Minnesota's Powerful Pike Waters
September 30, 2010
There are still several places where you can catch true
trophy pike in our state. Let's take a look at them.
By Tim Lesmeister
Hooking up with a big northern can provide a fishing lesson. Having a 10- to 15-pound pike on the end of the line can teach you if your fishing abilities are finely tuned or if there are some areas in your program that need some refinement.
Consider the time when a fishing buddy and I were chasing big pike down on the Mississippi River south of Wabasha. We were using spinnerbaits in a backwater area and had been consistently hooking 5- to 6-pound fish when a fish over 10 pounds exploded on his lure.
"This is what we're after," he howled as the fish made a run and the drag on his reel started working.
Questions began surfacing in my mind as he tightened down the star on his baitcaster to increase the tension on the drag. When he started cranking hard and bearing down on the big fish, more questions arose, but I bit my lip. I figured maybe he knew something I didn't. When the rod pumping started I crossed my fingers and hoped for luck. I wasn't a bit surprised when the pike surfaced about five feet from the boat, spinning and thrashing, and when the bent-up spinnerbait was spit back at the boat I just shrugged. "What happened?" he cried. It wasn't a good time to explain.
On the other side, I recall a trip on Lake Shagawa in the fall when Bill Slaughter and I were chasing big pike. Slaughter was using a medium-weight rod with 10-pound-test line and a medium-sized crankbait with a short leader. A 15-pounder hit the lure as it suspended next to the boat on a retrieve where the fish followed the lure right in. Instead of tightening the drag, Slaughter loosened it to let the fish run. Slaughter kept the tip high and let the fish go where it wanted to. He kept enough tension on the line to keep the fish from spitting the lure, but never lost control. When the fish would come toward the boat, Slaughter would take up line. When the pike made a run, Slaughter just kept the tip high and let the fish go.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
After about 15 minutes the fish was lying docile by the boat, and Slaughter reached down with his left hand and gripped the big pike's tail. Setting the rod on the floor of the boat, he put one foot on the handle, grabbed a hook-out pliers and popped the crankbait loose. He gently lifted the fish from the water, we snapped a couple of photos and he then released the fish.
Ten casts later that crazy pike was following the lure back to the boat. We could tell it was the same fish because of an old scar that ran across its back. That pike must have been curious as to what kind of minnow could take it on such a ride. It followed a half-dozen times but never hit again.
I've seen Slaughter catch 25-pound pike on 6-pound-test line while he was jigging for walleyes in a canoe. It's a testament to his ability to fight and land big fish. His approach is simple.
"You can get away with anything when the fish are small," he says. "You control the entire situation. But when you have a big fish on the line, you have to give up some of the control or they will win. This is one of those times when it's better to share and have some patience. If you are in a hurry, you will lose the fight."
Slaughter says that big pike not only put a lot of stress on line, they can also straighten a hook or just pull free from those fine-wire treble hooks on a crankbait.
"Set the drag so you can keep tension on the fish, but not so much that you push line and lure to the limit," he says. "I've been with guys that hook big pike with jigs and when the fish gets off we discover their hook has been straightened. Too much drag."
Slaughter prefers to use drag instead of backreeling, but he has fished with anglers who can effectively keep the pressure on and backreel during the runs.
"Take your time," says Slaughter. "Some guys think they need to get the fish in immediately, but where's the fun in that? If you keep some tension on the rod and let the fish run when they feel like it, they eventually give up and come to the boat."
Slaughter says slack line is a real problem anglers have when they're fighting big pike.
"A lot of big fish get lost when the fisherman loses the grip on the fish," he explains. "What I mean by that is they drop the rod tip and let the line go slack. Those big fish just shake their head and throw the lure. Pumping the rod does the same thing. When you drop that rod tip you give the fish an opportunity. A big pike will use it."
Although Slaughter can control a fish at boatside, he recommends a big net.
