February 23, 2013
It was a warm spring morning on one of the finest drive-to destinations in North America. Knowing that big were the pike swimming in this water, I surveyed the backwater where I would begin my search with the kind of anticipation that suddenly brings an involuntary smile.
By contrast, several weeks before, traveling back to Minnesota after a TV trip in Arkansas, I stopped in Iowa at a tailwater area on a small river where I had not cast a lure in over 35 years. Things had changed in the area but not so much that memories didn't spill back from the days when my fishing opportunities were not so bold. As I suspected, the pike I caught that morning did not surpass 28 inches, but before beginning to fish, the smile was just as spontaneous, the anticipation just as wild.
From Last Mountain Lake, Saskatchewan, to Fort Peck, Montana, to Red Willow, Nebraska and some of the high-country lakes in Colorado. From that little tailwater area in Iowa, to the backwaters of Lake Michigan, and to all the thousands and thousands of Canadian Shield waters like Red Lake, Ontario—and farther east to Quebec and Lake Ontario and many more waters in New York and sister states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont. Those who love pike take them where we find them—and we measure the consequences of where we fish against the backdrop of the simple opportunity to be in thick of the pursuit, as much as how many and how much the needle might move on the scale.
Giant pike are special, though. It didn't take long that morning on that backwater with such potential. Sliding my fingers under the gill cover of the fish to hold it firmly in the net, I lifted its giant head enough to wiggle the single hook free. I have never found it unusual or at odds with the eventual release of fish to fight again another day and to grow hopefully even larger, to want to momentarily hold what I have spent time chasing.
There is simply the singular overall mass of a big fish to admire. I have not held a 50, but there have been a few about 48 and many fish above 44 inches. They are all incredible fish in their own way. Looking into the fathomless eyes—knowing they've seen many a life-and-death drama. The teeth, of course, stilettos and slashers, tools of certain demise, from ducks to muskrats to whitefish and drum.
One key piece of anatomy shouldn't be overlooked as you hold Brutus The Bad. The lateral line begins as obvious pores on the fish's head, with one of three facial branches running just above the eyes and onto the fish's snout, another running beneath the eyes and toward another portion of the snout, the final branch consisting of the large pores on the undersides of each jaw. The branches become one near the back of the head, flowing in a line onto the body of the fish, as deep black pits that gradually become a mere indented line that extends almost to the tail.
We have the same senses as pike save this one, an electro-sensory system that picks up low-frequency waves in the water. The lateral line works in conjunction with the inner ear, which picks up higher-frequency vibrations, starting somewhere beyond about 100 cycles per second.
It is the super sensitivity of this organ—or series of organs—that I am convinced so often seals the deal in getting these wary old buggers to bite an artificial lure. Quite simply, the predatory process usually begins with visual cues and at times that's all it takes, as the lure is attacked and disappears so quickly that minimal other sensory input is required.
On most occasions, though, old gators in a more wary state, perhaps brought on by fishing pressure or poor weather, don't attack with abandon. They pause to give subconscious consideration to this thing they see—more input required. Moving in closer they can feel the movement, and although they usually begin tracking the lure visually, the closer they get the less vision plays a role and the more the vibration pattern spreading over their head and sides determines whether the attack should be made—and the attack is at times no more than a nip to further sample. But, as I have so often said, your presentation must first look good and then it also has to "feel" right. So it is that vibration plays an important role in how I approach all of my fishing.
The key criteria in the presentation process are first getting depth and speed right. Depth does not always mean running the lure at the level of the fish, for often it works better to have the lure above them, and at times even below them. Getting fish to move, to further explore, often further motivates, changing their mood from neutral to more positive. Meanwhile, speed also includes the way we work a lure, via straight retrieve that allows the lure to give off specific visual and vibratory cues, or more erratically, which does the same thing but with a more curious mix of cues.
