October 16, 2015
By Matt Straw
Spoons splashed down somewhere in the gloomy pre-dawn of Saginaw Bay. Our minds pictured green torpedoes firing out of the endless reedbeds to investigate. Sometimes they did, and the shallow water boiled with white-flecked, green-sided rage. We backed away to solid ground, where they couldn't wrap us up and shred our waders.
That was 40 years ago. Pike exceeding 20 pounds weren't common, but we found a few. Then and for centuries prior, such fish coursed through the shallows, the cabbage beds, and the open waters of the Great Lakes. Pike are natives everywhere here.
So many anglers target salmon, steelhead, brown trout, smallmouths, walleyes, and muskies that pike get lost in the shuffle. Like Papillon, they may be forgotten, but they're still here. Like Steve McQueen, they're tough; providing overlooked angling opportunities from Lake Superior to the St. Lawrence River. And pike are making a comeback. Populations are increasing and sometimes reaching Northwest Territory proportions in isolated pockets throughout the region.
John Oravec, owner of Troutman Charters, has lived near Lake Ontario all his life and chartered there for 35 years. "Suddenly pike are everywhere," he says. "And they're getting big. It's not like the past 30 years. Big pike are suspending or holding on deep structure, coughing up perch and gobies. Last fall we put a half dozen between 17 and 20 pounds in the net on the St. Lawrence, with many in the 9- to 15-pound class."
Oravec says big pike aren't always around vegetation and not as easy to find. "We cast fast-sinking Musky Innovations Bull Dawg on structure or troll and catch pike 30 feet down in 100 feet of water. We net about 40 pike for every muskie now. It's not unusual to catch them over deep water in the shipping lanes in fall. Guys are talking about 40-inch pikelike never before. Lots of fish over 38 inches on my boat these days.
"This pike thing is exciting, a change from traditional tactics. You need downriggers, planer boards, and leadcore to find them. We troll with five colors of leadcore or downrigger lines set 40 feet down, sweeping into the 30-foot zone and crashing into structure. Pike love Papa Doc Doctor Spoons and Williams Whitefish down 35 feet."
Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charter Service works bays for smallmouths and finds pike in the harbors on weedlines. "We have pike in the lower Niagara, but you can fish spinnerbaits all summer in the harbors of Lake Ontario and catch good numbers," Campbell says. "You can expect a few 10-pounders, but lots of 3- to 5-pound fish in bays like Wilson and Olcott. Rogue gators are caught by salmon trollers up to 20 pounds. After they attain a certain size, pike migrate out of the harbors and feed on pelagic baitfish in open water. I catch a few big ones early in spring, trolling for browns. They stage around the harbors to spawn as water temps climb over 40°F."
Campbell also works Eastern Lake Erie, which is equally close to home. "The Upper Niagara has more pike," he says. "There's lots of vegetation in the canals and harbors. And the breakwalls offer decent pike fishing all summer. Again, 10 pounds is a good one. But we find a few rogue 20-pounders shallow on the Upper Niagara where habitat and prey are abundant. They get rotund up there. The whole shoreline of the Upper Niagara is prime pike country yet few people chase them."
At the other end of Erie, Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters in Cleveland says the situation is similar on the Cuyahoga River. "Pike are showing up in greater numbers throughout the Western Basin, though we don't see much pressure," Lewis says. "Pike live in the Cuyahoga River year 'round, but more fish move in there to spawn. Walleye trollers catch them by accident, so they're out in open water during summer. Most of the fish are 24 to 26 inches long with a few in the 10- to 12-pound range, but numbers are great. You can catch 40 to 50 per day in the lower end of the river in spring where you find lots of vegetation and docks. Pike hang around for the emerald shiner run at the end of April. They love bucktails and white/chartreuse spinnerbaits. The river fish are bigger, up to 40 inches or so, and locals fish them with live shiners. These pike are beautiful fish with vivid markings. The green is so bright, they almost look like big frogs."
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources website proclaims pike were "historically abundant in Lake Erie and its tributaries, especially in the bays and marshes of the Western Basin." On the other side of the Detroit River mouth, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources maintains a protected slot for pike between 27 and 36 inches. Anglers say it's working and producing more and bigger pike.
"Presque Isle Bay in Pennsylvania is the most famous pike fishery on Erie," Lewis says. "Anglers travel from Cleveland to catch pike there. They stop at Poor Richard's Bait Shop for supplies. Fish move into the bays in spring and you can expect some over 40 inches there."
Traditionally, pike fishing on Eastern Lake Erie was exceptional. But Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) officials reported pike captures in trap nets on Erie were well below long-term averages from 2003 to 2006. They also reported signs of hemorrhaging in dead fish and VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia) became a suspect. But pike numbers are on the rebound, according to the PFBC. Pike angling remains popular during spring, especially from shore in places like Presque Isle State Park, where pike spawn in shallow lagoons.
