If you want to catch northern pike consistently, you need to make a plan. Here are some tips to get you started.
It's easy to like pike. If you're already a pike fan, you know the truth. Northerns are handsome, streamlined, toothy and mean-looking; they usually are hungry, they hit hard and fight well, and they taste great from the frying pan if the water you're working allows you to keep a few for eating.
If you're not yet a pike fan, I've just given you the reasons you should become one. Make this your year to become a pike enthusiast.
It may seem early to be thinking about pike fishing. But as spring takes over and game fish seasons open, it's time to get rolling. Be ready for pike success with an arsenal of fishing strategies and tactics, and a gear setup that's going to get the job done.
By the time spring arrives, spawning typically is over and the fish are in recovery mode. That might sound like a challenge, but it actually is a good thing. Pike are hungry and need to replenish energy reserves used up while developing, laying and fertilizing eggs.
While it's true that huge female pike may simply rest and recuperate for a few days after laying their eggs, by the time fishermen get serious the fish are actively trying to put fat back on their bean-spotted flanks.
Pike are somewhat spread out then. The weedbeds the fish prefer have not had time to grow and develop, and so the habitat does not yet provide meaningful ambush cover from which to hunt. So how should you fish?
Covering water is smart. Pike will not be in predictable spots. Rather, they will be wherever the food is.
That makes it tempting to troll in spring. But with the cool water, even pike metabolism might be too low for the fish to give chase. A better approach is to drift known weedbed areas and shallow bays, working your way along and casting silvery or bronze minnow baits, or flashy spinnerbaits. Use a slow retrieve.
Another approach is to back-troll (to get your speed down) slowly along the very first breakline between shore and deeper water. Use a slip-sinker rig baited with a medium-sized sucker minnow or a nice shiner.
This is the time of year to concentrate on bays, coves, marshy shorelines and soft-bottomed flats where vegetation is sprouting. Pike are coolwater fish, and at that time of year water temperatures have not yet risen to levels that would drive good-sized pike to deeper water.
From 4 to 8 feet are good depths, but pike will work even shallower to chase forage in early morning and late evening, and at night.
In summary, the keys to locating a good springtime pike spot include: A shallow, muck- or soft-bottomed bay, protection from cold spring winds, and exposure to the warming sun. A pike's attraction to this kind of place is mostly due to how the conditions are favorable for baitfish. That, in turn, attracts northerns.
Most any bright bait will catch pike at that time of year — as long as it is not worked too fast. If you're using live bait, it is best to either drift along with a slip-bobber rig, or use the slip-sinker rig.
As summertime takes over and water temperatures begin to warm, pike fishing can get even better. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, pike are coolwater fish and warm water can make them lethargic.
But in June, conditions become almost ideal. Water temperatures are still cool enough that pike are energized and have a strong metabolism. They are not searching for cool water. Not yet. In addition, weed growth is starting to kick in, which attracts fish. Water temperatures usually are in the low to mid-60s, which is good for pike of all sizes.
What's more, at this point, the season's newly hatched baitfish are too small to be of any interest, while last year's "hatch" has been worked over and whittled down. Meaningful food is at a premium. Pike are hungry and want a sizable meal.
Another beauty of early summer is that big pike will be right in there with the rest of the fish. That won't be true later on in summer, but it is now.
Work deeper on the breaklines during early summer, targeting the 10- to 12-foot range.
It's interesting that as summer gets going, say after the Fourth of July holidays, many anglers quit pike fishing. The reasoning? They think pike are harder to catch now. That's not necessarily true. The fish, especially the big ones, have merely changed locations.
Now, fishing weedbeds is the way to go. Cabbage is best. Forget about mossy, dense beds of largemouth bass vegetation, such as milfoil or lily pads.
Slip-bobber fishing with good-sized sucker minnows is a prime technique. Work the deep side of the weed breaklines — that 12- to 15-foot range, down to 17-18 feet in clear water.
This is the time of year when trolling comes into its own. Pike can get quite aggressive as summer ages, but you're going to have to use a deep-diving crankbait that will get you down to the pike depths, and on the outer edges of weedbeds.
The Catch-22 of pike fishing gear is this: You can gear up to have fun with "smaller" pike (those under, say, 30 inches), but then you're "undergunned" if a big pike (a 35-plus incher) takes your bait. On the other hand, gearing up for a 12-, 15- or 18-pound beast-pike makes battling those nice 26- to 30-inch fish not much fun.
Here are a couple of ideas for effective happy mediums.
Try a baitcasting outfit with a 6-foot, medium-heavy-action rod. Go with 15- to 20-pound-test line, and a leader will be part of your terminal tackle. There's not always a lot of finesse with pike fishing!
Or, go with a heavy spinning outfit, a good reel with a responsive drag setting, a quality graphite rod in medium- to medium-heavy action, and heavy line in the 12- to 18-pound-test range.
It is folly to fish for pike without a metal leader. Pike teeth are so razor-sharp that they will easily slice relatively naked fishing line.
A good leader is 12 to 18 inches long. Thirty-pound-test leaders are ideal, but 20-pound-test can do the job. A swivel prevents line twist when you are trolling or retrieving. It may seem like the extra hardware (snaps, swivels) could bother pike. But the predators are so laser-focused on eating that it takes a lot to deter them.
For artificial lures, you'll find that spoons, spinners, spinnerbaits, swimbaits and crankbaits all catch pike. Flash is important; something silvery, gold or coppery attracts pike. "Matching the hatch" is important too. For example, use yellow perch lure patterns and colors where perch are the forage base for pike.
For live bait, sucker minnows are tops. But the species of baitfish you use doesn't matter much, as long as your offering is lively and a good size. Six to 8 inches long, all the way up to 9 or 10, will catch pike of all sizes. Match your hook size to the bait; size 1/0 to 5/0 is good.