Pike Hotspots in the Lower 48
May 08, 2018
Gator-sized pike often are considered inhabitants of the Far North, creatures of remote Canadian fisheries. Thanks to factors such as improved habitat and forage, and fishery management efforts, however, many destinations in the Lower 48 now offer opportunities for numbers and sizes of pike rivaling their remote northern counterparts.
In many cases, U.S. hotspots offer a classic combination of suitable spawning habitat, abundant high-protein forage, and cool-water refuge during summer. Several sources can help pinpoint happening fisheries, including state and federal fishery agencies, fishing guides, baitshops, and social media. To speed your search, we offer snapshots of some of the Lower 48's top pike hotspots for the 2018 season. These scenarios can help guide you to similarly stellar drive-to fisheries.
The 1,000 Islands region of the St. Lawrence River, bordering New York and Canada, gives pike anglers exceptional chances for superior pike action with a decent shot at big fish. "The river's pike fishery is in fine shape right now," reports Captain Rich Clarke. Best known for connecting clients with monster muskies, Clarke also targets the system's bass, walleyes, panfish, and pike.
"Pike fishing is a numbers game for clients who want fast action on fish averaging 4 to 5 pounds, with an occasional fish over 12 to 14 pounds," he says. "When the water warms up enough for pike to get active, usually in May and early June, right through the fall, we put anglers on fish relating to river vegetation."
He steers pike fans after big fish deeper and farther offshore. "Large pike tend to frequent different areas," Clarke says. "We catch a few big ones in vegetation, but they bury in it, and it's harder to reach them and get them out. A better plan is targeting offshore shoals and humps where they chase baitfish, including gobies, perch, and bass."
He says the river's biggest pike routinely prowl depths of 18 to 40 feet in summer and fall, both suspending and feeding along bottom. "Watch sonar for baitfish and predators," he says. "Once you find them, vertically fish a spoon or a big bucktail jig tipped with a big minnow or softbait. When they're a little shallower, lures such as crankbaits, spoons, and hefty spinnerbaits can be worked down to the strike zone. Top colors include chartreuse, red, white, and black.
"The fish aren't hungry because baitfish are so abundant. You have to finesse them." Toward that end, he recommends subdued lift-fall retrieves and pop-fall jigging cadences. "Ninety-nine percent hit on the fall," he says. "Don't expect an arm-wrenching strike. Bites register as bumps. When you feel one, set the hook."
Captain John Oravec of Troutman Charters also sings the St. Lawrence's praises for offshore pike. This nomadic multispecies guide spends December through mid-April on the Niagara River and May to September on Lake Ontario, returning to the St. Lawrence in fall for its pike and muskie bounty.
"Pike are getting bigger here," he says. "Twelve to 15 pounds is common. I've caught 20-pounders and expect the fishery to keep improving." Oravec credits ample forage including a large perch population and abundant gobies for pike growth. He also believes their affinity for deep water shelters them from much traditional fishing pressure. "Targeting fish 40 feet down over 100 feet of water is a different proposition than most pike anglers are used to," he says. "Big fish are protected by the sanctuary of the depths.
"Pike become more active once water temperatures drop below 55°F in fall," he continues, explaining that from October through mid-December, they gravitate to deep, food-rich rocky structure such as humps and ledges. "Muskie trollers also catch big ones around baitfish suspended in the middle of nowhere.
"Seaway northerns often feed deep on bottom, where gobies carpet the rocks," he adds. "Top presentations include scratching bottom with crankbaits on wire line and jigging giant softbaits like Musky Innovations Bull Dawgs. "In deep, open channels, suspended perch also attract big pike, calling for a double-barreled approach such as leadcore trolling with plug-and-spoon combos. A favorite local setup is the "burger-and-fries" rig, consisting of a #285 Doctor Spoon trailing 3 to 5 feet behind an 8- to 10-inch Drifter Tackle Believer, both painted in perchy patterns."
Heading west, other Great Lakes waters also offer prime pike fishing. As In-Fisherman has reported in recent seasons, Presque Isle Bay, arguably Lake Erie's most famous pike fishery, is on the rebound after a die-off in 2003. Drowned rivermouths along Michigan's slice of the Lake Michigan shoreline, such as Muskegon Lake, Portage Lake, and Manistee Lake, are all perennial pike producers. Lake St. Clair likewise holds pike, though the fishery is overshadowed by other species such as muskies and smallmouth bass.
