If you're looking for lunker northerns in the 20-pound class, New York's Region 5 is the place to be in July. Here's where to find some hot pike action this month. (July 2006)
Northern pike are highly prized game fish due to their size, strength and fighting ability. These predatory creatures are elongated fish with large heads and duckbill jaws with sharp, pointed canine teeth. The dark green shading of their back makes them almost invisible from above.
Their light green sides, with bean-shaped yellow spots, white belly, and dark-spotted, orange-red fins distinguish the northern pike from all other game fish.
Pike are proven wanderers and hunters. One scientist referred to these fish as "mere machines for the assimilation of other organisms." Northern pike don't restrict their diet to fish. Their diet can include leeches, frogs, tadpoles, crayfish, snails, freshwater shrimp and dragonfly nymphs, up to mice, aquatic birds, even muskrats.
Although yellow perch and suckers are the northern pike's preferred food, the general rule is that their food of preference is whatever's most abundant at the moment, including brothers, sisters, cousins and carrion. It's no wonder that in the right habitat, northern pike can grow to more than three feet long, achieve weights of more than 20 pounds, and are documented to live up to 24 years.
Northern pike vary quite widely in weight, depending on the time of year. A pike caught in early May, just after spawning season, is tired and worn and may weigh only 15 pounds. The same pike caught in late summer or early fall can weigh as much as 25 pounds because it has fed all summer and is in prime shape.
The feeding range of these pike is extensive, covering more territory than any other game fish and preferring different habitats at different times of year. In winter, they will move to deeper waters, following the oxygen and food supply. As the ice goes out, they migrate to streams to spawn and then return to the deeper water until the air and water temperatures rise.
On warm spring days they head to the shallow, sandy, reed-bed bays to soak up the sun. As the summer progresses and heats up, these predators will take cover in deeper weedbeds to keep cool and ambush their prey. As the chill of autumn approaches, these fish return to the sandy, shallow bays. Like white-tailed deer, northern pike are also approaching peak physical condition as summer comes to a close.
The old adage, "Use big lures for big fish," holds true for pike. Just ask Great Sacandaga Lake fisherman Mike Buyce. A lifelong resident of Mayfield, Buyce has lived on the shore of Great Sacandaga Lake all his life. And he's been fishing this lake almost all of his 56 years, always aware of Peter Dubuc's 46-pound, 2-ounce northern pike landed in 1940.
Whether it was carp with a bow and arrow, bobbers and worms for sunfish, or rock bass and yellow perch off the dock, Buyce took to the sport of fishing at an early age. During his career, he has caught all of the principal fish in Great Sacandaga Lake including walleyes, smallmouth bass, bullheads, rainbow and brown trout. But his encounters with northern pike were always incidental while fishing for the other, more abundant species in the lake.
THE LURE OF PIKE
In the late 1990s, Buyce was at the mouth of a stream, fishing for post-spawn pike with 12-inch suckers on a 6-foot leader and a bobber. Suddenly his large bobber sank beneath the surface.
Buyce waited patiently, knowing the pike had to turn the sucker around to swallow it. A steady, powerful force headed in the opposite direction, picking up speed until the reel's drag screamed and the line snapped. Buyce knew he had just lost the biggest fish of his life.
A few years later, while trolling for walleyes with a partner, both hooked and landed 30-inch northern pike at the same time. Buyce's sporadic pike success continued with his largest northern pike, a 36-incher. In the back of his mind, Buyce knew his fishing career would never be complete without boating one of the lunkers he knew lurked in the lake.
On the last Thursday evening of August, he began several trolling runs over a shallow point. The first pass produced 24- and 21-inch walleyes. The second troll produced a 19-inch smallmouth bass. As dusk descended, Buyce landed a 39- and a 36-inch northern pike. With five good fish under his belt, he vowed to revisit that hotspot in the morning.
