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Tactics For Michigan's River Pike

Tactics For Michigan's River Pike
The auhor caught this nice-sized river pike on the Grand River, one of his prize picks for early pike action. Photo by Jim Bedford.

The author caught this nice-sized river pike on the Grand River, one of his prize picks for early pike action. Photo by Jim Bedford.

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.

Brad Befus | 8-pound tippet

Only three days later, on August 8, 1996, lightning struck the second time with Befus landing a 27-pound pike on the same river, but this time on light tippet. After another short battle, Befus once again released the fish back into the Innoko and walked away with the men's 8-pound tippet class record.

Brad Befus | 20-pound tippet World Record

Holding a world record on a popular game fish such as northern pike is what many anglers dream of all their lives. Bradley Befus had that dream come true twice during a fishing trip to Alaska in August 1996 when he set two separate tippet class records on northern pike. On August 5, 1996 Befus was fly fishing on the Innoko River when a 30-pound, 8-ounce pike crushed the fly he was casting.

/p> Five minutes after hooking up, Befus had the quality pike on the shore, where he quickly documented and released the fish alive — earning him the men's 20-pound tippet class world record.

Stephan Gockel | All-Tackle Length Record

German angler Stephan Gockel landed the largest All-Tackle Length record northern ever approved by the IGFA on October 1, 2013 while fishing around the area of Nimwegan in the Netherlands. Gockel was casting a Rooster V-Tail lure when he hooked into the 120 cm pike that he battled for 10 minutes before landing the fish. Once in the boat and under control, Gockel quickly measured, documented, and released the fish alive.

Thomas Lindwall |16-pound Line Class Record

It took Thomas Lindwall only 5 minutes to land the massive 39-pound, 12-ounce northern pike he pulled from a body just outside of Tenhultasjon, Sweden on a chilly November 1, 1990. Lindwall was trolling a Swim Whizz lure from his small boat when the record pike piled on. After a short fight on 16-pound tackle, Lindwall had the fish in the boat and was on the way back to the dock to get an official weight reading on the fish that has held the men's 16-pound line class record for 25 years.

Christer Mattsson | 6-pound Line Class Record

While pike fishing is very popular in Europe, what many non-European pike anglers don't realize is that some of the best fishing occurs in saltwater. In fact, Swedish angler Christer Mattsson landed his 35-pound, 12-ounce pike in the Baltic Sea, when he pulled it from Karlshamn, Sweden on September 19, 1998. Mattsson was casting a shallow diving Opm lure from his 12-foot aluminum boat when the pike hit. After surviving the initial run with his 6-pound tackle and no leader, Mattsson settled in for a long battle as the pike towed him around for nearly an hour, before he could pull the fish on board. This is the only pike ever recorded by the IGFA on 6-pound tackle.

Ake Nilsson | 12-pound Line Class Record

The title of the second heaviest northern pike ever recorded — a 47 pound, 4 ounce beast — belongs to Swedish angler Ake Nilsson. The historic catch was made on January 29, 1989 while Nilsson was casting an Italia lure from a 12-foot rowboat he was captaining down Sweden's Lodde River. After coming tight to the pike, Nilsson skillfully played the fish for 15-20 minutes on 12-pound test and only a couple inches of wire leader. Over the years, doubts have been raised about the true weight of the fish, as the photos don't appear to show a fish of nearly 50 pounds. However, the fish's massive length of 51.5 inches and a girth of 31 inches, leave little doubt to its incredible size.

Lothar Louis | All-Tackle Record

Despite the millions of diehard pike fishermen around the world, Lothar Louis remains the envy of them all due to the 25 kg (55 pound, 1 ounce) northern pike he pulled from Lake Grefeern, Germany nearly 30 years ago. When Louis arrived at his local fishing hole on the morning of October 16, 1986, his plan was to target carp and roach — not northern pike. However, Louis, like many of us anglers, was an optimist. It was Louis' habit at the start of each fishing day to make 15 casts with his 'pike rod ' — a spinning outfit spooled with 8 kg (16 pound) mono. On just his third cast of the morning, Louis' optimism was rewarded. The monster pike inhaled his spoon and Louis was hooked up to the fish of a lifetime. Unable to net the fish due to its tremendous size, and worried that he would lose the fish, Lothar had no choice but to plunge his hands inside the gill covers to land the fish. In an interview after the catch, Lothar is quoted as saying that he 'was so excited he did not feel the pain as the huge teeth sank into both hands as he lifted her up on the bank. ' Certainly a desperate move, given the serious dentition of the northern pike, but with a fish like that on the line, can you blame him?

Paolo Pacchiarini | 16-pound Fly Rod Record

On June 19, 2010, Italian angler Paolo Pacchiarini rented a boat for some fly fishing with his father on Lake Annone — just outside of Lecco, Italy — when a monstrous pike crushed the baitfish pattern fly he was casting. The 8 inches of wire shock tippet immediately following his fly indicates that Pacchiarini knew there were toothy pike in the area, but he couldn't believe the size of what he brought to the boat after the 10 minute fight. Weighing in at a whopping 36 pounds, the catch not only earned Pacchiarini the new men's 16-pound tippet class record, but it also earned him the bragging rights of having caught the largest northern ever recorded by the IGFA on fly tackle.

Benny Pettersson | 20-pound Line Class Record

Swedish angler Benny Pettersson barely missed the elusive 40-pound mark with his trophy, but the 39-pound, 14-ounce northern pike he pulled from Osthammer, Sweden on November 20, 1993 was plenty big enough to earn him a world record. Pettersson was casting a black and silver Zalt plug from a small boat when the record pike hit. After a tense 10 minute battle, Pettersson boated the fish and quickly made his way to shore to officially document his catch and new men's 20-pound line class world record.

Giacomo Pinotti | 8-pound Line Class Record

The frigid temperatures and snowfall were not enough to deter Swiss angler Giacomo Pinotti from making angling history on the morning of December 10, 1990, when he left his home in Ascona to fish the nearby Lake Maggiore. From reviewing Pinotti's record application, it appears he knew big pike were a possibility, as he reported using a large, live whitefish for bait. Pinotti's approach of 'big bait = big fish ' paid off that morning, as Pinotti ended up landing a huge 43-pound, 3-ounce pike, after an incredible hour and a half long fight on 8-pound test! Making the catch even more impressive is that Pinotti was not using any leader, and he reported catching his record fish from the shore!

Rick Townsend | 2-pound Line Class Record

While Rick Townsend's 23-pound, 15-ounce northern pike is not one of the largest specimens ever recorded with the IGFA — it is certainly one of the most impressive catches. On August 10, 1990, Rick Townsend was actually guiding two clients in the Alaskan wilderness from his floatplane. After touching down in a shallow lake near Anvik, Townsend and his two clients began fishing from the floats on his floatplane. Equipped with ultra-light tackle and casting a Mepp's spoon, Townsend hooked into what he immediately knew was a quality fish. After playing the fish for 15-20 minutes from the plane, Townsend jumped off the plane into the waist-deep water to distance himself from the hazards of the plane, and eventually landed the fish with his bare hands — earning him the men's 2-pound line class record.

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