the leading or trailing edge of the hole. This is especially true on sunny March days when pike seem to slide up into the shallows, soaking up the warming rays of the sun.
While early-season river northerns can be taken on artificials such as a jig-and-plastic trailer, for more consistent action I like to use live chubs and sucker minnows in the 4- to 6-inch range. These are fished with a lead-head jig in the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce range.
A 6-inch minnow is a big piece of meat, so I usually employ a stinger hook. A typical setup is a lead head, like VMC’s Moon Eye Jig, which features a wire keeper to keep plastic baits in place. Though plastic is not being used in this case, the keeper helps hold the minnow in place. The jig hook is run down the minnow’s mouth and back through its head. While this kills the minnow, it’s not a problem so long as the bait was fresh and alive prior to rigging.
I fashion stinger hooks with a short piece of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon line, using an American Fishing Wire crimp to fashion a loop that can be placed over the bend of the hook prior to rigging the minnow. YouTube videos are available that show how to form the stinger. A size-4 treble is suitable for minnows of this size. Be sure to use crimps appropriate for the diameter of the line you’re using, as you don’t actually close down the crimp but rather use it as a slider to open and close the loop of the stinger. Place one tine of the treble near the tail of the minnow to catch short strikers.
River pike can be taken by vertically jigging the deeper holes. On warmer days target near-bank shallows as foraging pike move into thinner water to feed. As mentioned earlier, light-wire leaders can be used to prevent bite offs, though many fish are lip-hooked in such cold water.
PROMISING PIKE WATERS
Top destinations in the East for picking a fight with a toothy northern.
A 3,300-plus-acre embayment off the shore of Pennsylvania’s modest share of Lake Erie, Presque Isle Bay supports a strong population of quality-sized northern pike. Expect to find higher numbers of pike in the shallow, weedy portions found within the northwestern part of the bay.
Home to a wide variety of species including northern pike. Look to the shallower bays, such as Mallets Bay on the Vermont side, for the best action.
Bays within the eastern end of Lake Ontario near Henderson Harbor—Black River Bay, Chaumont Bay, Griffin Bay—are all worthy of a pike fisherman’s attention.
The free-flowing middle Allegheny River—from the discharge of Kinzua Dam down to the start of the impounded lower Allegheny—harbors a good northern pike population. Expect to find larger pike in the Warren County, Pa., area.
One of the best river options in New England is the Connecticut River, in particular the 50-plus-mile stretch from Piermont to Claremont, N.H.
An excellent population of northern pike—including fish pushing 40 inches—can be found in New York’s Mohawk River. The best section is the nearly 10 miles from Crescent Dam to Lock 7.