September 13, 2021
You’re flying higher than a kid on Christmas morning as you climb into the co-pilot seat of the floatplane that’s tied to the dock at a remote northern Canadian air base. You smell the lingering fumes of Avgas as you look out the window and catch a glimpse of the dockhand giving the pilot a thumbs up as he throws clear the mooring ropes. You pull the headphones over your ears as the propeller turns over two, three, four times and then roars to life in a cloud of smoke.
The pilot taxis out to the middle of the lake, turns into the wind, revs the motor, and increases speed until the pontoons break free from the lake’s surface. You skim over the tree tops, bank to the north, and there’s not a road in sight, only untouched wilderness and more water than you’ve ever seen—and it’s filled with trophy pike.
Well, hold on. As memorable as most fly-in fishing trips are, they’re not the only way to enjoy fabulous fishing. In fact, plan your next trophy pike trip right, and some the best pike destinations that Canada has to offer are within driving distance.
My friend Matt Koprash lives in North Bay, Ontario, an easy four-hour drive north of the Ontario/New York/Michigan border. The scenic city is located on the shore of Lake Nipissing, famous for its walleye, bass, and muskie fishing (some believe it will cough up the next world record). He says the lake is at the top of his drive-to pike list as well.
“Lake Nipissing is big water with a lot of big pike,” Koprash says. “Nearby Lake Nosbonsing, near Astorville, also has a healthy pike population, while the monster pike in Nepewassi Lake, near Markstay, have long flown under the radar.
“Ditto for McGregor Bay, at the top of giant Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. I like to fish out of the Little Current area. Finally, there’s the huge Ottawa River that flows south and forms the boundary between Ontario and Quebec. The southern half of the river is noted for its muskie angling, but the northern half, around Mattawa, is wilderness pike fishing at its finest.”
Because the region is easily accessed by multi-lane expressways and paved secondary highways, he says early season is perfect for the drive-to angler who can enjoy spectacular action while their fly-in friends are often delayed by lingering ice on the lakes farther north. “As soon as the ice goes out in April, I start hunting for big, hungry pike feeding up from the spawn,” he says. “You find them shallow until mid- to late June, when the water warms and they move out to deeper parts of the lakes.”
For early spring pike, Koprash never leaves home without a spinnerbait. “My favorite is a Nichols Lures Pulsator Metal Flake in white or chartreuse with double willow blades,” he says. “I also mix in Colorado bladed models, so I can fish slower and higher in the water column.”
Koprash, who is a hot stick on the local bass tournament scene, says chatterbaits are another one of his favorite springtime lure options that few pike anglers use. He says the vibrating jigs are like a weedless, less invasive crankbait, and he dresses them with Berkley Havoc Grass Pigs. “You can reel them in steadily or use a start-stop-start retrieve,” he says. “But I like yo-yoing them to cover the water column and dropping them back on curious fish. You also can never go wrong casting a Johnson Silver Minnow.
“You also should have a twitch bait like the Berkley Cutter and Juke series. The Cutter is a leaner jerkbait, while the Juke has a larger body profile that has more of a rolling than slashing action. The larger profile often attracts bigger pike.”
With more than 100,000 lakes within the area bounded by the city of Thunder Bay to the east and the Manitoba border to the west, you couldn’t fish all of the pristine pike waters in Northwest Ontario in a dozen lifetimes. When I asked pike and muskie guide Matt Ciccone to tell me his favorite three drive-to pike waters, he says among many good options, Lake of the Woods, Lac Seul, and Rainy Lake top his list. And like, Koprash, his favorite time to be on the water is from ice out in spring until summer holidays begin.
“I look at a map of the lake I’m fishing and circle every feeder creek and river coming into it,” Ciccone says. “Pike spawn in the creeks and rivers while there’s still ice on the lake and then remain around the mouths and inside the bays. I look for vegetation like pencil reeds and last year’s withered weeds for locating spring pike—it’s as simple as that.” His go-to baits include Lubowski muskie-pike spinnerbaits and Custom X crankbaits.
I caught my three biggest Lake of the Woods pike in the fall on similar muskie-size lures. The Rapala Super Shad Rap has long been my favorite “small” bait that fishes “big” and targets everything with teeth inside its mouth.
On Rainy Lake, I’ve caught huge fall pike using 6- and 7-inch soft-plastic swimbaits, such as the Storm WildEye Series, Big Hammer, and Bass Magnet Shift ‘R Shad on 1/2- to 3/4-ounce Freedom Lures Hydra Jigs—the same swimbait setups I often fish for walleyes.
For other exceptional drive-to options in northwestern Ontario, I recommend the English River system, Lake St. Joseph, and Lake Nipigon.
In Manitoba, you’d think that the best drive-to pike lakes would be the many waters in the Far North that border the fringe of fly-in lakes and rivers, but you’d be mistaken. “The top drive-to pike water in the province is Lake of the Prairies,” says Eric Labaupa, Manitoba Tourism’s Fishing Specialist. “This large reservoir in the Parkland Region is only a short drive north of the North Dakota border and is full of monster pike. Two other easily accessed waters are Falcon Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park and the Winnipeg River system. If you want to drive north, Reed Lake and Cedar Lake offer exceptional trophy pike fishing.”
