Summer Pike Fishing
September 03, 2016
Three Prime Patterns for Late Summer
Mac The Tooth slides down an alley formed by rows of cabbage. His shadowed eye sockets lend an evil aspect to his demeanor, but Mac's not evil. Just mean. Busting through the cabbage up ahead comes a big, wavy package of rubber legs with a soft-plastic tail, and plops down on bottom. Mac sidles up close. It zips forward, leaving a cloud of sediment in Mac's face and — rip, snort, gnash, the battle is joined.
Out at midlake, Scissor Head patrols the upper limit of the thermocline. Up above, a line digs into the water, following the demand of a big-billed crankbait. As more line pays out, it digs deeper, to 20 feet or more. Scissor Head can hear it. Soon, he can feel it, too. He turns, aligning himself like a compass pointing north, and stalks. When it reaches visual range, Scissor Head accelerates and zeroes in like a laser-guided torpedo.
At the same moment, on a 40-foot flat, the Shredder ghosts across the bottom, looking for victims. Something pounds into the substrate nearby. She turns and stalks in that direction, on full alert. A puff of sediment is settling up ahead, just as the jig-plastic combo pounds back into the bottom further on. The Shredder speeds up, gets a visual on the rising target, and lives up to her name.
I call these patterns "the three primes." On most lakes, one of the three patterns dominates. Geologically young, deep, clear lakes have pike populations that tend to suspend over deep water and cruise deep flats in the 25- to 60-foot range during summer and fall. The older, darker and shallower a lake is, the more its pike inhabit vegetation. The bigger a lake is, the better the odds that all three patterns, or even more, exist. Sprawling bodies of water like Lake of the Woods have areas that range from oligotrophic to eutrophic, young to old, poor or rich in nutrients respectively; so, big pike can be found in shallow cabbage beds, skimming the thermocline over deep water, patrolling deep sunken islands or cruising deep flats, all during the same afternoon, anywhere from June through October.
By late summer, big pike have dispersed into multiple patterns in many lake types. The three patterns depicted above are the most widespread we know of. Prepared for the three primes, anglers can find giant pike in the Great Lakes, big reservoirs, Canadian Shield lakes, and most points between, from mid-summer to late fall. Lures and presentations vary for each pattern, but a medium-heavy flippin' stick and a round casting reel filled with 30- to 50-pound braided line most likely performs admirably on all fronts.
Mac The Tooth
They call him Mac The Tooth because that's all he has left. One tooth. He lives on the weedline, where he gets hammered in most pike fisheries. Bass and walleye fishermen hook him accidentally every other week. Pike fishermen target him, too, because the vegetation often is visible or easily followed with sonar.
Mac likes the weedline because he looks like a weedline, blending in, hiding in shadow wherever possible. On hot, calm days he's thankful for the shade because Mac tends to have some serious girth issues. He hovers in cabbage beds a lot. He's in aerobic denial while perch, panfish, walleyes and suckers merely tip the iceberg of his swollen menu. His long, girthy body demands some serious cover, so he hides, especially when inactive, buried deep in the vegetation.
When active, Mac prowls the deep outside edge of the weedline. When neutral, he likes to position on points of cabbage that project out from it, or along an inside turn where the weedline bends in toward shore. In tall but sparse cabbage, he could be anywhere, but count on the shaded sides of the thickest clumps hiding him or one of his oversized cohorts. Anything that causes a ruckus coming through the plants in these situations gets ripped. At least, that's how it worked in the good ol' days.
Then, we used to break out muskie-sized spinnerbaits and weedless spoons to target Mac, and these remain good options in many situations. When pike are highly active before a front rolls through, or in areas where they see light pressure, spinnerbaits and spoons still score big. The Fudally Stump Hawg and Johnson Silver Minnow remain two of my favorite pike lures, and I seldom travel to big-pike waters known to house healthy cabbage beds without these two options. Lindy's M/G spinnerbait is another option. Today, though, I'm just as likely to throw a smaller spinnerbait, like the 1/2- to 3/4-ounce Terminator T1, for highly pressured pike. The Terminator's titanium arms bounce back into shape every time, meaning you lose fewer baits to the pigtail effect, from pike twisting them into knots.
