Jack Penny waited all year to return to this spot — a small bay several portages up the Taltson River from Aurora Nights Lodge. Some of the best pike fishing of his life took place there a year earlier. Naturally, the phenomena refused all appeals for reenactment.
Snow filtered out of a gunmetal sky. June is a harsh mistress near Great Slave Lake. Ice-out recently occurred. It was a typical cold-front morning in the sub-Arctic. So I began pitching a 7-inch Gulp! Jerk Shad on a 7/0 Owner saltwater hook. While it rested on bottom, a small pike picked it up. Everyone made similar changes (downsizing and rigging plastics) and began hooking jacks. Snot rockets. Hammer handles.
The surrounding area produced similar results. As snow sifting through the pines onto stocking caps and hoods, we marched back around a waterfall where we made an earlier portage and tried our luck there. Four sticks working hard, but nobody hooking up. I glanced in my box and pulled out a 71„2-inch Sebile Magic Swimmer. Who knows why. It seemed counterintuitive, but I'd tried every appeal to inactive pike I knew how to make.
I swear on a stack of Dardevles something stopped it on the first retrieve. Something big. Before long we had a 47-incher thrashing boatside and everybody was digging in their box for an articulated swimbait. Penny pulled out his own Magic Swimmer and before long he had another big pike throwing icy water into his boat. Baffling, to say the least, for pike to refuse everything and go ga-ga for a loud, bright, fairly aggressive lure. Or is it?
Serpentine, sinuous, slippery, minnow-like, sexy. They move through the water with so little disturbance, you sometimes wonder if the clip opened and the lure fell off. Flits like a dragon's tongue — slick, slithery, and dangerous. Accelerates like a dream. Zero to 60 in 5 cranks with a high-speed reel. Snake analogies — and triggers — are endless.
The action is sensuous, lifelike, and deadly. With or without rattle chambers, hard, articulated swimbaits have built-in noise makers (the hard ones are best for pike, for obvious reasons). The segments clickity-clack against each other, snapping along like a miniature train rhythmically rolling down the track. Playing with the cadence of that rhythm certainly seems to trigger strikes.
But one thing stands out — something articulated swimbaits have that other lures don't: Rolling flash. Try to imagine an undulating flash. Dull, brighter, bright, duller, gone and back again. Colors probably appear and disappear at some distance as the sides of the bait roll out of shadow into the light, then roll back. Is it "critical?" Nah. Just cool, natural, and different. Being different probably makes it plenty sexy to ol' snaggletooth. Once it becomes familiar, it may become less effective — like so many lures.
Nothing illustrates how pressure determines the effectiveness of pike lures like flying in to wilderness lakes year after year. We watch the effectiveness of lures fade over time. They rarely fade completely away, but they fade faster than ever. When word gets out about a "great lure," it gets Twittered, Facebooked, YouTubed, Rolling Stoned, and beat up 'till it's blind (sorry, Paul). And don't forget e-mailed, in addition to all the usual mentions in magazine articles and TV spots. So, even as we write about them, some "new" ideas, lures, and tactics are already old.
We suspect articulated swimbaits are here to stay, however. "I love the darn things," Penny says. "Pigs will fly before I travel for big pike without packing several articulated swimmers. The Magic Swimmer has triggered mammoth strikes all across Canada and Alaska for me and for people I've traveled with. And it's no wonder, considering that articulated versions look like a fish swimming. This year I'm giving the Koppers Livetarget model a shot at making the starting lineup. They have one that looks real close to a whitefish and I know places where it should excel."
Whitefish were the primary forage species on the Taltson while we were there. When we found pike, they were relating to schools of whitefish rather than spawning habitat, even though the ice retreated only days earlier. But blue swimbaits with pearl bellies — both hard and soft versions — outperformed every other pattern.
On local waters and on Lake of the Woods over the past year, smaller 4- to 5½-inch versions have been on fire early in the season, during unstable weather, and wherever fishing pressure is high. Larger 6- to 8-inch versions seem particularly well adapted to the opposite scenarios, turning more pike on in fall when baitfish are larger, and getting ripped more often by unpressured pike during stable conditions.
