So, you want to catch the biggest northern of your life without leaving our state? No problem. Just follow the evidence! (March 2007)
The open-water fishing fan of northern pike could get a bit discouraged after taking a close look at Michigan's Master Angler Award list. From lakes that have produced multiple Master Angler-class pike in the last few years, most of the trophy fish have come through the ice, not from open water. Tip-ups and spears did most of the work, not crankbaits and spoons.
But then, when the ice is gone, how many people really focus on pike the same way winter anglers do, with long hours. heavy tackle and single-species dedication? Those fish didn't just appear when ice sealed the lake, after all. That's just when they were caught in the fishing spotlight.
Let's hand it to the tip-uppers and thank them for their research, which points to a handful of lakes with big fish. And at the same time, let's not neglect those special waters that substitute huge numbers of feisty smaller pike for smaller numbers of big fish. Then you just have to sneak onto those lakes and others with rods stouter than usual, lines heavier than normal, tougher leaders and bigger baits.
Leave the bluegills, perch and walleyes to the tourists this season, and set your sights on the powerful pike in these award-winning waters.
This could be the Michigan lake most associated with northern pike fishing. At more than 20,000 acres, it's our state's largest inland lake, and anglers chase its northerns throughout every season.
Houghton is shallow, with an average depth of about 8 feet, and nothing deeper than 22 feet. It is incredibly fertile, producing bumper crops of almost all warm- and coolwater species, including northern pike. "It's just a fish factory," an admiring fisheries biologist once told me.
Match plenty of pike with a lot of fishing, and you get a fast-action water that will likely have you sorting through plenty of northerns to get a 24-inch keeper. It can be great fun, though, to tangle with all those pike.
Scott Cain, a Midland dentist who fishes many walleye tournaments, loves pike fishing on Houghton Lake. Sure, he makes pilgrimages to some of Canada's trophy-pike lakes, but what he really loves is fast action on pike of all sizes.
"The best 'action' spot in Michigan, bar none, is the Middle Grounds in Houghton Lake," Cain said. That's the 3-foot-deep flat spot in the center of the lake that is featured on almost any map. Cain said it's about 200 yards long by 200 yards wide. "You won't catch big ones, but a friend and I caught 116 pike by casting Beetle Spins in about two hours. None were legal size, but the action is unparalleled. It's better fished earlier in the season because it gets weed-choked fairly early, but if you take any kid there -- including big kids like us -- it is a riot."
Even though few Houghton Lake pike live long enough to stretch much longer than Michigan's 24-inch minimum length, a few lunkers invariably grow fat on the abundant forage. This lake gives up at least one 20-pound-plus pike every year.
The "South Shore Weedbed" -- just where its name would lead you to expect it -- is a longtime favorite location of many pike anglers. Floating stick baits such as Rapalas and Rebels will be pounced on here, and jigs tossed into the weeds will stir up action, too.
Other good pike haunts on the lake include the edge of the weedbed on the east edge of North Bay, along with the several weedbeds in East Bay. Wherever you fish on Houghton Lake, you can't go wrong working the deep side of any weedbed -- emergent or submergent -- you can find.
There's a public access site on each of the four shorelines, and bait shops, restaurants, motels and resorts just about everywhere you go. Get more information from the Houghton Lake Area Tourism Bureau at 1-800-676-5330, or go to the bureau's Web site at VisitHoughtonLake.com.
Tell people you're pike fishing on Higgins Lake and
they'll tell you you're one lake too far to the north. Although they're connected neighbors, Higgins and Houghton lakes couldn't be much more different.
Houghton is shallow, warm and fertile. By comparison, Higgins is deep, cold and sterile. Houghton is a walleye lake, Higgins a trout hotspot. But Higgins, like Houghton, has northern pike, and it has some big ones.
The state's largest pike of 2005 in the caught-and-kept category was a Higgins fish, a 26-pounder that stretched 44 inches long. That person, David Stewart of Roscommon, put a second Master Angler Award pike from Higgins Lake on the list, too. And even though both of his pike ran into a winter spear, there's no reason you couldn't be just as lucky in the open water.
Thank the abundant food base -- especially smelt, whitefish and small trout -- for the hefty pike that come from Higgins. Maybe you should thank, too, the fact that few people target the toothy critters in open water.
This is not a lake with a lot of cover, so the pike have few ambush points. They do haunt weedbeds, though, including the relatively short ones along the steep dropoff from 10 feet to 25 feet that rings the lake. One of my biggest pike ever slammed a spoon I was jigging at the dropoff for perch at the north end of the lake. Hanging a live sucker or other tasty offering -- and make it big -- is a good bet, too. People will think you're on the wrong lake if you tell them what you're doing -- but a trophy northern just might tell you otherwise!
