July 11, 2011
By Matt Straw
Hard Bait Options For Pike
A cylinder of death glides over emerging grass to the edge of open water. Peripheral vision catches a flash of light. The long cylinder turns, leveling its malicious gaze. Nothing moves. It stalks closer. Flash. What's that? A silhouette. Interest piqued, it slips forward, letting water slide over, around, under its approach.
The silhouette hovers then turns, one way then the other, and stops. The approach is powerful and quick. In a flash of teeth, the water wolf slashes into the silhouette and it's déjÃ vu all over again: Ripped suspenders. Ripped Pike.
Suspending baits have the advantage of staying put, right in the wheelhouse of those Louisville sluggers with teeth. Suspenders can attract then sit and wait. If nothing responds, snap it again. It's a perfect approach for pike in cold water or any time pike rise up on structure — when skies are dark and waves roll the surface, after a front, or whenever schools of baitfish ride high.
Unlike so many crankbait styles, new suspenders keep appearing while the "old" ones stick around, making it hard to imagine a world without Rogues, Jerks, or Pointers. And it would be truly unimaginable to travel for pike without packing your suspenders. New and improved models create new wrinkles for tried-and-true techniques.
Get ripped often enough and you need new suspenders. Rapala is anxious to help. Mark Fisher, Rapala's hall-of-fame American publicist, knows how pike react to suspending baits. "Like most anglers on northern waters, I follow weedlines for bass, walleyes, and whatever's biting," he says. "Follow it long enough and the inevitable sand shark intercepts your offering. If it's a snot rocket, you retie with something less likely to attract another one. But big pike are different. You might catch one by accident, but pursuit tactics designed just for gators can create big-ticket entertainment on a lot of waters today. And few lures are better designed for pike than suspenders."
Fisher begins chasing pike as the ice recedes in spring. "The water's cool, but the air is warming," Fisher says. "Pike spawn when the ice is bad, and they come out of it hungry and baring their teeth. I look for dead pad fields and isolated weedbeds in muck-bottomed coves. Bays with inlets have the most cruisers — pike looking for anything attracted by the rapidly warming water you always find there. Pike suspended baits are a natural in that setup, hovering over the dead weeds and new growth just popping out of the muck."
Legendary pike angler Jack Penny likes suspenders early, too. "I primarily use suspenders in spring or after any extreme weather change all summer, whether it's a cold front or a hot one," he says. "Suspenders work anytime pike seem to be in a neutral to negative mood. Twitch it to within a few feet of a pike and just let it sit. It's great fun watching to see how long they can resist before attacking it. Eventually, almost all of them strike if you can wait them out. I normally use casting gear, but a stout spinning outfit works well."
Early on, work the bait slowly. In 42°F water, if pike are reacting to speedier items, throw a spoon. But chances are good that flash-and-hover tactics outperform most presentations. Pike stressed from overwinter survival and spawning need time to catch up to the thing. Suspenders wait them out. After snapping the rod tip down a couple times, inject a long pause and follow that with a slow, steady pull. Move the bait 2 feet at a time. Unless fishing heavy woodcover, I use 7- to 7 1„2-foot, medium-power, fast-action spinning sticks and fairly large reels spooled with 10- to 20-pound Berkley FireLine and a light steel leader. Even giant pike can't break that stuff in dead weeds or pads, and the lighter tackle casts farther, covering more water.
"In the warmer water of summer, big numbers of pike move to deeper water," Fisher adds. "But you can always find some big fish shallow, on isolated ambush spots. Check out those isolated rockpiles on otherwise featureless flats, current breaks near bridges or neck-down areas, and the tips of big shoreline points on the main lake. You can make contact with some big fish shallow in summer, but they're mostly sentry fish — loners. Numbers are hard to come by until conditions change."
During summer, look for the passage of fronts. When blue skies turn gray, the air cools, and the wind rises, bass and walleyes may turn off but pike rise from deeper haunts. Cooler air and cloud cover often invite northern baitfish species like ciscoes and smelt into the upper layers of the water column. Call it a rip tide. "When conditions change, deep pike rise up if baitfish are present," he says. "Those pike are extremely aggressive, climbing toward the light with one thing in mind: Dinner."
Rip away for summer pike. Point the rod tip down and walk the dog, adding a pause or two just to rattle any followers. New long-cast suspenders like the Rapala MaxRap 15, designed for distance and erratic action, are coverage tools. "Isolated ambush spots are best in summer," Fisher says. "Loners are pulling sentry duty on isolated rockpiles and along the tips of main-lake points. This isn't a numbers game until conditions change. When a front passes, keep small dogs and children out of the water.