"Netting a fish is where a lot of big fish are lost, but if you do it right it's a good way to get a big pike in the boat," he says. "Put the net in the water when the fish is close to the boat, but slip it in slowly so you don't spook the fish. Let the fish swim head first into the net, then point the handle straight up and lift the net into the boat. It's really that simple."
Slaughter says too many anglers stab at the fish with the net or try to scoop the pike tail first - both formulas for a bitter ending.
Well, now that you know how to catch a big pike, let's explore some waters where you can still find some decent fish. Most of the best pike lakes are "up north" because fishing pressure hasn't yet reduced the big-pike numbers to low levels. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is planning some special regulations to improve the size of pike on some lakes, but serious northern pike anglers in Minnesota are a non-vocal minority, so we'll just have to sit back and hope the DNR goes through with its plans for the sake of a few crusty anglers who like chasing those big "gators."
MISSISSIPPI RIVER Karen Savik was telling the story and she was excited. She was practicing for a national bass tournament on some backwater areas on Mississippi River Pool No. 4 with a spinnerbait in the vegetation. The 20-pound-plus pike crushed the spinnerbait and took off. Since it was a practice day, she decided to land the fish. The pike had other plans. It was a 10-minute fight, but eventually she got the big pike in the boat. According to her, it was a fight she won't forget.
Anywhere on the Mississippi River where you find a combination of slack water and vegetation you will find northern pike. People don't think of pike as a river fish, but that's a mistake. There are huge pike in the Mississippi - they just don't spend any time in the current.
There are some smart pike anglers who leave their boats at home when they head for the river. They wade in shorts and tennis shoes. They're looking for springs that are feeding cold water into the river. When they feel this stratified layer of cold water meeting warm water they know the pike will be there. They cast a big crankbait into the chilly water and hold on. Big pike hit hard in the river.
Anglers who want to try their hand at big Mississippi River pike need to be aware of the water levels. When chasing fish in slackwater areas, go slow, keep an eye on the sonar and don't let your boat get stuck on a mudbar or sandbar. Use caution to get to the spots and you will be very pleased at the results of your efforts. Those Mississippi pike don't get pressured much and those river pike put up one heck of a fight.
LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH Lake Winnie is known for producing the state-record muskellunge, but as a muskie lake, Winnie is marginal at best. Now if it's big northern pike you're after, this lake is a great one.
The key to Winnie is the cabbage. There are big mats of cabbage where the Mississippi River dumps in. The mouth of the Third River Flowage is also a great place to find big pike. Anywhere in Big or Little Cutfoot lakes has potential. There are some great bulrush beds surrounded by cabbage and coontail in these latter two spots.
Use any lure in your tackle box, as long as it's an 8-inch jointed crankbait. Use any color, as long as it's perch pattern. Present the lure anyway you like, as long as you make long casts with a slow retrieve. Sure, other techniques work, but in the many years I've been chasing big pike on Winnie, this one always works the best.
For more information, contact Judd's Resort at 1-800-635-8337 or visit their Web site at www.judds-resort.com.
LAKE VERMILION While Lake Winnibigoshish is known for producing the state-record muskellunge, Lake Vermilion is being touted as the place where the next state-record muskie will likely come from. Not only does the lake have a huge population of big muskies, but the northern pike could also boast that they, too, are available in respectable numbers and sizes.
It's the lack of pressure, basically. Anglers take to Vermilion in search of walleyes and smallmouth bass, and all those cabbage beds just sit there, ignored. Sure, the occasional bass angler or muskie fisherman pops a topwater around on the surface, but if it's big northern pike you're after, drag out the big sucker minnows and jigs.
The best jigs are the 3/4-ounce Bionic Bucktails. You secure the jig to your line with some Tyger Leader tied directly to the jig and then tip the jig with a 6- to 7-inch sucker minnow. Drag this rig along the edge of the cabbage, about 12 to 15 feet deep, keeping the jig and meat about a foot off the bottom. When a pike hits, you hit back. The fight starts off on a short line, so be prepared to let your drag do some work initially. Take plenty of suckers. On a good day, you'll go through a couple of dozen.
