I have fished some of the best pike waters in North America. But many of my most memorable trips have been to what some might deem lesser spots — average-Joe waters — mostly smaller, including small rivers and out-of-the-way backwaters far removed from major waterways. These places and the pike one finds there this time of year have long been and continue to be a passion.
That's true, beginning with my first pike, which I caught at a fish barrier between Upper Gar and Lower Gar lakes, in the Iowa Great Lakes region, when I was 8 or 9 years old. Two things I cannot forget, the first being that I caught the fish on a Mickey Finn streamer that had been modified to leadhead jig status with a piece of lead molded to the head of the fly, which meant that it was fished upside down with the hook up instead of hook down, in normal fly fashion — a hair jig before its time.
The pike engulfed the jig, which I could plainly see when it opened its mouth. So, holding it behind the head with one hand, I reach three fingers in to get it, at which point the fish chopped down and I stood there momentarily thinking, "This isn't good." And it wasn't. Some lessons last a lifetime.
Where that pike was begins to suggest where they want to be this time of year. Another story is in order. One early April afternoon many years ago and I am returning to my home at the time in Northwest Iowa, from a trip for ice-out pike on Lake Oahe, South Dakota. That's the giant Missouri River reservoir in central South Dakota, starting at Pierre, stretching north into North Dakota. We fished lures and deadbaits in the back ends of creek arms and caught several fish that were 20 pounds.
Driving through the west side of Sioux Falls, a city of 75,000 in the late 1970s, I took a backstreet shortcut off old Highway 42. Peddling down the street was a kid on a bike, a rod and reel in hand, a stringer of 3 small pike dangling from his handlebars.
"Hey, you," I shouted out my window. He stopped and I asked the obvious. "Back there," he said, pointing to a stream running through a park. I'd never noticed it before. "Skunky Creek," he said.
Pike push as shallow as they can this time of year. In rivers, they often push upstream until they can't go farther. There, if marshy, shallow habitat is available, they eventually spawn. It was the same principle we used to find those big pike in Oahe Reservoir, where the fish had pushed into the shallowest portions of creek arms far removed from the main reservoir. Ancestors of those fish are gathering in the same places as we speak.
The Skunky at the time was (and so remains) a creek off the modestly larger Big Sioux River, which empties 70 miles distant into the middle Missouri River at Sioux City. The Missouri River below Gavins Point Dam, just upstream from Sioux City, didn't have much of a pike population and neither did the Big Sioux. In fact, 98 percent of the year, you'd find it almost impossible to catch a pike anywhere in either of those waters, much less in Skunky Creek. But, as I've noted, the few pike that were there are, during this part of the season, forever pressing onward until they can go no farther, consolidating as they travel farther and farther up the trail.
"Below a waterfall," he told me. What he described probably was a load of broken concrete, probably illegally dumped into the creek, causing a barrier that the fish couldn't pass until the creek flooded. The fish were in the "tailwater" of that small dam.
Any barrier like that can stop enough fish for you to catch a few of them in spots where you won't be able to catch them for most of the rest of the year. We used to catch a few pike some springs at Klondike, where an old river town once sat on the east bank of the Big Sioux River not far from Sioux Falls. A dam created a small reservoir which fed water to a mill, the remains of which were still there when I was a boy. The old dam had holes in it, so it wasn't a permanent barrier to pike, but it stopped some of them long enough to for us to have a chance at them for several weeks.
More obvious barriers are small dams across lesser rivers, like the Little Sioux River, at Linn Grove, Iowa. This is another small river that didn't in those days support much of a population of pike and walleyes. But typically in mid to late March some of them traveled upstream to this little dam. Walleyes and some pike held in the immediate tailwater, while other pike pushed into a marshy connecting backwater just below the tailwater area. I presume they still do. In most areas of the country, cleaner water over the last decades has meant an increase in fish populations in many of these rivers. When I vote, I vote for clean water.
There probably are a couple dozen such dams and many other lesser barriers in various places in Iowa alone. Most of these kinds of barriers in the portion of the country where you live can be identified with just a little research. If I want to know something about the various fisheries in just about any area of the country where I might be traveling, I make a phone call or drop an email to a local fishery biologist. I've never met one that didn't want to help. And if the first one you contact doesn't know the answer, they always know where to direct you.
