Rediscovering Ice-Out Pike
July 14, 2011
Somewhere in each of our childhoods lays a singular event, in the case of most hardcore anglers a certain miraculous aquatic discovery that imbeds itself vividly and indelibly in our minds. These discoveries help to seal our fates as anglers.
So it was that early March around my tenth year. Days after a big spring rain, a friend and I followed a tiny creek a few miles upstream from a small prairie reservoir. There, in the middle of a narrow stretch of the stream lay an impossibly large fish, paddling through water that barely covered its back. The only fish we usually saw here were bullheads and creek chubs.
I can still hear Jon's voice, picture his shock on seeing the leviathan. "It's a huge northern!" he screamed.
"No way!" I said, rushing to see. But he was right — and like crazed predators into the drink we flew. I was faster, quickly groping and wrestling at the fish's wide tail. Jon belly-flopped into the mud near me trying to help. Fat chance. With a mighty swat and a shower the fish zipped off. What seemed then like a 30 pounder was probably closer to 12.
A little farther upstream, we froze in our soggy sneakers. In a wide pool below a riprap waterfall an entire gang of big pike finned in the shifty currents — maybe 40 fish. We looked at each other, raced home, returning with rods, reels, and every lure we owned. We never had a bite.
I've thought about those fish often since, wondering the usual "what ifs." Mostly, it still amazes me how pike, muskies, and other fish wander so far from home in search of spawning habitat or food. The pike we found that year were spawning fish, although I've since chanced upon pike in similar small creeks, drawn far from their usual turf by spawning white suckers and even trout. Curiously, we checked for years after that first experience and the fish never returned. The creek has today been erased from existence by a construction project and a series of flashy buildings.
Pinpointing Pike — Prespawn to Postspawn
In some states, closed seasons preclude fishing for prespawn and spawning pike. Prespawn fish often bite well; spawning fish not so well. But after fish spawn they quickly return to feeding during the Postspawn Period. If you have access to water with an open fishing season, you may already know that the first month following ice-out gives you a good chance at trophies.
For over 30 years, In-Fisherman magazine staff members have tested ice-out tactics in waters ranging from Dakota prairie reservoirs; to Great Lakes bays; to the river systems, lakes, and reservoirs of the Canadian North. In most locations, pike spawn a week to several weeks after ice out, when water temps nudge into the low- to mid-40°F range. In many waters, spawning occurs in far reaches of bays, or connected sloughs, while the main lake is still locked in ice. It's one reason why shore fishing can be such a choice approach — getting to prime spots isn't always possible by boat. The prime spots can be small enough to cast across.
By boat or boot, the object is to set up at a prominent interception point — a place through which pike must funnel on the way to their eventual destination; or at a key point in their final destination. These can be points at the entrance to a bay, a secondary point within the bay, or a funnel area in front of a creek or isolated channel. Spots can also be subtle, such as the edge of a raised bed of bulrushes or other early emerging vegetation that betrays a harder bottom.
Cuts — Bays within Bays within Bays
"The key to finding pike at ice out," says In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange, "is remembering that fish keep pushing back into the biggest bays and backwaters and then the furthest recessed cuts and alleys they can reach. The best spots usually are many times removed from the main body of water. Pike move into progressively smaller cuts, which is why you can run into a lot of big fish in pretty tight quarters."
On a broad scale, Stange says, bigger bays and creek arms almost always attract more pike. "Many of these areas become overrun with sloppy weeds later. But you still need to further refine your location by looking for those secondary cuts — and better yet, cuts off of those secondary cuts. An incoming creek or small stream also usually draws fish in these recessed areas. Sometimes a bit later these creeks host spawning suckers, a key food source for pike.
"Say you want to set up near the mouth of an incoming stream, with perhaps a gravel bar at the entrance. Rather than fishing in the creek itself, or even right on the gravel bar, look for shallow backwater areas nearby. Often there's emergent weedgrowth like reeds and rushes that attract pike to these areas. The stream current isn't significant there and that's where the pike will be.
"Another classic spot I used to fish was a cut about 400 yards below a major dam on a river. The fish ran upstream and then slid into the cut instead of pushing all the way up to the dam. That's a typical locational principle at play here.
"I was at Devils Lake, North Dakota last year. The place is full of pike. Anglers intercept fish as they pass through neckdown areas between separate basins, or from a basin into a bay. Some of these are good shore spots. Sometimes they're at bridges. Once pike are in the bay off the main lake basins, they travel as far back as they can go — all the way into secondary cuts and embayments, where they run the front face of emergent and submergent weedgrowth."
In many famed fisheries, such as Oahe; Sakakawea; the Winnipeg River system; Coeur d'Alene Lake, Idaho; and other reservoirs; lots of ice-out pike spots have long since been discovered. But even in some of these places, it's still possible to get on fresh fish, particularly as water fluctuations change the lakescape. Or with a little more work than the next guy, you can access those remote cuts where few have gone before.
Slightly later, once spawning concludes, bays still retain active fish. "The farther north you travel," Stange says, "the more likely it is that pike stick to the bays, even after spawning. In other waters, pike leave backwater spawning spots, enter the main basin to travel to other shallow bays where they feed. So, it's like some of the fish are just trading bays. Usually this is when the water temperature reaches about 50°F. These fish eat deadbait but are as likely to go for lures."