Dan Oele, a research scientist for the Wisconsin DNR, completed his master's thesis last year studying Lake Michigan pike that run up ditches in metropolitan areas to spawn, as they do in Holland. "We wanted to know if pike were returning to areas where they were born," Oele says. "The most striking thing was the sight of these big, older pike running with 2- to 3-year olds that were just becoming mature. Pike of all sizes packed into small wetlands connected to urban ditches. We found hundreds packed into these habitats, within sight of Highway 41 in the Green Bay area. We found pike spawning 25 stream miles from Lake Michigan.
"But they don't seem to have the homing tendencies of steelhead or salmon. They're opportunistic and a lot of the spawning was unsuccessful. The farther those ditches and streams were from urban centers, the more spawning success we saw. Warm water coming off roads and bridges draws them in spring. We were able to show people big pike running alongside golf courses, but proper habitat is a good wetland. The present high Great Lakes water levels benefit pike spawning success. We don't know much about near-shore spawning in Green Bay yet and we need to expand that investigation. And we should consider restoring wetlands, identifying key spawning areas and protecting them."
Bret Alexander operates Alexander's Sport Fishing in Green Bay and guides mostly for muskies. But he reports doing a few pike trips per year. "Years ago it was great," he says, "and you could catch fish up to 45 inches. After a decline, they're now restoring habitat. Recently a lot of 38- to 45-inch fish are showing up again.
"There are giant fish on the Lake Michigan side that never get targeted. They're up in the skinniest water with bass in the spring. I have no clue where they go in summer."
The cabbage beds where Alexander targeted big pike in past years disappeared. "Those are just starting to come back," he says. "All the way up to Menominee we see pike during summer, but only in those cabbage beds. After they spawn, most pike go into an open-water, shad-feeding binge in Green Bay and get tough to find." Last year, one of Alexander's clients popped a 48-inch goliath on the Michigan side, where fishing pressure is minimal."
Todd Colish, Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator for the Michigan DNR, says northern Lake Michigan has an excellent fishery for pike and it's only going to get better. "Water levels are increasing, which bodes well for pike spawning in the shallows. They need vegetation because they're ambush predators. Pike opportunities are excellent in the bays as well as the harbors around the river, Lake Charlevoix, Portage Lake, Manistee, Pere Marquette Lake, and Grand Traverse Bay. We're seeing pike in the 40-inch range with increasing regularity.
"In May 2013, a young guy caught a 44-inch 20-pounder in May in Big Bay de Noc," Colish says. "A 27-pounder was taken through the ice in Mackinaw County in 2011, near the straights of Mackinaw, in sight of the Mackinaw Bridge. A mix of trolling and casting is effective there in summer, all the way to Drummond Island and beyond."
Lake Huron — Lake St. Clair
Saginaw Bay had a fishable population of mid- to large-size pike in the early 1970s when they came in from big water to spawn. Jim Baker, Fisheries Unit Manager for the Southern Lake Huron Fisheries Management Unit of the Michigan DNR says few anglers target pike there, and those that do spear them in winter.
"Most of the pike caught on hook-and-line are incidental catches in the inner bay," Baker says. "The water is clearing dramatically, resulting in more vegetation and pike are increasing. Most pike fishing is winter spearing. A few open-water anglers target them in the hot-pond channel near the mouth of the Saginaw River. Some over 40 inches are caught there occasionally. And around the island just north of Sebewaing, spearers get some decent pike. The other area is off Mud Creek in Wildfowl Bay near Sand Point. A 40-incher might be a stretch, but they're big enough to be interesting. Farther north in Tawas Bay, we see a few over 40 inches. I suspect Lake St. Clair has a larger population."
"St. Clair has lots of pike," says pro angler Joe Balog, "with a few pushing 40 inches, but I don't know anybody who targets them. Lake Erie doesn't have much vegetation, so the population is localized. We catch pike in Erie and St. Clair when targeting smallmouths. My wife Kim caught a 38-incher on St. Clair last year, one of the biggest I've seen."
The northern rim of Lake Huron is shielded by a large archipelago of islands creating a wealth of shallow habitat for pike. Fifty years ago, it was a wilderness haven for 'gators. Ivan Gable operates Sturgeon Bay Charters in northern Lake Huron and maintains ice-fishing houses on the bays around Drummond Island. "It was nothing to catch 5 to 7 a day ten years ago," Gable says. "This year it was slow, but we see 5 to 7 over 20 pounds in the houses every winter. You can troll or cast along weededges on the 10-foot drop around the island and in the bays and catch nice ones. The standard is a classic red-white Dardevle, Red Eye Spoon, Johnson Silver Minnow, or Williams Wabler and Whitefish. And they're increasing in the St. Mary's River, where a firetiger or black-gold Rapala Husky Jerk is the ticket."
We've hardly begun to explore Lake Superior, where biologists told me ancient populations of pike exist in the remote bays of Isle Royale. Guide Chris Beeksma of Get Bit Guide Service chases pike in Chequamegon Bay in Ashland, Wisconsin. And the Portage Canal in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula has monsters. It's hard to find a bay where the splash of a spoon might not unleash a little green fury throughout this region. What about vast Georgian Bay? So much slime, so little time.