November 07, 2012
The average adult hand can grip an 18-pound pike across the back of the neck. An honest 20, no way; it's too thick and muscular to permit a grasp. A true 20 theoretically could, however, return the favor. So watch your back in jackfish country. Wash your hair lakeside at your own risk, and definitely don't dangle your toes over the gunwale.
Visualize 20 pounds of vicious teeth and muscle. Form your hand into a back-of-the-head grip, and imagine the scope and scale of the beast to fill it. That's the point where imagination turns to fantasy . . . or to reality in the right location.
Tales of 20-pounders abound among anglers returning from Canadian fly-ins, reveling in stories of giant pike caught during week-long sojourns in the tundra. While some may indeed surpass a score or more, most heavyweights are really 15s to 18s. Even in prime waters, a true 20 is a beast of beauty and majesty.
Rule of thumb and forefinger: A 40-incher seldom hits 20 pounds. A stocky 42-incher does. A 40's downright big, but XL begins at 42, the point where you lose your grip on reality.
Canadian outposts aren't the only places that excel for XL pike, however. They're the most common destination, widely available to anglers seeking big gator pike. But they're only the first stop on a magical mystery tour of pike waters of the brutish persuasion.
Canada — Central and northern Canada is the Mecca of all pike aficionados. The cool climate permits pike to grow to outrageous proportions in thousands of large and small waters. While large lakes and rivers feature the most potential for numbers of giants, countless lightly fished or remote small lakes could produce a 20. Anticipation runs high on every cast, fueled by frequent follows and slashing strikes at boatside.
Aside from a few drive-to vacations to southern Ontario during college breaks, several fly-in trips to the Little Churchill River, Manitoba, initiated my lifelong pursuit of Canadian northern pike. In June and early July, shallow wind-protected bays come alive with swarms of giant fish slamming 4-inch spoons with abandon. I literally saw groups of shallow pike.
I cast to the biggest fish within reach, and they competed to smash my lure. I'd never witnessed anything like it. Yet even amidst those ravenous hordes, finesse added to the catch. Several times each cast, stopping and fluttering the spoon triggered followers. Even here in the wilderness, there was more to fishing than cast and reel, set the hook, fight and release.
Subsequent ventures to Neultin Lake along Manitoba's border with the Northwest Territories shattered the "all you ever need is spoons mystique." The day after filming a spoon fishing segment for In-Fisherman television, we returned to the same bay, where Larry Dahlberg promptly turned this doubting hardhead into a fly-fishing convert as wakes of giant pike sliced through knee-deep emergent grass to engulf floating-diving Dahlberg Megadivers. I was hooked for life. My dad had always tried to interest me in fly-fishing, but I'd resisted in favor other "more effective" methods. The following season, I belatedly traveled with Dad to Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, enabling him to also tackle big fly-in pike on the fly.
A later trip to Scott Lake straddling the Saskatchewan-Northwest Territories border further expanded my pike perspective. One day when pike wouldn't hit spoons, I smugly pulled out the Megadiver and slid it 4 feet over their motionless heads. No response, other than the dropping of my jaw. I cast right to them, but they were too deep, too off feed to rise to the occasion. I soon learned, however, that dropping a sinking black rabbit strip leech imitation down to their level, then slinking it tantalizingly in front of their noses, would trigger even the most reluctant of giants. Big pike in shallow water are the ultimate confidence booster for anyone seeking to learn the willowy ways of the fly-rod. I would never go on a pike fly-in without one.
And so it goes. Each fly-in to the bush results in a new flush of memories and a better understanding of how to catch jumbo pike. When pike are biting, there's no lure too large or too gaudy. When they're not biting, it's time to put away the spoons and pull out deadbait rigs tipped with smelt or ciscoes; or a jig and pork eel slipping and sliding across their nostrils, then paused to tempt and tease.
And not just in shallow water, because should the shallows warm to uncomfortable levels, pike vacate to deeper options. This past season, we jigged heavy jigs and 8-inch Reaper tails in Rainy Lake, Ontario, for giants relating to the tips of deep main-lake points in late summer and early fall. (A great public-access water for big gators and modest budgets.) The year before, we caught numerous pike in 60 feet of water, down with the lake trout, on Manitoba's North Seal River. On spoons, yes — flutterspoons trolled on wire line three-way rigs. Yet we also caught them by casting large spoons to shallow rocky main-lake points, a favorite late-summer haunt.
Every wilderness lake or river has its own patterns, secrets, and memorable characteristics to experience and explore. Unspoiled beauty. Majestic sunsets. Fresh-fish shorelunches — the finest fish you'll ever eat — amidst silence broken only by wind and waves, the relaxed conversation of your companions, and the eventual screams of impatient gulls who've earmarked your leftovers for a midday feast. That's assuming the bear who's also been watching from the adjacent pine thicket doesn't beat them to the remnants once you depart.
To me, these are the finest fishing trips and the most cherished memories of a lifetime of fishing. Sure, the fishing's great. But it's also the fresh air, the solitude, the wildlife. The thrill of discovery, the escape from the everyday world, the mesmerizing beauty of the Northern Lights. It's stoking the wood stove and going to bed dog-tired after a long day of squeezing in every last minute of enjoyment and adventure. And it's forgetting which day of the week it is, because every day in the wilderness is a good day for northern pike.