Green Bay and its tributaries offer good opportunities, too. The wet springs of 2013 and 2014 spawned bumper crops of pike. Fast-growing females from these hatches were already over 30 inches in 2017, which bodes well for a super-charged trophy fishery. Wisconsin DNR biologists report that the vast size of the bay reduces competition between top predators, as it offers an abundance of yellow perch, gizzard shad, and round gobies. Stunting problems seen in smaller inland lakes are not an issue in Green Bay.
Of Wisconsin's inland fisheries, the Winnebago system is a standout. Consisting of lakes Winnebago, Butte des Morts, Winneconne, and Poygan, along with the Fox and Wolf rivers, the system offers opportunities for trophy-sized fish. Biologists caution, however, that a large food supply including gizzard shad can make fishing challenging.
Minnesota guide Jeff Andersen of Leisure Outdoor Adventures has traveled extensively in search of giant pike. His top three destinations include the Minnesota's portion of Lake of the Woods, plus perennial pike powerhouses Mille Lacs and Devils Lake.
"The numbers of big pike in the south basin of Lake of the Woods are astounding," he begins. "If your goal is to catch a 40-incher on a rod and reel, this is one of the best spots on the U.S. side. I recommend targeting postspawn pike in bays large and small from the Rainy River west to Zippel Bay all the way around the horn to the Ontario border. "Larger bays like Zippel tend to hold fish later, especially after strong north winds push pike out of the smaller windblown main-lake bays."
Though some anglers report declines in size of pike on Mille Lacs after the state opened the pike fishery to winter spearing, Andersen says, "it's still one of the best places to catch big ones. On a good day of trolling or casting weedlines you can expect numbers of 33- to 39-inch fish with a solid shot at breaking the 40-inch mark." Unlike fisheries where the weed bite withers in summer, Mille Lacs' greenery pumps out pike all season. "Eight- to 10-foot weededges on the main lake and in larger bays are good all season," he says. "Look for lush, green, fishable cabbage beds, and avoid areas choked with milfoil."
Andersen advises anyone packing for Mille Lacs or Lake of the Woods to bring plenty of large softbaits, including his favorite, the McRubber paddletail from Svartzonker. "It's deadly on a straight retrieve," he says. "You also need a selection of jerkbaits and, as summer progresses, spinnerbaits."
The Minnesota side of Rainy Lake is another on the list of pike hotspots, as is the Namakan Reservoir system. The latter, a bit off the radar, is a rugged and remote system consisting of Namakan, Crane, Kabetogama, Little Vermilion, and Sand Point lakes, located in the southern fringes of Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park. Recent DNR surveys report record numbers of pike here — including many over 40 inches, though most anglers target walleyes there.
"Pike fishing on Namakan Lake and the Voyageurs system is undervalued due to the popularity of walleye," says guide Dominic Ruis of Northern Limits Guide Service. "Spring and fall are top times for gators. In spring, fish 5 to 15 feet, depending on water temperature. The cooler the water, the shallower the fish are. As vegetation grows, move out to deep edges in 8 to 15 feet. Casting 5- to 12-inch crankbaits and jerkbaits gets the big ones snapping."
He warns that summer is the toughest time to catch a monster. "When surface waters are warm, lunkers chill in cold, deep water, waiting for a small walleye, tullibee, or whitefish to swim by," he says. "Troll leadcore or downriggers over 20- to 35-foot humps, points, reefs, and around islands with 40-plus feet of water nearby."
Fall is prime time on Namakan, he says. "Fish 10- to 15-inch sucker minnows 6 to 8 feet under a float in 10 to 15 feet of water, in front of a shallow bay with vegetation and rock or boulders on the bottom."
Farther west, Devils Lake is prime for big pike. It was known as more of a numbers spot until guys like Boyd, Blake, and Nathan LaFleur cracked the code for fish over 40 inches."Spring tactics include spot-and-stalk tactics on calm afternoons in shallow bays and connected waters such as Mike's, Silver, and Pelican lakes, says Nathan LaFleur, who set the pike world abuzz in April 2016 with a 51½-inch monster on a streamer fly. "The fish may not be actively chasing, but they strike lures presented slowly." When pike leave classic springtime bays in summer, the LaFleurs fancast lures such as 2- to 2½-ounce spinnerbaits and 7- to 9-inch Bucher ShallowRaiders over sprawling offshore weedflats in 6 to 10 feet of water, with deeper water nearby.
