May 07, 2014
Northwestern Ontario's Sunset Country Region, north of the Minnesota border, has long been known as a top destination for pike. Across Canada, great pike opportunities exist in many places, but not many are within a day's drive of midwestern anglers who tow a boat or have the option to visit a remote fly-in system. Though the opportunities for true giants in the upper-40-inch range increase the farther north anglers travel, few places hold as many big pike as this area.
Over 75,000 lakes dot the Canadian Shield, the bulk hosting populations of pike. For the biggest fish, focus on large waterways. From Lake of the Woods in the west to remote Lake Nipigon in the east, vast expanses of big-pike water beckon.
Countless tea-stained walleye lakes hold lots of pike that relate to weedgrowth throughout summer, while many of clear, lake trout lakes may hold fewer fish but likely a better opportunity for giants. Regardless of the lake, seasonal patterns are consistent across the region.
Ontario has a liberal pike season that's open year-round, providing the opportunity to fish immediately after ice-out. If conditions are good, sight-fishing is a top technique to catch big cruisers looking for an easy meal. Weightless soft jerkbaits and swimbaits dominate during this period because they're subtle and match the mood of the fish. And they can slide through weedgrowth with ease. As the season progresses, big pike move to the main basin, relating to deep weeds if they're available and rock structure on the lakes that lack vegetation.
A New Twist on Spoon Fishing
Often overlooked today, Dardevles and other spoons have been a staple for many years. Easy to use, they work shallow or deep and can attract fish from a wide area with their vibration and flash. It's hard to fish these lures wrong.
Ben Beattie has been a guide in the Sioux Lookout area for 10 years and spends lots of time pursuing pike on Lac Seul. He got on a strong spoon bite several years ago during a guide trip for walleyes. "I love spoons because they're so easy to use and they catch fish throughout the season," he says. "Everybody knows that they work in shallow water but they can be effective in deeper water as well. During summer, pike hunt pelagic baitfish like cisco and smelt on main-basin structure in 25 to 35 feet of water, even in the tea-stained Shield lakes I fish.
"One day, we were jigging for walleyes on a deep sandflat and I lost a rod over the side of the boat. In an effort to retrieve it, I clipped on a large five-of-diamonds spoon and began dragging the bottom to recover it. I'd cast and drag and once the spoon was below the boat I'd reel it up fast and make another long cast to locate the rod. But my recovery efforts kept getting interrupted by big pike that crushed the spoon as I ripped it back to the boat. Its flash and vibration must have mimicked fleeing baitfish. I never did get the rod back but I learned a new technique that's yielded many great catches the past couple of years."
Beattie uses his trolling motor to move slowly around humps and deep sandflats and makes long casts with heavy spoons, usually a Lindy Viking Spoon or XL Dardevle five-of-diamonds, letting them sink to the bottom before speedily reeling them in. "You can't reel fast enough and they clobber the bait." He uses a 7-foot 3-inch St. Croix Legend Tournament Musky rod called "the downsizer," a light muskie rod, matched with 65-pound Power Pro and a Shimano Calcutta 400D reel. Because pike freight-train the bait, he uses top-grade swivels and a 100-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
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Drifter Tackle Hell Hound
Lake of the Woods
On Lake of the Woods, Kenora guide Darcy Cox and I agree that late summer is the best time to catch numbers of pike in the upper-30-inch and 40-inch range. I love suspending jerkbaits, whether fishing smallmouths or big pike on these lakes. They're a great search bait that gets the attention of active pike.
In August and September, focus on the main lake. Points, offshore rockpiles, wind-blown banks, and neck-down areas congregate baitfish and pike are there to feed. Oversized bass-style jerkbaits like the Jackall Squad Minnow 128 and #14 Rapala X-Rap cast a mile and have an aggressive sound and slashing action that calls fish in. I fish big jerkbaits on a light flipping stick like the Shimano Crucial 7-foot 7-inch medium-heavy action with 40-pound Power Pro tied to a leader. Long casts allow you to cover water and contact more active fish.
