Many pike fishing anglers use big baits in fall to tempt trophy pike. They believe that shorter feeding windows and fish looking to add pounds prior to ice-up support this approach. I would counter that pike are a coolwater species, and they feed effectively throughout winter, so they don't need to eat a Thanksgiving size meal every day just because the leaves are changing colors.
Ongoing fieldwork with mid-size pike fishing baits has me convinced that "giblets" are more effective than tempting them with the entire Butterball. I think the exclusive use of oversized baits reduces overall catch-rate and does little to increase the size of pike caught.
I focus my fishing on large lakes or reservoirs with plenty of deep water and abundant forage to grow numbers of trophy fish. On large bodies of water, big pike often are hard to find during summer. They often avoid detection by suspending over vast areas of deep water. As nearshore waters cool into the 40°F range, vegetation on large flats starts to decay and provides less cover for predators and prey. Baitfish flush out of back bays, and pike move to rock points, steep ledges, and windblown humps that concentrate baitfish. At the same time, prime forage like ciscoes concentrate on these structures, so pike have their choice of a variety of bait types and sizes.
Search for main-lake rock structure that extends into the lake's basin and has a flat feeding shelf 10 to 15 feet deep. Scattered green weed clumps on these shelves or a couple of adjacent rock humps create an ideal location. Pike travel along these same routes each fall and few anglers ever know of their existence. Again, the key to success is to abandon shallow weedflats and concentrate on large rock structure.
Pike often aren't picky eaters, but their taste preferences can change daily. I head out for a day of fishing with a full selection of mid-size lures and baits. If you think you're going to catch pike on lipless rattlebaits or bladebaits on any given day, you might be correct 20 percent of the time. If you think it's a jerkbait bite, you might have the same chances. If you pack both these lure styles, along with crankbaits, soft plastics, and livebait, your odds go way up. Once you identify prime areas, there's little need to change location. It's a matter of rotating through lure choices and thoroughly covering water.
A System That Works
Steve Everetts of Finseekers Guide Service, Janesville, Wisconsin, has a passion for big pike that ratchets up even more in fall. "I've logged thousands of hours chasing pike, and when it comes to lure size I was trained to believe that bigger is better," he says. "That way of thinking changed while fishing 5- to 7-inch suckers and redtail chubs on main-lake points and rockbars for fall smallmouths. It wasn't uncommon to get bite-offs from pike on these medium-size baits.
"I started to wonder what size fish were causing these bite-offs and switched my leaders from 10- to 20-pound-test Silver Thread Fluorocarbon. The culprits were big fish. So I put away my muskie plugs and started tossing more manageable lures in conjunction with a refined livebait program.
"Now when targeting fall pike, I often use 3- to 4-inch crankbaits such as Rapala DT 14s, Spro Little Johns, and Lindy Shadlings," he says. "I also use lipless baits, such as XCalibur XR50s, along with swimbaits, bladebaits, and jig and Gulp! softbait combinations.
"And I drag suckers and chubs at the same time I fish with artificial lures. On my livebait rods, I fish 5- to 7-inch baits, along with an occasional 8-inch-plus offering. The larger baits get bit once or twice a day on average, while the smaller livebaits get bit 6 to 15 times per outing. An advantage to the smaller baits is that you can downsize your hooks and leaders. You can set the hook immediately, so fish get hooked in the corner of the mouth rather than being deep-hooked, which makes for easier removal and a quicker release."
Big suckers offer a larger visible presence in the water, but they tend to be lazy swimmers. They require heavy line and quick-strike rigs, which further restrict their movement. Plus, at a cost of $4 to $5 apiece, it's painful when they're lost to a snag or small pike, and anglers are less inclined to change them for a fresh bait.
Smaller suckers and chubs are more frantic in the water. Since a dozen redtail chubs cost less than two large suckers, replacing a sluggish redtail doesn't have the same financial sting. They also have a knack for attracting fish upon initially being deployed. Fished on steep-breaking rock points or ledges, they know they're out of place. Visibility is exceptional in fall and they panic when danger lurks below. Often, these baits get eaten within seconds of the sinker hitting the bottom and the bait being raised up a couple feet.
When fishing in areas 15 to 30 feet deep, freelining baits isn't an option. A weighted rig must be used to get the bait down. One rig option is a slipsinker on the mainline, followed by a barrel swivel and a fluorocarbon leader tied to a hook. The goal is to suspend baits 2 to 5 feet off the bottom.
These rigs can be fished vertically under the boat or behind the boat on slipfloats. Both have advantages. Those fished under the boat can be adjusted more quickly and frequently. The activity of the bait also can be easily detected by watching the movement of the rod tip. Baits typically get more active, or "nervous," just prior to being eaten. Slipfloat rigs are more stealthy, fished farther from the boat. They also allow baits more freedom to cover water and attract more attention.
Everetts' program incorporates both livebait down-rods and floats for suspending baits close to the edge. "I prefer to run a couple suckers on Lindy Big Fish Slider floats 20 to 40 feet behind the boat," he says. "I fish the remaining rods with vertical presentations over the side of the boat. For 5- to 7-inch suckers, I use a 1/2- to 1-ounce egg sinker with 20-pound Silver Thread fluorocarbon leaders and #1 Eagle Claw 226 Octopus hooks or Owner Mutu Light Circle hooks. For larger suckers, I use 40- to 80-pound-test fluoro leaders to protect from bite-offs on a quick-strike rig.
