Deep Summer Pike
July 07, 2016
Categorized as coolwater fish, large pike prefer water temperatures in the mid-60°F range or less, so during mid-summer, potential locations for pike are narrowed dramatically. Forget shallow weedflats that are home to hammer-handle pike. Instead, search for deep well-oxygenated water with a consistent forage supply, such as outside weededges, saddle areas, channels, and fast-breaking rock points and ledges.
To target these structural elements, use lures with a high degree of flash or thump that work efficiently in the 10- to 25-foot range where big pike take refuge from the heat and stalk their next meal. Forty years ago, this topic may have been dominated by discussions of spoonplugging with wire line, trolling spoons behind bead-chain keel weights, or three-way rigging with floating lures and heavy bell sinkers for depth control. While these rigs would work today, the current generation of anglers favors casting techniques and using a trolling motor to position the boat.
Modern systems from Minn Kota and MotorGuide offer hands-free wireless GPS functions so trolling motors interface with sonar units to hold on waypoints or follow contour lines. Features like Minn Kota's i-Pilot, Spot Lock, and Advance Auto Pilot allow anglers to plot a course for the boat or have it hold on a spot with a click of a button, freeing the angler to make repeated casts to structural elements. With this equipment, three options allow a surgical approach for pursuing deep-water pike include: casting weedless spoons, swimming soft swimbaits, and cranking deep-diving hardbaits.
Born with a Silver Spoon
A staple pike technique that should never go out of style is casting spoons to open pockets and lanes in weedbeds. By late July, broadleaf cabbage is thick and reaching its maximum height in depths of 8 to 15 feet of water, depending upon clarity. These dense beds provide shade, cover, oxygen, and forage — an ideal location for big pike to take up residence.
To probe this cover, few lures rival largest size (11â„8-ounce) of the classic Johnson Silver Minnow. With its fixed single hook and stiff wire weedguard, it's virtually weedproof when fished through the densest cover. Yet, it retains the right wobble and flash on the retrieve and has a seductive flutter on the fall.
As a lure category, spoons are versatile. Anglers control their action, depth, and speed. Depth depends on how long the spoon is allowed to sink before the retrieve begins and how quickly it's retrieved. In general, it's best to contact plants before beginning the retrieve. Then a quick snap of the rod frees the spoon and creates enough commotion to draw fish to the lure.
Since the Johnson Silver Minnow works through the thickest vegetation, braided line with a flexible titanium leader is the best line option. Monofilament fails miserably in these settings. The strength and thin diameter of braid allow it to slice through weedstalks. And by using hi-vis colors, anglers can maintain visual contact with the lure and steer it along edges and through pockets where pike lurk.
Gone are the days when the Silver Minnow came only in its namesake color. In clear-water settings, the flash of metallic silver, nickel-blue, or gold options typically outfish painted ones. But in stained water and on overcast days, firetiger, five of diamonds, and red-white models can be the ticket.
For added action, attach a small trailer, like a 3-inch Kalin's Grub or PowerBait Ribbontail Grub to add color and vibration without interfering with the lure's action as it falls. For a natural meat texture, subtle action, and durability, add an Uncle Josh Spinning Strip. These slender strips of pork encourage short-striking pike to come back for a second taste. Avoid bulky trailers when fishing deep, since they reduce the fall rate of spoons and deaden their action.
The standard approach is to fish a Johnson Silver Minnow or other wide-wobbling spoon with a straight retrieve. But don't get locked into a static cadence. Pike are chasers and sometimes need triggers to encourage them to strike. The pause-and-go or jigging retrieve can give spoons this extra appeal. Retrieve the spoon to get it flashing and wobbling from side to side. Then stop the retrieve and allow it to fall back toward trailing pike. This technique is similar to stalling a lure while doing a figure-eight for muskies — the following fish is forced to immediately react.
Since the lure is falling under minimal tension, be aware of any weightless feeling in the line, which often is an indication that a pike has seized the lure and is moving forward with it. In that situation, make several fast turns of the reel handle to catch up with the fish, then set the hook quickly before it spits the lure. If the fall-back move doesn't entice a bite, this pause allows the spoon to maintain its depth instead of gradually rising throughout the retrieve.
Make sure the Silver Minnow's hook is sharp. Due to their wide gap, the hooks have great holding power once fish are hooked, but they often are dull out of the package. When using other wide-wobbling spoons, change stock treble hooks for 2/0 or 3/0 Siwash single hooks for weedless benefits similar to those of the Silver Minnow.
