April 27, 2018
Northern pike are an early-summer gift to anglers. Part of that generosity has to do with their abundance and general willingness to strike many presentations. Larger specimens grow more particular in their feeding habits but remain susceptible to a handful of exciting techniques that rarely fail.
All the Buzz
Daylight hours reach their peak during the summer solstice and water temperatures are on a steady climb. Shallow vegetation expands and shoreline grasses flood during high-water years. Pike enter these shallow flats to prey on anything that scurries, swims, or slithers within striking distance.
On lakes and rivers, there's no magical water temperature that draws pike to shallow backwater bays. They arrive prior to ice-out to spawn, and stay in the warm sheltered waters as long as food remains present. The key is to find signs of life in these shallow expanses. A school of minnows breaking the surface, panfish plucking insects off the surface, wading birds stalking a meal, or a subtle wake along the shoreline are indicators that pike are likely nearby.
To catch pike on shallow flats, few lures perform better or generate more excitement than prop-style lures. It's a sensory experience like no other in pike fishing. Make casts to intersect visible cover. The spinning blade churns and sprays water into the air while a frothy trail forms behind. Vary retrieve speed to change the sound and surface disturbance generated by the lure. Watch for subtle signs of a following pike while you wait for the water to erupt.
Due to the flex in the wire arms of standard buzzbaits, they're not the best choice for driving hooks into gator-size pike. Better options include in-line and heavy-duty models, such as the 1/2-ounce Jackall Firecracker, with a clacker for extra noise and spray, or the 3/4-ounce MegaFrox Slash Duck. The Slash Duck has several features that make it my favorite for fishing emergent vegetation.
It was designed in Thailand to withstand strikes from toman (giant snakehead), a fish with considerably more striking, crushing, and pulling power than pike. Its casting dynamics also are superior to a bent-wire buzzbait. It has an extra wireguard at the front of the lure that helps to lock the blade in place during the cast, minimizing blade fluttering and helicoptering. The result is longer and more accurate casts. Slash Ducks move a lot of water and present a larger profile with their frog-like body. Their weight means they don't get blown out of the water on a strike. Equipped with a stout 5/0 Owner hook, they can easily withstand attacks by trophy pike.
When buzzing for pike, a steady retrieve works best. Pike are less skilled than bass at tracking baits on the surface and have a tougher time anticipating where and when a lure will exit thick patches of vegetation. Concentrate on working lures through clearings and along the edges of vegetation. As with any surface lure, wait until you feel the weight of the fish on the line before setting the hook.
To gear up for big pike in shallow settings, a stout frog-style rod, high-speed reel, and heavy braid dramatically increase hooking and landing percentages. Braided line is not only better than mono at withstanding the abrasion of running through vegetation, but it also slices through weedstalks when pike dash into them.
When pike boil behind buzzers but won't commit, soft-plastic jerk shads excel as follow-up baits. Large ones like the 7-inch Lunker City Fin-S Fish, Zoom Magnum Super Fluke, and 7-inch Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shad can be rigged on a 5/0 to 7/0 weightless extra-wide-gap hook for a weedless and lifelike lure. Worked rapidly across the water with a walk-the-dog action, they draw savage strikes. Slowed to mimic a dying baitfish, they trigger tentative fish. With a snap of the rod, they dart and shoot off to the side. On the pause, they continue to glide and suspend in the water column before slowly sinking with a slight quiver.
Pike typically can be fooled by going through the lure's repertoire of actions. Tie them with a 40- to 60-pound-test fluorocarbon leader and attach to 30- to 50-pound Sufix 832 braid mainline with an FG knot. Hi-vis braid assists in watching the line for any hops or jumps that signal a bite.
To cover large flats, try rigging soft-plastic jerkbaits in tandem in what's called a "donkey rig" in bass fishing. It consists of two 5- to 7-inch soft-plastic jerk minnows on 5/0 to 7/0 extra-wide-gap hooks, two barrel swivels, and two unequal lengths of 40-pound fluorocarbon measuring 12 and 16 inches. Each swivel, leader, hook, and Texposed softbait are tied independently to make two separate rigs. The 40- to 65-pound braid mainline is threaded through the swivel of the longer pre-tied rig while the other pre-tied rig is tied to the end of the mainline.
This rig allows one rig to slide up and down the mainline, while the shorter one slides on the mainline. With each flick of the rod, the lures dance and dart independently of each other so the action is unpredictable. The presentation resembles baitfish chasing each other. It's a visually exciting rig. Lure position changes abruptly and pike respond to such erratic motion.
