Minnesota's Powerful Pike Waters
September 30, 2010
Whether you like to chase northerns close to home or go exploring for true trophy pike, these waters have something for everyone.
It should be another great season for pike fishing, according to Gregg Melstrom, the owner of Minnetonka Outdoors, a full-service bait and tackle shop. Melstrom is also a hard-working metro-area guide and has had Pike Dreams — the name of his guide business — in operation for over a dozen years. If there’s one species that Melstrom loves to target, with clients or without, it’s the northern pike.
“The thing I love about pike fishing,” said Melstrom, who spends over 120 days during the open-water period on the water, “is that the lakes in Minnesota are full of this species and these fish like to bite. And there’s always the opportunity to hook into something over 10 pounds. You have a good fight on your hands with a fish that big.”
To catch a big pike, Melstrom says an angler really needs to be chasing the bigger fish, which is not something every angler wants to do.
“Most people don’t catch the big pike because they don’t fish for them,” he said. “It’s a different mindset. Most anglers just want to put some fish in the boat. And that’s great. These guys want action; they want entertainment. But if you’re really targeting trophy pike, you have to be satisfied to work all day for one or two fish. The techniques are different, and this means you’re fishing for a smaller population of fish.”
That statement begs the question: How does an angler target big pike? Melstrom says it doesn’t revolve around the smaller fish.
“If you’re catching a lot of smaller pike, you have to be moving to a spot where the bigger pike can be found,” he said. “Your attitude should be that the smaller pike aren’t compatible with what you’re fishing for. If you’re truly after a bigger pike, you need to realize that the bigger fish won’t be hanging out with the small ones. It’s really tough for anglers to leave biting fish, but you have to discipline yourself to move to an area that has the fish you want. You might have to go deeper, maybe even shallower, use a different presentation and experiment with different colors. You might have to move faster, much faster, and be creative.
“Oftentimes the larger pike that I catch like the deep, cool water,” Melstrom said. “ I often start fishing in 18 to 21 feet of water and I often move out deeper from there.”
Everyone has their favorite techniques, and Melstrom is no exception.
“I’m a spinnerbait guy,” he said. “I use a 1- to 1 1/2-ounce spinnerbait. This lure will get down to the depths where the bigger fish are, and I like that large profile.
“One of my favorite techniques with a spinnerbait is to backtroll with it. People see me with my stout rod and I’m backtrolling a deep weedline with a spinnerbait. The bait is just slow-rolling at the base of that vegetation and I’m working it where the weeds are just ending, out to the next breakline. I even use this technique on deep rockpiles and humps. It’s very effective on the edge of a long point.”
Melstrom is also very fond of speed-trolling.
“From mid-July until the end of August I’ll get out the spoons and bigger crankbaits that can run fast and true,” he said. “I run these lures from 3 to 5 mph. It works well for big pike, even though it turns a few heads when other anglers on the water see you creating a wake behind the boat because you’re trolling so fast. But when you get a hit, there’s a good chance it’s a big fish.”
According to Melstrom, not every lure is going to fit the bill for speed-trolling.
“Most people don’t realize there’s a big difference in crankbaits out there and you need to pick the right one for speed-trolling,” he said. “Spoonplugs work great at fast speeds and they catch fish. The Manns lures like the Stretch 20 are great baits. Use lures that run straight at high speeds.”
Line is also a factor in successful speed-trolling.
“With the advent of the superlines you can troll fast with a light-diameter line and still have the strength,” said Melstrom. “The line I use is a 60-pound-test line with a 14-pound diameter. This means the lures will run deep and true. The lures will also run deeper without as much line out, and this is great if you’re trying to stay on a contour line. If you put a lure out 150 feet behind the boat, you can be trolling the boat along an erratic depth contour and the lure is just running in a straight line. The lure doesn’t follow any of the turns your boat is making because it’s just too far out there. If you can keep the lure in deep water near the boat you can keep that bait on the contour and in the zone where the fish are. Keeping that lure close to the boat means you can trace out every little finger or you can stay glued to that erratic weedline. It’s a great advantage to the angler to be able to do that.”
