November 16, 2017
By Matt Straw
Steadily retrieving, watching the cabbage tops slip past as we drifted, I looked for my approaching lure and there it was. Getting ripped. The monster appeared from nowhere and disappeared just as quickly.
She was the biggest pike caught that week at Makoop Lake Lodge, on the final full day of fishing last summer. And she represented final testimony to a direction in pike-fishing tactics witnessed over the past 7 or 8 years. She snarfed a #5 Mepps Double-Blade Aglia fished on medium-heavy spinning gear. Similar small bucktails and undressed spinners with #4 or #5 blades have, over that period of time, boated more and bigger pike than any other tactic (with the possible exception of a black bunny-strip fly) at Great Slave, Misaw, Wollaston, Rainy, and now Makoop.
But final verification of the trend came not from the numbers or size of pike caught, but by the lack of success for my partner at Makoop. He makes spinners for a living and fishes spinners for everything. He's probably a better spinner jockey than I am. But he failed to bring any with blades smaller than a #7. I offered him a Mepps Double-Blade Aglia every day, but — true to the tendencies of most lure makers — he wanted to catch "the big one" on one of his own creations. So he watched me catch more pike over 40 inches than anybody in camp when half of them likely could have been his.
Timing And Location
Trends involving timing, location, and isolated cover recently surfaced in the fishy mind of In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer. "The biggest trend I've adopted lately is fishing more in the middle of summer for the biggest pike," Pyzer says. "A buddy and I went to northern Saskatchewan's Reindeer Lake during the last week of August a couple of years ago and the lodge owner couldn't believe we wanted to come at that time. But we landed the largest pike caught by any guest at the lodge all year and two or three others that would have been in the top-10. It was all based on our decision to fish later, rather than earlier in the season."
"Early spring is fine, but you can have too much of a good thing," Pyzer says. "The water looks ideal with massive fields of cabbage. But that vegetation spreads the fish out too much, forcing you to sift through many options. My friend, Dr. John Casselman, headed our Aquatic Research section here in Ontario. He wrote the book on pike/muskie behavior and calls pike 'heat seeking missiles' that search for areas where the water temperature is optimal for growth. For young pike that's 68ËšF to 72ËšF, but for older and bigger pike, it's 62ËšF to 64ËšF.
"So big and little pike segregate in summer. When we fished Reindeer, we couldn't get the guide to stop taking us to the shallow weedy bays that were loaded with 'nice' 15- to 18-pound pike — the kind of spots everyone picks. Finally, I told our guide to humor me and take us to the deepest, most isolated cabbage patches facing the main basin that he knew about.
"Buddy Mark caught the biggest pike of the year on his first cast to the spot. The rest of the time we enjoyed the best day of pike fishing I've experienced. We were using silver-gold Williams C90 HN Whitefish spoons, dressed with a white, 6-inch, curlytail grub. We guessed the lures looked like ciscoes coming in from the main lake. The cabbage patch we were fishing consisted of maybe 50 lush, scattered stalks of cabbage covering an area smaller than our boat.
"We landed seven trophies of a lifetime in less than 30 minutes, from that spot," Pyzer adds. "The plants were growing in deeper, cooler water, at the mouth of a shallow bay that faced the main lake. Give me the heat of summer for trophy pike any day."
In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt looks for open-water pike in the pressured lower 48. "In mesotrophic lakes in the Upper Midwest, pelagic pike remain underfished," Schmidt says. "You can troll and mark hooks in deep water and drop lures vertically in any lake where you mark suspended baitfish. It might be ciscoes in deeper basins, 70 feet and deeper, from May through early October. Or it could be sunfish in shallower lakes with basins less than 40 feet deep. This becomes almost the only viable pattern for big fish in summer because so many of these shallow lakes become overrun with milfoil, coontail, and pondweeds. You can fish edges for small fish, but if you move out into the basin and troll 5- to 8-inch minnowbaits, you often score 5- to 10-pounders or even bigger fish, while the weededges hold only hammer handles."
"Two presentations continue to produce nice pike for me," Schmidt continues, "open-water trolling and casting or bombing large articulated swimbaits. When bombing open-water pike, don't use jigging spoons or Jigging Rap-style lures. They work for walleyes, but pike are much more attracted to big rubber baits — smaller Medussas, Bondy Royal Orbas, and occasionally big Red October tubes have worked for me. It's good if the lure has a blade on it. The Baby Beaver with an added blade is another sweet bait — works horizontally and vertically."
On the Canadian Shield, September is "swimbait time," Schmidt says. "On Lake of the Woods, when the muskie bite dies in early to mid-September, big pike move shallow and start chewing on big rubber swimbaits. I've always liked Castaic's Catch 22 and 8-inch Boot Tail. But many lures work. Sebile's Magic Swimmer is excellent. The All-American Trash Fish is also an amazing bait — it catches everything."
Doug Stange, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief, also has found Magic Swimmers effective lately. "On my trip to Trout Rock Lodge on Great Slave Lake in mid-July, my best lure was an 8-inch Sebile Magic Swimmer Soft rigged on a 9/0 weighted swimbait hook, slowly grinding it through vegetation. My second best lure was a deconstructed Mepps Giant Killer with a #5 Indiana blade modified by removing the treble hook in favor of a 7/0 weighted swimbait hook with a 5-inch or 6-inch swimbait body rigged texposed with the swimbait rigged flat. The best I saw other folks doing was with a big Johnson Silver Minnow."
