November 10, 2022
By Matt Straw
I was aggressively cranking in my bait when I saw it. A big green monster racing toward the surface, and, more specifically, my lure. Moments later, a boil seemingly half the size of the boat erupted, and I was tethered to an 18-pound pike on a big lake not far from my home—a lake not recently known for large northerns. It was a big, beautiful fish and a strong testament to the often-overlooked pike possibilities of late fall.
While these toothy critters are sometimes spread out and unavailable to many anglers during summer, big pike often school up in predictable areas in the fall. As deep forage pushes shallow and shallow forage slides deep, the aptly named “water wolf” moves to intercept them both. The result is outstanding big-fish action for those who brave the cold weather.
THE FALL PROGRAM
During the summer months, big pike scatter as they follow three predominant patterns. In big, deep lakes, some pike suspend in open water, chasing pelagic baitfish. Others roam deep weed edges to target panfish and suckers. Others still roam deep flats or post up on deep structure to hunt whitefish.
By October, however, these three patterns coalesce into one. Deep pike rise, weed pike move out and suspending pike move in to hunt baitfish. Basically, northerns hanging in three vastly different areas all converge to the same gathering spots.
“Pike in the fall are just like parents waiting at street corners for their kids to get off the bus,” says Gord Pyzer, a former fisheries manager and now celebrated outdoor journalist. “That’s why I call the best fall locations bus stops. As the water cools, pike have only one thing on their minds—shoveling baitfish down their throats as quickly as possible.”
To find these “bus stops,” or “terminals,” where big pike hang out in the late fall, Pyzer suggests noting the locations of some of the best late-summer spots and then identifying the nearest main-lake or large-island points that break into deep water. He adds that if one of these points happens to have an adjacent ledge or feeding flat in 10 to 20 feet of water, so much the better. The pattern begins, he says, when the water temperature drops below 60 degrees, peaks throughout the 50s and 40s, and continues even below 40 degrees. And things only improve when wind is involved.
“A good bus stop becomes awesome when you find it exposed to wind and waves,” Pyzer says. “An amazing bus stop, on the other hand, becomes Union Station in a blow.”
Pyzer advocates parking the boat over deep water, casting up shallow and retrieving lures out over the break. This always seems to produce better than the opposite.
Mark Fisher, former field-promotions guru for Rapala, is a pike maniac, and he echoes what Pyzer says about the late-fall bite. He notes that pike position themselves around key points as well as isolated rockpiles off those points when temperatures fall into that 50-degree range.
“On big impoundments and lakes—and on the Great Lakes—you can run into schools of giant pike in relatively small areas,” Fisher says. “They come together to find a consistent food source. The forage base is thinner now, but individual targets are bigger. Once pike find a consistent food source, they position to intercept it with the least energy expense possible.”
Over the years, some anglers have suggested that pike move out of back bays and away from deep weed edges because of decaying vegetation or a decline in oxygen levels. However, Pyzer largely dismisses this. He says that pike are simply following prey—yellow perch and walleye—that are transitioning to their deep-water fall locations.
Open-water pike are following prey, too. Ciscoes and whitefish come inshore to spawn on gravel and rock points, while the shallows open up for cold-water species like trout. This amounts to something resembling an all-you-can-eat banquet for big northerns hanging around these points.
One of Fisher’s favorite things about this late-fall pike bite is that it’s mostly a casting game. He notes that while trolling can coax one or two fish into biting, casting is often far more efficient and productive. It allows the angler to reach areas the boat can’t reach and place repeated casts to the same spot. A lot of times, he says, an angler will catch one pike and then another will move right into that same prime location.
Again, the name of the game is to set up on a main-lake point. Those that reach out to—or almost to—the deepest basin are best, but any point with adjacent depths of 20 feet or more can attract pike, especially with wind and waves cracking directly in on it. Use side-scanning sonar to pick out rockpiles, outcroppings and boulders, as these are natural ambush sites. Utilize sonar to find the lip of the sharpest drop into deep water. Then, position the boat over deep water and cast past those features into shallow water.
Fall pike will crush a wide variety of lures and presentations. Diving baits, deep cranks, shallow cranks, soft swimbaits, gliding baits, jerkbaits, big chatterbaits—the sky’s the limit. Fisher particularly likes the 6-inch Rapala X-Rap Sub Walk on medium-heavy casting gear with 50-pound Sufix 832 Advanced Superline.
“It stays in the strike zone longer,” he says. “I snap the rod tip down, allow it to glide to one side as far as it will go and pause before snapping again. As the water gets colder, pike get more lethargic. No matter what kind of lure it is, larger versions resist more water, turn slower and glide longer. The pause triggers violent strikes.”
My best lure is the Lucky Craft Pointer 100—a suspending jerkbait that always suspends perfectly right out of the box. Snap the rod tip down aggressively two or three times to send flash out in all directions, then pause for 10 seconds or more. Suspending lures tend to get ripped on the pause.
Like suspending jerkbaits, double-bladed spinners, such as the Mepps Double Blade Aglia, balance with lighter tackle. Even smaller No. 5 blades, when doubled, attract big pike by pushing as much or more water than bigger baits. Bucktail versions of double-bladed spinners can be fished slower than single blades while projecting the bulk and disturbance that mimics larger forage.
Soft swimbaits, like the 5 1/2-inch Storm 360GT Searchbait—fished alone on the brand’s 360 jig head or as a trailer on a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce swim jig—get clobbered, too. Baits like the Terminator Heavy Duty Swim Jig have a skirt, bulking the profile and slowing the forward speed on the swim. A slow roll is the ticket. As water temperatures dip below 50 degrees, pike begin to lose interest in fast retrieves. Cast, let the lure hit bottom, then start a slow, steady retrieve. If the lure never touches, slow down. If it drags, speed up.
If a big pike is what you’re looking for in late fall, follow the wind to a main-lake point. Set up on the deep side. Look for ambush points and cast beyond them. Pay attention to how fast the reel handle turns when strikes occur. Don’t worry—you’ll know when that is.