August 17, 2015
By Doug Stange
Key Early Season Patterns
I've said before that I never fish so well as when my target is fish for the table. Pike are one of my favorites. They are wonderfully firm and flakey and work in just about any recipe, save a few that herb-, spice-, and saucewise bend heavily toward salmon and trout. Many "light" salmon recipes work, though, because the pike has more robust flesh than walleye, perch, or crappie. There's real character to it, whereas the walleye is nice, but fragile and really mild. Pike are pretty much what they eat. This is most apparent in fish feeding on oily, fatty, high-protein prey like ciscoes — even more so in fish feeding on smelt, trout, kokanee salmon, or smolts of Chinook and coho. The meat of pike in these waters takes on a yellowish — at times orangish — sheen. This isn't the same as the marbling in beautifully finished beef, but I suspect it does have something to do with the increased fat content that comes with feeding on the aforementioned forage. I suspect, too, but have never seen it addressed, that these pike, which are eating fish high in Omega 3s — heart- and general-health beneficial compounds — probably are more nutritious because of it. To me these pike taste different from pike that have been feeding on leaner forage. The only way I can think to describe it is "buttery." Pike like that are just as wonderful served in a starkly simple salmon recipe as they are in more typical pike fare like deep-fried fish strips.
But you're here to learn how to catch pike so you can eat them — or maybe catch a giant one? I was just saying that it's the prospect of good eats that spurs me to the catching. We're going after pike to harvest selectively. The ax handles go back, the hammer handles go home. These are options in March, a month of great transition across much of North America.
All of the very biggest pike I've caught — those surpassing 25 pounds — have been through ice in late March. A couple of these fish were close to 30. One memorable fish weighed 28 and measured just 44 inches. It was a tight fit through a 9-inch hole. Ten inches is the way to go if you have hopes of landing a 30.
In each situation in this article, deadbait plays a potential role. The fish are at times on the prowl, moving toward spawning areas and feeding along the way. But they're usually in no mood to chase. Oily deadbait like smelt, ciscoes, and market fish like herring and mackerel are good options. We use suckers successfully in most places. I'm sure shad would work but have never had the chance to try them. I used 10-inch brook trout with great success one trip. As I recall, we had to have with us a sales voucher from the fish market. Better check regs on that one before you try it. It was a long time ago in a galaxy far away. I've been doing this for 40 years.
In all the patterns we're reviewing, the first step is to figure where pike are going to spawn and then guess where they could be — in this case, within a mile or so of the area. If there's a big bay with a lot of shallow vegetation, get on the deep edge of the weedline and look for points and pockets along the largest bar in the bay. Set baits along the edge and just up on the flat.
Pike are attracted to moving water and move into creeks and rivers to spawn, often before ice is off the main lake. Any bay with a small creek running into the back is going to draw fish. Early on, pike hold off somewhere in the bay. Maybe they want to be within easy travel distance to the spawning area without actually being there. Foraging is still foremost in their miniature minds, but there's also a subtle sexual stirring going on.
A famous spot like this is in Buffalo Bay, in the Manitoba portion of Lake of the Woods, north of Warroad, Minnesota. The Reed River runs into the bay and attracts fish to that vicinity. There's nothing distinctive about the area — no vegetation and just a giant shallow flat that runs 3 to 4 feet deep with an eventual drop-off into 11 feet a half-mile or so offshore. Anglers mostly spread tip-ups in the deeper water outside the drop-off. Most areas have more distinctive spots to concentrate pike.
Also check the points that lead into major bays — and it's worth placing tip-ups along the edge of rockpiles in deeper water inside or at the mouth of spawning bays. These often are top spots early in March.
Barriers in Small Rivers
This fishing is mostly overlooked although it's prime. The fish usually aren't big. They are, however, the biggest pike available in these waters because this is marginal pike habitat. It's catfish water. The pike just get by. Most of the season the few fish that are available are so spread out you can't find them. It's only now when the fish are concentrated that you have a chance for some decent fishing.
As rivers open and flow increases, pike move upriver until they reach a barrier that stops them from going farther — or at least stops them for a bit. Most of the time this is a dam, but not always. A major shallow rocky riffle may stop some fish and congregate them in the hole below the riffle. I've also seen a variety of manmade barriers like old roadbeds and crumbling dams that cross small streams. We're looking for any sort of impediment that stops some fish as they move upstream.
Of course, dams stop fish permanently and are the focal point for this fishing. I've seen small pike below small dams on tiny creeks that barely have water in them most summers. Tracing where these fish could have come from, through various tributary creeks off marginal rivers connected to major rivers, sometimes puts the hypothetical travels of these fish in the range of 50 miles or more. In-Fisherman Managing Editor Dr. Rob Neumann had a pike in a tracking study he conducted in South Dakota that traveled about 100 river miles, including movements through lakes along the way.
Most of the dams that get some fish are fairly well known in their local area. Travel through eastern Iowa, for example, and you find at least a half-dozen small dams that offer this kind of fishing during March and April. The rivers there are connected to the Mississippi via one tributary or another. So it goes in other parts of Iowa and in other states. Some dams get some fishing pressure, many don't. The fish often are there long before anyone realizes it. Folks begin to think about fishing in April, but the fish are there already in March most years.
