Looking to tangle with a big fish that puts up an even bigger fight? Forget about salmon. Target northern pike instead! (March 2010)
Several species of fish in Michigan are sought after by thousands of anglers every year. The list is long, including salmon, largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegills and perch, but one fish that is often forgotten about is the northern pike. Many anglers enjoy catching pike; few anglers seek them out.
Having flourished in many Michigan waters in recent years, northern pike are perhaps one of the most overlooked species in the state.
Photo by BLP Studios.
Michigan fishing guide Ernie Miller believes more anglers should target pike all year, and for good reason. Pike are abundant in all parts of the state. They are fun to catch because they put up such a great fight, and they taste great in the frying pan. In many of the lakes around Michigan, pike quickly can decimate the populations of other fish species. "In several of the lakes I fish, there are probably too many pike," Miller said. "Even when I'm not fishing for pike, if I catch one or two, I bring them home and fry them up. Often I bring them home just because more of them need to be removed from the lakes."
Miller believes that pike present the perfect fishing opportunity for the entire family. "Pike will almost always bite a good lure presentation," Miller said. "So if a family wants lots of fishing action, they should simply target pike. Fishing for pike doesn't take a lot of expertise, and kids will have fun doing it."
Years ago, before fishing boats were as common as they are today, it wasn't uncommon to see anglers crowded on piers throughout Michigan fishing for whatever would bite. For anglers without boats, pike were among the species that anglers could target from piers and in the channels between the Great Lakes and inland lakes. "There are several piers along the west and east sides of the state that offer great pike fishing, and anglers don't need a fancy boat to catch them," Miller explained. "And large pike can be caught from the pier." Chances are, you probably live within a few hours' drive of a pier that borders a Great Lake and offers great pike fishing.
Pike are one of the biggest game fish in Michigan and are often the dominant predator in many lakes. "Anglers should focus on catching pike because some monster pike that are worthy of putting on the wall can be caught," Miller suggested. "There are few fish that are as aggressive as pike, (and) few fish can fill a freezer as quickly as large pike. Michigan's pike fishery is healthy, and many lakes don't experience any fishing pressure for the species. Pike are probably one of the most overlooked species in the Great Lakes."
If you live in Michigan, you probably don't have to look far to locate good fishing, but below are a few of Miller's favorite waters for tangling with northern pike.
Saginaw Bay is one of Miller's favorite waters to fish because he is primarily a walleye guide, but walleyes aren't the only fish in the bay. "When most anglers think about Saginaw Bay, they think about walleye and perch fishing, but Saginaw Bay has a very healthy pike population," Miller explained. "Since the bay has a very healthy baitfish population, the pike have plenty of food, and I often catch some big pike in the bay. I regularly catch 6- to 8-pound fish, and some are even larger than that. Few anglers specifically target pike on the bay, which gives the fish the opportunity to reach impressive sizes."
Early in the spring, Miller often targets new weed growth and established weedbeds. "Pike are often looking for an easy meal, and the baitfish always hide in the weedbeds," he said. When fishing near the weedbeds, Miller often uses stick baits, but spoons also work well. "I like using a standard Daredevil spoon, marking the best weedbeds on a GPS or graph and casting into them," Miller said. "I also use a Red Eye spoon. The Daredevil and Red Eye are great spoons that don't get used as much as other spoons, because they aren't marketed as much, but they work well on pike."
When targeting pike, Miller said the best action can be found in water between 8 and 15 feet. "Many of the larger weedbeds are in 15 feet of water or less, and the pike tend to hang out in that water depth when looking for smaller fish like perch to feed on," Miller explained. "One of my favorite places on the bay for finding pike is the weedbeds between Linwood and the mouth of the Saginaw River." For fishing information, contact Frank's Great Outdoors at (989) 697-5341. For lodging information, contact the Bay City Convention and Visitors Bureau at (989) 893-1222 or visit www.tourbaycitymi.org.
Hamlin Lake in Ludington is another lake that holds a healthy population of pike, but there is one problem with fishing for pike here. "Muskies get planted in Hamlin Lake, and juvenile muskies and pike can look very similar," Miller warned. "Anglers need to pay close attention to what they are catching when fishing in Hamlin Lake."
Muskies aside, Hamlin Lake is a great fishery for pike fishing. Upper Hamlin Lake holds lots of pike. During the post-spawn period in early spring, Miller often fishes the narrows of the lake all the way down to the dam. "In early spring, I troll the narrows and try to find suspended fish that are roaming around looking for food. When I am trolling, I often fish the top 10-15 feet of the water column," Miller noted, "but I prefer fishing the Upper Lake when targeting pike.
"I usually fish Upper Hamlin Lake on the upstream side of the straights. This area has a softer bottom than the rest of the lake, and the water isn't as deep as most of the lake, so there is a lot of weed growth in this area in which the pike often congregate."
When fishing in the late spring or early summer, Miller has good luck with buzzbaits that are typically used for bass fishing. "I like using half-ounce, white buzzbaits with a silver blade. One of my favorite tactics is casting the bait over the top of the weeds and reeling the line it at a quick pace. Since pike are so aggressive, they will often chase almost anything and grab it if they think it is trying to get away." Miller also casts the bait along the bottom where the weed growth starts. "Pike often hide in the weeds along the bottom and grab baitfish as they swim by," he added. "I often catch pike casting into the weeds along the bottom." For more information, contact the Ludington Visitors Bureau at (231) 854-0324 or visit ludingtoncvb.com.