Prairie Reservoirs — It was with skepticism that I ventured to Lake Oahe, South Dakota, some 20 years ago, for an early April foray with giant northern pike. What were northern pike doing out here in buffalo country? Buffeted at times by snow and big wind broken by brief periods of sunshine, Oahe's vast open moonscape seemed more fitting for Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind than for our first small step for prairie northerns. But after exploring the back ends of major coves, casting either Countdown Rapalas or anchoring and soaking dead smelt rigs, we soon discovered our steps were right on track. The first couple trips brought pike in the high teens to low 20-pound range.
Pike of the prairies were relatively unknown back then, though outdoor TV host Tony Dean and federal warden John Cooper, now Secretary of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, assured us the deal was for real. We focused on the back ends of shallow coves with a little water color and run-off, primarily where creek channels cut through flats at about the 5-foot level. During warm afternoons, postspawn pike came up shallow, adjacent to flooded tumbleweeds where they spawned at ice-out. Stretch your imagination, and this parallels pike behavior in classic lakes, just with a western flair. Fish always find a way, if there's a way to be found.
At the time, Cooper said he'd typically see no more than 6 boats fishing for pike in the lower 30 miles of Oahe in early April. The next year, after our pike fishing segment ran on In-Fisherman TV, Cooper's aerial survey tallied 1,100 boats during the prime pike bite. Never doubt the power of television and the interest generated by giant pike.
Later trips to Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana, produced not only the expected walleyes, but also a remarkable number of big northern pike, proving the prairie pike phenomenon to be no fluke. Submerged vegetation during high-water years created ideal spawning and rearing conditions, resulting in a strong year class that would achieve whopper proportions in 7 to 12 years. In early summer, they could be caught by tossing spinnerbaits across flooded weeds or through submerged timber. With so many pike, catching them incidentally while fishing for walleyes was common.
Recent high water in the Dakotas has another crop of future giants on the way up. From Devils Lake, North Dakota, to the Glacial lakes of eastern South Dakota; and from Oahe to Fort Peck to Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan, prairie pike abound for the adventurous soul.
When you head west, more than the landform changes. Folks are friendlier, more helpful, more patient and more relaxed than their counterparts back east. The pace of life is less hurried, and the spaces wide open and natural, where the deer and the antelope do indeed play. It's nice to know that places remain where folks don't lock their doors at night and where they'll offer a stranger the use of a trailer or cabin, no strings attached. People tend to be self-reliant, yet generally willing to lend a hand. Facilities and services my be farther apart, but that just gives distant folks a good excuse to get together.
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Northwoods Natural Lakes — Like many pike anglers, my fascination with pike began in the natural lake belt stretching across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Weekend fishing trips to a host of waters provided mixed-species opportunities for bass, walleyes, pike, muskies, and panfish, in everything from classic rock-structured lakes to shallow flowages, to weedy waters of a few hundred acres. I caught many pike incidentally while fishing for bass. Sometimes, we specifically targeted them as our quarry.
When it came to pike, the attraction always seemed to be "north, farther north." North to bigger lakes with cooler waters and a reputation for bigger pike. The deepest, clearest waters seem to hold the best fish, though the fishing for them was sparse and tough during midsummer. Spring and fall, therefore, became the prime seasons.
Spring was never dependable, as big pike often were scattered and gone from spawning areas by the time fishing season opened in May. Some could be caught, however, along deep weededges in late spring or early summer. After that, larger fish were usually encountered in deep water, behaving more like walleyes or lake trout than like their smaller relatives who inhabit weedbeds in summer.
Late summer and early fall, however, always produced a reappearance of large pike in weedbeds. Cooling water apparently permitted a return of warm-water intolerant megapike to deep cabbage flats in late August or September. We either jigged the deep weedline with jigs and large plastic tails, or if the weedbeds were expansive enough, we trolled across the tops.
Mille Lacs Lake in central Minnesota was an early hot spot for trolling large tandem bucktails — nicknamed muskie tandems — back and forth across massive cabbage beds. They did the trick for locating prime weedy areas that held pike. Often, going back over these areas and casting lures produced more fish. And the bigger the lure, the bigger the average pike. The side-to-side glide of midsize muskie-style cylindrical jerkbaits like the Reef Hawg or Eddie Bait seemed particularly attractive to pike pushing into the mid to high teens. This was particularly true when applied on farther-north Minnesota lakes like Rainy or Vermillion. These lakes today also boast outstanding muskie fisheries, providing excellent opportunities for both species.
Criss-crossing and fancasting the northwoods provided a wealth of experience and memories, providing the core perspectives for fishing adventures today. Inexpensive motels, small cabins, pickup campers, sandwiches, hamburgers, and pizza were hallmarks. We seldom (never) stayed at anything resembling today's escalating number of elegant lakeside golf lodges that slowly are displacing traditional northwoods Ma and Pa resorts of yesteryear. Mom and the kids now want swimming pools, shopping, waterslides, cable TV, room service and, can you believe, indoor plumbing.