With no diving bill to create resistance, lipless swimmers slide through water so easily you can step down a notch in the power and weight of your tackle. It becomes necessary to downsize to maintain optimum feel. Fast-sink versions tend to work best in more situations, and they're heavier, demanding a stouter rod.
Rich Belanger, promotions chief for St. Croix rods, uses a 7-foot 6-inch, medium-heavy St. Croix Rage to pitch 6- to 8-inch articulated swimbaits. €¨"Added length throws these things much farther and helps with the figure 8, which works on pike with these baits sometimes," he says. "This rod has moderate power, so you aren't ripping hooks out with low-stretch 30-pound braid."
Smaller swimbaits, like the 4.5-inch Livetarget Blueback Herring, can certainly target big pike, which often key on ciscoes in lakes like Rainy on the Canada-U.S. border. Even the biggest specimens respond to Blueback Herring. Most days, the larger 5.5-inch Blueback is one of the baits I start with, but early in the season, when baitfish are smaller, the 4.5-incher rules. Few baits work as well when pike focus on ciscoes (also called lake herring).
If it makes a big enough ruckus, 3-inchers can keep pike coming to the boat all day. Small, subtle operators demand a lighter touch. I use a G. Loomis, 7-foot 7-inch Bronzeback Series spinning rod (rated for 10- to 17-pound line) and a Shimano Sahara 4000 spooled with 14-pound Berkley FireLine. The braid is tied directly to a homemade wire leader with a crankbait clip on the business end. This rigging allows for longer casts, and won't overpower these subtle baits. For bigger baits, I use a medium-heavy, 8-foot St. Croix Legend Flippin' stick with 20- to 30-pound braid on an Abu Revo MGX with a 7.9:1 high-speed gear ratio. The line is tied directly to heavier leaders with bigger clips for big, 7-inch articulated swimbaits.
The key is speed and how the bait reacts to a sudden stop, according to In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt. "You need a bait you can burn. The fast-sinking versions tend to produce more pike, but those made by most companies spin out or drag to the surface at high speed. You catch pike on a lot of them, but the best fast-sink versions turn 180 degrees when you stop them abruptly.
The Castaic Rock Hard is another good one for that. It sounds goofy, but if you get a big follower, just stop it in their face. If it does that sideways turn they gobble it. They are "anatomically correct," and not just for creating realistic profiles. Designers believe the actual physiological dimensions of a fish create the best swimming action. They call it "RealSwim Technology," developed by observing how water passes over and around the body and into joints to create the most sinuous action possible. Castaic used RealSwim modeling to create life-like versions of bass, trout, bluegills, shad, and other species. Most of these baits are made for bass so you need to put bigger hooks on them. I replace factory trebles with 3/0 or even 4/0 Eagle Claw 374s, which have a beaked point that hooks and holds pike well.
"Mattlures makes the best articulated swimmer I've found," Schmidt says. "The stuff they make is second to none. For pike, the Matt- lures Hard Bass is hard to beat. I'm afraid to throw it, though, because it's so pretty. Pike can't keep their teeth off it."
Lucky Craft makes the LL Pointer 105S Smasher — which makes a case for working slower. Designed for working schooling bass, it's on the small side for pike at 41„10 inches. It can be ripped, but the rod tip needs to be submerged. It delivers that sine-wave action — so deadly for pike — at slow speeds. It's the right tool for working over the top of deep cabbage beds, giving pike time to find it. Ripping it 30 inches or so produces an incredible flight response. And, true to Schmidt's demands, this bait is designed to turn 180 degrees when stopped and the rod tip is pushed toward it, giving it enough slack to turn. I especially like the translucent versions in clear water, where cabbage grows deepest.
Lucky Craft added the Fat Smasher last year — designed as a bass bait, and it can streak. Hold the rod tip up and it wakes like a dream. Hold the rod tip down and it can scream over dense weedbeds. When you're not sure whether you're bass fishing or out for pike, this tool can make up their minds for you.
The River2Sea S-Waver also features a natural sine-wave or "S — Action" swimming motion, created by River2Sea's exclusive Pin and Tenon Hinge. This one has a soft PVC tail that enhances the illusion of real swimming motion while delivering a realistic and natural profile. S — Waver is another weedbed specialist, designed to wake the surface and call pike around weeds in early summer, but I see it as a cold-water specialist early and late in the season. With the rod tip high, the S — Waver becomes a surface lure. Allow it to slowly sink and it can be worked at slow speeds down to depths of 2 or 3 feet.