There are a host of exceptional pike lures on the market. I don't want to try to discuss all of them that might be applied to the presentation process, given all the situations an angler might face. In my own fishing, I try to keep things as simple as possible and let the fish sort it out, with me going through a series of experiments to further prove the point I believe they might be trying to make.
The day I mention to begin this article I have a common (for me) bevy of lures and rods rigged and ready, my choices a result of the way I am comfortable fishing for pike, having fished waters in almost all the areas mentioned earlier in this article—and then some. With water temperatures right at 50°F, the weather stable, there was every hope that I would not have to use drastically slow measures to trigger fish.
I have extreme confidence in a flat-sided jerkbait from Rapala called the Glidin' Rap (the #12). In previous articles I discussed similar lures from other companies. I've seen many situations early and late in the year when the Glidin' Rap is like magic. Work it correctly and it walks-the-dog just below the surface, wobbling and flashing left-right, right-left; stopping and starting and lurching along in fits and spurts; giving off appealing wounded visual and vibratory cues.
I fish it on a medium-action 7-foot casting rod and a reel like the Pflueger President Wide Spool, or one of the Abu Revo 50-class Toros, or an even smaller reel like the Revo XTS. Twenty-pound superline, either a braid or a fused line like Sufix 832 or Berkley FireLine, lets you make giant casts to search big territory and set hooks at long distance to boot.
This lure is so often taken deeply that I prefer about 18-inches of 20- or 26-pound American Fishing Wire Surfstrand Micro Supreme terminally to protect the lure from all those teeth. Double the end of the superline with a spider hitch, then couple the doubled line to the wire by making back-to-back uni-knots—four wraps for each knot. I used a #2 or #3 Owner Hyper Snap to connect the lure to the wire. This wire is flexible enough and light enough to not affect the delicate balance of the lure, whereas fluorocarbon with enough diameter to assure not getting cut off quickly become too heavy for adequate duty.
Make no mistake. Light wire is critical to the performance of this lure. Too often I have had anglers approach me to say the lure just doesn't work like I say it should, only to find them rigged with heavy wire leaders with a giant snap on one end and giant swivel on the other.
Although unnecessary in this instance, I also add a 3- or 4-foot section of 20-pound fluorocarbon between the doubled superline and the wire. It isn't for stealth so much as to help in handling fish by the boat. The extra diameter of the fluorocarbon makes it easy to grab the fluorocarbon to direct fish at boatside.
Work the lure by nodding the rod tip with the tip up at about 11 o'clock when the lure's at a distance. As the lure gets within about 60 feet of the boat, lower the rod tip to a position just above the water and stroke down instead of up—nod-glide-stop; nod-glide-stop, with the rod tip moving bout 6 inches to a foot on the nod. It's important for the nod to stroke through a bit of slack line before the line comes taut to get the right wobble and kick to the lure. All total, a typical nod moves the lure 2 to 3 feet once the lure stops after the glide.
You do not have to nod-glide-stop the lure all the way back to the boat every time you cast it out—just depends on the territory you're working. It might be obvious that the key triggering area is right near a piece of obvious cover. Cast beyond the cover and work the lure past the cover and then reel it steadily in. The lure has enough wobbling action on a straight retrieve to trigger fish. I assume that a fish might have become interested on the way back in, and might be following the lure, so I stop it about 25 feet from the boat and do a couple nod-glide-stops, just in case.
On most retrieves, once the lure touches down I let it settle for a couple seconds, then do a series nod-glide-stops to cover about 15 feet of water. At that point I assume that pike in the immediate area have probably sensed the lure and rejected it or, more likely, there are no pike present.
So I often just reel the lure forward 10 to 15 feet or so before pausing and doing the nod routine again for another 10 feet, before again reeling the lure a distance—and so on. This allows quickly covering more water. If I'm into a pocket of fish or I'm consistently contacting fish as I move a long a particular area like a reed or rush face or edge, I slow down and work the lure all the back to the boat on each retrieve.