"Big pike seem to be aggressive most of the time, yet do become neutral feeders," he says. "Not sure if they're off feed and territorial or just not hungry. Nonetheless, an inquisitive nature makes big pike show themselves. With suspenders, it's game on.
"You know by the direction of the cast and subsequent follow which direction they came from, and therefore what they came off. Work the spot meticulously with a suspender and she's yours. But don't crowd the spot. Keep the boat a cast length away, and position it so it can't drift over the key area while you're fighting one."
Pike that follow suspending baitfish in open water all summer can be approached with both shallow and deep-diving suspending baits. After locating a big school of ciscoes or smelt, match the diving capabilities of the lure to the depth of the fish. When bait is located 15 to 25 feet deep, use a deep-diver, like the Suspending Spoonbill Super Rogue or Rapala X-Rap Deep. Snap hard several times and pause. The flash brings deeper pike up for a look.
"Fall is my favorite time for big pike," Fisher says. "With the water cooling slowly, look for bait and current areas around necks or between islands. Pike cruise this time of year. They're in transition between summer and winter habitats, and they're making one last shallow binge. They're not guarding key spots, the way they do in summer. You're more likely to find groups because the big fish from open water and deep flats join in.
"I look at rockpiles, tips of points — places where shallows intersect deeper water, or where rocks appear. Big pike, as with other animals in nature, push smaller fish off and feed first and often in fall. Odds for tangling with a giant are very good.
"Big pike love slashbaits in fall," he adds. "I've had great success with the Rapala X-Rap 14, X-Rap Jointed Shad 13, and X-Rap Subwalk 15. The Subwalk is probably my favorite, but these three lures have distinct actions for triggering pike in any mood. The tight body roll of the X-Rap 14 can ignite cautious fish. The X-Rap Jointed Shad creates flash and clatter, drawing aggressive fish. And the Subwalk, with its underwater walk-the-dog action, casts spells on big fish right until the ramp freezes."
Some big pike gather near river and creek mouths in fall. Some stay put throughout winter, and many return after spawning in spring. Smaller suspending minnowbaits are better at slipping through the gentle current seams and over dying weeds in four feet of water. That's where Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows excel. These baits float slightly unless doctored. On the breaks between 6 and 10 feet, baits like Lucky Craft Pointer 100s and Rapala Husky Jerk HJ14s take over. The Lucky Craft Pointer 120 gets a little deeper, so start those out in 8-foot depths.
The Sebile Floating Koolie Minnow BRL isn't a true suspender, but it floats up slowly. With the slightest tension on the line it can maintain indefinite suspense. The seductive roll of the Koolie Minnow attracts big pike when other baits can't, and attracts at slow speeds in cold water as well as it does worked fast and erratically in summer. Liquid in the lure slows the rise, adds casting distance, and creates a unique rolling action.
Bigger baits score big in fall, as surviving baitfish are bigger. Pike are attracted to bigger meals in their effort to stock up, so big lures are a natural. As Fisher's admiration for the Subwalk suggests, another natural for autumn pike is a steady walk-the-dog action. The new Bomber Herky Jerky and Sebile Stick Shadd provide both — a bigger profile that walks (and hovers) underwater. The Stick Shadd has a smooth, slick action. It gets down several feet and stays put on the pause — a key trigger, and another way suspending baits add dimensions to traditional methods of catching pike.
Suspending minnowbaits work so well for pike that companies are making classic cranks and shad shapes into suspenders, too. The primary advantage of a suspender is how it imitates a troubled baitfish, throwing attracting flash in all directions, then maintaining that position, giving less aggressive, cold, or stressed pike time to react. "When pike want to look at a lure, you should have the option of letting them look," Fisher says. "The action of the lure moves fish and the suspension characteristics hold their attention, providing more time to trigger a strike. The critical aspect is the cadence you use to create that trigger. You control how the lure is manipulated.
"The colder the water, the slower the retrieve and the longer the pause," he says. "If slow doesn't work, aggravate 'em by shortening the pause. Often, the big strike comes with the first move the lure makes after a pause. Once a pike shows itself, you're in the driver's seat because you can leave that suspender in its face until you find the trigger."
Sometimes a twitch is better than a rip, and small is better than big. Suspenders stretch your presentation time. Play with them long enough and pike rip your suspenders every day of the open-water season.
Matt Straw, In-Fisherman Field Editor, lives in Brainerd, Minnesota.