Pike Fishing: A Gathering of Teeth
July 21, 2011
Vikings called it the "all thing," or "thing of all." Some native Americans called it a sun dance, others a pow wow. Most of us call it a family reunion. When the disparate, far-flung portions of tribes or wandering family members come together once a year to discuss policy or just chat, we give it a name. Well, northern pike experience a similar gathering every fall. Call it the tooth thing.
The environment drives them together. Weeds begin to die, driving pike out to the deep edges or to rock cover. Most lakes turn over, driving open-water pike to the same areas as baitfish scatter and the underwater world destabilizes. Then you have the deep-flat dwellers that rise up to take advantage of the cisco spawn. They, too, identify with deep weedlines and rocky points. As the water cools, spring-dwelling pike no longer need to hover around vents of colder water, so they head for the tooth thing.
Whenever pike fishing is on the agenda, the first thing to do during the planning phase is select lures or baits that efficiently target the depths and work the cover pike are using. Fall and early spring are the easiest times of year to do this because most of the pike in the system are doing similar things in similar cover at similar depths.
The next part of the planning phase involves matching lures or baits to conditions (water clarity and water temperature), to the forage base, and to the seasonal behavior of pike. The water is cooling, so pike are progressively slowing down a bit. The forage base tends to be composed of larger specimens, as surviving baitfish have grown since their birth last fall or spring. As far as seasonal behavior, pike are stocking up for winter. Those cold fronts that knocked down the bite 6 weeks ago now whip pike into a furious feeding binge, until water temperatures cool into the low-40°F range.
In other words, if you're going to the tooth thing this year, bring big, bright, festive lures that target 6- to 12-foot portions of the water column at slow to moderate speeds. Pike are aggressive, but "stocking up for winter" doesn't mean they want to make things hard on themselves. Unlike warm-water bass and panfish, pike can cruise and feed aggressively all winter long. In winter, many pike in deep systems return to open water to suspend. Yet some invade very shallow water in the same system. They scatter, making the fall tooth-thing gathering all the more attractive.
One Man's Tooth Thing
In-Fisherman, in over a third of a century, has made multiple reports on techniques for late-season pike. It is all both imminently relevant and hopelessly irrelevant in the same breath. Not because none of it works, but because all of it works. We can catch pike this time of year with anything we want. Bait rigs, swimming jigs, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, minnowbaits, cranks—just throw a dart at the lure chart and you're bound to hit a winner.
Big pike have come to my net this time of year on a Mann's Minus 1, used almost as a surface bait, waking along over key spots. The new Sebile Koolie Minnow is another favorite, because it retains intriguing action at slow speed and rises very slowly on the pause. Suspending baits, like the biggest Smithwick Rogues, score big. Paul Jensen's bunny-strip Clatter Baits play a role. Jensen hair jigs on smaller heads with a big profile? Lights out. Anything that can be worked slowly, methodically, on a horizontal plane kicks anal fin. So the point is not to put one particular genre of lures or tactics on a pedestal and place a crown on top. The point is to dissect the activities of the most successful anglers we know. Distill water and grain into a fine and potent whiskey, as it were. Good to know somebody out there has taken it all in and is ready to stand forth to testify.
That man is none other than Mark Fisher, the eminently affable fishhead in charge of field promotions for Rapala. Fisher loves big pike and creates multiple opportunities to chase them in late fall every year. By him, there's no better time to do it.
"Fascinating part is that pike in late fall position themselves in key spots instead of roaming larger areas, and those defined spots can change," Fisher says. "They can be relatively close to summer spots but pike often move out and sit on key points and isolated rockpiles off those points. As the temperature drops they become a little more lethargic. They're storing energy to feed as needed.
"They move to specific areas where food is easier to prey on. Two dynamics are taking place. The forage base is thinner, but the individual targets are bigger. The good news is, in fall you don't have pressure from other anglers so you can work on these theories and put patterns together."