In the central section of Lake of the Woods, south of Kenora, an area known as walleye country, we run into big pike schooled up and very aggressive, especially during the late-summer period. Cox says that when water temperatures start to drop into the 72°F range, pike activity increases. "The late August and early September period is prime for big pike as they move back into shallows that had been too warm in mid-summer. I focus on expansive weedbeds and troll a big twin-bladed bucktail like a Dadson Blade Baits Bullet on a downline or straightline or troll a subsurface walking bait like a Drifter Tackle Hell Hound. The Hound has a great side-to side-action on its own so it excels for trolling."
In down-rod trolling, the rod is in a holder, pointed into the water. Cox uses an 8-foot Shimano TD heavy fiberglass rod with a Tekota 500LC reel and 100-pound Power Pro mainline. "Rod holders are essential; there's no way you can hold it more than 20 minutes." He favors metal Down East Salty rod holders, which are much more durable than plastic models.
Cox and many other predator anglers in the Lake of the Woods region favor down-rodding because you can troll fast and keep your bait from blowing out, and it keeps floating vegetation from collecting on your line and lure. Cox also fishes Eagle Lake and is fond of the Winnipeg River, which has yielded his biggest fish over the years.
Thunder Bay area fishhead Davis Viehbeck makes several trips up to remote Lake Nipigon each season, the largest body of water entirely in Ontario. It's a deep, exposed lake that never warms much. Because of that, Viehbeck explains, pike never have to leave the shallow bays that surround the big lake."Because Nipigon is so big and temperatures remain cool, plenty of big pike stay shallow until the end of June, unlike most lakes across the region," he says. "As summer progresses, we continue to catch fish close to shallow water as well as on traditional main-lake structure."
Viehbeck believes pike on remote waters like Nipigon are suckers for loud, aggressive baits. He often fishes jerkbaits, but has great confidence in large lipless rattlebaits. "Rattlebaits can be fished fast to cover a lot of water and a wide depth range as well," he says. "You can rip them through weeds to trigger fish, or slow the retrieve to probe deeper rock edges."
On Shoal Lake, a large body of water connected to Lake of the Woods, my friends and I've had success vertically jigging these types of baits as well. After some good catches on the ice, we tried fishing 3/4- and 1-ounce rattlebaits vertically on offshore structure where we'd marked fish on sonar. When they're on the pattern, it's an automatic deal. Pike don't come over and inspect these baits. Drop down, jig them in 3- to 5-foot rips, and pike smoke them within a few rips if they're going to hit. When the bite is good, you can catch a bunch of fish, focusing on the 15- to 30-foot range.
Viehbeck fishes rattlebaits on a 7-foot, medium-heavy baitcasting combo with 40-pound Sufix 832 superline with a 12-inch Terminator titanium leader. "I prefer large heavier baits. They cast far and large lures select for large fish. Rapala's #8 Clackin' Rap and #7 Rippin' Rap both weigh 7/8-ounce and have been good. If you're on big-fish water, you may even want to try a 1½-ounce Bill Lewis Super Trap," he says.
It's important to keep an open mind presentation-wise to catch big pike throughout the year. Most big fish live in main-basin areas of Shield lakes after the shallow run early in the year, so you should tweak lure choices and presentations until you figure out what the fish want.
A large swimbait rigged on a 1- to 2-ounce jig might prove deadly on the deep-water pike that Beattie catches on big spoons. Casting a hefty spinnerbait over vegetation should work well on the shallow fish Cox targets by trolling. The key is working at the pattern and figuring out the positioning and attitudes of fish each day.
Canadian Shield pike are aggressive critters. Once the ice is gone, they're gonna feed, and they do so below the ice as well. You won't need a muskie-sized lure locker to turn some of the fastest fishing for big fish available today.