LAKE MICHIGAN PIERS
Along the west coast of Michigan, there are several lakes and rivers that feed Lake Michigan. In the spring, many pike leave the rivers and inland lakes and head for Lake Michigan. Many of the lakes and rivers that eventually drain into Lake Michigan have pierheads and breakwalls that attract the pi
ke. Baitfish often congregate near the pierheads in large schools that attract the pike.
Miller believes that fishing pike near many of the pierheads on the western side of the state is one of the best ways to catch many pike and also the most overlooked. "Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon, Ludington and Manistee offer great pier-fishing for pike, but many people overlook these opportunities. I have fished pike from a boat and from the piers, and you can catch lots of pike both ways in the early spring," he said.
According to Miller, it's all about timing. There are a lot of pike in and around the piers throughout the spring, but if you were going to choose the best time to fish piers, it would be in the early spring when the pike are done spawning in the rivers. "After the pike are done spawning, they are really hungry and they can be found in large numbers near many of the pierheads. Not only are there lots of fish, but you can hook into some nice-sized fish," Miller noted. Many of the piers have large rocks and boulders along the bottom in and around the pierheads. The structure is what attracts the baitfish, which is where you find the most pike.
When fishing from a boat, Miller often trolls lead core with No. 13 Rapalas or No. 12 or No. 14 Husky jerks. "A variety of colors will work on pike from the Tennessee shad to fire tiger," he said. "For anglers who don't like messing with lead core, there are other options. You can use deep divers or reef runners. I prefer fire tiger, gold and orange or blue and silver with an orange belly, as far as colors go." Miller said you can catch more fish trolling than fishing from the pierheads. "You can cover a lot of water and find the fish faster when fishing from a boat." Since pike are aggressive, Miller often trolls faster than he does when fishing for other species like walleyes. "I will go up to 2 1/2 miles an hour, which allows me to cover lots of water."
However, when the pike are next to the piers in the early spring, casting from the pier works. "If anglers are fishing from the piers, they will need to cast it out a long ways," Miller said. "I would suggest casting and reeling in as fast as you can and casting off a lot of different points along the pier until you find the pike. Since you might not always be right on top of the pike when you cast from shore, anglers should use a bait that has some type of rattle built into it that will attract the fish from a long distance.
Anglers can even buy aftermarket rattles that will work with a variety of stick baits if their favorite lure doesn't have a rattle built in." Another option for pier-anglers is to use a large heavy spoon and fish along the bottom, where much of the structure is located.
Of all the piers along the west side of the state, Miller enjoys fishing the Muskegon Lake piers best. "Muskegon is significant because there are two inner pierheads and two outer pierheads, so there's a lot of structure to attract fish," Miller said. "The structure is diverse, as is the current, so the area holds lots of fish. The original channel walls along the bottom are made out of wood.
You have the newer channel walls, which are made out of rock, that were built above that. The structure holds the baitfish in the area and keeps the pike in the area after they spawn in the rivers." Over the years, much of the original wood structure has given way, creating holes in and around the bottom structure and drawing fish that are searching for protection. "I often troll near the bottom, which is 40 feet of water. I also troll about 15 feet down, near where the wooden structure ends and the new rock structure begins. Both structures hold lots of fish."
For anglers who prefer to use a fly rod or anglers who haven't tried fly-fishing but want to get into the sport, Miller suggests fly-fishing for pike on the Sable River, which feeds Hamlin Lake in Ludington. "Most anglers fish the Sable River for trout, and many use fly rods. Anglers who want to try something different should consider using streamers and try to catch a few pike," Miller suggested.
The Sable River is one of the rivers that pike spawn in, and during the spring and summer, the river is full of pike. Many of them are smaller, but on a lightweight fly rod, it will feel like you are hooking into a shark compared to hooking a trout. Once they are hooked, they will give any flyfisherman a run for his money." For more information, contact Shoreline Service Bait and Tackle at (231) 759-7254.
Much of the Sable River is littered with downed trees and logs. In many cases, the water is only a few feet deep in many sections above Hamlin Lake. When fly-fishing for pike, Miller suggests targeting the logs in the shallows the same way you would for trout. "The smaller juvenile pike often hide out near logjams and in holes near logs like trout. To entice them to bite, tie on a streamer and toss it along the logs," Miller advised. There are several advantages to fishing for pike in the river versus trout for the novice flyfisherman.
Pike aren't nearly as picky about fly presentation as trout, so even if you are just getting started and haven't perfected your fly rod cast, you will still outsmart a pike. Many stretches of the river are small, so fancy casting isn't really necessary. "When trying to catch pike next to a log or near a hole, you don't need to be able to cast a long way. In many cases, you just need to be able to cast well enough to flip a streamer into a certain location and be able to bring it back by stripping line." For more information, contact the Ludington Visitors Bureau at (231) 845-0324 or visit www.ludingtoncvb.com.
In other parts of the country, a northern pike is considered a trophy fish. In many places, they are few and far between. In the Great Lakes region, almost every lake and river system has an overabundance of pike. This spring, instead of fishing for bluegills or bass, pursue pike. Their meat is tasty, there are plenty of them and they are easy to catch.