April 26, 2016
Spring is prime time for pike. The Prespawn and Postspawn periods offer excellent odds at catching giants, along with oodles of feisty fish from the teens down to snot-rocket proportions. From before ice-out until pike begin to disperse to their summer locations, a variety of timely patterns are effective.
In the early stages of the season, pike move into tributaries, bays, and connected sloughs, often while ice cloaks the main lake. As In-Fisherman has detailed over the past four decades on fisheries across the U.S. and Canada, pike spawn when water temperatures inch upward into the mid-40ºF range. Depending on the body of water and weather patterns, spawning may occur prior to or just after ice leaves the main lake.
Targeting pike in funnel areas that focus their movement boosts your odds for a hookup. Everything from major structure such as channel edges, points, and old weedlines to more subtle underwater guideposts like minor depth changes is worth checking.
While areas close to the main lake can be phenomenal at times, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange recommends checking spots farther inland as well. "Pike push in progressively farther, moving back into large bays and then into the smallest bays, backwaters, cuts, and creeks they can reach," he says.
On North Dakota's legendary Devils Lake, Guide Jason Feldner looks for areas where current enters the main lake, or flows through necked-down areas between large sloughs and bays. "Channels, coulees, feeder streams — wherever runoff from snowmelt moves into or through the system can be good spots," he says, noting that mid-April into May is prime time in a typical year there.
Prior to ice-out, Feldner fishes afoot, setting up around the edges of inflows. As the lake sheds its last ice, he often fishes from a boat, though shore-fishing remains an option. In either case, he leans on a potent one-two punch comprised of deadbait and casting tactics.
"Deadbait under a bobber produces plenty of pike in spring, including trophy fish," he says. His preferred rigging is simple yet deadly, and includes a 7-inch, unweighted, high-vis Little Joe Pole Float riding above a #6 treble hook on a 12-inch steel leader, with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce split shot pinched on the mainline just above the leader.
"I fish 10- to 12-inch smelt when I can find them, otherwise either smelt or herring in the 6- to 10-inch range work," he says. "To rig, remove the treble hook from the leader and shove the shank upward through baitfish's belly so the hook eye sticks out the back. Clip the leader back on and you're ready to fish. The nice thing about this setup is when you're done fishing, simply unclip the hook and place both hook and bait in a plastic bag and you can use it the next day."
He adjusts the bobber stop so the bait rides about 18 inches off bottom. "Cast the setup into slack water just out of the main current and let it sit," he says. When a pike takes the bait, freespool line until the bobber stops for a few seconds, then set the hook."
Two lines are legal where Feldner fishes, and he favors a casting approach with his second rod. "Slow-rolling a jig-and-swimbait combination on medium-heavy spinning gear is a great way to cover the water column and attract passing pike," he says. "I use a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Lindy Jig tipped with a 3½- to 5-inch YUM Money Minnow in bluegill or clown colors.
"Most of the time, slow and steady is best — just enough to get the bait's tail thumping," he says. "But sometimes pike like a moderate dart thrown in about every three cranks, so it pays to experiment. Not wild rip-jigging, just a little snap so the jig jumps forward 10 or 12 inches. Keep reeling while you do it, to limit slack."
After ice-out, he follows postspawn pike from current areas back into shallow, mud-bottom bays, particularly those rich in cattails, which he says warm faster. He methodically covers each section of the bay with his two-pronged casting and deadbait attack.
"The north end of a bay often heats up fastest, so I typically start there, in one to four feet of water," he says. "I idle quietly into the area I want to fish, lower my Minn Kota Talon shallow-water anchor, and let the area settle for about 10 minutes before I start casting."
On one line, he fishes the same deadbait-float rig he uses during the prespawn. On the other, he switches between swimbaits and hardbaits. Early in the day, before the sun's rays have a chance to heat up the water in bays, Feldner fishes a 3½-inch YUM Money Minnow on a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jighead, keeping the retrieve as slow as possible without the jig falling to bottom. As the water warms, he switches to a small, floating crankbait. "I like baits that have a lot of action, even on a slow retrieve," he says. One of his favorites is a 3¾-inch Lindy River Rocker in Perch or Black Shad, which he fishes anywhere from just beneath the surface to halfway down the water column.
With either presentation, he fancasts around the boat, then raises the Talon and moves just enough so his new cast perimeter slightly overlaps that of the previous anchor point. "It's not running and gunning," he says. "I might spend four hours or more fishing one 20-acre bay."
Feldner says that whenever two lines are an option, offering pike a choice between deadbait and casting tactics is ideal. "Some days deadbait outfishes lures 2-to-1, and some days it's the opposite," he says.
Veteran Guide Jon Thelen is no stranger to pursuing spring pike, particularly on Lake of the Woods and Mille Lacs. Rather than tempting lethargic fish with deadbait setups, he takes a more active approach whenever possible.
