Spinners for Pike
March 19, 2018
Wollaston Lake sprawls across 883 square miles of northern Saskatchewan, its many shallow bays creating prime habitat for prodigious gators in the 20-pound class. One of them intercepted a big Rapala X-Rap early in the trip, which proved to be my undoing.
After working a massive cabbage bed with a big jerkbait with no action, the guide says, "Let me try something." He zipped a straight-shaft Blue Fox spinner with #3 blade over the cabbage. His fast retrieve was interrupted by a massive green flash as the surface erupted in a wide boil.
They always seem bigger out at the end of a cast, and the pike was "only" 12 pounds or so, but he followed that with a 15-pounder, and another one even bigger before I could dig out a #4 Mepps Black Fury and clip it on. The first retrieve was ripped, and we continued to hook pike around that cabbage bed until we'd caught a dozen or more, up to 18 pounds.
A small, straight-shaft spinner hadn't been something I'd use for big pike, preferring the "go big or go home" mantra for giants. The past decade proved me wrong consistently and in many locations.
On the next trip, to Misaw Lake Lodge in Northeast Saskatchewan, big lures took a big fish, but the bite was slow. Every time I clipped on a Mepps with a few #3 to #5 blade, pike over 40 inches materialized behind every stand of cabbage. For the last three days of the trip I used nothing but Mepps Aglias with rainbow- and brown-trout pattern blades.
Afterward came Trout Rock on Great Slave Lake, owned by Swedish expatriate Ragnar Wesstrom. His lodge is in an archipelago of islands surrounded by what might be the finest big-pike habitat in North America. We encountered so many pike it seemed they could only survive by cannibalism. Baitfish don't stand a chance. Many techniques worked, but I kept going back to a straight-shaft spinner because, day after day, nothing produced more big fish faster. Amazingly, small spinners produced several fish in the 49-inch range.
The next few years found us at Athabasca and Reindeer Lake, with the same results. Then came the biggest pike caught at Makoop Lake Lodge in 2016, on the final full day of fishing that season. She provided final testimony in the case of the bitsy spinner by snarfing a #5 Mepps Double-Blade Aglia fished on medium-power spinning gear. Similar small bucktails and undressed spinners with #3 to #5 blades have, over the past 8 years, boated more and bigger pike for me than any other tactic. It's a recurrent theme at drive-to opportunities, tooâ€”including the Great Lakes, Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woodsâ€”even small Minnesota lakes. Conditions, region, timing, coverâ€”little seems to matter. In many of these environments, pike have all the 1- to 4-pound whitefish and ciscoes they can handle. Why come slathering after such diminutive packages?
The lure of a spinner is so simple our readers have probably heard the three-word testament a thousand times: Flash, thump, and vibration. We think there's a bit more to it. Blades spinning around a shaft create a hologramâ€”a blurred, minnow-shaped image. Perhaps it's a hypnotic effect: "Focus on the spinning blade. You're hungry. You will rip me. Now." But as light alternately passes through and reflects from that spinning hologram, a natural image results. Baitfish do, after all, mirror their environment.
Baitfish also push water and turn on their sides to flee. Flash and vibration probably comprise the key elements of the appeal. The disturbance a spinner makes probably suggests something bigger than it is to a pike. Even when facing the opposite direction, a pike hears or feels the thumping blade, interest is piqued, hunting instincts take command, and you're in business. A minnow swimming along nearby probably sends out less vibration than even a small spinner. Its flash probably suggests something bigger than a #5 spinner. And the spinning blade flashes in every direction. If a pike is nearby and doesn't bite, it's not because the lure wasn't seen or felt.
John Eggers, owner of Eggers Spinners in Minnesota, was with me every day at Makoop. He brought spinners of course. Final verification of the trend only from the numbers and size of pike I caught, and lack of success for my partner. He makes spinners for a living. He fishes spinners for everything. He's a better spinner jockey than I am. But he didn't bring any spinners with blades smaller than a #7. I offered him Mepps Double-Blade Aglias, but, oh, the heresy of it. True to the tendencies of most lure makers, and shakersâ€”he wanted to catch "the big one" on one of his own creations. So he watched me catch more pike over 40 inches than anybody in camp while he struggled.
"I went back to the shop and worked on some things," Eggers reports. "I was amazed they wanted spinners that small, so I knew I needed to develop a tandem with smaller blades. I had a similar report from a buddy who went way up north in Canada and all the entire group fished was #3 Mepps spinners. He started with my big Monster Bow Spinners, but his friends were catching all the fishâ€”just like you up at Makoop. So I came up with the Cross Bow Spinner. It has 'compartmentalized blades' that counteract each other and function independently. The bottom blade spins slower. I made it with #5 diamond-hammered blades and beefed it up with a stronger backbone of 210-pound-test wireâ€”double what I use on smaller spinners. It has a big hookâ€”a 1/0 single offset for easier release with a split ring so, you can replace hooks easily. And release is much easier with fish of all sizes. This lure is a cross between larger spinners and those bitsy #3 versions."