Labaupa says that while most pike anglers favor early season action, autumn pike fishing is equally as good. “Once the water starts cooling in September, the fish reinvade the shallows,” he says. “Many hunters who visit in the fall make it a point to dedicate some time to fish for huge pike.”
Not only am I one of the hunters Labaupa refers to, but many years, I leave the shotgun at home and focus solely on spoon-feeding big toothy critters using a large Williams Whitefish spoon dressed with a 6-inch curlytail grub. It is the deadliest pattern I’ve ever seen when pike are relating to deep clumps of cabbage fronting the main body of water.
I spool a fast baitcasting reel, attached to a 7- to 9-foot medium-heavy-power rod or light bucktail-action muskie rod, with 40- to 50-pound Sufix Performance braid. Then I swim the ciscoe-looking spoon in the 4- to 6-foot space between the weedtops and the surface of the water, letting it flutter down into pockets, and especially along the deep edge. It’s deadly on trophy pike as the Manitoba Master Angler Award Program bears out.
“Medium to large spoons are a must-have,” Labaupa says. “They hook hundreds of Master Angler pike year after year. Small muskie lures also work well, especially in-line bucktails and longer-profile jerkbaits. Topwater aficionados should bring Zara Spook-style lures as the pike up here annihilate them.”
According to In-Fisherman contributors Jeff and Jason Matity, the top five drive-to pike waters in Saskatchewan are standouts. “Tobin Reservoir has to be at the top,” Jeff says. “It’s big water with big fish that are protected by special regulations. Because it’s a man-made lake, slowly rotting wood litters the bottom, kick starts the food chain, and grows pike to ridiculous sizes. The lake record is 38 pounds, and 30-pound-plus pike are caught every year.”
“Last Mountain Lake would be second,” Jason says. “It’s a natural 75-mile-long lake with numerous shallow bays and abundant populations of ciscoes, suckers, and whitefish that grow monstrous pike. Last Mountain isn’t as consistent as Tobin, largely because it doesn’t have the same protective regulations that Jeff and I, and so many other anglers, wish it had.”
Diefenbaker Reservoir is their third choice. It’s massive and featureless, so the prairie winds can whip up and hamper your efforts some days. Rafferty Reservoir, also is a long, weather-exposed reservoir, but they say you find enough side channels and coulees most days to get out of the wind.
For their final selection, Jeff likes Qu’Appelle River chain of lakes (Pasqua, Echo, Mission, Katepwa, Crooked, and Round) that are small and easy to fish. Jason, on the other hand, likes Alameda Reservoir. “Alameda is a large man-made lake about three hours southeast of Regina,” he says. “Every June at the Alameda Fishing Derby the winning pike is in the 20-pound-plus range.”
As for timing the best bite, they say you can’t go wrong in June, September, or October. “I’ve probably caught as many big pike casting 5-inch Big Hammer swimbaits on 1/2- to 3/4-ounce Hammer Head jigs as any other presentation,” Jeff says. “In summer and early fall, I like to speed-troll Storm Magnum Hot ‘N Tots. They’re fat, push a lot of water, and swim away from center.”
Jason adds the 6-inch Lunker City Slug-Go to his soft-plastic repertoire, and Rapala Husky Jerks and Shad Raps to the trolling program. Both anglers smear their lures with Pro-Cure Musky/Pike Super Gel.
Like the Matitys, Melfort, Saskatchewan, pike ace Todd Taylor, spends a lot of time fishing Tobin Lake, where he says 35- to 48-inch pike are common. While he casts and trolls traditional pike presentations, he also sneaks in an exceptional offering. “Big pike in Tobin suspend over deep water, hunting ciscoes, so watching your electronics is key to fishing the right depth,” he says. “When I find it, I suspend a deadbait on a quick-strike rig under a large slipfloat. It’s essentially the same presentation that we use in the winter to catch the giant pike under the ice.”
Taylor says Crean Lake in Waskesui National Park pumps out monster pike in the summer. “It is a sleeper lake that not many anglers talk about, but I catch lots of 40- to 48-inch pike casting bucktails and big crankbaits over deep weeds. Lenore Lake is another great pike water that is virtually unknown. We catch pike up to 30 pounds there every summer fishing suspended cisco rigs and trolling big Husky Jerks and Reef Runners over deep flats and weedbeds. The pike are feeding on whitefish.”
A fly-in fishing trip to a plush lodge tucked deep within the Canadian wilderness needs to be on every pike angler’s bucket list. But while you’re waiting for your dream to come true, you can drive to some of the best destinations that Canada has to offer.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer, Kenora, Ontario, lives in the heart of drive-to pike country. A former Ontario resource manager, he is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contact guide Matt Ciccone at firstname.lastname@example.org.