"I use line-counter reels such as the Abu Garcia 6500LC and Okuma Catalina CT-205Da with 20-pound Trilene XT monofilament or 30-pound Sufix 832 Performance Braid." Line-counter reels allow for precise presentations and show how deep each rig is set. At a glance you can check the sonar for depth, read the line-counter, and adjust each rig.
For extra attraction, add a brightly colored Lindy snell float to the leader. Fish these rigs with the reel's bait clicker on and the drag not engaged. Reels like the Okuma Catalina have a knob to adjust tension on the spool while the reel is in free spool. Set it so pike feel minimum resistance while taking the bait. Engage the drag only when the hook is ready to be set.
Lures and Livebait
This dual livebait and casting program requires attention to detail and precise boat control. Prior to setting baits in the water, the entire structure should be mapped with sonar. Side-imaging allows anglers to not only mark the entire edge of structure, but also to identify and mark humps and baitfish schools off to the side. With this information stored in the graph, rigs can be deployed and lures selected.
Staying on the edge of the drop-off with the trolling motor can be labor intensive, especially in strong winds while pulling multiple livebait rigs a few feet above the bottom and simultaneously casting lures. You need to constantly watch your sonar to avoid drifting into unproductive open water or being pushed onto the rock shelf and getting snagged. With one sonar unit on the bow of the boat and the other at the stern, a difference in depth of more than 10 feet can often be seen in one boat length.
When dragging livebaits along points and steep-breaking edges, three primary zones are available for casting: the flat, the edge, and the abyss. Each is worth fishing with lures that run at the appropriate depth. While the "edge" fish may be the easiest to intercept (this is where the boat should be positioned for running livebait rigs), a cast length on each side of the edge can offer plenty of active fish.
To fish shelves that run from 8 to 14 feet deep, Berkley Flicker Shads, Rapala BX Swimmers, Sebile ACAST Minnows, and Yo-Zuri Sashimi Jointed Minnows are effective. These lures dive to the 6- to 10-foot range and maintain their action and depth at both slow and fast speeds. Pike on flats are looking to eat. Five- to 6-inch articulated swimbaits, like the Sebile Magic Swimmer and LiveTarget Blueback Herring, are great for working ledges and feeding shelves. All these lures can be delivered accurately with long casts. Keep retrieve speeds at a slow or medium pace and add short pauses during the retrieve.
Jerkbaits in the 4- to 5-inch range like Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows, Smithwick Super Rogues, and Rapala X-Raps, also work well on flats. They can be retrieved with a variety of cadences. From a jerk-and-pause retrieve to a twitch-and-go, the action can be manipulated in the water column like few other lures. Unlike working a jerkbait for bass with extra-long pauses, resist the urge to allow it to suspend motionless for too long. While spring pike may hit a bunny fly that suspends motionless for a minute, it pays to get the attention of fall pike and make them react to an actively fleeing jerkbait.
When working the edge, cast deep-diving Spro Little Johns DDs, Rapala DTs, and Bomber Fat Free Shads parallel to the break. These 3- to 4-inch flat-sided lures dive 12 to 20 feet and excel when targeting structure-oriented pike. They dive quickly and track at maximum depth until nearly under the boat. If bottom contact is made, let the lure back up and slowly rise a foot or two before continuing the retrieve. Pike are less notorious for hitting lures off the ricochet, but anything that interrupts the action or changes the lure's direction or speed peaks interest and spurs action.
While covering the edge with parallel casts, also cast perpendicular to the edge and into deep water — even over 30 or 40 feet of water. Holding just one or two cast lengths off the edge, pike at times suspend over this deep water at about the same depth as the edge. Presenting a Little John DD that dives to 20 feet is enticing in the clear waters of the abyss. These crankbaits look like yearling bluegills or crappies scurrying to get back to cover.
Other options include lipless rattlebaits that can be fished over a range of depths. Some of my favorites for pike include the Rapala Rippin' Rap, XCalibur XR50, and Yo-Zuri Sashimi Rattl'n Vibe. These lures have a quick fall and higher profile than most other rattlebaits. This style is particularly effective when allowed to sink on slack line and then ripped off the bottom and allowed to free-fall back to the bottom. Adjust retrieve speed and aggressiveness of each rip to see what triggers big pike. Line-watching is critical as bites occur on the fall. Set immediately and hard upon feeling the strike. Pike hit and spit these lures quickly.
Use a driftsock to slow drift speed to less than a walking pace, and correct the speed and direction with the trolling motor. If a strike occurs or a bait gets nervous, sit on a spot for several minutes. Big pike sometimes roam in packs in fall. It's common to double up and to land more than a half dozen big fish from one spot. I therefore pack two nets in the boat to allow multiple fish to be landed without delay. I like Frabill Conservation Nets. Their knotless mesh and flat bottom insures safe release. With this system in place the action often is fast and furious.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an exceptional multispecies angler who lives in the Chicago area.