Pike often move out away from cover faces when they aren't so active. It's common for them to gather in the shallow basin areas of backwaters, in 4 to 8 feet of water with no cover. These fish often seem to hold at a level that allows them to be deep enough to feel safe and still soak up some of the penetrating sun.
Swimbaits on a Jighead
I rely heavily on swimbaits to catch just about everything that swims—and they are truly exceptional pike lures. It is again the combination of the appealing visual picture of the swimbait body in conjunction with the realistic set of vibration patterns given off by the body that makes them so deadly. Whenever possible I fish them in combination with a jighead, leaving the hook exposed, making it easy to hook fish, and just as easy to release them.
For pike, a 6-inch swimbait body on a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce jighead head like my favorite Owner Saltwater Bullet Head is just right, but 5-, 6.5-, and 7-inch bodies work too. My favorite body was the Berkley Hollow Belly, but the 6-inch size is no longer available. I still use the 5-inch body from time to time, as well as one of my all-around favorite bodies, the 5-inch Berkley Flatback Shad. But 5-inchers are just a tad small for bigger pike. A 6.5-inch Yum Money Minnow is a good choice. Big Hammer also offers 5-, 6-, and 7-inch bodies shaped like the Flatback Shad.
Whether you choose casting or spinning tackle, you want a rod-and-reel combination that allows long casts, so you can search and hook up at long distance. The same casting setup for the Glidin' Raps works well for pike, although you could drop down to 14-pound FireLine if you wish. Almost all the superlines actually have break strengths of about double their rated strength. So again, no need for heavy tackle here, even for big fish.
On the spinning side, I like a 7-foot medium-action rod with a reel like the 35-class Pflueger Supreme MGX, filled with either 10-pound Sufix 832 or 14-pound Berkley FireLine. I double the superline, use back-to-back uni-knots to couple to a 4-foot section of 15- or 20-pound fluorocarbon, then use uni-knots to connect to the previously mentioned wire. The snaps also work well to connect to your swimbaits.
Cast and make straight retrieves after you count the lure down to a desired depth. The lure works along just like a crankbait. Then, mix it up a little by adding a pause or two in the retrieve routine. Get your rod tip up at 10 to 11 o'clock and also pump the lure along just a bit to get it to hop and skip a bit as you swim it along, then momentarily stop it. At times you want to stop it completely and let it fall to the bottom to reestablish near-bottom depth control. Often, though, all you want to do is swim the lure along at mid depth in relatively shallow water.
Other times, especially when the fish are a bit more tentative, a lift-fall retrieve works best. But even in this instance, don't just tip-tip-tip the bait along the bottom like you're working a small jig and minnow. Lift the lure just a bit with the rod tip and swim it along for 4 or 5 feet and let it glide back to the bottom. This is a great tactic for pike that you can see lounging in shallow water. Bring it past them so they can see it coming. Don't sneak it up on them from behind.
It's a toss-up for me if I'm fishing water where weeds and other cover aren't a problem whether to start with the jerkbait or a swimbait. Any time fish might be a bit deeper, perhaps the swimbait. It's faster to check areas with the swimbait, so the question always is, Do I know where fish are or do I have to do a bunch of searching to find fish? Overall, fish are easier to deal with on single-hook lures, especially if you're weeding through numbers of smaller fish.
A Cover Option
To work around or through cover I fish a swimbait body on a weighted swimbait hook, rigged texposed so the hook is partially hidden just enough so the lure doesn't hang up. The hook needs enough weight to fish in the same fashion as the jighead and swimbait combination mentioned previously. The lightest jighead I fish is 1/2 ounce. The heaviest weighted swimbait hooks I know of are the 7/0 Gamakatsu or the 7/0 Falcon, each offering a 3/8-ounce option. The 6/0 and 7/0 hooks couple best with the 6- to 7-inch swimbait bodies, while 4/0 and 5/0 hooks work with 5-inch bodies, and 3/0 works best with 4-inch bodies. A hook weight of 1/4 ounce also works well in most situations.