What about the tooth thing? "Once big pike get done with spawning in spring, they can just disappear in the abyss," Fisher says. "Fall brings them back in. You can certainly have giants in summer running and roaming big weedbeds. They're constantly eating and their energy level is up. But when the weeds die, the two patterns collide. As the weeds die, pike move out, and when turnover happens, open-water pike move in. These decaying patterns cause pike to collide in the same areas. They get sandwiched between turnover and decaying weeds.
"On big impoundments and Canadian lakes, you can run into schools of giant pike," he says. "They come together in the need to find a consistent source of food and once they find it they position where they don't need to use much energy to intercept it. Some guys miss a lot of trophy fish because they can't believe or visualize the fact that they're actually on schools of giants.
"This brings us to the fun part: It's a casting game. You can go to specific rockpiles, cast in and bring a lure out from the shallows, putting the bait in places it can't reach on a trolling pass. Strikes are violent this time of year. There's no 'I think I got one.' They're storing energy to feed and every hookup is a sure thing. A violent thing.
"If you're trying to troll, you're going to coax one or two out, but you're going to miss the opportunity to get right back on the same line to make the right pass. It's not as efficient. Putting machine-gun casts to the same spot is key. Case in point: Doug Stange and I were filming two years ago and I put 7 casts to a specific spot and nailed 7 pike in a row. When they turn on and take a bait, others get in line on the spot. Throwing to the same spot is key, and coming back to it several times every day is another key."
Fisher is primarily addressing the period when water temperatures are dropping from about 54°F to the low-40°F range. "It's over in a relatively short time during a normal fall progression," he says. "The best fishing occurs when you don't see an increase in water temperatures. It's critical to have consistently plummeting water temperatures. That's the blowing whistle, the siren that gets them going. When the season turns around and the water warms, masses of pike aren't being pushed to specific spots."
Turnover. Thermoclines disappear. Weedbeds die. Pike leave disparate foraging grounds and merge into one pattern. Primary main-lake points are key spots, but not the only spots. Fisher: "You can work stretches of shoreline without a descript point Pike like straight-aways and right after turnover, before they start to concentrate on specific spots, they position themselves on little features like points or cups in the weedline or little rockpiles along straight stretches of shoreline. Each feature has a sentry pike guarding it. Always helps to have the wind blowing into that shoreline. Pike like the turmoil brought on by wind."
As fall progresses, we can almost see pike working together, as if teaming up to find spots that provide consistent forage. They also need cover, someplace where they can see forage approaching without being seen. As weeds die back, that cover tends to be composed of rock or wood. An ideal spot is a main-lake point, where a variety of forage species come together. Some are moving past, like whitefish, smelt or ciscoes. Some are cruising along bottom, like suckers and perch. Panfish can be crucial this time of year, too, and points can bring all these species into relatively small areas.
The ideal point might have a flat extending beyond the weedline with one or two sides that drop sharply. An attenuating rock reef, or one that sits by itself in the key depth range, is always prime. Where the tip of a point drops into a saddle connecting a rockpile or hump, pike are there. Boulders on or adjacent to the point in 5- to 9-foot depths are, in a pike's eye, five-star restaurants.
Focus on the 6- to 12-foot zone most of the time. Sometimes depth of the outside edge of the weedline is down 15 feet or so. Adjust parameters accordingly "I'm holding the boat back over 12 to 20 feet of water," Fisher said. "Big pike won't come off the top of the shallow flats, reefs, or rockpiles. They slide off to the side. They position themselves just a little deeper. A classic boulder point with rocks the size of Volkswagons at different depths is ideal. There's always a deeper side to these boulders. It's a predator spot. They're not sitting where prey can see them easily. It's a cat-and-mouse deal. They're not sitting up high. You're working water 6 to 10 feet deep most of the time, so you're looking for shadowy lairs big enough to hide a green submarine in that zone."
Fisher likes to return to key points, reefs, and boulder fields several times each day. "When late-fall pike are ready to feed, they're going to move back onto that key ambush spot," he says. "Otherwise, they're in the area, not far away. You want to be able to move back-and-forth from those straightaways to points then back to your reef or sunken island and keep moving. Identify that key time of day at some point and you want to be on a good spot when it happens.