A LUNKER AT LAST
With a cup of coffee in hand, the fisherman eased his boat across the water on a classic hazy, humid late-summer morning. It was 8 a.m. With pike in mind, Buyce began trolling an 8-inch perch-colored plug. Within 15 minutes, his pole bent over the back corner of the boat. After getting the feel of the fish, Buyce turned his boat toward deeper water. He was sure it was a pike and he knew it was big.
Letting the fish play itself out against the tight line, Buyce finally saw his fish. His first thought was, "I need a bigger net!"
The pike appeared tired and surfaced by the boat. As Buyce reached to land the fish by the gills, the pike bolted directly under the vessel, breaking the fishing pole in half on the gunwale of the boat.
Fortunately, that was the lunker's last lunge. Buyce finally landed the huge northern pike from the lake he's fished for a lifetime. His Great Sacandaga Lake northern pike weighed 27 pounds and measured 48 inches long. He had practiced catch-and-release on all the northern pike he had ever caught, but this lifetime achievement was going on the wall.
This water wolf will strike for a variety of reasons, including hunger, the predatory instinct to kill a weak or injured quarry, nuisance or aggravation, or pure aggression. Medium- and shallow-running lures and large, lively baits are proven pike enticers.
The post-spawn period after the spring spawning run finds pike hungry, with empty stomachs that can provide a period of good action when the fishing season opens in May. The tired, post-spawn fish are often found in the steady current of an inlet or on the downstream side of barriers or falls. Pike action diminishes once water temperatures reach 65 degrees with the onset of summer.
August is not known as a prime pike-fishing period. But for the faithful, the best locations to fish are in shallow water by fishing holes in weedbeds, patches of lily pads and the shade of quiet docks.
In a New York state survey, 88 percent of the pike taken were caught in water less than 15 feet deep. Only 12 percent were taken between 15 and 45 feet.
GREAT SACANDAGA LAKE
The 26,860-acre Great Sacandaga Lake at the southern end of the Adirondacks sprawls from Fulton County into Saratoga County. A dam completed in 1930 harnessed the expansive Sacandaga Valley, and all its marshes and nine tributaries created this body of water.
Great Sacandaga Lake's most notable accomplishment in the fishing world is the United States record northern pike caught in 1940 that tipped the scales at 46 pounds, 2 ounces. This lake is comprised of submerged farmland and old creek and river channels is home to a variety of game fish including walleyes, smallmouth bass, bullheads, bluegills, brown and rainbow trout, yellow perch and rock bass. All of these contribute to the sporadic, voracious diet of the northern pike.
Today, the Great Sacandaga still produces 15- to 25-pound fish annually. Devoted pike fishermen take note that this body of water is still a ranking New York state pike lake.
The liberal statewide pike-angling season runs from the first Saturday in May to the following March 15. Region 5 fisheries biologist Rich Preall notes that Great Sacandaga Lake consistently produces the biggest pike in the region.
The northern pike of Great Sacandaga Lake prefer large suckers as their bait of choice from shore fisherman as well as anchored and drifting anglers. Trolling fisherman favor big minnow-type lures and large spoons. Pike hotspots include Woods Hollow Bay, North Broadalbin, Silver Bay, North Hampton, and Cranberry Creek.
The main river channels in this lake -- which can be followed with sonar or GPS coordinates -- include the Mayfield Creek channel, which enters at the southwest end of the lake and extends east to Sinclair Point, where it joins the Sacandaga River channel; a channel that runs south from Northville to Sinclair Point; and the Mayfield Creek channel northeast past the Batchelorville Bridge to the Conklinville Dam.
This is not a deep lake, but neither is it a small body of water. Storms can come up fast and be strong. Autumn anglers should remember that the level of this lake fluctuates and can be treacherous during periods of low water.
For information on lake fishing, fishing guide maps, and bait and tackle, Frank's Gun Shop is on Route 30 north of Broadalbin; call (518) 883-5053. Major boat launches include the Saratoga County launch five miles north of Edinburgh, and the Fulton County launches at Northville on Route 30. Or try the North Hampton Beach Campground 1 1/2 miles south of Northville and the Broadalbin launch, three miles northeast of the village off county Route 110.