Since Melstrom has been living in the Lake Minnetonka area for the past 20 years and opened his shop between Minnetonka and Excelsior on Highway 7, you would expect that one of his favorite pike lakes is, what else, but Lake Minnetonka.
“On Minnetonka you have a lot of options,” said Melstrom, “but what you choose to use depends on the amount of boat traffic and how much milfoil is floating in the water.
“I usually start out by getting up on top the milfoil and casting over the tops of the weedbeds,” Melstrom instructed, “and I like to use a No. 5 Mepps in-line spinner for this or a lighter spinnerbait, maybe a 1-ouncer. You don’t want to be catching all those 1 1/2-pound bass and 2-pound pike up there, so use a lure that has a larger profile.”
If the pike are in the shallower water, Melstrom will stick with his game plan. Should he find that the pattern calls for a deeper approach, then he’ll move.
“I move out to the weedline and get out the spinnerbaits and work them deep, on the base of the vegetation in 18 to 20 feet of water,” he said.
quo;I won’t jig the weedline like some anglers do,” said Melstrom. “I save jigging for the tips of points, the deep rockpiles and humps. I also pick weedlines that have something extra, like a point, an inside turn or deep water nearby. I want something that’s structurally interesting, not just a 1/4-mile long, straight stretch of weedline. The erratic nature of a weedline attracts better fish.”
As most anglers are aware, Minnetonka does have its fair share of boaters.
“It’s a highly recreational lake,” said Melstrom. “I’ve learned that to catch big pike there you have to take what most anglers see as a disadvantage and turn it into an advantage. I’ve discovered patterns that only work when the boat traffic is at its peak.
“On a lake like Minnetonka, where you have a series of channels that connect lakes, the boat traffic creates something that isn’t normally there,” said Melstrom. “That’s current. There’s always a slight amount of current moving from one basin to another, but nothing like you have when you have a lot of boats moving through these necked-down areas.
“When these boats are cutting through the shallow milfoil, it causes a lot of confusion with the baitfish, and there’s the tendency for the forage to stack up on the weedline. The predator fish have become accustomed to having their buffet table set up for them when the traffic picks up,” continued Melstrom. “This is when that 15- to 18-foot depth on the edge of that weedline becomes productive, right on the edge of that busy channel. The pike don’t seem to have a problem with those props going over their heads all day long as long as there’s some forage available there. To these fish, it’s no different than living right next to the airport. They’ve adapted to the noise. It’s amazing how many 8- to 10-pound pike I’ve pulled from right under a big weekend cruiser coming through the channel.”
“The structure is extreme on this lake,” said Melstrom. “You’re one minute in 3 feet of water, the next minute you’re in 30 feet. That’s why I like this lake. It creates a challenge.”
According to Melstrom, anglers will be pleased by the size of the pike there.
“One thing they have on Clearwater is a forage base that creates big pike,” he said. “That’s the tullibees. This is a tremendous forage that has a positive effect on the growth rates of pike. There are some real pigs in this lake. It’s not at all uncommon to hook a 10- or 15-pound pike in this lake. It’s not an outstanding lake when it comes to pure numbers of pike, but it makes up for this in the size of the fish.”
Melstrom’s game plan for Clearwater is reminiscent of his Minnetonka pattern.
“On Clearwater I start shallow with bucktails or shallow-running crankbaits, and as the day progresses I work deeper,” he said. “When I work the edges I stick to a spinnerbait because with the bottom quickly going from shallow to deep to shallow it’s much easier to backtroll a spinnerbait then it is to troll a crankbait.”
Live bait is also a good option for big pike, according to Melstrom.
“Clearwater is a great option for live-bait rigging because of the sharp-dropping structure elements,” he said. “Use a sucker minnow on a wire leader and a heavy weight to get it down. It’s a large live bait and you’re putting the bait right on a breakline, so it requires patience, but big pike like a large sucker, so it’s an effective means to catch fish, especially on this lake.”
Sitting right in the center of the west-metro region, Medicine Lake is part of the French Regional Park, Three Rivers Park District.