For more information, visit the Lake Vermilion Web site at www.lakevermilion.com or call the Fortune Bay Resort and Casino at 1-800-555-1714 and ask to talk to someone at the marina.
CASS LAKE When John Mallo and I took our first trip to Cass Lake we were told that we might find a few big pike, but there weren't too many northern pike in the lake as far as total numbers of fish. Suffice it to say we were a bit surprised. On our first pass through a bulrush bed in Allen's Bay we caught and released eight pike from 6 to 12 pounds.
Our next stop was Dick's Bay and we hammered the pike. None of them were over 5 pounds, but they jumped on the spinnerbaits we were throwing and put up a great fight.
The spots we fished weren't getting much attention. The guys throwing big baits for muskies were on the shallow rockpiles or working the edges of the cabbage. We went right into the bulrush and fished the coontail up shallow. We hammered pike, and there were some nice fish over 10 pounds.
There's no secret to catching pike on Cass. Get into the weeds and dig them out with a spinnerbait. I will admit Mallo caught more fish than I did. He was using a white plastic trailer on a big spinnerbait and burning it over the tops of the weeds. I wore out after a day of hard throwing and downsized. I caught some nice fish, but Mallo's were bigger and he did catch more fish.
For more information, call Trees Resort at (218) 335-2471 or visit their Web site at www.treesresort.com.
BASSWOOD LAKE A lot of people don't like chasing big pike in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) because they have to get a permit and use a canoe. The portages can kill you if you're not in good shape, and camping on that cold, hard ground can make you stiff for two weeks after the trip. That's why I go for Bill Slaughter's Basswood Lake Low-Impact Pike Excursion.
I stay at one of the local resorts or motels that Slaughter sets up for me. He picks me up there in the morning and we go have a hot breakfast at one the establishments on the main drag in Ely. We head over to Fall Lake, fill out a day pass, and then we take a 14-foot aluminum V-bottom boat with an outboard motor on it and drive over to the Newton Lake portage.
Portage wheels get us from one side to the other, and then we motor through Newton Lake and make one more low-impact portage into Basswood. We spend the day there throwing Johnson Silver Minnows, jointed crankbaits and hefty spinnerbaits in the cabbage. We catch some really nice pike. When we're done we motor and portage back to Fall Lake, pull the boat and spend the evening stuffing ourselves with lasagna at Sir G's. It's the perfect way to chase those huge northern pike in the BWCAW without practicing your balancing act in a canoe or sleeping next to the bears.
For more information, contact Bill Slaughter at Northwoods Guiding Service, 1-800-559-9695.
LAKE MINNETONKA I fish Lake Minnetonka a lot because I live nearby. In the mid-1980s I caught a lot of big northerns there and by the early '90s they were gone. I wrote it off to fishing pressure. The last two years I have consistently caught big pike on 'Tonka. Maybe it's the effects of the milfoil - I don't know. There have been countless times the past couple of years that I thought I had a muskie on the end of the line and it turned out to be a 40-inch-plus pike. It's good to see these fish again.
In the spring and fall the big pike fall for a spinnerbait worked through the areas of sparse milfoil. I know this sounds like an impossibility finding sparse milfoil, but there are areas in the lake you can find in spring and fall when those milfoil cutters are gone where some cabbage and coontail mingle with the milfoil and create lanes for the spinnerbait to weave through.
In the summer, all the big pi
ke are coming out of 18 to 22 feet of water. Anglers catch them on crankbaits either trolled or cast. These are the big-lipped lures with chunky bodies. They run 15 to 16 feet deep when trolled and can get down to 12 feet or so when cast. The big pike are off the weedline a bit and deep. I'm finding them with some regularity these days, but it won't last long if you kill these fish. There's a ton of 20- to 24-inch pike in Minnetonka. If you feel like frying a few up, catch a few of the smaller ones.
For more information, call Roy's Bait and Tackle at (952) 474-0927 or Shoreline Bait and Tackle at (952) 471-7876.
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