The rig doesn't tangle as much as one might expect and it's possible to catch two pike at once when they're concentrated and competitively feeding. Top color selections vary depending upon water clarity and light conditions, but white/pearl and bubble gum are easy to see in the water and draw reactions from pike.
Gliding for Bigger Pike
Under cold-front conditions or other dramatic weather changes, glidebaits trigger big fish when others fail. Most glidebaits have an attractive S-curve action on a steady retrieve. But their appeal to big pike comes when worked in a slow deliberate fashion, imparting a left and right gliding action and slow wobbling fall.
Many anglers cherish the discontinued Rapala Glidin' Rap. For years it was among the most prominent and productive mid-sized (4.75- and 6-inch) glidebaits. As substitutes for the Glidin' Rap, muskie-style glidebaits in the 8- to 10-inch range are used by some trophy pike anglers. These include European brands like the Salmo Slider or Westin Swim, or Optimum Baits' Vagabond Glide Hustler.
Multispecies angler Gerard Urbanozo has decades of experience chasing pike throughout the Midwest and Canada and relies heavily on glidebaits during summer and fall. He suggests that anglers watch for big pike seeking refuge in cooler areas of the main lake as summer progresses. "Pike relate to long tapering points and deep weededges," he says. "Here they hunt for prey rather than using the lie-in-wait ambush tactics you find in shallow bays. Look for larger pike on long tapering points that drop into deep water. Ciscos, whitefish and walleyes relate to these areas especially if scattered rocks are present."
Urbanozo chooses Sinister Tackle's 6-inch Natural, with its curlytail kicker, as his go-to glidebait. "This moderate-size glider was designed by Todd Cleveland and it has several advantages over other models," he says "First, it's made of high-impact plastic and through-wire construction, ensuring uniformity of action and durability. No worries about tooth holes or chipped paint that can cause wooden lures to become waterlogged. The Natural also has transparent eyes that gather light, which pike key in on when lures move with a slow rhythmic action. As the name implies, they have a realistic appearance, thanks to the paint jobs of Greg Kos at RedEye Custom Baits, as well as natural action."
For best results, cast toward the deep edge of the target area — points, weededges, or saddle areas. Allow the lure to sink at a rate of about a foot per second and slowly work it back to the boat. Six- to 12-inch downward nods of the rod make the lure dart left and right. On a semi-slack line, each pull of the rod snaps the lure around and changes the direction of its glide.
"A twitch of the wrist moves the lure to one side, and when repeated in a rhythmic cadence, it darts back and forth nearly 180 degrees with minimal forward movement," Urbanozo adds. Glidebaits stay in the strike zone longer than crankbaits or bucktails. The Natural also is effective as it shimmies horizontally while it sinks, so watch your line for strikes as it falls."
This lure also excels when worked through sparse vegetation and above the top of deep weedflats. For lakes with clear to moderate clarity, Kos offers a series of Naturals that mimic walleyes, ciscoes, and whitefish. In dark or stained colored lakes, he has more visible "hot" walleye or perch patterns.
A never-fail technique popularized by In-Fisherman Editor in Chief Doug Stange consists of flat-rigging a Sebile Magic Swimmer Soft, with the hook exiting its side instead of the top of the lure. He's used this approach for trophy pike as well as other species. Flat-rigging gives the lure a slow fall and imparts a different triggering action when popped off the bottom with a quick snap of the rod. The lure's "magic" stems from its segmented body, a design unique among soft plastic swimbaits that brings the segmented action of a hard-body swimbait but with a more fluid action. Moreover, it has natural feel and can be rigged weedless. It's available in sizes of 51â'„8, 6¼, and 8 inches. Upsizing and downsizing can be critical to success when pike get finicky.
Magic Swimmer Softs are packaged with a heavy-duty, weighted wide-gap hook, though Stange prefers the Trokar 170 weighted hook. When a more erratic or snapjigging action is desired, rig the Magic Swimmer Soft on a stout 3/4- or 1-ounce Revenge Hedz jighead or Kalin's Ultimate Bullet Jig. Rigged this way, swimbaits can be worked deeper and faster than with a belly-weighted hook. The 7/0 Mustad Ultrapoint hook on the Revenge Hedz provides plenty of gap to set solidly on big pike that often inhale these lures as they rocket off bottom.
When pike turn tough, reach deep into this stash of never-fail techniques to restart the action. Savor the visual nature of these presentations and the exciting strikes they trigger from one of the world's premier freshwater gamefish.
*In-FishermanField Editor Steve Ryan is a veteran pike angler, pursuing them from his home in the Upper Midwest and across the globe.