The action that works best is to create vibration and noise by ripping lures through vegetation. Active pike can't help investigating. A big spinnerbait should be tossed almost parallel to the vegetation, at an angle that takes it through the outside margin. In tall, healthy cabbage, I fancast a spinnerbait, making certain it rips through the thickest stands. Move the bait steadily along with the rod tip pointed at it, so when it hangs up in weeds, your body is positioned to sweep the rod and tear it free. Braided line is a big plus for this. With no stretch in the line, the spinnerbait pulls clean more often than not.
In thicker vegetation, the Silver Minnow excels. Straight trailers like Berkley's PowerBait Power Jerk Shad and Gulp! Jerk Shad shed weeds and survive most strikes. The trick is to make the spoon do its famous side-to-side wobble through pockets after pulling through a stand of rushes, reeds, or cabbage. Work it beside the boat to determine the optimum speed. The Silver Minnow puts out maximum flash and vibration in open pockets, but big 'gators go through the roof in heavy slop for it, too.
In natural lakes, where weedlines tend to be thickest, pike bite off more jig-and-pig combos than most other -bass-fishing presentations. Tying the jig on with leader materials that accept knots, like Tyger Wire, Terminator Titanium, and several options from American Fishing Wire allows heavy bass tackle to bring some serious 'gators boatside.
A Jensen Jigs Pike Enthraller, at 1/4 to 1/2 ounce, is a long, enticing bunny strip jig with a weedguard. It fights to bottom in dense vegetation and it can be ripped free easily. The line-tie is perfectly situated to shed stalks, with a vertical eye in a pointed nose on a pointed head.
This lure is it's own trailer. Don't jig it. After the Enthraller hits bottom on a weededge, point the rod tip at it and turn the reel handle quickly 6 or 7 times, then let it free-fall back to bottom. Or, just keep it coming. Pike grab it on a steady retrieve, if you throw in a few dips or pauses as triggers. If that doesn't work, a slow, steady swim often does. Or cruise a soft swimbait horizontally along on a jig. It's one of our most productive tactics wherever we use baits like the Lunker City Salt Shaker or the new Jackall Rhythm Wave on a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce head. Get the speed right and pike rip soft swimmers all around the lake.
One of the most effective lures for weedline pike today (and rock-reef pike, for that matter) is a large, suspending minnowbait. The Rapala H14 Husky Jerk has produced more 20-pound-plus pike for me in waters you can drive to than any other lure in the past 4 or 5 years. Cast parallel to vegetation or rock ledges, or out over the top of deep weeds 5 feet or more below the surface. Zip the bait down to its working depth (about 6 feet), then pause it. After several seconds, point the rod tip toward the lure, lift it, then snap it down while retrieving. Keep repeating this action to "walk'‘the'‘dog," making it dance from side to side.
Because pressure plays a significant role in so many lakes, my current favorites for weedline duty include large plastic baits fished weightless, like the 7-inch Bait Rigs Reaper Tail, rigged on a 7/0 straight-shank hook or a light jig in the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce range. When pike get fussy, try a Berkley Gulp! Sinking Minnow texposed on a 3/0- or 4/0 offset-shank worm hook. Pike that see lots of pressure respond better to these subtle baits. "Subtle" doesn't always mean small, but it does mean making less noise, blending in more, and forcing pike to hunt.
Using a big spinning reel and a 7-foot, medium-heavy rod, I toss these baits on 40-pound braided line. Let the unweighted versions drift down like dying baitfish, then lift them 2 to 4 feet off bottom, and repeat. With a jighead, just drop it straight along the edge of the vegetation following it down with the rod tip, starting your retrieve (whether fast or slow depends on the weight of the jig) a foot or two before it hits bottom. When pike are less reluctant to bite, an -internally-weighted, soft-plastic swimbait like the Storm WildEye Rippin' Swim Shad can cover water faster, yet retains many of the subtle cues that make softbaits so effective for pressured fish. The thump of the tail on a swimbait might be less than a crankbait produces, but it's more than enough to draw Mac The Tooth out of his den.
