June 12, 2016
By Dan Johnson
As waters warm and the rigors of the spawn pass, pike are open to a wide presentational palette, from basic tactics to complex sleights of hand. I'm always tempted to haul a host of lures, livebaits, and rigs on every Esox adventure. But such a wealth of options typically saps so much space and time that it seems to often cost me fish rather than boost success. A handful of straightforward strategies can see you through whatever conditions come your way during the spring-into-summer transition.
Twitch, Twitch, Boom
Veteran Guide and Hall of Famer Tom Neustrom plays hardball with hard-bodied minnow and shad baits. "Neutrally buoyant lures like a 4¾-inch #12 Rapala Husky Jerk are ideal because I can twitch and pause them, and they suspend in the water column," he says. "That pause-and-hover move is deadly. Pike like the flash and dash of firetiger and other bright colors, so I rarely worry about matching the hatch, although natural colors like blue-silver can also work well."
Neustrom's early-season hot spots include classic shallow zones rich in last season's reeds and stickups, particularly along transitions between hard and soft bottom. "The edges of spawning marshes are good picks, too," he says, "as are ambush points such as fallen trees, flooded brush, and beaver lodges."
He positions his boat in about 5 to 7 feet of water and fires long casts into shallow water while working along the shoreline. "Keep moving, spacing casts at 5- to 15-foot intervals," he says. "If you fish the same water twice, you're burning daylight." To power long casts, he wields a 7- to 7½-foot medium-power spinning or casting rod with 20- to 40-pound Sufix 832 braid. "Besides casting distance, a long rod loads better when setting the hook with braid," he says.
"You get lot of action with a slow-moving, erratic presentation," he says. After splashdown, he begins a jerk-pause retrieve about halfway down in the water column. "Rod sweeps should be short," he advises. "Twitching the tip 1½ to 2 feet — sometimes 3 — moves the bait just enough to impart the erratic motion. Halfway through the retrieve I also like to spice things up by cranking faster before pausing and pulling the bait ahead again."
Neustrom also fishes hardbaits that generate their own erratic or "hunting" action, such as a #7 Rapala Scatter Rap Shad. "A unique lip design makes these lures change direction on their own," he says. "I vary the speed several times during each retrieve, typically a third of the way through the retrieve, and again when the bait's two-thirds of the way to the boat."
Teeth On the Troll
Longtime guide and pike stalker Jonny Petrowske takes a different tack when plying the vast shorelines of Minnesota's Upper Red Lake. "Casting is great, but I have 47,000 acres and need to put baits in front of as many fish as possible, so I troll," he says. "After they spawn, pike remain shallow to feed on spottail shiners that school in 3 to 6 feet at water temperatures from 52°F to 65°F. Pike to 40 inches cruise these areas feeding on them."
Early-season 'gators are vulnerable to lures pulled behind planer boards. "The boat and boards create disturbance that spooks baitfish, causing them to flare," he says. "The spooked shiners emit flash and vibrations that draw predators. When you run a small, hard-charging crankbait in the wake of such chaos, pike can't help themselves."
He uses 23„8- to 31„8-inch banana-shaped baits, the #3 and #5 Lindy River Rocker, which produce wide wobbles at various speeds. "Shiner colors tend to be best," he notes, recommending shades of silver with a green or dark back. He favors sturdy but flexible 6½-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik Bigwater rods that withstand the rigors of pulling planer boards, snagging bulrushes, and absorbing violent strikes, runs, and head-shakes from big fish.
He runs a 20-pound mono mainline with a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader tipped with a snap. Fifteen to 20 feet of letback separate the lure and board, and lines are deployed at 25- to 50-foot intervals on the shoreline side of the boat. "Run the farthest line 150 feet out, the closest at 25 feet," he says.
Speeds range from 3 to 5 mph: "River Rockers have a strong swimming action that powers through the heavy line in front of it, while the mainline and leader limit running depth just enough to keep the lure near the surface. Pike often come right out of the water on the strike."
When a fish is hooked, he slows his pace to 1.5 to 2 mph. "Never stop the boat to fight a fish, or you end up reeling in a huge ball of line, boards, and baits," he says. "Keep the boat moving just fast enough so the boards don't foul, and work the fish behind the other lines and around to the back of the boat." Once the shiners disperse, he focuses on shorelines with stained water and cool inflows, or else abandons the shallows in favor of pulling cranks on leadcore in the main basin.
Leech Lake area Guide Jeff Andersen favors a three-pronged attack. "My three top lures choices are a large spinnerbait, muskie-style jerkbait, and lipless rattlebait," he says. He uses BigTooth Tackle's new Live-Wire Spinnerbait, which he developed.
