Beyond Traditional Pike Spoon Tactics
July 15, 2011
Spoons fish well because they offer weight for casting, even into wind and on heavier tackle, and rarely, if ever, need tuning in spite of punishing abuse, though you might have to change hooks. Most importantly, a spoon's seductive action gives the illusion of an appealing (and apparently easy) meal that naturally grabs a pike's attention. We also have a host of various designs from which to choose, ranging from the classics already mentioned to spoons like the famous Doctor Spoon and the Red-Eye Wobbler.
Some sturdy advice about fishing with spoons has been offered over the years by In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. He aptly characterizes the problem some anglers have with fishing spoons today. In short, spoons have in many instances fallen out of favor based on advice that In-Fisherman has offered over the years.
Stange: "Spoons are a classic lure choice for pike, so much so and such a traditional choice that in some environments over the years it is (or was) the only thing they've seen. Starting 15 years ago or so, we began suggesting that pike in these waters — especially in catch-and-release waters — were getting conditioned to the constant procession of spoons.
"Conditioning is a common fishing factor all good anglers now recognize, no matter the species, no matter the body of water. Fish learn. And then you have to use something else, or find a new way to present the same old lure. In this case, pike learned that spoons aren't food — and they're no longer all that attracted to typical spoons and spoon retrieves.
"But anglers also have to realize that there's an ebb and flow to what anglers are doing. We aren't just fishing against the fish, but also against other anglers. Once, most anglers used nothing but spoons — and now we've come through a decade where anglers haven't been using spoons so much. That's right. In many (but certainly not all) environments, we've found that spoons have moved right back up to the top of the list when it comes to pike table fare."
As importantly, perhaps, Stange and the rest of the In-Fisherman staff have come full circle in their methods of working spoons in order to consistently trigger fish.
Stange: "The best spoons — the classics — have proven productive right out of the box. Just cast one out and retrieve it, allowing the built-in capabilities of the lure to do their thing to trigger fish. The main thing you control with any given spoon in that instance is depth and speed. Those are the key variables that you always work with first.
"You can't catch fish if the spoon's not at the right depth. Might have to fish it slower or faster and that might also mean switching spoons to get the lure down and working at the right speed. Speed isn't just pure speed, but also the way the spoon's actually being worked. In other words, it helps at times to snap the rod tip during a straight retrieve — or some other variation like that. I'll talk about the most important of the possible variations in a moment."
In earlier articles, Stange suggested that spoon size and vibration are vital factors in triggering fish, providing that depth and speed control are first maintained. He suggests that stocking a spectrum of spoons of various sizes in the same color pattern allows an angler to experiment with size and vibration patterns, while holding the color variable constant. In other words, it isn't enough just to have one size of spoon in a variety of colors, even when it falls within a key size range that generally runs from 3 to 6 inches.
Stange: "Spoon size affects vibration pattern, but so does speed. Increasing speed increases vibration, while decreasing speed usually does the opposite. It's the right combination of resulting flash and vibration that gets pike to go, so long as the spoon's moving at the right speed — and retrieve cadence — and is running at the right depth."
So what then is the most important retrieve variation presently being suggested by the In-Fisherman staff?
Stange: "Well, here's another instance in which we've come full circle to sort of rediscover how effective an old move can be when it hasn't been seen by pike in a while. One of the tricks we used with spoons in the 1970s and '80s was a variation on a standard lift-fall retrieve.
"It's a trick we'd used in the early days for reluctant pike in shallow water, particularly on the major fly-in and drive-to fisheries in Canada. We'd be there early in the season in order to have a chance at those shallow fish but, as is so often the case in early season (late May and June), you run into terrible weather and the fish are tentative. If we could get fish to follow a spoon, we'd retrieve with the rod tip held high, then stop the retrieve and let the spoon fall backwards into the face of the following fish. The reaction was almost involuntary, with the fish snapping up the falling spoon.
"Classic spoons worked well, but so did spoons made with really light metal. They were actually easier to work in shallow water. Lighter spoons of specific designs also fall more erratically, introducing an additional trigger."
So that's the retrieve modification that you've found so successful for pike over the last couple years? I asked.
Stange: "Yes, it's lifting and dropping the spoon, often with a heavy snap-fall motion in which the rod tip starts at 10 o'clock and then is snapped sharply up to 12 o'clock, at which point the spoon's allowed to fall on slack line as the rod tip's quickly returned to 10 o'clock. It's when the spoon snaps back into place at 10 o'clock that the fish hit. Or the fish are hitting the spoon as it falls (drifts backward) on slack line and already have it when you make the next snap.
"While this continues to work at times on shallow fish, the biggest change today is that we've taken this technique into deeper water. We're working spoons like this on rock points and deep flats in water down to 35 feet deep at times. The key depths on fly-in and drive-to fisheries when most fish move out of the shallows is in water from about 10 to 25 feet deep. Then during summer, we're often catching fish along deep weededges or along rocky drop-offs. Most of the weededge fish are still in water from 8 to 15 feet deep. The rock fish might be much deeper.
"And I'm not just talking fish in Canada. Some western reservoirs. Midwestern natural lakes and reservoirs. I've used it on the New York portion of Lake Ontario, near Henderson Harbor. On stretches of the Mississippi River — and on Fort Peck, part of the Missouri River in Montana. "
Are you fishing the spoons on the bottom or fishing them suspended?
