By Joe Albert
The water was clear, and I didn't need the temperature gauge on my depthfinder to tell me it was cold. It just had that look about it. There were other clues, too, about what was going on. Tree leaves were beginning to emerge from their buds, and the emergent vegetation I knew would appear in a few weeks was still working its way up toward the surface. I cast a jig-and-minnow toward the edge of some cabbage weeds in 4 feet of water, hoping to entice one of the walleyes I was confident was in there.
I hopped the jig once, and then again. The third time, I jerked my rod tip a little harder and watched a flash of green appear from nowhere, its fluid, violent movement registering immediately as something out of the ordinary. My rod tip doubled over and the line screamed from my reel, the drag doing its job. Several minutes later, I scooped a chunky northern pike into the net. The fish swam slowly to the bottom, probably to hide for a while amid the tangle of weeds, and as I watched it swim away, it became clear to me that northern pike can be more than just one of those species you happen to run into during the spring.
Though regulations vary, northern pike fishing seasons tend to open with the walleye season. And simply put, those early days of the season can be slow going when it comes to walleyes, requiring lots of effort for marginal returns. That isn't the case when it comes to northern pike. Often as not, they are more than willing to smack lures — whether the anglers throwing them are targeting pike or not — and can provide fast action to heat up cool spring days. And perhaps best of all, finding active pike in the spring is about as easy as finding green vegetation.
Before we talk about catching pike, it's important to understand what they're doing during the spring. In northern regions, pike are among the first fish to spawn, with fish moving into their marshy spawning areas shortly before or after the ice leaves the lakes. To spawn, the fish swim into places such as super-shallow marshes and flooded wetlands — if they are available. Otherwise, shallow, weedy bays will suffice. Once the water temperature reaches about 40 degrees, it's not uncommon to see pike spawning in water that's less than a foot deep. The fish don't hang around their spawning areas long, instead moving into bays and shallow areas just outside their spawning grounds.
Northern pike are most active in cold water — the "northern" part of their name is there for a reason — which means the early part of the season is among the best times of the year to catch them, especially if your goal is a big fish. Until the water temperature reaches into the high-60s and begins pushing pike toward deeper water where they'll spend the summer months, there's no better place to catch springtime pike than in green vegetation.
The reason is simple: Green vegetation produces oxygen, which attracts baitfish and a large variety of game fish. Because northern pike in many systems are the top predator species, weedbeds provide a veritable buffet for fish that are looking to chow down and recuperate from the rigors of spawning. In some cases, vegetation remains green through the winter.
In other situations, you'll have to search for it, keeping in mind that a weedbed that's expansive during the summer may be just a fraction of the size during those early days of spring. If you can find cabbage, it's all the better.
"Any kind of green vegetation will hold fish, but of all the different varieties of vegetation, cabbage holds the most species of fish," said Nate Blasing, a fishing guide who's at home on waters throughout the Upper Midwest. "When that stuff starts to come up, you are going to find concentrations of game fish."
Generally speaking, most of the pike that anglers catch during the spring are the smaller males, which hang around spawning areas and adjacent bays longer than the larger females. That's not to say you can't catch big females after they've spawned — just ask the opening-day walleye angler who's convinced he's hooked a huge walleye, only to find a big northern pike on the end of his line.
CATCHING EARLY PIKE
One of the nice things about fishing for pike in the spring is there are a lot of ways to do it and few ways you can go wrong, as long as you've located fish-holding vegetation.
"Look for big flats and work the top edge of that where the vegetation is coming up," Blasing said. "If there is current near it, that's a situation when you really see the numbers of fish. They seem to be almost schooled up."
Blasing extolls the virtues of a stand-up jig adorned with a minnow, which will produce both walleyes and northern pike. Other anglers prefer casting and retrieving lures including crankbaits, spinnerbaits and spoons. Still others prefer letting out line behind the boat and commencing a trolling run. As long as lures are moving, pike will hit them, but you can increase your chances of connecting by casting or trolling a flashy chrome lure. And don't worry about going too big. Aggressive spring pike have no qualms about smacking something that's barely smaller than they are!
Rapala's minnow-imitating lures are good choices because they retain their subtle movements even when they're attached to a steel leader. The same goes for Bomber Long As and Smithwick Rattlin' Rogues. Don't overlook spoons such as Dardevles or Little Cleos, either, as they can be cast exceptionally long distances and provoke strikes from hungry pike. Bucktails and spinnerbaits get the job done too. For spinnerbaits, choose silver or gold blades. Willow-leaf blades work especially well in clear water — and in many areas, water is clear in the spring — but the thumping action of big Colorado blades can drive pike nuts. There's no wrong way to retrieve spinnerbaits, so you should experiment with retrieves, but in many instances a steady retrieve interspersed with enough speed to cause a bulge on the surface is a good option.
The truth is, once you have located pike in the spring, it's not terribly difficult to make them bite and the choice of presentation often comes down to personal preference. These are hungry fish that haven't seen a lure in months. While many fishermen release the pike they catch, pike meat is especially firm and delicious in the spring, and there's nothing wrong with bringing home a few smaller fish for pickling or filleting. So if you've never targeted northern pike in the spring, there's no better time to give it a shot. Go for the green.
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