"Its name comes from a wire that runs through the body and keeps the two 9/0 hooks tracking true," he says. "Combined with a short arm, it makes the lure virtually weedless, which is critical when fishing thick cover in depths of a little as two feet. The dual hooks also are a plus because they solve the problem of standard spinnerbait sproat hooks not getting around the jaw of a big fish."
He tips with a 6-inch Kalin's Mogambo grub to add action, as he casts with an 8½-foot Abu Garcia muskie rod with 50-pound Spiderwire Stealth braid and a 14-inch 100-pound fluoro leader. He fires long casts over shallow cover in spawning bays and tributaries, as well as fresh weedgrowth adjacent to these areas. A straight retrieve just fast enough to stay above the vegetation is key, though banging the lure off woodcover or plant stalks also can draw strikes. He favors bright colors with flash, like a silver or gold blade with a chartreuse skirt.
He adds jerkbaits like a 6-inch Fudally Reef Hawg to the mix when postspawn pike stage over emerging vegetation in 6 to 8 feet of water before moving to main-lake haunts. "Use short rod tip twitches to get a side-to-side walking cadence on a slow retrieve," he says. As waters warm, he also uses lipless rattlebaits: "They're so versatile, you can't work them wrong. Fast, slow, ripping and dropping — it's all good."
The wobble and flash of spoons also play a role in spring and early summer. Slender, light-for-their-length options in the 3- to 5-inch class that hold their wobble at slow speeds in shallow water are deadly. The Williams Wabler is a favorite, with excellent flash and wobble, in a great variety of colors and finishes.
A steady retrieve often is best. At times, though, a burst of speed fueled by a foot-long rod tip snap every third or fourth crank of the handle turns the tide. I fish the shallows, but focus on slow-tapering pockets and irregular cuts in the shoreline. The edges of floating bogs also are hot spots, as pike often tuck beneath the canopy.
Bare trebles take pike aplenty, but tippings work in tough conditions. Pinch the tail off a 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Minnow Grub and thread it on one tine. The combination of softbait and light spoon works well on a straight retrieve, and also excels when fluttered vertically into pockets of open water among emerging vegetation or along the edges of bogs and docks.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange is a proponent of sticking to fundamentals and fine tuning from there. One strategy he favors involves a spinnerbait like the a 1/2-ounce Terminator T-1 dressed with a 5-inch Berkley Havoc Grass Pig. "Spinnerbaits have always been top pike producers," he says. "But the addition of the Grass Pig makes them come alive, adding bulk, plus a tail-thumping vibration that pike love. The single hook also hooks fish firmly and makes them easy to handle and release, as opposed to having to deal with jerkbaits and, especially, crankbaits with multiple treble hooks.
"Spinnerbaits work in so many situations that I usually have one tied on all the time in May and June. Wind often keys the bite, as pike love the turmoil created by wind blowing into a shoreline. Could be a rock point at the mouth of a bay or a patch of reeds or in a bay. If the water's clear, stay a long cast away. If it isn't, cast about 50 feet to the edges as you move the boat along. Other times, wading produces, as anglers cast at an angle to the edge as they wade, then also makes casts out into deeper water."
"At times, walleyes mix in with pike in these situations, especially on shallow lakes and reservoirs. A couple years ago on a brutally windy day filming on Last Mountain Lake, Saskatchewan, we tucked inside a bay and worked up and down a reed edge in 3 to 4 feet of water. The spinnerbaits were easy to cast and control with the wind at your back and we caught fish after fish up to 44 inches, along with walleyes to about 5 pounds. The T-1, being titanium, can stand up to lots of fish; we certainly tallied more than 50 fish that afternoon, never switching lures at all, but occasionally having to replace the Grass Pigs."
As vegetation emerges on deeper flats, spinnerbaits also work over and along the weedgrowth. Stange: "For shallow flats, stick with the half-ounce lure, but as fish tuck down in water deeper than about 8 feet, switch to a 3/4-ounce T-1, count it down and slow-grind it along, making contact with vegetation as you go."
His tackle preference is a medium-action-and-power 7-foot casting rod with a low-profile reel like the Revo MGX loaded with a 30-pound Trilene Braid. He adds a 4-foot leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon to the end of the braid, then adds a 12-inch section of 26-pound tieable wire leader of Surflon Micro Supreme, making each of the couplings with back-to-back uni-knots. The wire connection to the lure is made with a three-wrap Trilene knot.
"Color often isn't critical," he says. "The main experiment is silver blades versus gold. Dress a lure with gold blades and a brownish body with a Grass Pig in the Swamp Gas color, and a lure with silver blades and a white body with a Pearl Grass Pig. Simple. Efficient. Easy on you and the fish. And economical, to boot."
Contact: Jeff Andersen, Leisure Outdoor Adventures, 218/766-8048; Tom Neustrom, 218/327-2312; Jonny Petrowske, 218/766-4798.