Pike Packs Herd Panfish

Shoggie (guide Dave Shogren-218/765-3197) and I spent the early part of the week chasing panfish so we could find pike. The weather was strange (what else is new?) Note the rain drops on the lens, and the tilted horizon as a result. Can't keep a good camera out in the rain any longer than absolutely necessary.

That's right — finding panfish to find pike. Not an unusual dynamic. Fishing literature often portrays pike as sucker snarfers. Cisco grabbers. Whitefish whackers. Smelt snackers. Rarely as what they most often are in small systems: Panfish crunchers. Often these lakes have no pelagic species to speak of, and panfish become item #1 on the menus of not only pike, but walleyes, bass, and other predators in the lake.

Pike track big schools of perch in small lakes, too — often herding them around like sheep. In small lakes, I want to find the heaviest concentrations of panfish. That's where we started laying trap lines this week.

Whether it's crappies, bluegills, or perch, find a big concentration and pike won't be far away. In Michigan we never took sucker minnows out in the ice. Once I found a series of holes where panfish kept circling through no matter how many we caught, we started setting tip-ups. It's legal in Michigan (and most states) to use panfish for bait on tip-ups. And, if you don't exceed your limit, why not? Minnesota's law restricting the use of panfish on tip-ups is counterproductive. The DNR wants us to dump unused livebait on the ground (a colossal waste of forage from our living systems), afraid we'll transport diseases or zebra mussels from one system to the next. Use part of your catch as bait and there's no danger of spreading anything. Whereas, bringing bait to the lake always carries the threat of spreading something.

"The state says bait collectors can't seine waters with zebra mussels," Shoggie says. "But they allow us to seine minnows from connected waters. Without a doubt, bait collection is spreading zebra mussels."

Where panfish are legal baits for pike, I cut off their dorsals and other spiny fins. And I cut off their tails, otherwise the flag is constantly up. A healthy bluegill or crappie will trip your tip-up a lot unless wounded. Perch aren't quite as pesky, but much more so than a sucker. It's amazing how rarely a big, energetic sucker trips the flag in most conditions. When they do, cut off part of the tail. And if they trip it again, off with the rest of that tail.

Fishing lakes within a few miles of where we live, we had to use decoy suckers, of course (not cheap, at $1.25 apiece). Small suckers can work just as well for big fish, but interest too many 2- to 4-pound hammer handles. A decoy minnow discourages most of the smaller pike (though I did drag in a 5-pounder that hit the biggest sucker we had in the bucket, so using bigger suckers isn't 100% effective).

If we're keeping panfish anyway, why shouldn't we be allowed to use part of our legal limit as bait? It makes sense in so many ways. (For one thing, I wouldn't have to break my back lugging 100-pound buckets full of water and suckers around any more. More importantly, we wouldn't be forced to dump expensive baits on the ground — baits providing a much better service to our waters when left right there — in our waters.) Where it's legal, a 6- to 8-inch bluegill or crappie is optimum. Perch can be a little longer.

More on pike fishing small lakes a little later on today....

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