Necked down lake and river areas, spots where culverts direct water from marshes and other backwater areas into main lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, also draw pike. The problem here is that unless there's a barrier to stop the fish and congregate them, they often don't stay long. Still, these spots give you a shot.
The late March prespawn conditions on the Little Sioux River in Iowa, the early April prespawn conditions in South Dakota, may push into late April at Devils Lake, North Dakota — into early May on Rainy Lake, Ontario; and into June on famous far-north waters like Wollaston and Reindeer that experience almost perpetual winter, with a sliver each of spring, summer, and fall. Timing in each area of the continent is part of the equation for finding fish, whether on major waters or the smaller waters we've been discussing.
The Postspawn and Presummer Regathering
Once pike spawn in many of the "lesser areas," they filter downstream into larger areas and they become so diffused that finding them is difficult. So the pike in Skunky Creek are gone until next spring, providing at that point there's enough water to allow them to return.
At most small dams, the pike also vacate the area until next spring. But other barriers, like the fish barrier where I caught my first pike, get another run of fish, because current there draws baitfish. This is a feeding movement that transpires three or four weeks after pike spawn. My first pike was there to feed, not to spawn. This can be one of the best fishing periods of the year, and it's often overlooked on small waters and large.
Some of the best fishing on Last Mountain Lake takes place stating in late May or early June and often lasts through the end of the June. As fish move from spawning areas they move into the main lake, filtering back toward areas where they spend the summer. Much of this movement is from the vast shallow areas in the north toward areas in the central and southern portions of the reservoir.
During the Postspawn and Presummer periods, some pike move from where they are in the main reservoir into shallow nearby backwater areas, following baitfish that move there to feed. It might appear that pike are moving back into the areas where they spawned, but most of them are far removed from their spawning areas and are instead moving into areas used by other pike to spawn. Radio tracking studies verify these movements.
Similar movements happen on many, and probably most, if not all, bodies of water, although as one might guess, on each type of water exactly where pike go depends on the characteristics of the body of water. In big reservoirs like Oahe and Ft. Peck, pike don't move all the way back into the back ends of creek arms, but they do hold on habitat in the interior of creek arms. Flooded brush often attracts these fish, but they might also hold on rock.
Devils Lake is another story. Because of inflowing water, the lake continues to grow, having now expanded to more than 200,000 acres. Each year pike have vast new areas to spawn. After spawning, they move back to larger portions of the reservoir, then back into shallow areas to feed. Postspawn walleyes and prespawn white bass inhabit the same shallow areas, making for peaking fishing for all three species from about the middle of May throughout much of June.
Jason Mitchell has one of the greatest guide teams ever assembled working to handle all the anglers. Two-man limits of 10 walleyes and 10 pike are common at the fish cleaning station at Woodland Resort, as guides bring clients back from a day of fishing. Never mind keeping white bass when you already have that many fish, and can keep double that for a possession limit. It's one of the greatest harvest fisheries in North America.
Some lodge owners and guides on some famous far-north waters assume that their pike are shallow in the same areas much of the season, but the fish are more likely at some point by late June and early July trading positions in most of these lakes. Again, it probably depends on the specific types of habitat in question. The trade of fish from one shallow area, to the main lake, and back into other shallow areas probably is an important element in allowing anglers to keep getting into fish that haven't been caught before.
Meanwhile, on classic mesotrophic lakes like Minnesota's Mille Lacs, pike exhibit this feeding behavior not by moving back into shallow backwater areas, but by pushing into shallow submergent weedbeds in vast bays like Vineland and shallow weedbeds on shoals in other bays and portions of the main lake.
That's the fundamental idea, whether you're on a western reservoir, a famous Canadian fly-in water, a Mississippi River pool, a portion of the Great Lakes, or one of the many lesser waters across North America.
A Few Presentation Suggestions
I won't dig deeply into the presentation process for it has been the subject of many In-Fisherman articles over the years. Not so much has been written, however, about catching the pike in lesser waters.
Deadbait fished on quick-strike rigging is good for prespawn fish, just as it is for shallow pike on larger waters. Most areas are shallow, so fish the bait on the bottom, or suspended near bottom below a float. Don't just let it set endlessly in a spot. Make a cast and let it set for 20 minutes or so and then make another cast. Eventually, you discover sweet spots in most fishing areas.