Veteran Devils Lake multispecies guide Aaron McQuoid primarily targets pike in May and early June. "Casting white 4-inch curlytail and paddletail plastics on 1/4- to 1½-ounce jigs in 1 to 8 feet of water is as good as it gets," McQuoid says. "But you could do well with big softbaits like a Bull Dawg, too. One spring we had eight pike over 40 inches attack walleyes that clients were reeling to the boat, and we ended up getting all of them in the net.
"If you come to Devils for the early bite, be sure to fish Pelican Lake," he adds. "It's shallow, weedy, and full of pike. Be careful because water levels are dropping and some areas we used to drive over now rip your lower unit off."
Noted guide and TV host Jason Mitchell also is based on Devils Lake. He adds a trio of Missouri River impoundments to the list of hot and happening pike waters. North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea is one of them. "Droughts and low water levels in the 2000s allowed terrestrial vegetation to take root in many exposed areas," he says. "When water levels rose, this flooded vegetation became phenomenal fish habitat. Rising water in 2008 and 2009 re-flooded this vegetation, boosting pike spawning success. Pike from strong year-classes, notably 2012, are reaching trophy proportions, thanks in part to Sakakawea's abundant smelt. "There are more fish over 40 inches taken every year, and I think it will continue to get better," he says.
Spring is a great time to visit Sakakawea, but Mitchell says summer is solid, too. "Pike move up creek channels to spawn, and because of the depth of the creek arms and bays, secondary points, flats, and rocky shelves with flooded brush or trees hold fish most of the season," he explains. "You can't go wrong casting big spinnerbaits, bucktail spinners, softbaits, and crankbaits in these areas, and the more expansive spots lend themselves to trolling."
Mitchell says similar scenarios play out on Lake Oahe and Fort Peck Lake. "Oahe is trending up and people are catching pike over 45 inches long," he says. "Fort Peck also has lots of pike, including some from 40 to 45 inches. Fishing patterns similar to Sakakawea apply, but anglers should keep in mind that different prey bases make each reservoir unique. Fort Peck is largely driven by ciscoes. Oahe's ciscoes are down, but pike are finding plenty of shad and white bass."
Mobridge-based guide Brent Kemnitz says ice-out is a top time to tackle Lake Oahe's gators. "Late March into early April, when the ice begins coming out of the bays, is a great time to set up along banks where steep contours drop into deeper water," he says. "Frozen smelt on wire quick-strike rigs are my go-to setup. Casting a crankbait can help lure big pike to your deadbaits," he adds.
Will Dykstra, guide with Tightline Outdoors, says Colorado holds its share of supersize pike. "Spinney Mountain, Eleven Mile, and Williams Fork are the top three right now. Spring produces the best trophy bite of the season here. Last year on opening day, for example, a client caught and released a 46- x 26-inch pike that, had it been kept, would have topped the current state record of 30 pounds, 11 ounces."
He favors precision trolling deep weedlines with floating stickbaits and swimbaits for pre- and postspawn pike. "Trolling works great through the end of May," he says. "We'd do it longer if the vegetation didn't thicken up. Vegetation grows fast, and by the first week of June plants are almost to the surface. Topwaters and spinnerbaits produce fish through summer. The topwater bite is hard to beat for adrenaline rushes and some big fish. From late July into September, we catch 40- to 45-inchers on bass-sized buzzbaits and Bigtooth Klacks. As water cools below 60°F in fall, we switch to suspending jerkbaits and large swimbaits."
Keep these destinations and patterns in mind as you plan your 2018 pike expeditions. These U.S.-based pike hotspots and the tactics outlined here can produce outstanding adventures on drive-to waters a short cast from millions of pike fans.
*Dan Johnson, Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Jeff Andersen, Leisure Outdoor Adventures, 855/LOA-HOOK; Capt. Rich Clarke, SignMan Charters, 888/686-3041; Will Dykstra, Tightline Outdoors, 720/775-7770; Brent Kemnitz, MoPro Guide Service, 605/845-3668; Aaron McQuoid, McQuoid Outdoors, 701/351-6058; Capt. John Oravec, Troutman Charters, 585/590-2045; Dominic Ruis, Northern Limits Guide Service, 320/266-4514.