"These fish are keen to staying on their primary forage, if they have one. Pike can slide back-and-forth from a perch deal to a cisco deal and back as baitfish move past, then move off. The pike aren't moving that far. If you have a key spot, you have to come back and check it 4 or 5 times per day.
"Pike are clever feeders. What happens during the course of the day creates fascination in fishing. Whitefish, smelt, crappies—each forage type moves pike predictably, and all of this is taking place not far from where they winter.
"The only time big pike surge out of the shadows in late fall is when they think they have easy prey." Strategy moves from fast and aggressive to slow and methodical. Aggression levels don't change, but pike can't fight natural laws any more than you can. The metabolism of cold-blooded animals slows as the water cools.
Tooth Thing Tactics
"Slow down your presentation as the water cools," Fisher explains. "During late autumn, the trigger is going to be something that stays in the strike zone longer. A slower presentation with a jerkbait-style, rip-rip-pause works, but don't be exceedingly aggressive. Focus on the glide and pause."
Fisher's favorites for the late-fall bite are the Rapala Glidin' Rap and the biggest Rapala SubWalk. "These lures stay in the strike zone longer," he says. "They're larger versions of great summer lures. The smaller versions are livelier and produce more flash. Larger baits are more sluggish. No matter what kind of lure you're talking about, larger versions of the same lure resist water, turn slower, and tend to glide longer. Those are all positives for late pike. When a larger bait rolls and makes a turn, it provides a more vulnerable target. The pause is what triggers the most violent strikes.
"Another good one is the Rapala #16 Flat Rap. Classic cold-water bait because it glides, and comes in perfect perch, trout, and cisco patterns. The Super Shad Rap is another good one, because the color patterns and profiles match key pike forage late in the year. Knowing what the main forage is can be critical. Ask around. Go to the tackle shops, ask other fishermen, and find out whether it's suckers, perch, or whatever. It can point the way to a pattern of retrieves, placement of casts, and the perfect color patterns."
Fisher spools up with 50-pound Sufix 832 Advanced Superline on medium-heavy bass tackle. "You can go with lighter musky tackle, or you can scale down to a 7-foot medium-heavy bass fishing rig. You can get them with superlines on spinning gear or 20-pound mono on moderate bass tackle. Use what's comfortable for you that can handle larger pike lures. You don't have to worry about abrasion resistance. They're not in weedbeds any more, so you can play them in open water, allowing you to use tackle to match."
Fisher snaps the rod tip down to retrieve Glidin' Raps and SubWalks, then allows sufficient time for these lures to glide, come to a halt and pause momentarily." I love these big, sluggish baits," he says. "I fish them slower and they have a triggering roll to them. Get it in their line of sight, keep it there and they're going to eat it. Working for the company that makes these lures allows me to see where each lure applies to a specific need. You may be catching fish, but not as good as you might if you pay attention to little details.
"Sometimes downsizing works well in summer for that reason, and because of overall forage size. Forage tends to be bigger in fall, and pike are keying on larger things that allow them to bulk up in a calorie-efficient manner. These lures stay in the strike zone and appeal to the pike's need to single out vulnerable, slow-moving prey in cold water."
Some pike work the shallows right through winter in many places. Some return to the abyss, to feed on whitefish and ciscoes. Some return to deeper flats. They scatter again, and the toothy-thing gathering is over for another year.
Reservations are not required. Just show up. You'll probably be the only human at this vampiric wedding feast. Lucky for you, these monsters breathe water and suck down fish—not that the toothy thing won't claim a finger now and then. Violent things are happening all around your boat and you should strive to take part. Since seasons close in early spring, no better time exists than late fall to find out how big the pike really get in any body of water.
Matt Straw, In-Fisherman Field Editor from Brainerd, Minnesota, has been writing for In-Fisherman for two decades.