July 07, 2016
No fish is more synonymous with the Canadian wilderness than pike. When I was growing up they were known ubiquitously as "great" northern pike, the fish of dreams with crocodile-size heads and tiger-like teeth.
Pike are being caught these days in mind-numbing numbers, thanks to a new breed of young guides, often schooled in the latest pike biology, equipped with modern tackle and electronics, seasoned with thousands of hours on top waters. Moreover, progressive fishery management and enlightened regulations have protected and enhanced the resource.
"Pike are an extremely adaptable species," says Christian Zimmer, who guides out of Bolton Lake Lodge in northern Manitoba while completing his undergraduate work in fishery biology at southern Ontario's Trent University. "They've adapted to conditions across three continents and even live in the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea. As anglers, we need to recognize this and become adaptable as well. Too many anglers are comfortable catching pike only one way. They need to embrace new concepts, ideas, and tactics." By way of example, Zimmer points out that the spawning season for pike can be protracted, lasting up to two months. He adds that timing can vary within lakes, depending on the orientation of spawning areas to the sun and currents, so pike in one lake may be in the Prespawn, Spawn, and Postspawn periods.
Key pike spawning bays are typically shallow, often less than 5 feet deep, with small creeks and streams flowing into them. But don't let shallow water deter you. Like returning salmon, pike may push amazing distances up feeder creeks and streams, tucking into water so thin their backs stick into the air. Sometimes, too, a bay that didn't hold a single fish in the morning swarms with trophy-size pike in the afternoon, after the sun warms it.
THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM
"Many of the largest pike are caught at ice-out, as the big females concentrate in spawning bays," Zimmer says. "Pike begin to spawn at around 40°F, often with ice still floating in the bays. As soon as it melts I fish these coves, especially around neck-downed entrances. Constricted areas like this let you catch pike that are staging to spawn, spawning, and spawned out." Andrew Klassen, on the other hand, looks for creeks and streams flowing into prime spawning bays to start the open-water season. It's a big pike pattern In-Fisherman staff have exploited for years. But Klassen, who hails from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and guides for North Haven Resort, adds an important caveat to the model. He says the best shallow spawning bays are near deep water. It gives pike the opportunity to move quickly and adjust, as weather and water conditions alter their mood.
You'd think having easy access to such pristine pike waters that Zimmer and Klassen would haul out the heavy artillery early in the season to catch fish not yet harassed by anglers, but that's not the case. "You can spot fish from several cast lengths away," Klassen says, "as long as you stand on the highest vantage point in the boat and remain quiet. I find these early-season fish sluggish, so finesse presentations like bass-size Slug-Gos and Senkos retrieved slowly produce better than fast-moving baits. I also use lightly weighted YUM Money Minnow swimbaits and fish them in the same methodical way."
"Spawning and early-postspawn pike present a unique challenge," Zimmer says. "They're the most rewarding fish to catch, as they often represent your best shot at the fish of a lifetime. But they're not focused on feeding and to the dismay of thousands of anglers, they sometimes won't open their mouths when you bounce a spoon off their snout. You can catch them, but it requires you to shift gears and become a hunter.
"My go-to bait is a 6- to 9-inch Slug-Go rigged Texposed on an 8/0 offset-shank hook, he says. "It works because it's almost neutrally buoyant and hangs in front of a fish's face. And it's easy to work because you don't have to impart much action. I use a light titanium leader so it doesn't weight down the bait. Remember, these fish don't want to eat, swim far, or move quickly to hit your lure. You have to slow down and pique their interest."
To do this, Zimmer casts well beyond a pike that he's spotted, imparting more twitches and prolonged pauses the closer he brings his bait to the fish. He tries to read the pike's mood to anticipate its reaction. If the fish turns toward his bait, he deadsticks it and waits for the fish to flare its gills and suck it in. If it doesn't, he twitches the lure ever so slightly to pull it away, hoping to provoke an aggressive response.
"In some instances the pike may spook, but don't give up on it," he says. "Keep track of the direction it swims and set up to cast to it again. I've spent up to 45 minutes chasing a particular fish before I finally got it to strike. Stay focused. This is also where fly-fishermen with a streamer do well. Wear a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Cloudy or windy conditions make this style of fishing tough, so take advantage of every calm, sunny, day you have."
Zack Brown guides out of Lac La Martre Adventures in the Northwest Territories, perhaps the hottest pike palace on the planet right now. His trick to trigger closed-jaw giants in early spring is casting streamer flies on spinning gear. "Yes, it works," Brown says. "You need enough weight to cast well. You don't weight the fly itself, as that would defeat the neutrally buoyant presentation. I use a slipfloat with the line running through the center so I can adjust it for depth. The only problem with the presentation is that pike often streak up and hit the float, so to avoid losing everything, I use a 30- to 40-pound knotable stainless-steel leader."
