They say that time flies when you're having fun. Looking back, it's hard to believe I've spent nearly 40 years chasing the biggest pike in North America. It sure has been a boatload of fun. This quest dates to the 1950s when I caught my first pike while fishing with my Dad.
By the mid-1970s, it had become an obsession that will last until my final day. I was raised in outdoor traditions and while I loved hunting, fishing was my passion. Seeing photos of huge pike in magazines, I knew I wanted to be part of that action.
The Old Days
I was fortunate to start pike fishing when I did. The North hadn't been completely explored yet and there were many untouched waters waiting for adventurous anglers to test them. New camps were opening almost yearly and with them came opportunities to fish virgin waters. But I was new to this and didn't know how to find these pristine waters or even that they existed.
I started to meet other traveling anglers who helped tremendously, especially the senior members of this pike fraternity who had been discovering new waters for many years. Peter Graff, Mike Ellis, and Bill Tenney had ridden the crest of the wave into new territories and sampled pike fishing at its finest. I loved listening to their stories of successes and failures.
Sadly, most of these masters have passed on, but a few are still chasing their favorite quarry. In 2012, I had the pleasure to spend time in the Northwest Territories with Graff, who at 85 is still scrambling across portages and catching giant pike with the best of them. He's one of the Grand Masters of North American pike fishing and I plan to fish with him again in 2013.
Traveling north to fish for giant pike, my wife Mary and I have visited many camps of all kinds. We've gone from building a lean-to and sleeping on the ground to color-coordinated towels every day. It never mattered how rough or how luxurious fishing camps were. We went for the fishing.
I'm often asked where to go and how to find these places. My responses often involve budget and expectations. What's affordable for some is out of the question for others. And what do you want or expect out of a trip? Are you eager to catch lots of fish or are you after a true trophy? Do you want to catch other species?
Back in the mid-1970s, I was with a group of guys hauling boats up to Kississing Lake in Manitoba. We stopped for gas outside Winnipeg and I noticed a photo of a guy hoisting a big catfish. The kid working there told me it was the owner of the station and he fished the Red River. It was just 5 miles away and full of huge catfish. The next year on the way back to Kississing, I took extra days to explore this river and could not believe the channel catfish there. The evening of my second day, I got a visit from a guy who ran a boat rental on the river who asked if he could go with me the next day. Our conversation in the boat the next day led to my first fly-in for pike, a great adventure in Manitoba.
Soon after, Mary and I tied the knot. This didn't hamper my fishing, it enhanced it. She became as focused on big pike as I was. We loved going to sports shows and talking to the outfitters and developed a system for grading camps. After talking with an outfitter, we'd take a brochure and mark it with a star. The higher our interest, the more stars they received. Back home we'd have a bag of brochures to go over. If they didn't rank high enough, they got pitched. Others were saved for future scrutiny.
The Modern Era
While we gathered great information at the shows, I knew there had to be more definitive information on where big pike were being caught. I joined the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and the International Game Fish Association to get copies of their annual record books. These publications provide lists showing where and when big fish were caught. We found the best list in the pages of In-Fisherman. Each issue contains an Adventures column with travel tips from staff members. And the annual Master Angler Awards list revealed not only where and when the biggest fish were caught across the continent, but also noted lure selection and moon phase.
During the 1980s, while going through the In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards and the record books, a couple of names kept popping up. Dan Holloway of Indiana had set several records. Not shy, I called information and got his telephone number. After a series of conversations, Mr. Holloway invited me to fish deadbait with him at his favorite lake, Nun- gesser in Northwest Ontario. Dan and I became good friends and the fishing was so good that I fished ice-out pike there for the next 15 years.
That wasn't the only opportunity I got from reading In-Fisherman. The magazine would annually print a big pike list provided by a reader named Bill Tenney. He was a pike pioneer, fanatic, and explorer who fished all over the world. I called Mr. Tenney, who led me to a boatload of big pike, several great fishing trips, and a friendship that lasted until Bill's last day.
Mary and I also monitored Manitoba's Master Angler award program, administered by Travel Manitoba, which lists locations and dates of thousands of pike catches of 41 inches or more. It's an excellent source of information for those planning a trip for trophy pike, travelmanitoba.com, 800/665-0040.
I've also found airports a great source of information. Canada's few major ones serve as hubs for flights to remote points farther north. Winnipeg and Edmonton are two I've used the most. The numbers of anglers passing through is staggering — a lot of information for enquiring minds. If I spotted anyone else with a rod tube, I tried to strike up a conversation. Hang around the "oversized baggage" area and chat. Most anglers love to gab, either about their latest trip or what they hope to find on this adventure. My inquisitiveness has led to several lasting friendships.
Another great airport connection is bush pilots. Without a doubt, they're one of the finest sources of information. They work out of floatplane bases and know the country better than anyone else. They hear fishermen's stories and know where the best catches are made.
Years ago, it was possible to fly into a lake with a canoe or an inflatable boat strapped on a pontoon and explore on your own. We experienced this several times. There's a lot of satisfaction from investigating, finding, and exploring unknown lakes. But it's not always a bonanza from a fishing perspective. A satellite phone is a good idea.
Today, several provinces have mandated that a guide or outfitter accompany anyone going into the bush. But going on your own is still possible in certain areas. Ivan Bourque of Loon Air in the Northwest Territories (867/872-8191) informed me that new regulations restrict what can be attached to floats on a plane, but that fold-up boats and inflatables fit inside a floatplane and can be flown to remote locations without a guide or outfitter. These watercraft may be available for rent. Check provincial regulations for limitations on travel.
The bush pilot connection remains valuable. If it happens in the wilderness, bush pilots know about it. Over the years, I've contacted float-plane bases at Stoney Rapids and Points North in Saskatchewan, at Loon Air, Air Tindi, and Northwestern Air in the Northwest Territories, and float-plane bases in Thompson, Manitoba, and Red Lake, Ontario. Usually, a phone call can connect you to a pilot.
Most of the areas south of the 60th parallel have been explored and charted and few new camps are opening. Fishing pressure has taken its toll on many waters. Catch-and-release regulations have helped and camps with them are the only ones to consider. That doesn't mean all the good spots are gone or that big pike are rare. It just means that the chances of fishing virgin waters are slim.
Today, opportunities exist to fish old waters that fish like new ones. During the recent economic downturn, many camps closed. Some of them are now being bought or reopened, many after several years of inactivity. Such a hiatus gives pike populations a chance to rebound, sometimes with fishing nearly as good as it ever was. Sport shows, internet searches, and provincial ministries of natural resources can reveal these opportunities.
The amount of pike information on the Internet is mind boggling, though it takes a critical eye to discern value. Organizations and clubs, many overseas, are devoted to pike and offer newsletters or host forums. Publications like Pikelines (The Pike Anglers Club of Great Britain), or those of The Irish Pike Society, Esox Ecosse (The Pike Anglers Alliance of Scotland), and Esoxhunter in Denmark are dedicated to the pursuit of pike They reveal top waters in Europe, where the world's largest pike dwell.
Fantastic catches can still be made. As in the past, finding the highest percentage locations means doing your homework.
*Jack Penny, Newton, Iowa, is a book author and freelance writer specializing in pike fishing. Read more at jackpennyoutdoors.com.