"Aggressive spinnerbait tactics are great when large postspawn pike feed heavily before abandoning the shallows for the season," says Thelen, who also traverses the Midwest filming Fish Ed television programming for Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle.
"Last spring, we shot a segment on Lake of the Woods that typifies this kind of action. Postspawn pike had moved back into the bays to rest and had just started feeding heavily before filtering off into the main lake. Throwing big spinnerbaits that create a lot of noise and flash helped us focus on the biggest pike while avoiding hammerhandles."
Keys to the pattern include making long casts with heavy baits like Lindy's 1-ounce M/G Muskie Tandem, which features #5 and #6 Colorado blades and measures 9½ inches long. "People are concerned about using small presentations for spring pike, but when the bigger fish are ready to eat, larger baits are just what the doctor ordered," he says. He prefers natural colors in clear conditions and brighter patterns when the water dirties due to spring rains. "For example, I fish gray-white and brown-gold Muskie Tandems in clear water and black-chartreuse or green-chartreuse in dirty water.
"Channel edges with vegetation — such as those near the mouth of Zippel Bay on the south end of Lake of the Woods — concentrate big pike, which patrol those edges looking for food. Making long casts parallel to the edge is the best way to intercept cruising fish.
"The retrieve is slow and steady, but I give the rod subtle pumps; nothing erratic until the water starts warming. Also keep in mind that casting an area thoroughly is important when the water is cold because pike aren't moving as much or as apt to chase as they are once the water warms."
Guide Jeff Andersen of Leisure Outdoor Adventures also factors spinnerbaits into his early-season pike plans. Like Thelen and Feldner, casting is a big part of his attack. "Casting rules when postspawn pike are in 2 to 3 feet of water in shallow bays, tributaries, and backwaters," he says, noting that he particularly likes BigTooth Tackle's Straight-Wire, a willowleaf wonder he tweaked and tinkered with for several seasons during the bait's development. "A wire runs through the body and keeps the two 9/0 hooks tracking true," he says. "Coupled with a short arm, it makes the bait virtually weedless, which is ideal in skinny water. It also has dual hooks to keep big pike on the line." Beefy softbait trailers like a 6-inch Kalin's Mogambo curlytail grub add bulk, action, and buoyancy.
Andersen spools an 8½-foot Abu Garcia muskie rod and low-profile Abu Garcia Revo reel with 50-pound Spiderwire Stealth braid and a 14-inch 100-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Casts are long and retrieves just fast enough to keep the spinnerbait from hitting bottom — although he doesn't shy away from cover. "Sometimes banging the bait into an old reed stem or woody cover triggers strikes," he says.
As postspawn pike move a bit deeper onto sprawling weedflats in 6 to 8 feet of water, Andersen adds jerkbaits such as a 6-inch Fudally Reef Hawg to his arsenal. "Some of spring's best pike fishing happens when outbound fish roam these expansive flats where we tip-up fish in the winter," he says. "Jerkbaits with a gentle side-to-side action on a slow, subsurface retrieve are killers then."
Andersen also trolls, pulling spinnerbaits like the Straight-Wire at speeds of 2.2 mph. "It's a simple yet effective way to cover big flats, and makes it easy for clients of all skill levels to catch fish," he says. "All they have to do is hold the rod. Sometimes pike prefer a straight troll, while other times pumping the rod puts more pike in the boat, so we experiment until the fish show us a preference for the conditions at hand."
I've long been a fan of small, slender spoons for early-season pike. Light-for-their-length spoons such as a Williams Wabler or Eppinger Flutter Chuck offer seductive wobble, flash, and flutter, and can be worked with a variety of theatrics. Spinnerbaits are deadly, too, and the past few seasons I've experimented with them for "after-hours" spring pike on pressured waters pounded hard by the panfish crowd during the day. While pike are considered daytime feeders, I've enjoyed stellar results from sunset through twilight throwing mid-sized baits like Booyah's Pond Magic and Moontalker around areas where crappie and bluegill fans cleaned house just a few hours earlier.
Classic areas such as shallow, fast-warming bays attract fish, with hot zones including points, weedlines, channel mouths or edges, and docks. Old lily pad beds often hold fish as well, with last season's upturned root systems being pike magnets. As darkness falls, depths of two feet or less often hold fish that were pushed out of the shallows by daytime fishing pressure.
Lakes where I've tapped this pattern lie within easy reach of central Minnesota anglers, and are hit hard by day. Whether similar bites erupt on untouched fisheries remains to be fully explored — although I have noticed a fine evening flurry on at least one small, lightly fished shallow lake in northeastern Minnesota. It averages just 6 feet deep and holds thick stands of cabbage and other vegetation, and can be tough during the day. About the time the sun nears the western treetops, however, pike that refused spinnerbaits early in the day turn on when baits are slow-rolled over weedtops and along edges, as well as helicoptered into open pockets within the canopy.
Collectively, such tactics provide a potent arsenal for taking spring pike from the opening bell until fish move off to their summer ranges.