Stange: "Mostly just above the bottom. You make a cast and let the spoon sink until it hits bottom and the line goes slack. Then position the rod tip tight to the lure and use the snap-fall retrieve to bring the spoon back to the boat or the bank.
"The main situation where we've caught suspended fish is during late summer and into fall, when fish are holding near the mouth of backwater areas or around and along steep main-lake rocky drop-offs. These fish often are roaming about halfway down in the water column, probably monitoring the depth at which baitfish pass by. We position the boat in standard fashion over deeper water and cast toward shallower water. Count the spoon down 10 counts or so — and then here's the key retrieve:
"Count the spoon down (begin by assuming your reel's engaged) with your rod tip pointed directly at the spoon — say at 9 o'clock. Now slowly start retrieving at the same time that you're also slowly raising your rod tip to about 11 o'clock. When you reach 11 let the spoon fall back to 9 on semi-slack line. So you're dropping your rod tip just barely faster than the spoon's falling back. The fish are hitting as the spoon drops back, but they're also often smashing the lure as it's retrieved from 9 to 11.
"You can also freespool the lure to depth, which gets it down faster than letting it fall on a tight line. I keep my rod tip at 11 o'clock with the spoon open (usually using a baitcaster), then as the lure gets to depth I engage the reel as I drop the rod tip and begin the retrieve just described.
"The other addition to that standard retrieve that really works begins once you get the rod to 11 o'clock. At that point, snap the rod to 12 as you immediately drop the tip back to 11, reeling up the slack at the same time. Do this rapidly 3, 4, or 5 times before letting the lure fall back to 9 o'clock."
Stange suggests that you pick a spoon design you like and stick with it, to get back into fine-tuning with spoons. You can't go wrong with a spoon that has "a big butt," he says — the classic Dardevle, for example. These spoons fall nicely backward because they're heavily cupped and slightly butt-heavy. Many narrow spoons sink too quickly. You're looking for a spoon that catches water and glides back on a modest horizontal plane, as opposed to the dart up, dart down, almost vertical motion you get with a spoon like the Hopkins. In the end, you just need to try your favorite spoons and see how they perform.
Stange's also done well with the type of elongated spoons he discovered worked so well in recent times for largemouth bass — thus the 5-inch Lake Fork Little Joe and the 5-inch Nickol's Lake Fork Flutter Spoon. But bigger isn't always better.
Stange: "I started experimenting with the Luhr Jensen Tony's spoon for walleyes and it did really well for pike too. The spoon's only 2.5 inches long and weighs 3/8 ounce. You can cast it a long way with a 7-foot medium-action spinning rod and reel filled with 14-pound Berkley FireLine or Sufix Fuse.
"I add a Reel Bait Fergie Spoon Clacker to the front of the spoon, which introduces a lot of noise to the package. That's another thing you see on pressured pike water — pike respond to smaller spoons at times and I think the noise also adds a little something different. The Tony's Spoon is a good one, but any similar design should fish well and could be modified with the Reel Bait Fergie Clacker."
For fishing near modest cover, Stange uses a 7-foot medium-action casting rod and a reel spooled with 20-pound FireLine or Sufix Fuse. Beefing up a little more only requires a 7½-foot flippin' stick and a reel with 20-pound fused line or 30-pound braid. It's best to use a light wire leader with smaller spoons, although I've had success fishing with 60-pound Maxima fluorocarbon as leader material coupled with heavier spoons.
Stange: "Of course, most days we're not fishing for pike just with spoons. They're part of a package of options. It would be rare for me not to have a 5- or 6-inch swimbait like the Berkley PowerBait Swim Shad, or a 5-, 6-, or 7-inch YUM Money Minnow on at least one auxiliary rod. These would be coupled with an Owner Saltwater Bullet jighead of 3/4 or 1 ounce. I might have a #14 Rapala Husky Jerk on another rod. Another pike lure category that was particularly hot this past couple season was glide baits like the Glidin' Rap.
"With a tweak here and there and bit of modified thinking relative to making retrieves that fish haven't had a chance to see or respond to in recent years spoons are back in action. It's nothing new, per se, so much as coming full-circle — back around to the use of fundamentally attractive lures in new ways for a new generation of big pike."
Tricks & Tweaks
On many trophy pike waters in Canada, single barbless hooks are mandatory. Lonnie King has great success using single siwash-style hooks on spoons, so much so that he uses them even on waters where single-hook regulations aren't mandatory.
The Mustad Big Gun Bait hook is one of his favorite replacement hooks, sizes varying with the type of tackle he's using, the size of fish, and the size of spoon. Single hooks provide great holding power and they're surprisingly weedless. They also make landing and unhooking fish easier and safer for both the angler and the fish.
Spoons have an up-facing and a down-facing side. It's best if the single hook rides with the hook point up. Just how the single hook has to be placed to accomplish this depends on the exact style of spoon being used — but it doesn't take much tinkering to find out, says King. Adding a second split ring also allows single hooks to pivot farther and better for increased hookups.
Finally, adding plastic trailers can breath life-like action into a spoon presentation. Trailers can either be slipped directly onto the shank of the hook or rigged Texposed. Prevent trailers from slipping down by using a clip-on screw-lock like the ones offered by First-Mate Lures.
*Lonnie King, Ottawa, Ontario, is a freelance writer and fishery scientist.