The best situation is to have some sort of backwater area right below the dam. One of the spots I used to fish had a marshy bay about a block below the dam. The pike moved in there as soon as the ice was gone, which varied from as early as mid-March to as late as early April.
Another spot had a dead-end ditch about a block long and 60 feet wide that entered the river just below the dam. The pike used that as soon as the ice left. Deadbait below a bobber was the best presentation in these instances, until the weather warmed for a couple of weeks and most of the fish had spawned.
Pike stay in the tailwater to feed after they spawn, often moving into some of the faster-water spots right below the dam. Look for eddies. Fish might be in any big slackwater spot within a mile of the dam. It's worth checking downriver. There are so many small dams across the country that it's hard to describe every situation that might arise. Explore.
Once pike leave a backwater for faster water, fish with lures instead of bait. A jig tipped with a softbait is a top option to bounce along the bottom. In clear waters, crankbaits like the Countdown Rapala and Husky Jerk are good options. Spoons work too, especially fished in lift-drop fashion along the bottom instead of on a straight retrieve, although that works too.
These are obvious areas with current entering lakes, or necked-down areas between lakes or lake areas. Again, moving water attracts pike. Some of the best of these are where small rivers enter bays on a lake. It's a sort of reverse pattern to the ice fishing that centers farther out in the lake.
In this case, the running water creates an open-water pocket at the mouth of the river. If there's enough depth (3 or 4 feet is usually enough) and something structurally attractive like weeds or wood or depth changes, it's likely to gather some fish. Spots like this often draw fish for at least a month, first before the ice is out and then for a period after ice-out when pike have spawned but stay in the area to feed. These are attractive areas for forage fish and thus for pike.
Lots of lakes and portions of some reservoirs also are connected by culverts or bridged narrows areas to marshes or other lakes. These can be hotspots. At times pike hold for just a bit before moving through the tube area to spawn in the marsh; once they spawn they also hold for a bit on their way out. A steady procession of forage moves through these areas on its way into the marsh to spawn, in the case of perch and bullheads, and to feed, in the case of many minnow species.
Here again, deadbait often works best early on, and lures become more productive as the open-water season progresses.
Lake, Reservoir, and River Backwaters
These are classic situations we've written a lot about over the years. Pike seek the warmest water they can find. If they can't get into a marsh by exiting a lake via a necked-down area or by running up a river, they move into a marsh immediately connected to a lake or river, or into cuts off a main portion of a reservoir.
In some of these situations in lakes and rivers it's difficult to find a place that concentrates fish. At times fish filter steadily past a point at the mouth of a bay. At times, there's a deeper hole in the bay and the fish move along the edge of the hole. If you can find where the edge of the hole nears shore, that can be a hotspot.
I've also caught a lot of fish in a bay in one lake where a stand of rushes stops. The line of rushes runs for a couple hundred yards before it hits the transition area where I fish from shore. It's 2 to 3 feet deep along the edge of the rushes — a nice travel area — then it flattens out when the rush edge stops in 2 feet of water. This spot isn't good until the fish start moving quite a bit about two weeks after the ice goes. You're always looking for areas with the potential to congregate fish, or for travel areas that fish pass by as they move into, out of, or around areas.
In some reservoirs pike move into cuts off cuts, following a creek channel progressively farther into each cut. Once they're in the back end of an area they fan out to feed on winterkilled baitfish. So this is another situation for deadbait. Cover, such as submergent vegetation or blown-in weeds like tumbleweeds, may attract pike.
Again, find some kind of high--percentage travel and feeding area. It might be a point at the mouth of a cut. It might be a flat just off a bend in a creek channel. Set out the baits in strategic spots and wait.
If it's cold and miserable, it's possible the fish aren't going to feed much and at times you're better off just sticking it out in a known spot. If the weather's better, I sometimes switch spots four or five times in a day, looking for a pod of fish that might not be moving that much.
Casting lures like the Countdown Rapala or Husky Jerk produces fish, especially as the water warms into the mid-40°F range. Many anglers also like to cast spoons or plugs near their deadbait sets to attract pike to their baits. I've used this tactic from river backwaters in Iowa to reservoirs in the Dakotas to marsh areas in southern Manitoba and Ontario.
Casting near a deadbait set also gives you a clue how active the fish are. At times, they want lures fished slowly instead of stationary baits. You never know if you don't try casting sometimes. Slow and steady is the way to go when retrieving lures.
I love ice fishing, but at some point it's just nice to begin again — to smell the impending change in the air, to see that first robin, the swans and geese passing overhead. Our neighborhood ground hog is bound to come lumbering down the wooded trail behind the house, looking like a winter-worn hermit from the mountains, stopping every few feet to sample the air and scratch at this and that. Soon enough there's a pike flopping on the shoreline instead of on ice.
It's this sort of seasonal renewal that gets us going again this time of year — plenty to look forward to. Plenty of big fish but also hopefully enough for the pan.