Tupper Lake, with its side waters Raquette Pond and Simon Pond, has a strong forage base, primarily smelts. This broad expanse of shallow, weedy water features exceptional numbers of pike. Whether you're trolling the shallow waters with plugs, shore-fishing the mouth of the Bog River with a bobber and minnow or trolling the deeper water of the shore-fishing main body of Tupper Lake, this water is bound to provide pike-fishing action.
A new Department of Environmental Conservation boat launch on Route 30 provides excellent access to all three bodies of water. Adirondack Action Sports on Main Street is Tupper Lake's fishing store.
According to DEC fisheries biologist Rich Preall, Tupper Lake has an excellent pike population.
"Tupper Lake is an established, traditional pike fishing destination. But some of our best pike waters are what we refer to as 'developing fisheries,' or new pike waters that have emerged during the last 10 to 15 years," Preall said. "Most often, these are formerly managed trout waters where pike were introduced and are now thriving. The most notable of these are the Saranac Lake and St. Regis Lake chains in Franklin County, and Upper and Lower Chateaugay Lakes in Clinton County."
The Saranac Chain, which includes the Lower-Middle-Upper Saranac lakes, combine to create 45 miles of large, shallow bodies of water containing thick, large weedbeds for excellent northern pike fishing.
Look for pike in Pope Bay and the weedbeds in the southwest portion of Lower Saranac, Hungry Bay in Middle Saranac lakes, and the abundant weedy bays of Upper Saranac.
The boat launch by the Saranac Inn is one-half mile from Route 30. Blue Line Sports on Main Street can help with visiting anglers' fishing needs.
The St. Regis Chain of Lakes is excellent for small-boat pike fishermen, offering about eight miles of pike water. Marked shoals and the deep water and structure of the northwest portion of Upper St. Regis are excellent for the fish of summer. The navigable channels between the lakes and weedbed pike habitat make the entire chain pike-friendly.
Small boat access to Upper St. Regis Lake is from a small town launch at Upper St. Regis Landing. Lower St. Regis Lake is accessible at the Keese Mill Road car-top launch site, or at the trailhead parking for St. Regis Mountain.
McDonald's Adirondack Challenges can provide fishing supplies and lake information.
Upper and Lower Chateaugay lakes also contain a growing northern pike population, which took hold here a number of years ago. The best pike spots in the Upper Lake are the weedy areas at each end, particularly the lake's south end. In the Lower Lake, look for pike in the narrows at the southern end of the lake. Twenty-pound pike are now being caught in this "developing fishery."
The boat launch for Upper and Lower Chateaugay lakes is on Route 374, one-half mile north of the Hamlet of Merrill. This is a remote area, so come prepared with a full day's supplies.
Weeds, openings in weeds, and prominent weedlines are the key to locating northern pike in July. For summer pike, the very best weedbeds are those adjacent to deep water. Traditional strategies include trolling minnow- or perch-pattern plugs as well as spinners and spoons. Suspend a live minnow, sucker or shiner below a bobber or work the edges by casting sinking crankbaits to reach the deeper pike of summer.
Early morning and evening typically produce the best summer action. Slow summer pike fishing can trigger desperate measures. Rodger Klindt, a DEC fisheries biologist, recommends jig-fishing deeper holes while drift- fishing the edges of weedbeds.
Biologist Rich Preall noted that some of the most successful summer pike fishermen troll with big live baits or chartreuse lures over points of land in 20 to 30 feet of water in a 50- to 60-degree temperature zone.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Great Sacandaga Lake is easily accessible off Extension 27 of the New York State Thruway. For fishing and travel information, call the Fulton County Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-676-3858.
The other Region 5 lakes mentioned are easily reached via Route 30 north or Interstate Route 87, the Adirondack Northway. Th
e Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce at (518) 798-1761 can help plan your trip.
For more pike fishing information, log on to either www.dec.state.ny.us or aswww.adk.com/recreation/z-fish. Or call the DEC's Region 5 Office at (518) 897-1200.