Tactics For Michigan's River Pike
February 21, 2012
The northern pike that inhabit our rivers are probably the most under-utilized game fish in Michigan. That's likely the case because we have lots of good pike lakes and that is where anglers have traditionally fished for them. Pike often are caught by anglers who are actually targeting other fish in our rivers. It can be really exciting when a smallmouth bass angler catching 1- to 2-pound bass finds himself attached to a 30-inch northern pike.
Michigan has thousands of miles of rivers and streams that harbor pike in good numbers. While northerns tend not to grow quite as large in rivers as they do in lakes, they still reach good sizes and offer the angler a chance at sizable fish close to home. And, in contrast to smallies and walleyes, these fish reach a surprising weight in small streams and creeks. There are several creeks where I have never caught a legal-sized smallmouth bass, but have landed several pike in the 6-pound class.
A good rundown of our best pike rivers will follow, but first, let's look at the fish's habits and how to catch them. The northern pike may be our ultimate ambusher. These fish lay in wait for unsuspecting prey to come along while utilizing cover to hide themselves. That can be aquatic vegetation, submerged logs, boulders, or undercut banks.
When it comes to current, I think pike would probably prefer that there wasn't any. Thus, looking for them in slow, meandering stretches of our rivers is a good plan. Back eddies and still waters off to the sides of the main flow will harbor northerns waiting to ambush their prey.
When they are in moderate flow they will lie behind some obstruction that blocks the current. Pike mainly eat other fish. Most minnows can't fight heavy current, and so we have another reason to find pike in slack water. Lures that resemble baitfish work especially well for pike. Minnow baits or stickbaits work especially well for pike because their action mimics that of a wounded minnow Sometimes using the real thing, live minnows, is the best tactic for taking river pike.
Northern pike probably depend on their sight more than any other predator fish so it stands to reason that they would prefer rivers that are fairly clear most of the time. Lots of good cover is important, both because it attracts small fish and hides the sneaky pike that wait to dart out and nab the prey. This waiting game, as opposed to cruising around looking for prey, brings up another important key to success in catching river pike. Once you have found a river or stream that has the right habitat or is known to harbor a good pike population, it is important to keep moving until you find some fish. They won't come to you so plan on wading or floating a fair distance.
Another factor to consider at this time of year is that the water is very cold. Spawning time is close at hand so the pike need to eat, but they won't chase down fast-moving lures. Retrieve your lures slowly along the cover. Sometimes you almost just hang them in the current and entice a strike. The cold water also makes drifting live minnows especially effective compared to moving lures.
Starting in southern Michigan and working north, we will describe some of Michigan's better pike rivers. Not all the possibilities can be described but, as always, you can add to your list of rivers and creeks to try by contacting the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment fishery biologists for the watershed you are interested in fishing. We will provide their phone numbers as we go along.
The best pike water in the St. Joseph River is located in the upper part of the system before it dips into Indiana. Look for good numbers of pike in the slower reaches between Tekonsha and the state line. Feeder streams with populations of northerns include the Coldwater, Portage, Prairie, and Fawn rivers. If the main stream is too high and dirty, or if you prefer smaller stream, those tributaries are good ones to try.
The Kalamazoo River also has its best pike numbers in the upper part of the river. That is a frequent pattern in Michigan rivers where the headwaters are slower moving, As they pick up gradient downstream, the habitat starts to favor smallmouth bass and walleyes as the dominant predator fish. A special feature of the upper Kalamazoo River is that it tends to run clear unless we have very heavy rain. That is especially true above the confluence of the North and South branches in Albion. Clear, deep, slow water with lots of weeds spells pike in both branches, but the North Branch usually is a better producer. The Battle Creek River that joins the Kalamazoo in the city of Battle Creek is also a very good pike river, especially in its lower 10 miles.
If you hanker to do battle with a large pike in a small stream, you might try Indian Creek, a tributary to the Battle Creek River near Olivet. Another smallish stream with big pike is Rice Creek near Marshall. It flows directly into the Kalamazoo and is managed for trout. If a cold spell puts too much shelf ice in the main river, you can count on Rice Creek to be open. You will need to release any brown trout you happen to catch at this time of year.
Much of the Grand River is better suited to smallmouths and walleyes, especially its middle reach. Good numbers of pike are found in its headwaters near Jackson and in the bayous of the lower river downstream from Grand Rapids. However, they can also be found throughout the river in the slower reaches and there are several tributaries with fine pike populations. The Portage River joins the Grand downstream from Jackson and is teeming with pike. The Red Cedar River joins the Grand in Lansing and has pike throughout its length. Its tributary, Sycamore Creek, offers still another chance at large pike in a small stream. North of Lansing, the upper Looking Glass River has fine pike numbers. As you go downstream in the Looking Glass, smallmouths take over, but there will still be pike in the big holes.
Moving west, both the Flat and Thornapple rivers join the Grand upstream from Grand Rapids. These streams are nationally known for their smallmouth fishing, but they also contain surprising numbers of pike. The Flat is like the upper Kalamazoo in that it is very slow to muddy after a rain; it takes a major downpour to put it out of shape.