Jigging Raps may not excel in open water, but don't tell famous walleye pro Mark Martin they don't catch pike. "On Michigan's inland lakes, we can't keep pike off a big Rapala Snap Rap," Martin says. "We rip Snap Raps just off bottom, let them drop, and repeat — they catch everything. Sometimes you have to go back and analyze the situation with sonar. For pike, you want to stay near the sharpest breaks. Keep the lure no more than two feet above bottom at the end of the drop. Sometimes they want it a little faster or a little slower."
The problem is, pike eat Snap Raps like gumdrops. I hate using leaders, so we lose a lot of lures. With thin wire leaders, the catch rate drops to nothing. When we target pike, a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader might work better than wire. In the Houghton area last summer, we popped two pike over 40 inches and numerous fish between 38 and 40 inches with Snap Raps. We often 'snap-troll,' keeping the presentation at a 45-degree angle while pulling livebait rigs at the same time. We catch more pike with Snap Raps than with livebait some days."
Martin uses a 7-foot medium-heavy spinning rod with an extra-fast tip. Anything with some whip to it and you miss fish," he claims. "You can cast it across the lake with 6-pound
Berkley FireLine — the thinner the better. The fluoro leader adds stiffness that prevents tangling. Merely pick it up and drop it back. Every day is different, but you rarely need to hit bottom on every drop or even half the time. I snap it up two feet and let it fall on a semi-slack line. If anything feels different, set the hook as it could be a pike. Or a walleye, bass — who knows?"
Famous pike adventurer and In-Fisherman correspondent Jack Penny says, "I've noticed a trend in downsizing in a specific situation. During the last several years I've found inactive pike lying directly on bottom in summer. The only way to catch them is to put something in front of their face. I first noticed it in a river in the Far North, but since then I've seen the same thing at Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan and another large lake in the Northwest Territories. Pike lying on bottom won't chase or show any interest in anything moving. The lake I mentioned is clear. I could see huge pike lying on the bottom. I tried everything in the box to no avail, so I pulled out my smallest lure, a 4-inch, 1/4-ounce bunny jig. That was the ticket. I had to inch it up to the pike's face and let it sit. After a while the pike opened its mouth and sucked it in. Other than opening its mouth, the fish never moved an inch until I set the hook.
"A year later, at Athabasca, the wind was howling all day for weeks," Penny says. "The water was roiled up and visibility was zero. We came across a spot where a river ran into the lake and we found pike in the channel created by the river. They wouldn't chase anything so I tried my new trick and started crawling a hair jig across bottom. Pretty soon I felt a small nip and set the hook. It was a good one and we caught several in that fashion. I suspect these fish were staging before the dinner bell rang or had just eaten and were digesting, but who knows? The fish were there and it took downsizing to get a bite."
Penny gained new respect for another pike lure that efficiently deals with locational trends he identified years ago. "In late fall, whitefish move up rivers on their annual spawning run," he says. "They stage around rocks below rapids and some of my biggest pike come from these spots each year. These fish are active and several lures can work, but my favorite in this situation is a spinnerbait, specifically a Shumway Hot Head. It has a wire arm that helps it bounce off rocks so it gets snagged much less than a spinnerbait with wire arm set in the head. I fish these lures on a 7½-foot, rod with an Abu Garcia 6500 reel and Cortland braided line. The stiffer rod and braided line give me a better feel for the blade turning and hook-sets are great with the no-stretch line. I've found river pike lying on the bottom in holes, troughs, and eddy areas. Whitefish often run up a river until they can go no further. I use Hotheads below the falls and rapids in the rocky stuff."
Guide Bret Alexander discovered a deadbait trend on his home area of Green Bay. "On tip-ups, all I use now is deadbait," he says. "We hook 'em through the back and suspend them about a foot under the ice. That deadbait scent carries near river mouths and creeks. It works all winter, but especially from the end of February until ice-out. Smelt and small whitefish are my favorites. When we watched whitefish on camera biting our swivels, we switched to drop-shot rigs with waxworms to catch them. Drop a bell sinker on bottom and the plume of silt and sound attracts whitefish. Pike crave them. No added scent or color, I wrap them in Saran Wrap and freeze them."
To downsize as Penny describes requires a different rod and reel. Casting a 1/4-ounce hair jig to hook and land 20-pounders requires a special rod. To cast light swimbaits, swim jigs, hair jigs, small bucktails, and weightless plastics, I've depended on a 7-foot 6-inch, fast-action, medium-power Abu Garcia Volatile (VOLS76-5) spinning rod coupled with an Abu Garcia Soron STX 60 reel. I spool with 30-pound Seaguar Smackdown (a smooth 8-carrier braid).
Alexander and his clients ice-fish for pike on Green Bay with 30-pound Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon quick-strike rigs he ties himself. "In super-clear water, pike shy from line any heavier than that," Alexander says. "I can't even get as many bites on 40-pound fluorocarbon, much less wire. We can land every fish if we take our time."
I even use spinning gear with heavier pike lures, l like the Jensen Jigs Double Vibrovictim. (Clatterbaits are huge for active pike hovering in cabbage tops during stable weather.) For even heavier lures, I've been using an 8-foot, heavy-power St. Croix Tidemaster (TIS80HF) rod with a huge Okuma Rex-Arena TXA-60 spooled with 40-pound Smackdown.
In general, the U.S. fishing industry seems reluctant to introduce pike lures. Anglers often use small muskie lures or large bass lures. We use heavy bass and light muskie rods, reels, and line and they work well overall. On the lure scene, check out big, lifelike lures from Savage Gear and Westin, companies in Scandinavian countries with a lot of interest in pike fishing. Savage Gear lures are available here at savagegear-usa.com. Westin's company website is westin-fishing.com, but in the U.S. they're available only through wholesaler Big Rock Sports, bigrocksports.com.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid pike angler, fishing close to home and across their range in Canada.