October 27, 2017
Northern pike are cunning predators adept at feeding in packs, while also solitary assassins. In addition to their keen senses of sight, smell, feel (vibration), and hearing, they possess stealth, speed, and agility. They know how to use environmental and structural edges to ambush or concentrate prey. Edges may come in the form of inside or outside breaks in vegetation or open lanes on flats. Rock ledges and points are visually dramatic edges, while bottom content transitions are more difficult to discern.
Other edges come in the form of current breaks separating fast water from slack, thermoclines that establish horizontal temperature breaks, and color breaks between clear and murky water. All these edges hold pike in fall, with vegetation and rock edges the most universal attractors.
Knowing how and when to fish various edges involves a strategy. Study the terrain carefully to locate travel lanes and primary feeding locations. Then set up to fish these areas. For big fall pike, the approach can be similar to targeting muskies. Days are short and feeding windows consolidated. Play the percentages and concentrate on the best edge zones instead of running and gunning in search of active fish over large areas. Rely on electronics to locate baitfish and pike, then rotate between lure selections and positioning along the edges until you contact pike.
Spinning the Shallows
Around vegetation, shallow fishing becomes a relative term in fall. Immediately after the spawn, shallow might mean a foot or two of water as recuperating postspawn pike lie in wait for unsuspecting prey. By fall, water that shallow affords pike little in the form of cover, prey, or stability. Instead, plan for shallow fall fishing around flats with good plant growth in 4 to 8 feet of water. This typically means presenting lures along inside and outside edges, above the vegetation or through lanes in the heart of thick beds.
Target these shallow edges early and late in the day. On sunny days following cold fronts, pike are drawn into these areas in late afternoon to feed on preyfish that become more active as water warms. As long as conditions remain stable, feeding pike may overnight in the vegetation and be ready to bite in the morning. Productive presentations in these areas are straight retrieves with in-line spinners and jigging with weedless spoons.
The attraction of spinners is their flash, vibration, and sound that draws pike from shallow vegetation. They can be worked quickly on a straight steady retrieve to cover water. There is no best spinner for fall pike, so it's wise to try several styles before leaving an area. Each model has characteristics that appeal to the ever-changing preferences of pike. Three of the more widely recognized ones with #3 to #5 blades are Worden's Rooster Tail, Mepps Aglia, and Blue Fox Vibrax. Worden's Pro Series Rooster Tail has an elongated blade, a cross between an Indiana and willowleaf blade. This thin blade generates more flash and less lift than wider or cupped blades.
Reduced lift means a spinner can be retrieved faster and at greater depths. Rooster Tails also have a compact body for easy casting and a hackle dressing to add tail action. These characteristics make it a great option when fishing parallel to shallow edges. The Pro Series comes with a split ring to allow quick changing from the stock treble to a more snagless single hook.
The Mepps Aglia is available in more blade and dressing combinations than any other spinner, including undressed, marabou, squirrel, and bucktail. They can be mixed and matched with more than a dozen different blade colors. Each combination offers a unique visual profile and pulsing action as it goes through the water. Available color schemes can be found to match any water condition, and the classic French blade offers good lift and vibration in any setting. This makes the Aglia a fine searchbait for working over and around vegetation of all sorts. Look for lanes formed for navigational channels, feeder creeks, and changes in bottom content that inhibit plant growth.
To round out the trio, the Vibrax's claim to fame is its two-part body design that resembles a bell. The undressed version of this spinner fishes heavy for its size and kicks out more vibration and noise than other spinners. For these reasons, it excels in stained water, current, and deeper water. Spinners excel for poking around the edge of weedbeds and often draw explosive strikes from pike lurking below.
Spooning the Slop
To probe the thickest cover, the Johnson Silver Minnow weedless spoon reigns supreme. Using polarized sunglasses, anglers can dissect the labyrinths of vegetation across large flats and bays and work the largest 11„8-ounce Silver Minnow over and around thicker and thinner portions of plant growth. These internal edges are less obvious than inside and outside edges, but they're magnets for big pike and you can almost call your shots on where pike will strike.
Fish the Silver Minnow like a spoon or jig. Begin by prepping each lure out of the package. The first step involves pinching down the barb slightly and sharpening the hook to a fine point. Next, take a 3-inch white Kalin's grub and pinch off all but the last half-inch of the body. Thread the grub onto the hook and glue it to the base of the hook and spoon.
Depending on the thickness of vegetation and size of pike in the area, rig it on 40- to 65-pound hi-vis Sufix 832 Performance Braid, with a 20-inch leader of 65- to 80-pound fluorocarbon. Use a 7½-foot medium-heavy-power casting rod and high-speed reel to gain leverage on pike that try to wrap around or bury in the plant stalks.