“Medicine Lake not only has good numbers of pike, but the average size of the fish there is great,” said Melstrom. “I find that on this lake I’m working shallower than I do on most of the other lakes I fish. The water clarity is not real good so the weedline disappears in 8 to 10 feet, so the presentations tend to be shallower.
“Since Medicine Lake doesn’t have any deep structure or erratic weedlines you’re always in a search mode on this lake,” continued Melstrom. “This means you’re always fan-casting or trolling, never keying on one spot to find pike. You’re not using pinpoint presentations on this lake. You’re not likely to be catching a lot of fish in one spot. Instead you’re picking up one nice fish here and another nice fish there. You keep moving and searching, knowing that it’s not the actual spot you’re looking for, but the pike, and they might be 100 feet apart. You can’t just pull up to a spot and say you’re going to drop an anchor here. You keep moving, looking for that one fish.
“The lake doesn’t get a lot of serious pike pressure. It’s a popular recreational lake, but you won’t find a lot of serious pike fishermen there, even though the lake has a lot of real nice fish swimming there.”
BIG MARINE LAKE
“Good water clarity on this lake means you tighten up the presentation,” said Melstrom. “You don’t see many people on this lake fishing for big pike, and there are plenty of fish there. It’s a lake that can produce pike in that 10-pound class.
“On a lake like this you key on the fish that are keying on the deeper, cooler water. Here you get out your stout rods and speed-troll, and work deeper,” instructed Melstrom. “Figure the pike in this lake will be well off the weedline sitting in the deeper water.”
But a lot of people don’t like fishing this way, according to Melstrom.
“A lot of anglers have a hard time fishing deep and fast,” he said. “But it’s not unusual for pike in this lake to be sitting in the deep water in 18 to 24 feet where there’s not much in the form of vegetation. But these fish can still be caught if you get the lure down to them and trigger a strike. This lake is not pressured a great deal for pike even though I consider it a metro lake. It’s not a highly developed lake, and that’s refreshing.”
While Melstrom has mastered the art of catch
ing big pike in lakes around the metro area where pressure is at a peak, I prefer the solitude of the northwoods where big pike seldom see a lure. Here are a few of my favorites.
Part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), Basswood Lake is one of the few in this protected area that still allows gas motors, with restrictions. My fishing buddy up there, Bill Slaughter, and I wheel portage boats from Fall Lake through Newton and beat the shallow cabbage with floating crankbaits and Johnson Silver Minnows. Pike over 20 pounds always seem to find one of our lures.
UPPER RED LAKE
Don’t expect to find a lot of vegetation in this lake. It’s mostly sand bottom and shallow. But the pike in this lake are huge, and they roam. Tie on a big crankbait and start trolling, and hope you run into one of the big pike that are swimming around in the open water. There are plenty of big pike there, so count on some rod-bending action.
Big cabbage beds meet the rivers that flow into Winnibigoshish, and this cabbage is home to some pike with wide shoulders. Spend the beginning of your fishing trip casting big shallow-running crankbaits and retrieve them right over the top of this vegetation. When your back gets sore, tie on a heavy spinnerbait and slow-troll the edge of the vegetation.
LAKE OF THE WOODS
Lake Of The Woods County
While everyone recognizes this lake as one of the best walleye fisheries in the world, it’s also a world-class big-pike lake. At “The Gap” there are a lot of cabbage beds that hold huge pike, and the Northwest Angle is a pike angler’s dream. The beauty of Lake of the Woods is that not many anglers go there to chase northern pike, so you get to have a lot of water all to yourself.
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Fortunately for Minnesota pike anglers, there are plenty of options for not only lakes where there are a lot of fish, but for lakes that provide angling for quality fish as well. On your lakes close to home where the pressure is high, use some of Melstrom’s tips and search out the bigger fish. If you’re like me, catching big pike means it’s off to the water where the fish are still in need of an education in what a lure does when bitten into. Either way you turn, there’s some great angling to be had in Minnesota’s powerful pike waters.
(Editor’s note: To contact Gregg Melstrom, call Minnetonka Outdoors at (952) 470-8800.)