As is customary on many lakes in the North, the first few weeks of open water often find pike congregated in protected areas like marinas or shallow back bays. Pike start moving in when these areas are still locked in ice, but unstable conditions often prevent anglers from getting at them until there's enough open water for casting.
Fishing at this time of year can be unpredictable. In spite of their aggressive reputation, pike are prone to periods of moodiness, particularly near spawning time. Warm, stable conditions often get fish active enough to hit standard hardware like suspending jerkbaits, wobbling spoons, and jigs, but even then, there usually are a few extra fish to be caught using slower presentations, such as dead- or livebait fished beneath a float or on bottom.
But, as In-Fisherman has demonstrated so many times, good catches are achieved by finding the right balance of attraction and triggering, and occasionally by straying outside the norms of fish conditioning.
On one of our first outings of the season, we connected with a few nice pike on traditional approaches, but it wasn't until we switched to fishing for panfish that the full potential of our pike spot started to materialize. Cast after cast, our slipfloats and 11„2-inch tube jigs were yanked downward, and our light tackle was pushed, often beyond its capacity, as pike twisted and chewed their way to freedom. As the number of bite-offs started to climb, it was clear a change was in order.
Thinking we had a good jig bite going, I removed the float and attached a heavy fluorocarbon leader with a small bucktail jig. Pike love jigs, but wood and algae frustrated any type of refined bottom presentation in the area we were fishing. Although I had never specifically targeted pike with a float-and-jig setup before, it seemed like a pragmatic solution to keeping my lure off bottom, so I reattached the float. The float-and-jig combo drew immediate results and the fluorocarbon leader alleviated bite-offs. In spite of the pikes' apparent disinterest in our more aggressive presentations, they were hitting suspended jigs with enough force to produce an audible "pop" as the float plunged downwards.
It's always exciting to experiment with a new technique, and so it went, my partners and I experimenting for the majority of the day, on and off for the next two weeks with various ways and means of catching pike on floats.
One of the benefits of fishing side by side with other keen anglers is learning from one another, as we worked our way through a range of float, jig, and retrieve types in search of the best combination. Throughout our trials, fixed floats consistently outperformed slipfloats. While the difference is likely subtle, we reasoned that the swimming path of a jig fished under a fixed float kept the jig closer to bottom and imparted a more gradual swimming motion than slipfloats, which cause a more drastic up-and-down action.
Pike also showed a preference for a more aggressive jerk-and-pause retrieve over slower pulls or even a slow, steady retrieve. Rip the float forward 2 or 3 feet then let it rest for 5 to 10 seconds, and repeat. When the water was calm, each forward motion left a trail of bubbles on the surface. We reasoned that the action of the float grabbed the attention of the fish and prompted them to cruise over for a closer inspection.
Pike hit a range of jig styles, but bucktail jigs were particularly effective, due partly to their durability. For an extra level of pike-proofedness, add a heavy dose of epoxy to the thread portion of the jig. Tying 40- to 60-pound Maxima fluorocarbon leader directly to the jigs prevented bite-offs and held the jig tight enough to keep it horizontal as it hung beneath the float. Experiment with lure depth but think in terms of how far your lure is off bottom, rather than the distance between the lure and the float. Water depth varies in natural bays, so adjust the lead length as you move from one area to the next. Areas around marinas are often maintained by dredging, so the depth may be similar throughout.
Whether as an intermediate option between jerkbaits and deadbait, or simply a new curveball to pitch at those wary gators, the float-and-fly technique could be one of your favorites for springtime pike.
*Lonnie King is a fishery biologist, multispecies angler, and writer from Ottawa, Ontario.