Make long casts with the spoon to intersect as many lanes and holes as possible since they're high-percentage areas. Hi-vis braid helps to track the lure. Whenever you cross an edge or pocket, drop the rod tip and allow the spoon to wobble on the fall as the grub flickers. Then raise the rod tip and start winding again, prior to dropping it in the next pocket. Experiment by varying the length of the pause and speed of the restart, when pike often crush the lure.
The outside edge of a vegetated flat, island, or point is a key feature wherever pike roam. Try a multi-presentation approach when you commit to fishing prime weededges or rock drop-offs in 8 to 18 feet of water. Where regulations permit and boat control allows, set a Lindy-rigged livebait at the bow on a line-counter outfit, and another at the stern on a slipfloat rig. Fish a 4- to 6-inch minnow or sucker at the bow on a 20-pound-test mono mainline. Keep this rig directly under the boat and within 2 feet of bottom by using a 1- to 3-ounce sinker, depending on water depth and rate of the drift. Mono and a soft-tipped rod offer flex as pike move off with a bait prior to the hook-set.
In contrast, slipfloat rigs at the stern should be fished on braided line. Bait them with larger suckers in the 8- to 10-inch range bridled on quick-strike rigs. Keep baits at least 3 feet off the bottom to avoid snags. Since the float is deployed 40 to 80 feet behind the boat for a stealthy approach, an 8- or 8½-foot fast-action rod and fast reel are helpful in setting the hook. A swimbait rod, such as a 13 Fishing Muse Black and Abu Garcia Revo Beast reel make a good combo. When the float goes down, quickly retrieve slack and set with a powerful upward swing. With three anglers in the boat, several down rigs and float rigs can be deployed while the boat moves along the outside edge of the break with the trolling motor.
On rock edges and windswept points, deep-diving crankbaits like the Rapala DT 16 and 20s, SPRO Little John 60 and 70, and Strike King Series 5XD and 6XD imitate a panfish lost over deep water. They can be cranked down 12 to 18 feet and worked with a stop-and-go retrieve. Strikes most commonly come on the pause, including directly under the boat as the lure starts to rise toward the surface. Be prepared for them or risk losing a rod overboard.
For those not wanting to deal with treble hooks and angry pike, single-hook soft-plastic swimbaits are good alternatives. Lures like the prerigged 5½-inch Livetarget Perch Swimbait or 6-inch Berkley PowerBait Slim Shad rigged on a 1-ounce HD Revenge Swimbait Hedz have tail thump and belly wobble to attract big pike in open water. They're also snagless enough to be cast into vegetation and retrieved out past the edge. The heavy-gauge hooks on these lures are suited for ripping through vegetation and extracting trophy pike.
Off the Deep End
Anglers often fish too tight to edges and fail to explore shear rock ledges or areas within a cast or two of primary deep edges. Deep water offers more stable conditions and acts as a staging area for big pike in fall. Ledges and adjacent shoals also attract spawning ciscoes, tulibees, and lake trout in fall. Large pike can often be graphed hovering 20 or 30 feet down over water as deep as 50 feet. They often suspend within a few feet of the depth of the last major structural element or edge, such as a deep point or hump. They shift position horizontally, with little regard to depth below. Most suspended pike are big ones.
To target suspended fish off the edge, trolling works best to present several lures at the key depth. Soaking livebaits or vertically jigging can be more precise and rewarding, however. Side-scan sonar helps determine the direction and depth of suspended pike and makes it easier to target them.
Top vertical jigging baits include large bladebaits like the 2.5-ounce Vibrations Tackle Echotail or 2-ounce Fuzzy Duzzit, big plastics such as Water Wolf's 11-inch Magnum Gator Tube or Red October 10-inch Monster Tube, a Bondy Bait, 1-ounce Rat-L-Trap, and Livetarget Magnum Shad. These baits require stout casting rods and reels spooled with 65-pound braid to impart lure action with each upward pull of the rod from the 9- to 10-o'clock position. They can be presented under the boat or on short casts and then jigged toward the boat. Keep each pull of moderate speed, allowing the lure to rise and fall two to three feet in a pattern that's more routine than erratic. The lures are attractors that draw pike to the suspended livebaits. And livebait rods often "get nervous" seconds before a strike on a vertically jigged rod.
When targeting big fall pike, it pays to not only work the obvious inside and outside weededges, but also to probe those inside edges and work off the edges for bigger fish waiting to transition onto feeding shelves. Work livebait into your presentations and trust your electronics to put you on fish.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Chicago, Illinois, is an avid multispecies angler who travels in search of top seasonal bites across the country.