For more information on the pike fishing in the St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, and Grand watersheds, contact the DNR at (269) 685-6851.
On the eastern side of southern Michigan, the Huron River stands out as a fine producer of northern pike. The best fishing is in its upper reaches where lots of lake outlets feed the river and keep it clear. There are also a number of impoundments on the Huron, and pike often move out of them and into the river in early spring. It's also the upper part of the River Raisin that provides the southeastern metropolitan angler with good opportunities for river pike. Turbidity is a key here, as it increases downstream and the pike become scarcer. Check with the DNR at (248) 359-9040 for more information on those two rivers.
While the Saginaw River is not a prime pike water, many of its tributaries have fine populations of old scissor mouth. The Flint River has pike throughout its length but the upper reaches of this river are best. The Cass, Shiawassee, Pine, and Chippewa rivers are known as good smallmouth streams, but their slow, deep holes are also teeming with northerns. The axiom "keep moving until you find fish" definitely applies to these rivers. The Bad River, which flows into the Shiawassee River near St. Charles, probably offers the best pike fishing in the whole Saginaw River system. It is relatively small and quickly splits into two branches upstream from the Shiawassee, but its sluggish flow and deep holes provide excellent pike habitat. The number to call for updates on the Saginaw River system is (989) 684-9141.
Moving back west, steelhead, salmon, and walleyes usually come to mind when the Muskegon River is mentioned. But both the lower and upper reaches of this long river have good pike populations. Interestingly, you might catch a brook trout while fishing for pike in its headwaters downstream from Houghton Lake. And, of course, in season there will be steelhead and Chinook salmon among the pike downstream from Bridgeton. Most Lake Michigan tributaries in the Lower Peninsula, including the Muskegon, have lakes at their mouths. I think that is the reason for excellent pike fishing in the lower reaches, with northerns moving up into the river from the river mouth lake.
The upper White River is a blue ribbon trout stream, but the river warms as it nears Lake Michigan. It flows into White Lake and then Lake Michigan just to the north of the Muskegon. You will find good numbers of pike in the deep bend holes in the first five or six miles of river upstream from White Lake. The prime pike water in the Pere Marquette River is located downstream from where its Big South Branch joins the main stream. You'll also find lots of pike in the lower part of the Big South Branch. The Pike are especially numerous in the main stream below Scottville.
The Big Manistee River provides good pike fishing for the first 10 miles or so upstream from Manistee Lake. You'll need a boat, and there are a number of boat ramps in the lower river, thanks to the thriving fishery for salmon and steelhead. The same scenario is repeated about 20 miles to the north in the Betsie River. This is a smaller river but it has good numbers of pike between Betsie Lake and the second River Road crossing. I will never forget the time I was fishing for Chinook salmon, which were averaging better than 20 pounds at the time in this river, and hooked a pike larger than any of the salmon I had encountered. But I wasn't using a wire leader at the time and "the big one" got away once more.
Back on the Lake Huron side, northern pike are found in good numbers in three branches of the Thunder Bay River. The main stream below Hillman and both the Upper and Lower South branches harbor lots of pike of modest size. Fletcher Pond, a popular pike hotspot, is an impoundment on the Upper South Branch and it is likely that pike move out of the still water into the river. That river might still be frozen in early March so check with the DNR at (989) 732-3541 before you go.
Speaking of frozen rivers, there are a number of good pike streams in the Upper Peninsula, but most will be buttoned up solid when you get this issue. Still, we'll mention some that you can try later in the spring. Good pike fishing can be found in the huge St. Mary's River down from the rapids in Sault Ste. Marie, and there may be some open water for a short distance below the rapids and the power-plant outfalls. Finding the weedbeds is key to finding pike, and the ultra-clear water helps you do that. Call the same number given for the Thunder Bay River for river conditions here.
The Tahquamenon River is relatively slow moving when you eliminate areas near its two falls, and provides good habitat for northern pike. These fish are found from the Dollarville Flooding all the way to the mouth. Muskies are also present and sometimes provide a pleasant surprise when casting for pike.
While many of the Manistique River's tributaries are trout streams, the main river is a warmwater stream. Habitat will dictate whether the dominant predator will be pike, smallmouths, or walleyes. Similarly, the Menominee River also contains all three species; looking for the slow, deep holes will help you locate the pike. This is a large river and some good-sized pike are possible along with an occasional muskellunge. Call the DNR at (906) 293-5131 for information on the Tahquamenon, and (906) 786-2351 for the Manistique.
Remember that the season for keeping northern pike in Michigan ends on March 15. Don't forget your camera if you happen to catch a trophy pike while fishing for other species after the season closes. A good photo along with length and girth measurements will allow you to have a replica mount made if desired. The season for pike reopens on April 28 in the Lower Peninsula and on May 15 above The Straits. Those fish will be especially hungry following spawning and will eagerly chase down your lures. Don't forget to cover lots of water until you find cooperative northerns.