Access is easy at North and South Higgins Lake State
Parks, and at a Department of Natural Resources public access site in the northwest corner. A State Park Motor Vehicle sticker is always required at the parks. In tourist season, a daily or seasonal fee is charged at the access site, too.
The Houghton Lake Area Tourism Bureau serves the Higgins Lake area with lodging and other information at VisitHoughtonLake.com, or 1-800-676-5330.
AU TRAIN LAKE
This Alger County lake about nine miles east of Munising produces big pike from its 830 acres.
The DNR's Jim Waybrant said in a "status of the fishery" resource report that area residents have cherished this lake's big pike and walleyes for more than 100 years, accounting for the early development of cottages around its northern and western shores. Much remains undeveloped, though, because the eastern and southern shorelines are mainly owne
d by the U.S. Forest Service, which operates a campground and boat launch just perfect for pike anglers.
Local folks have often complained that the lake grows so many suckers and draws in even more from Lake Superior that it damages Au Train Lake's fishing. Sucker removal efforts have had little effect on their numbers, though, and biologists aren't too concerned about them. Pike, walleyes and bass are all doing pretty well in the lake, where small but numerous perch provide plenty of chow.
The lake was surveyed in 1994, and again in 2002, and over that time the northern pike numbers and sizes increased dramatically. Pike made up almost 30 percent of the lake's predators by weight, and about 30 percent of them were keepers, meaning 24 inches or longer.
"The increase in northern pike numbers and weight was significant," Waybrant said, "while the (lake's) walleyes and smallmouth bass remained relatively similar to their numbers in the 1994 survey."
Au Train Lake is fed by four streams, the largest of which is the Au Train River, which flows four miles to it from Au Train Basin, which is also called Forest Lake. It is worth noting that Au Train Basin put a dandy 44-inch-Master Angler pike on the list in 2005. Steven Ball of Skandia released the fish, so it could be out there for you, too!
It's also worth noting that Au Train Lake, although large compared with its neighbors, is relatively small as pike lakes go, so it gets quite a bit of pressure. Think about enjoying the battle, then releasing your pike, and then catching walleyes for dinner.
Get local information from the Alger County Chamber of
Commerce at (906) 387-2138, or online at AlgerCounty.com.
Birch Run's Don Bomba -- whose specialty is muskie fishing and who is an official of the Michigan Muskie Alliance -- also loves messing with pike. He calls Saginaw Bay, "a very, very overlooked fishery. Early in the year, until midsummer, I've had 20-fish days out there casting bass-sized spinnerbaits, and jigs with twistertails."
Chris Jeroue is a Midland angler who spends more days on the water than just about anyone else I know. Where would he fish for pike? "The best I can tell you on my pike experience," he replied, "is hitting Hoyles Marina (on Saginaw Bay's southwestern shoreline at Linwood) in the early spring and early fall. They get monsters over there. I've seen pike come out of the water and go after a perch that someone caught. I have had a nice perch bit in half over there."
Indeed. Last summer when I feasted on the bounty of
Saginaw Bay's bumper crop of eating-sized walleyes, I learned to take enough crawler harnesses to replace the several that were sure to be bitten off by pike. Tying on a Dardevle, Rapala or other pike favorite would be a great way to take advantage of the bay's rich food supplies.
I've made a mental note to do what I can this year to protect walleye trollers' rigs and Chris Jeroue's perch -- and that's by removing a few big pike from the bay.
Some top pike waters are known for winter sport, some for summer action. Some get their names on the Master Angler list year after year, while others -- like these connected lakes -- show up in almost every weekly fishing report during the long pike fishing season.
These natural lakes have rich beds of cabbage and other vegetation that are perfect for growing Esox foods and sheltering the predators when they come to call. Lake Mitchell is the largest at 2,560 acres, while Lake Cadillac covers 1,150 acres, all of them within the Cadillac city limits.
Access is a breeze, with a public access site on Lake Mitchell directly off highway M-115, and another on the northwest shoreline of Lake Cadillac. Mitchell State Park, right on the channel between the two lakes, makes a perfect fish camp.
Get your fishing information from Pilgrim Village Resort & Fishing Shop at (231) 775-5412, or online at PilgrimVillageFishing.com.