THE HEAT-SEEKING MISSILE
Eventually, however, all good things come to an end and so it is with the super-shallow pike of spring. Even in the Far North, thanks to almost continuous daylight, by late June or early July, water temperatures creep into the 60°F range and pike are in full retreat. To pattern their movements, note that Dr. John Casselman, perhaps the foremost esocid expert alive, calls pike "heat seeking missiles" that do everything in their power to lounge in 62ËšF to 64ËšF water. Moreover, summer never arrives in a day. Rather, there's a time of transition that you need to understand in order to stay on big fish.
"When pike start to shift toward summer locations there's a two-week window when the bays are too warm but vegetation hasn't developed enough to provide cover and attract baitfish," Klassen says. "This is when I stow finesse presentations and use faster moving baits that let me cover water quickly. With three anglers in the boat, I typically have one casting a jerkbait like a Rapala X-Rap, another with a small to medium-size bucktail like a Musky Mayhem Baby Girl or #5 Mepps, and the third casting a spoon tipped with a grub. As soon as I see fish showing a preference for a particular bait, I adjust."
Zimmer, who has studied pike from both the science side of the street and the angler's point of view, says the smartest thing you can do when pike are in transition is to be the first to fish summer locations. He routinely fishes his best summer locations that have deep vegetation when most anglers are still catching postspawn pike in shallow bays. "I have noticed a trend," he says, "that my biggest pike every year has come from a summer location, when everyone believes you should still be fishing for postspawners in the shallows. It's hard for anglers to give up slinging small spoons and spinners in spawning bays, but the biggest females are always the first to leave those bays. Maybe they've become more efficient spawners and quickly dropped all their eggs. Maybe they want to recuperate faster from the spawn. Maybe they're avoiding angling pressure. I don't know the reason, but I do know that the biggest pike move much sooner than most anglers realize."
BIGGER IS BETTER
Zimmer also knows that this seasonal shift is the cue for anglers to use bigger baits. "My favorite bait for the transition into summer is a regular-size shallow-running Bulldawg," he says. "That surprises many anglers, who hesitate to throw large lures for pike coming out of the spring pattern, when the consensus is to use smaller lures. But many of my biggest fish every year come during this transition and they eat 'Dawgs.'"
With a muskie fishing background where Bulldawgs are a staple, Zimmer says the big bulbous softbaits appeal to pike that begin to feed heavily in warm water, recuperating from the spawn. And his presentation is dead simple.
"I use a straight retrieve, keeping the lure just under the surface so the tail does all the work," he says. "It's effective over the tops of growing cabbage and other plants. But as good as they are to cast, Bulldawgs are even better when you slowly troll them, 20 to 30 feet behind the boat, just outside the prop wash.
The key is controlling the speed of the boat so the lure runs just under or touching the surface of the water. "When a big pike slams a Bulldawg, it's like a scene out of Jaws. You won't want to fish them any other way. Trolling over newly emerging vegetation may seem crazy, but it allows you to efficiently cover lots of water. European pike anglers have been successfully using large soft plastics for years."
Once summer water temperatures start consistently registering 65ËšF or more, Zack Brown also feels that bigger is better. "Since I'm fishing the deepest weedlines and adjacent rock points that I can find on Lac La Martre, I use big baits," Brown says. "Sight-casting to individual fish is out the question, so I may have to weed through a number of smaller pike. But deep weedline/rock point combinations almost always have a lunker lurking nearby, so it's worth the effort, despite the pesky hammerhandles. My go-to lure is a Bondy Bait. It's so versatile and produces big fish unlike anything else I've used. I cast it, let it sink, then slowly retrieve it back to the boat in a series of lifts and falls. But as I bring it up shallow I pick up the speed to avoid snagging."
Not surprisingly, Klassen, too, opts for bigger baits in summer, saying he favors moderately deep lakes because they tend to produce excellent mid-depth vegetation that doesn't quite reach the surface. "I burn and troll Double Showgirls and Cowgirls across the weedtops and provoke explosive strikes," he says. "I do the same thing with bigger spoons and shallow running crankbaits.
"Deep lakes, on the other hand, can be tricky because more big fish occupy open water," Klassen says. "Here, it's important to scan with advanced sonar. When I search for open-water pike, I use the Structure-Scan feature on my Lowrance HDS-12 extensively. I also map out the structures and contours using Insight Genesis. I don't scan for pike themselves, but for their prey and structures that attract schools of whitefish, ciscoes, and perch. Whenever I mark forage fish suspended in open water, I spot a few large predators hanging around the balls of bait.
"When I find them, two methods have proven most effective: jigging Bondy Baits and Monster Tubes, and trolling deep-diving crankbaits like Ernies and Magnum Rapalas. It can be daunting to cover all that open water searching for bait, but once you find it, you often find that baitfish set up on the same spots every year, during similar weather and water conditions. This is why making your own maps helps you understand why certain open-water structures attract so many big pike."
Brown adds that the one thing he has learned repeatedly in his years of guiding is to never be so confident in yourself and your tactics that you won't try something new. "I often see clients refuse to try a new technique because it's not what they've done in the past," he says. "I don't suggest you need to try everything you read or hear about. Just don't get so comfortable that you shut out new ideas. If you remain open-minded about new lures and presentations, you can continue to enjoy the most exciting and rewarding fishing you've ever experienced."