In-Fisherman first talked about the use of deadbait in the 1970s. Over the years, patterns have endured. One refinement is the idea that a combination approach — deadbait fished alongside active casting with minnowbaits, spoons, or other artificial lures — often is more productive than saturating an area with only one presentation. "When you're using deadbait," Stange says, "you enhance your prospects by also offering lures as a means to call fish in. Sometimes, they hit the lures, other times, you entice a pike into an area with the lure, but they eat the deadbait. It's like chumming with artificial lures."
Light spoons continue to be a good lure choice. "Spoon fishing is a lost art," Stange says. "We talk about spoon tactics in another article in this magazine: 'Beyond Traditional Spoon Tactics.' Slow and steady works just fine, especially to just call fish in, but fluttering a spoon back into the face of following fish often gets them to eat. That means reeling steady with your rod tip up a bit, then stopping the retrieve and dropping the rod tip to allow the spoon to do its subtle flash-wobble-flash-drop back — always a powerful visual cue for pike and also a potent triggering move.
"Classic spoons like the Dardevle and Williams Wobbler work great. Lindy's Gator Spoon is a readily available option. Blue Fox has the Strobe Spoon. Luhr Jensen offers the Diamond King. Just look for a lighter spoon that still offers a classic larger profile."
Though not a spoon, I'd toss another option into the mix. Try a chatterbait like the Jensen Jigs Clatterbait — a 10-inch rabbit-strip jig with a wobble blade. It writhes, thumps, and flashes, and last season it was a tremendous early season pike bait for me.
Minnowbaits are great, too. "In the early days, we used #7 and #9 Countdown Rapalas," Stange says. "They're still an all-time favorite of mine, but #12 Husky Jerks work just as well for most anglers. With any lure, you want to be casting from a strategic anchored position or a key spot on shore."
A flippin' stick works great for fishing deadbaits, either below a float or on the bottom, but just about any type of longer rod will do. Longer rods allow longer casts, especially from shore. One favorite longer option is Cabela's 11-foot Predator spinning rod. Couple this with a larger reel such as a Shimano Baitrunner 8000D, loaded with 17- to 25-pound Berkley Big Game.
"The basic deadbait rigging," Stange says, "is a quick-strike rig consisting of tandem treble hooks about 3 inches apart. You don't need giant treble hooks to hook and land big pike. I rarely use anything larger than #2s and usually run #4s. The Eagle Claw 374 is a reliable and cost-effective option, but most treble hooks will do.
"I tie my rigs up at home from 27-pound Sevenstrand wire. One tine of the lead hook goes into the baitfish right at the dorsal fin, while the trail hook is anchored just above the tail. Whether the bait is below a float or on the bottom, when a pike inhales this package, the head of the bait swings first into the fish's mouth. The hooks are in perfect position to hook pike in the outer part of the mouth so that big fish can be released without hook damage. The key aspect of this rigging is that you don't have to wait to set the hook once you know a pike has taken the bait."
A decade ago Mustad acquired Partridge of Redditch, an English hookmaker, and reintroduced North American anglers to the classic English Vic Bellars double pike hook. It has a small single hook riding on the back of a bigger single hook. The smaller single hook is anchored in the bait, while the bigger hook rides open to freely set immediately into pike flesh on the hook-set. Mustad calls this hook a "Power Pike Double," and it's offered in #10s to #4s. I use #4s. I prefer VB double hooks to trebles, because there's less chance that an extra point can hurt a fish.
"Deadbait isn't just a cast-out and let-it-sit proposition," Stange says. "Every so often add movement to the bait to attract fish. Lift the float with the rod tip, and let the bait flutter back down. Move it with gentle foot-long sweeps. It's the flash of a cisco's flank that gets their attention — almost the same deal as a fluttering spoon.
"The bait doesn't always have to be on bottom. Pike take a deadbait that's hanging head-down, a few inches to a few feet above bottom. Again, it's not important that the bait hang horizontally, like it was alive. In fact it works better with the bait hanging vertically."
Postspawn Transitions; Pike after Ice-Out
By the time water temperature pushes past 50°F, pike transition from a preference for deadbait to a clear preference for lures. Stange's favorite options for pike that have moved back into bays to feed include lures like the Rapala Glidin' Rap, which he calls a flat glide lure. Fishing that style of lure also is covered in another article in this magazine: "One Step Short Of Magic For Pike."
He also likes a swimbait combo like the 6-inch Berkley Hollow Belly, rigged on 1/2-ounce Owner Ultra Saltwater Bullet Head. When fish are really going well, this is the best option because the single hook is both fish friendly and angler friendly, as it makes it so much easier to deal with hooked fish.
These postspawn fish are the same fish I pursued in Colorado and Nebraska reservoirs during late March and early April days of my youth. Three or more weeks after ice out, we'd get in on fantastic sight-fishing with bunny flies, bass jigs tipped with plastics, and 9-inch Lunker City Slug-Gos.
One of those reservoirs is fed by that legendary pike creek of my youth. I sometimes wonder whether at a certain similar moment, I wouldn't still jump with wild predatory abandon into a cold creek to do hand-to-hand battle with an old gator.
*Field Editor Cory Schmidt played a key role in assembling articles for this Pike & Muskie Guide.