Rig the swimbait body flat on a weighted hooks. Say you want rig a 6.5-inch Money Minnow. Screw the head of the swimbait onto the keeper ring. Lay the swimbait body flat with the hook under the body so the hook point is up and forward. Push your thumb fingernail of one hand right up against the back of the hook. Pinch the lure right there. That's the exact spot to run the hook point through the swimbait. You never get it wrong.
See how much more hook gap you have when the body is rigged flat? It's easy to get hookups even when the hook is partially nicked into the softbait. The lure swims perfectly like this and also swims down better anytime you kill it during a straight retrieve. You need the heavier weight on the hook to make swimbaits swim on the fall.
The same retrieves mentioned before work with this option. If you're working it near cover and find yourself in a situation that calls for working away from cover, remove the hook point from the top of the softbait so the hook rides exposed.
In most cases, even near cover, I use the same casting tackle mentioned before. At times, though, I switch to a medium-heavy 7-foot rod and reel rigged with 30-pound braid. You can pull stumps with 30-pound braid, but you have to beef up your leader.
A New Option
For several years I've been using a swimbait body on weighted swimbait hook behind an inline spinner. Sized correctly, this combination works well for everything from white bass to walleyes—and of course it's dynamite on pike. This rigging can be used in open water, away from cover; but with the hook texposed it also runs through heavy cover, including timber and brush. The weighted swimbait hook acts as a keel to keep the package running straight and as a pivot point for the swimbait body to work against.
So far as I know, nothing like this is available already rigged for commercial sale, so it requires deconstruction of an inline spinner in favor of reconstruction with the swimbait on the weighted swimbait hook. In combination with the inline spinner, smaller swimbait bodies can be used to achieve the same overall size equation of about 6 inches that works best.
One of the first options I used was created by removing the treble hook from a Blue Fox Vibrax Musky Buck with a #5 blade, adding a 5/0 Lazer Sharp #L111 weighted swimbait hook, weighing 1/4 ounce, coupling it with a 5-inch Berkley Hollow Belly. I've also caught lots of fish on a bigger option, by deconstructing a Blue Fox Fluted Musky Buck (#6 blade), adding a 6/0 Gamakatsu Swimbait hook (called a Weighted Superline Spring-Lock hook), weighing 1/4 ounce, coupling it with a 6.5-inch Yum Money Minnow.
On the smaller side of things, deconstruct a Terminator Snagless In-line Spinner (#4 blade), weighting 5/8 ounce, adding a 3/0 Lazer Sharp #L111 weighted swimbait hook, weighting 1/4 ounce, coupling it with a 4-inch Berkley Hollow Belly. You get the idea.
So many other lures might come into play, given the circumstance. When I'm search on reservoirs with brush I also like to use a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait. Dress it with one of the hybrid swimbait bodies like the Berkley Havoc Grass Pig to add the necessary bulk and vibration to attract bigger pike.
But here we go already and again. I've laid out the system I've used successfully for pike in the four corners of North America the past 5 years, during early season and late. We leave other topics and lures for another day.
Prepared to Release
Most fish can be released at boatside without netting them. The big ones, though, usually can't be gripped behind the head, so work on them while they're in a big net with protective mesh. You need a good set of jaw spreaders and a long-handle longnose pliers. Slide your hand under the gill cover, get a good grip on the lower jaw, turn them over, and work on the lure with the pliers in the other hand.
Don't be scared to work through the gills with the pliers to get at deep hooks or hooks that are actually in the gills. The gills are a vulnerable point for the fish, but they aren't so fragile that you can't touch them—and just because a hook is in them doesn't mean the fish won't survive, so long as you release them quickly. Only the smallest percentage aren't releasable when handled correctly. This includes supporting their body when you hold them horizontally for a photo and never holding vertically for more than a moment.