The Scissor-Head Pattern
Imagine your neighborhood grocery on wheels, constantly moving from one spot to the next. To keep up, you'd need a house on wheels. That's the life of Scissor Head. Mac can go to the same spots and feed every day, if he so chooses. -Scissor Head finds the biggest school of open-water baitfish then follows it religiously, spring through winter. Mac is a farmer — Scissor Head, a nomad.
Wherever pike co-exist with shad, ciscoes, smelt, alewives, whitefish, or any other species that spend most of their lives suspended in open water, Scissor Head will be there (except in the extreme north, but that's another story).
Some muskies follow a kind of Scissor-Head lifestyle, too. In waters where pike and muskies coexist, you'll stumble onto some giants out in the middle of the lake, where most anglers fear to tread. Without a doubt, Scissor Head is the most ignored toothy critter in the lake.
The open-water pattern is the simplest to describe. Check the list of species against the relative abundance of open-water prey in your lake of choice (sometimes this is offered on lake maps, or go to your state's fish and game department website). If the lake has a significant population of open-water baitfish, launch the boat, turn on the depthfinder, head for open water, and look for schools. Pods of bait don't count. Watch for that massive school of bait, the one darkening your sonar screen for a hundred yards to a mile. Sounds simple, but this can take anywhere from an hour to half a day of thorough, systematic hunting with your eyes locked on the sonar unit. Don't start fishing until you've found lots of bait.
If the bait is low (15 to 30 feet down, or more), trolling is the odds-on call. If the bait is high (in the top 20 feet), casting is workable. Sometimes, especially during low-light periods, baitfish such as ciscoes, alewives or shad can be seen dimpling the surface, indicating that casting could be as successful as trolling. For numbers, trolling is probably the best call most of the time, but casting and hitting big fish out in the middle of nowhere is like winning the lottery while getting paid to fish.
One of the best big-fish baits for open-water pike, casting or trolling, is a Rapala Super Shad Rap, partly because its profile roughly matches that of most open-water baitfish. If the bait is running high, troll it closer to the boat on 30-pound-test mono, to keep it in the top 10 feet of the water column. If the bait is holding low, use 40-pound braided line, which cuts the water better and allows the Super Shad Rap to run 17 feet down or more on a long line.
Another bait with the right profile and action is the new 5-inch Jackall Gantarel Jr., a double-jointed, highly realistic, bluegill-shaped swimbait that runs a couple feet down but slowly floats back up after encountering weeds or wood. This bait is especially effective when casting open water around deep vegetation or rock. Rip it, work it slowly, or use a stop-and-go. When it floats to the surface, it retains its upright posture, with the dorsal protruding above the surface. Dynamite for "waking," which can draw big open-water pike up 15 feet or more on calm days. It possesses positive triggering action on steady or erratic retrieves, and is available in several realistic patterns imitating shad, carp, baby bass, and a variety of bluegill colorations. Most larger shad-shaped cranks, from the Bagley Monster Shad down to size #9 Shad Raps, can be effective out here, given the right time and place — and you sometimes need that deep-diving option.
Few things work better for casting than the big, soft-bodied swimbaits designed for giant largemouth bass in western impoundments. Most versions, like the Storm WildEye Swim Shad, Berkley PowerBait Swim Shad, and Optimum Baits Original are internally weighted and have a soft texture, end-to-end. Swimbaits look, feel and probably sound more like the real thing than most crankbaits, while putting out more than enough vibration to stand out from the crowd in a world full of bait. Swimbaits drop on the pause, adding unique possibilities to the range of presentations you can make. As with crankbaits, just climb up on the bow and fancast over huge rafts of bait.