Traditional weathered cabins come down, replaced by condos. New weekend getaway "cabins" often dwarf the homes most of us grew up in. Times are changing, and the northwoods experience is changing along with the times, though the fishing remains excellent and has, in some cases, improved since the acceptance of catch and release.
As much as we traveled and explored the northwoods, however, pike over 12 to 14 pounds were rare, even in the best-known waters. The combination of warmer water and growing fishing pressure throughout the region seemed to minimize the opportunity for a 20-pounder. That's until we stumbled upon the pike of the Great Lakes.
Great Lakes — It was November 1976, and when the gales of November blew early and sank the Edmund Fitzgerald a short distance away on Lake Superior, the same storm sent us slinking home in rain, snow, and howling wind. Oblivious to the tragedy until later, our minds raced with the thrill of discovery, the seeds of future plans, and the explosive secret that was too spectacular to reveal. We'd been pioneering new territory for big walleyes and had discovered a bonus fishery for smallmouth bass and an unexpected bounty of big northern pike.
The setting was Portage Lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, part of the Keewenaw Waterway connected to Lake Superior via canals at either end. Once nationally reputed as a trophy sauger fishery, the area had fallen on hard times with the collapse of the local copper mining industry. As the water cleared with the suspension of mining operations, light-sensitive sauger were nearly purged from the system. But as is nature's way, the environment began to favor other species. And the fish were all big, unpressured, and willing to bite.
Over the next ten or twelve years I probably spent 80 days fishing the waterway, mostly with Dan Sura and often with Tim Besch, unlocking its many secrets. One of our favorite aspects was fishing for (we theorize) Lake Superior pike that followed suspended coldwater baitfish returning to the large inland lake as the water cooled each October. Nice thing was, when big pike suddenly appeared as out of nowhere, they related to turns in the deep weedline that bordered fast drops to deep water — classic fall pike behavior. We searched and probed, located prime areas, and repeatedly ran the milk route. We'd catch plenty of nice fish in the interim, until we'd pull up to a spot, make a cast, and the reel would scream — 18, 20, 22 pounds — sometimes several times a day.
Our favorite tactic was pitching a wedge-shape Power Head jig, tipped with a 6- to 8-inch chub, teamed with a 12-inch wire leader and barrel swivel. Proceeding along just outside the deep 12- to 15-foot weededge, we'd cast parallel or slightly into the cabbage, probing, letting the jig fall to rest, then snapping the rod to break the weedstalk and send the jig sailing and plummeting. The triggering characteristics of chub slinging were too much for big pike to resist.
We spent many days, sunrise to sunset, fishing hard and catching large. We shoveled out boats filled calf-deep with snow and also basked in sunshine on calm Indian Summer afternoons. In the early years, we fished in 15-foot trihulls with 35 hp outboards, which were iffy at best when fierce storms rolled across the peninsula, turning the somewhat protected water into a small ocean. Today's larger, safer boats take the anxiety out of exploring bays, harbors, and connecting waters of the Great Lakes.
Though I've fished other Great Lakes areas for big pike, I'll always feel a special fondness for this maiden hot spot. Spend that much time in an area, and little by little you discover its heritage and special attraction. We packed away a lot of wheat crust pizza at the Library bar and restaurant, let me tell you. And while we seldom saw another boat on the water in late fall, favored eateries became ritual parts of the trip, and we made local acquaintances such as Butch the colorful one-armed bait dealer, who frequently risked pneumonia, wading in foul weather to gather bait for our trip.
Similar trophy pike potential exists in other connected waters and bays of the Great Lakes where spawning marshes and deep weedbeds attract monsters in spring and fall. In addition to the fish, each area has its own unique community flavor, adding to the adventure. And when you tie into that giant, I encourage you to take a quick photo and let the fish go, even if it's huge, because big fish in metropolitan areas are precious commodities. To catch them there tomorrow, they must be released today.
Europe and Asia — Though I've fished in Europe, it hasn't been for pike. But I see the pictures of fish growing larger than Canada's largest, and I hear firsthand the accounts of anglers from across the ocean. So it is with interest that I read the tales of monstrous pike from Irish fens, the Baltic Sea, deep Scandinavian fjordlike lakes, Spanish reservoirs, Austrian strip pits, and Russian rivers. I peruse the trip options in fishing travel newsletters and balance the cost and time versus the experience.
Eurasian pike are far fewer, though potentially much larger than "our" pike. While boat fishing options exist, most European pike are caught from shore, often on deadbait, by patient anglers waiting days for a bite. Pike of the western former Soviet Union provide a recently opened opportunity in a climate similar to Canada, though the logistics, dependability of travel operations, and political climate remain suspect at best.
In the end, I leave it to those with the budget, free time, and adventurous spirit to explore distant opportunities for Old World pike. To me, 30 pounds is a sufficiently worthy goal on this side of the pond, though I reserve my option to venture north of the border, not just east and west, especially when I can expect to get a grip on some teens, and perhaps lose my grip on some 20s along the way.