"The Revolution Shads were originally designed for bass, too," according to Richard Quade of Reaction Strike. "We had 4-, 5-, and 6-inch models and recently developed 2-, 7-, 9-, and a 12-inch version for muskies. It comes in almost 40 colors and 4 fall rates (wake, slow, fast, and suspend). The suspending version was revolutionary. We were among the first to make suspending, articulated swimbaits.
"Numerous big pike and muskies have been taken on Revos," Quade added. "Last year, pro staffer Forrest Presnell, a guide on the New River in Virginia, released what would have been the Virginia state record muskie — a fish in excess of 45 pounds that fell for a Musky Revolution Shad. We get photos of big pike almost every day from customers all over, especially in Canada."
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Backstabber Lures Jointed Savage
Livetarget BBH140 Blueback Herring
Reaction Strike Rattlin' Revolution Shad
Reaction Strike Revolution Shad
Speed and direction changes trigger strikes. Those are factors you control. Sweeping a long rod right or left triggers change-of-direction strikes. Speeding up or stopping the bait triggers followers. Many of these baits suspend, or are designed to work just under the surface at slow speeds. They catch pike in cold water, but the heavier fast-sinking models are the only ones that stay down when ripped. For at least part of the retrieve, pike want it ripped in most situations, and only the fast-sinking models stay down. Even with those units, you often need to keep the rod tip in the water — another good excuse for using a longer stick.
Every new lure has idiosyncrasies. When throwing articulated swimbaits for the first time, get familiar with it next to the boat. Check its drop speed and speed tolerance. Get the bait about three feet behind the rod tip and rip it. If it stays on track, stop it and see what it does when you give slack. If it turns on its side, keep playing with speed until you can identify the high-end parameter — but look for the low-end parameters, too. Identify the speed where the sine-wave action kicks in. Then watch how it responds to changes in direction.
That way you also get a feel for how much resistance the lure produces. Even larger, heavier versions slide through the water with great ease, and the advantage is being able to translate less resistance into greater speed. Sweeping to the side with a longer rod accelerates the lure well beyond the limits of reels with high-speed gear ratios.
Ready? Send it out there, let it drop to the level you perceive is just above the zone pike are cruising in, and try a steady retrieve. Follow up with the same retrieve but, after moving it 20 feet or so, rip it for 4 or 5 cranks, followed by a sudden stop. Then try ripping it all the way in while sweeping the rod tip first to one side for several cranks, then to the other. (I call it the "two-headed serpent.")
Alter speed and lure direction until you hit a nerve. Then try to remember what you were doing after dealing with a vicious strike, a thrashing elongate fuselage, and a hang-onto-your hat run or two. Good luck with that. Helps to be systematic because it's difficult, after all that, to remember what the real trigger was. Often as not, the same trigger works all over the lake for hours if not days.
Nothing special is required most days. A white-bread retrieve — slow and steady — trips up plenty of Jurassic slimers almost everywhere I've tried it. Articulated swimbaits are strong mojo for big pike in all those places.
Jointed baits with bills have long been pike favorites, think Spoonbill Rebel and Creek Chub Pikies long before that. Several recent additions deserve a spot in your pike box, whether you're headed to a distant pike paradise like the Taltson River, or fishing local lakes across the North Central region and Canada.
Yo-Zuri's Sashimi Jointed FW is a 4-incher that moves in sinuous fashion, while at the same time executing a narrow wobble, thanks to its bill. At 3/4 ounce, it casts far and runs about 3 feet deep, suspending when stopped. Part of its appeal to pike also has to do with the patented Sashimi color treatment, painted with alternating colors along vertical ribs that alter hue as the lure moves back and forth.
Storm's Swimmin' Stick is double-jointed, with a shallow diving bill to create a more aggressive rolling action on the retrieve. It's balanced for speed, but can also be worked in jerkbait fashion, always an option when pursuing pike. In lengths of 4, 5, and 6 inches, it can match the varying preferences of pike across their range.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw lives in Brainerd, Minnesota.