Another superior option is a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce jighead with a lively reversed minnow fished under a float. Slide the jighook just under the skin with the hook parallel to the dorsal fin so the hook point and the head of the minnow point away from the jighead. This anchors the minnow in place so it sends out vibrations to attract fish, but doesn't allow it to swim away when the fish nears.
A plain jighead works well, but I also use hair jigs to anchor minnows. I first experimented with hooking minnows through the lips, but later moved to the more effective reversing method. The bucktail on the hair jig should be thinly tied. White has always been a favorite bucktail color, with the Mary Kay pattern originally tied by Cap Kennedy being an all-time favorite. The Mary Kay has a fluorescent pink body under thinly tied white bucktail with a little nip of yellow tail. In dirty water, plain orange or chartreuse heads work well to focus attention on the presentation once fish move in close. This rigging works as well in static water as it does drifted along current breaks in tailwater areas.
Wherever pike are aggressive, I switch from lures with multiple hooks to lures with either two hooks, or I switch to a swimbait (paddletail body) on a jighead. It's much easier to deal with pike that have taken lures with one or two hooks.
Mom Will Cook Them
"My mom will cook them," the kid with the small pike on the stringer said over his shoulder as he pedaled off. We are birds of a feather, he and I, for cooking them is one primary reason I fish.
I like a walleye fillet from time to time, but like many anglers who eat a lot of fish, I find it so mild as to be bland. An occasional meal of spring bullheads is as interesting as a meal of walleye. Crappies and bluegills are much more distinctive. I love eating smaller largemouth bass. Small channel cats are good on occasion, while flatheads are absolutely delicious. I find stripers delicious, too, white bass not so much so, but they are good steamed and pared with spicy Asian dipping sauces. Actually, walleyes are good like that, too.
I love eating fish, and being a multispecies angler allows me to be a multispecies forager. There is interest in the variety. I love just about all of them but not all the time.
Eating pike also is distinctive and interesting in a variety of recipes; so I am all about harvesting smaller specimens. Small pike are prevalent in many waters today, including some of those average-Joe waters. The flesh is tasty, firm, and flakey, so they are good pan-fried or deep-fried, but also work well in stir-fries, soups, and chowders. Friends also go gonzo over pickled pike, and it is good, but a couple times a year is enough for me. One good place to learn about exceptional recipes and about removing the bones from pike is our cookbook, In-Fisherman Presents . . . Cooking Freshwater Fish, by Chef Lucia Watson.
One of my favorite dishes with pike on occasion is to substitute it for shrimp in a New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp recipe. Pike is firm enough to hold up well. You don't need a grill, for the fish is sauteed and then baked in a spicy, buttery sauce that makes more than a few break out in a sweat.
The first time I tried this was long ago in a recipe adaption by Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet, a recipe I labeled at the time, "Cajun Your Catch," which ran in a December magazine in the late 1980s. It remains one of my favorites.
It's different, though, than recipes from most of the restaurants in New Orleans, particularly one of my favorites, Mr. B's Bistro, on Royal Street. A bit of research suggests that the recipe originated at the Pascal Manale restaurant. Their take on the recipe is the simplest I've seen — and very good.
Another superb option is available in one of my new favorite cookbooks, Open Range: Steaks, Chops & More From Big Sky Country, by one-time New Orleans Chef Jay Bentley who owns The Mint restaurant in Belgrade, Montana. All the direct-from-New Orleans recipes have Worcestershire sauce as an important ingredient. But again, the Smith recipe is very good — and includes bacon. So I've included Smith's adaption along with my favorite from Mr. B's Bistro. Meanwhile, Open Range is from runningpresscookbooks.com. And you can Google Pascal Manale to get their original recipe.
In every way, I remember thinking that day so long ago in Sioux Falls, the kid's catch of three pike, totaling perhaps 4 pounds, was the equal of our several fish each weighing 20 pounds. World-famous water — and water virtually unknown. We had all been on the same early-season quest for the same tenacious fish, but the pursuit took place in much different environments. Still, his fish had the same "nature" as ours. And he had read the conditions and caught some of the best fish available, just as we had — trophies on all counts, all the way around.