Swimming on the Edge
In clear water, pause-and-go retrieves also work well with soft plastic swimbaits rigged on jigheads. They lack the flash of spoons but make up for it with thumping paddletails and wobbling bodies. They're particularly effective when fished on the edge of cover.
Depth and speed can be controlled with the weight of the jighead. Top options include Owner's Ultrahead Saltwater Bullet and Kalin's Ultimate Swimbait jigheads in the 3/8- to 2-ounce range to fish depths of 8 to 25 feet. In 8 to 12 feet, use jigs from 3/8- to 1/2-ounce with 4- or 5-inch Berkley Ribtail Shads, Havoc Grass Pigs, and Sizmic Shads. For a wider wobble with swimbaits, thread only the first inch of the bait onto the jighead. Swimbaits typically are threaded entirely onto the jig with only the back third of the bait swinging from side to side. But changing the pivot point by nose-hooking them allows the entire body to swing wildly. This also leaves more hook gap for better hookups.
To increase the flash and vibration of smaller swimbaits, use a rig like the Owner Flashy Swimmer, which combines a rotating willowleaf blade on the bottom of a weighted, wide-gap hook. The Flashy Swimmer has a TwistLOCK Centering-Pin Spring at the eye of its hook. This keeper holds the swimbait securely in place and is easier to rig perfectly in weedless or Texposed fashion. This rig is deadly, bringing flash and vibration to a weedless option.
To maintain sufficient retrieve speed and to get the attention of pike in the 12- to 18-foot depth range, upgrade to a 3/4- to 1-ounce jig with a 6-inch Berkley PowerBait Slim Shad or Owner Ribeye Swimbait. These lures offer larger profiles and more thump to draw pike. In depths of 18 feet or more, switch to 1½- or 2-ounce jigs with an 8-inch Sebile Magic Swimmer Soft. Rig these baits flat on the jighead so the hook comes out the middle of the bait instead of its back. Flat rigging creates a flapping action instead of a swimming action. To make the Magic Swimmer Soft more erratic, fish it like a jerkbait with repeated snaps of the rod.
Excessive summer water temperatures can make pike appear lazy. Then, a slow wide wobbling bait often works better than a lure that swims with tight action. So add an occasional pause to mimic a dying baitfish. To get the most natural action from soft swimbaits, use a long leader of 25- to 30-pound fluorocarbon linked to 30- to 40-pound braid with a back-to-back uni-knot.
Swimbaits are most effective just outside thick vegetation. Search for wide open lanes between scattered clumps of vegetation and swim softbaits through them. Other prime locations for swimbaits are saddle areas between islands and deep channels with current and cool water welling from the depths.
Saddle and channel areas also are well-suited for casting deep-diving crankbaits. Productive options include the Bandit Walleye Minnow, SPRO Little John DD, and Bagley Monster Shad. They offer different shapes, profiles, and actions, but have a common denominator of quickly diving and running true at 12 to 20 feet.
Bandit's Walleye Deep dives to 27 feet when trolled, 20 feet when cast and retrieved. Its rounded lip makes it dive fast to maximum depth, then maintain that depth at slow speed. To reduce its buoyancy, switch its three fine-wire treble hooks and replace them with two slightly larger and heavier 3X Owner ST-56 hooks at the front and back of the lure. These sturdier hooks hold up better to big pike and allow longer casts and greater running depth. Work the Walleye Deep with an abrupt stop-and-go retrieve to get the internal sound chamber knocking.
When a larger profile is more important than sound, the natural buoyancy and swimming action of the balsa Bagley Monster Shad can be deadly. This bait works well along rocky points and ledges where baitfish like ciscoes or gizzard shad are the predominant prey. It dives to 10 feet on a cast. With a 3/8-ounce rubber-core sinker just above the leader, it runs a couple feet deeper.
SPRO's Little John DD casts far with its tungsten weight-transfer system and gets deep in just a few cranks of the reel handle. Its compact rounded body resembles a young-of-year panfish, a common prey for summertime pike. With its flat sides, it also flashes harder than most cranks. To maximize casting distance and running depth, consider medium-power rods 7½ to 8 feet long and low-gear-ratio reels for maximum cranking power, matched with 20- to 30-pound braid.
When things get hot, play it cool for deep summer pike. Catch up with classic spoon options; take a swim with swimbaits; and get crankin'. Think down and deep, clear and cold, big and toothy.