Tackle And Tactics
The proper rod requires length and flexibility. When holding a rod horizontally with a lure dangling off the end, if the tip doesn't bend down a bit, it's difficult to get any distance and accuracy with the lure. They're not heavy. A #3 to #5 single- or tandem-blade spinner matches best with medium-power rods usually associated with smallmouths or walleyes. But not any rod works. One of the best triggers with a spinner is a big, wide, sine wave that's accomplished with a longer rod. Start the retrieve with the rod pointing off to one side, then sweep the rod over to the other side without changing retrieve speed. The lure speeds up on every turn. That change in speed and direction triggers strikes. It works with salmon, muskies, trout, and other predatory fish. Rods from 71â'„2 to 9 feet long allow you to submerge the rod tip and get more speed out of a retrieve without bringing a spinner through the surface film.
I go back-and-forth between casting and spinning tackle when throwing spinners for pike. Rifling casts and burning retrieves all day can wear out wrists, arms, and shouldersâ€”so switch it up, relieving stress in one way and applying it in another. I've been using medium-power Abu Garcia spinning and casting rods in the 71â'„2- to 7-foot 11-inch range, coupled with Cabela's Salt Stalker spinning and Abu Revo Winch casting reels spooled with 10- to 20-pound braid. Berkley FireLine is coated, protecting line-connecting knots like the double-uni from abrasion. The leader needs to be flexible, so I tie them light with 12-pound wire or 25-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon. Amazingly, pike never bite through those light leaders, but if you're worried, go with 40-pound. Often, the spinner slides right through their mouths on the hook-set and the treble finds the corner of a jaw.
For added stealth in crystal-clear or heavily-pressured waters, I use leaders 6 to 9 feet long, tying them to the braid with a J-knot or back-to-back uni-knots. Berkley Cross Lok or SPRO Power Snap swivel keeps line from twisting. A rounded snap allows a spinner to swing a little more on turns. Around vegetation, snaps with a pointed end are preferable, and spinners with a single hook.
Lighter leaders allow the spinner to swing when changing direction, which keeps the blade turning smoothly. Start a retrieve with the rod over on one side. At some point during the retrieve, snap it to the other side, extending the tip out parallel to the water, perpendicular to the retrieve. Rod position, though, depends on cover. When fishing spinners for pike over the tops of cabbage, keep the rod tip higher. Along the deep edges of weedbeds and rock reefs, point the tip down. A small spinner can be counted down to whatever running depth is desired, but a slow retrieve is required to keep it down. That works after a front, but during stable weather I always start up high and fast before slowing down and fishing deeper. Pike in stable conditions rise 20 feet to strike a spinner if they can see or feel it from that distance.
A buzzed spinner often gets ripped in stable weather. More speed can be achieved with willowleaf blades, though bulging slower with French blades (or "Aglias,"which are more like Indiana blades), seems best in most conditions. If bulging the surface, buzzing under the surface with the rod tip submerged, and the sine-wave approach get ignored, try the other extreme and slow-roll a spinner. To stay over vegetation or rock, hold the rod tip high. Where a spinner can be worked deeper, hold the rod tip low and retrieve even slower. Willowleaf blades offer less resistance and stay down better if pike refuse to rise out of 12- to 15-foot depths. A slow, steady retrieve with nothing fancy often appeals best to reluctant, pressured, or post-frontal pike.
Between those extremes lies the middle ground that works most of the time. A steady retrieve with a sudden trigger moveâ€”stalling, speeding up, or changing directionâ€”often produces the most action. Combining triggering actions in various ways eventually hits a winning combination.
Single blades have a different appeal, dialing down vibration, sound, and flash. One of the best post-frontal tools in my box, after a bunny-strip fly or mid-size Lunker City Slug-Go, is a small, single-blade spinner with a painted blade to reduce flash. Tandem blades, of course, increase noise, flash, and thump. Twin blades make a small package "feel" big, giving it as much appeal as larger lures.
The joker in the deck is a tandem-but-separate combination of blades. The only spinner I know with "stacked" blades is the EGB Swiss Blinker. They're harder to find, but Swiss Blinker spinners remain available through EGB America and Crossroads Outdoors. Stacked blades produce more resistance and double down on the "small bait, big thump" effect. The front blade sends an altered flow of water to the rear blade, which flutters, spins, stalls, and resumes revolving to create a unique effect that sometimes drives pike wild. Its vibration isn't static. The trailing blade clicks inconsistentlyâ€”an aggravating sound other spinners can't duplicate.
Spinners are long-cast tools with the wind. Somebody on board should be throwing one whenever you're on pike patrol. Engage the reel just before it lands. Blades engage the moment it hits the water. Pike hear it, feel it, and turn. By they time they see the spinner, you're hooked up.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is a huge pike fan, fishing them from local lakes to the best locations across Canada and beyond.