ST. MARYS RIVER
The St. Marys River in Chippewa County is a great spot to launch a big-pike search. It's produced a half-dozen fish of more than 20 pounds (kept) or 40 inches (released), four of them in the open-water months of May, September and November.
Oh sure, depending on the season, the fishing headlines from the St. Marys likely shout about trout, salmon and whitefish, and focus the attention on the fast water of the rapids itself. But whatever the season, northern pike are willing to tussle, especially in Ashmun, Izaak Walton, George, Waishka, Munuscong and Raber bays.
Pike -- and muskies -- find everything they need in the river and its bays, including weedbeds, abundant forage and clean water. Start prowling the bays' shallows in spring by tossing big jerkbaits, surface plugs and in-line spinners. When summer warms the waters, work deeper weedbeds by slow-trolling with big stick baits. In the fall -- the best season for big pike -- casting again moves to the forefront.
The St. Marys River in Chippewa County is a great spot to launch a big-pike search. It's produced a half-dozen fish of more than 20 pounds (kept) or 40 inches
(released), four of them in the open-water months of May,
September and November.
Access the upper river at Ashmun Bay Park or at Brimley State Park. Launch for the lower river at Belleville Marina, Munuscong River, Raber Township Park or DeTour Passage.
For more information, contact the Sault Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-657-2858, or online at Saultsmarie.com.
CROTON DAM POND
Croton Dam Pond, an impoundment of the Muskegon River in Newaygo County, is just the kind of place we were talking about when we launched this discussion about big, slimy pike. It has some trophy fish, but they mostly show up when ice-anglers set stout tip-up rigs or tend spears and decoys. But those fish were there before the lake froze over, too -- they just don't make short work of the nerves and gear of summer anglers stumbling upon them. Approach them like the trophy they are, though, and who knows what could happen?
Croton Dam Pond covers 1,380 acres, and stretches 14 miles end to end. Like many other reservoirs, it has plenty of white and redhorse suckers, and they're great snacks for growing pike. Jump into the action at access sites in the village of Croton.
For information, contact the Newaygo Area Chamber of Commerce at (231) 652-3068, or online at Explorenewaygo.com.
Dams stall this Saginaw River tributary four times, and each impoundment offers a great place to tangle with a pike.
"The whole Tittabawassee Chain
-- Secord, Smallwood, Wixom and Sanford (lakes) -- is outstanding for pike fishing, with Sanford and Wixom kicking out the occasional 40-incher," said Esox specialist Don Bomba, while adding, "My best on Sanford is 44 inches."
"The whole Tittabawassee
Chain -- Secord, Smallwood, Wixom and Sanford (lakes) --
is outstanding for pike fishing, with Sanford and Wixom
kicking out the occasional
40-incher," said Esox specialist Don Bomba, while adding, "My
best on Sanford is 44 inches."
These four backwater lakes have the typical pike features in abundant forage -- especially suckers -- and plenty of weedbeds, stumps and dropoffs.
First, moving downstream from Roscommon County, the Tittabawassee pauses behind Secord Dam. It forms a lake of about 2,000 acres, up to 40 feet deep. Access is at Bowmanville and Finkbeinder roads. Next is Smallwood Lake, about 300 acres of pike water.
Both of those lakes are relatively unknown. Not so with Wixom Lake, most of which is in Gladwin County. Wixom hosts bass fishing tournaments almost every weekend of the open-water season. Wixom Lake, where the Tobacco River merges with the Tittabawassee River, boasts an impounded arm of each river, with a combined surface area of just under 2,000 acres. There is a DNR public access site on the Tobacco side near Edenville.
Sanford Lake, lowest on the system, is about 10 miles long, covering just under two square miles. It has a maximum depth of 30 feet, with the vast majority less than 20 feet. Launch at Midland County's Sanford Lake Park near the dam, or upstream at Sanford Lake Marina.
DNR officials say all four lakes have plenty of northerns, with relatively low fishing pressure focused on them. All have rich weedbeds, and increasingly clear water, thanks mainly to zebra mussels. To top that off, they produce tons of redhorse and white suckers, which pike love to dine on.
"There are a lot of pike," said DNR biologist Kathryn Schrouder, "and I don't think they're utilized all that much."
* * *
In truth, pike are "underutilized" almost everywhere. Thirty-five of Michigan's 82 counties put northerns on the Master Angler Award list since 2004 -- from Berrien County in the southwest to Wayne County in the southeast, and from Baraga in the far north to Chippewa in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Nobody in Michigan is far from a lake in which lurks a northern pike. Catch 'em in the act this year, especially now that you have the evidence!