When the bait rides near the surface, big minnowbaits like the Reef Runner 700 Series, or the Lucky Craft Pointer 120, trolled 80 to 200 feet behind the boat without added weight, score big out over deep water. Reef Runners are consistently ripped by big saw-tooths on the Canadian Shield. Adding 1/2 ounce to an ounce with in-line trolling weights (keel sinkers or several rubbercors) can take large minnow imitations down 12 to 25 feet, but going too deep will take the bait below the thermocline (see below). Scissor Head finds minnowbaits very appealing. And — if they're rigged a little differently — so does the Shredder.
The Shredder Program
Pike school at times, and one of the least recognized patterns is for schooling pike on deep flats. Most pike anglers never fish deep enough to take advantage of this. They say 20 feet is deep, but if you double that, in many lakes you'll arrive at virgin fisheries for 'gators.
In most regions by the first week of June, small packs of big pike are already prowling bottom in the 25- to 45-foot range. The critical depth hinges on the level of the thermocline, a zone of rapid temperature change. Many reservoirs don't stratify, and many oligotrophic (geologically young, deep) lakes have oxygen below the thermocline. In these lakes, pike can be found cruising around at the same depths as lake trout. Most lake types, however, have no oxygen down there, so the thermocline becomes a barrier for both baitfish and pike.
Thermoclines set up in May or June in most areas and are not static. They appear at depths of 20 feet or so in some lakes, and as deep as 80 feet or more in larger bodies like the Great Lakes. Also, the thermocline can be 25 feet down at one end of a lake and 40 feet at the other, depending on the wind's duration, direction and strength. Finding the thermocline can be critical for establishing trolling depths for Scissor Head patterns, too. When electronics are properly tuned (set the gain high), the thermocline will appear on the depthfinder screen as a faint, gray band. You can also find it by lowering a temperature probe and looking for a zone of rapid temperature change.
The zone where a thermocline intersects a deep flat can focus some of the hottest pike fishing of the year. Not any deep flat will do, however. Pike appreciate diversity. The right flats are -expansive — often the largest in the lake, in that critical 25- to 50-foot range, and diverse, often encompassing islands surrounded by shallow reefs, humps, and various substrates. Finding bait is critical here, too. Pike use the bottom for cover or camouflage, so suspended bait over these flats may mean big pike down on the bottom, another way to zero in on your prime location.
Pike in these zones may suddenly appear on surrounding shallow rock reefs and rocky points on windy, cloudy days. If the day is sunny and calm, work the deep flats. If it's windy and rough, work the 5-to 10-foot zone where waves are rolling into reefs, points, or big weedbeds, using big suspending baits like the H14 Husky Jerk or the Lucky Craft Pointer 120. Few presentations work better in these conditions.
Casting for the Shredder is just plain fun. That flippin' stick mentioned earlier is ideal. Don't waste time casting blind: Find bait on sonar, then wind up and launch a heavy jig matched with 7- to 8-inch softbaits. Straight, low-action tails, like the Bait Rigs Reaper or Mann's Jelly Hoo, drop faster, and a quick drop is the key to quick coverage. The 11â„2-ounce Bait Rigs Cobra Head is perfect for this, but a 1-ounce bullet- or football head works just fine, too. The idea is to get to bottom fast and hit it hard. Immediately snap the lure 6 feet up off bottom — higher if possible; drop the rod tip then let it fall, repeating the process all the way back to the boat. This presentation is quick, easy, and effective where big rafts of baitfish are located near bottom, and on larger flats associated with diverse structure.
Another simple way to clear water quickly on deep flats is with a three-way rig. This involves a three-way swivel, a 3- to 5-foot dropper connected to a 3-ounce bell sinker, plus a big minnowbait like the Reef Runner 700 on a 4- to 6-foot, 40-pound mono leader. In most cases, trolling a three-way rig finds schooling pike faster than casting. But it's always critical to find baitfish first.
Of course, there are many other methods for targeting pike in any of the three primes. Livebait rigs should be mentioned and work well. The point isn't listing all the ways we can do it, but providing enough methods to get you started exploring those patterns. Because Mac The Tooth, Scissor Head, and the Shredder represent what most pike are doing in nearby lakes and reservoirs right now.