September 20, 2017
Pick a softbait. Anything 3 to 10 inches long will do. Put it on a single hook or jig with a gap big enough to bite back. Toss it out and pike shred it. Pike shred anything moving that fits in their gaping jaws.
So why be fussy? Because pike hit some baits more often than others. And some can boat a dozen pike before being shredded beyond all functional capacity. And because the biggest pike in the lake can be as fussy as I am.
I like pike. I don't wait for those long-anticipated fly-in trips to Canada to hunt them. My backyard in central Minnesota has surprising numbers of pike in the mid-30- to low-40-inch range. And, as the article in this issue on Great Lakes pike points out, giants are showing up with increasing regularity in areas not as far from home as Great Slave, Athabasca, or Reindeer lakes.
It seems the closer to home we stay, though, the fussier pike get. Things like realism, subtle colors, fluorocarbon, and attention to detail become more critical. The more angling pressure pike experience, the more important these factors become, which remains true no matter how far north you fly these days. Softbaits have become increasingly important to carry to the wilderness because everybody releases trophies at those lodges these days. Pressure can be intense, trophy populations are relatively small, and pike live longer and see more lures than ever. So when fishing gets tough, or I see a monster follow without striking, I typically set hardbaits aside.
What could be more flexible than an articulated softbait? As if soft wasn't enough, the Sebile Magic Swimmer Soft has a segmented body. In each pack, you find a special weighted hook. Weights can be added or subtracted for conditions. They slide toward the eye to create a weight-forward look; or rearward for a stern-weighted effect. Or fish it weightless, thread it onto a jig, drop-shot it, or work it on a Carolina rig. It's like 10 lures in one because each application creates new actions. Swimming it steadily creates the most lifelike soft-plastic presentation. But stop it and it pivots. Snap it and it spins 180 degrees. Triggering actions are limitless. When pike demand realism, the Magic Swimmer Soft is as real as it gets.
Another segmented winner is the Castaic Catch 22 Bluegill. I think of major summer pike patterns as the Big 3. Some stay in shallow weeds, some suspend with schools of pelagic baitfish, and some hover around deep structure. Panfish drive pattern #1 in most lakes. Weed pike generally are pursuing panfish, and nothing offers a more realistic representation of a bluegill than the Catch 22. Simply swim it along, over, and around vegetation, looking for pockets and alleys with polarized glasses.
Number three on my articulated hit list is Storm's Live Kickin' Minnow. Ciscoes and smelt often drive the open-water pike pattern, and the Kickin' Minnow has the long body, big eyes, and profile of those forage species. Troll it or cast, count it down, and swim it along just under a massive school of bait you've marked on sonar. When paused, the Kickin' Minnow falls in a tantalizing death spiral on a semi-taught line. Strap yourself to the boat before you twitch it once. In extra-clear water, I sometimes switch to a Berkley Havoc Sick Fish on a 3/8-ounce head.
For fishing deep structure, we've previously talked about 1- to 2-ounce jigs tipped with baits like Lunker City Fin-S Fish, Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shads, or old Mann's Jelly Hoos that flapped and waved but didn't auger or twist to slow the drop into the depths (as much as 25 to 60 feet down). Lately we've been using something from the other end of the flexibility spectrum — Bondy Baits. I fish them the same way on deep structure: Let it hit bottom and rip it 6 feet up. Let it hit bottom again and repeat, leaving a puffy trail of sediment. Or just swim it along bottom. It's heavy and drops fast.
"That's where I use a heavy-power rod with single-strand leaders," says famous pike hunter Jack Penny. "The Bondy Bait glides a bit. I was introduced to it by Mark McCauley who helped Jon Bondy develop it. He's a fish-catching machine. In five days, my wife Mary, McCauley, and I caught 60 over 20 pounds and McCauley caught 35 of them. He's magic with a Bondy Bait. In the falls in fast water, he snapjigged it 4 to 5 feet up and kept it on a tight line on the drop back. I tried it and it works. You can drift and jig them in fast water and find fish hiding in the voids behind ledges, even in the fastest water. He attacks fast water and jigs the Bondy. You would have been impressed. A slab of plastic with single spinner on the back, how does it catch fish like it does? I don't know why, but man does it catch fish."
Hollow swimbaits, fished on a heavy jig, have a lot of realistic flex. I like the Strike King Shadalicious. Penny likes hollow swimbaits, too. "Rig it right and it's the best thing going in thick weeds," he says. "I rig hollow bodies with a weighted swimbait hook with a centering spring, like the Owner Beast Hook. I love those things. I slice the belly open on the bait so the hook only has to go through one layer of plastic. Seems to hook 'em a lot better. I rig them straight, with the hook coming out of the middle of the back, with 8.5-foot rod and coated 7-strand leaders tied directly to the hook. A lot of companies make them. Anything in the 6-inch range catches big pike."
Eels don't need articulation to produce big flash with plenty of flexibility. Swim a Savage Gear Real Eel or Berkley Gulp! Eel at a steady pace and the waving action of that long, thin tail is incredible. It almost resembles the flash of a spoon. I often run an eel onto a 7/0 straight-shank hook, leaving the point exposed, and allow it to flutter down to the bottom. Twitch it and it rises and swims, then twists on the drop. Fished in that manner, eels are great when pike invade shallow bays in spring, and way up north where many lunkers remain shallow all summer.
"Don't forget the DeLong Eel," Penny reminds me. "It's molded onto a harness. Great lure and it's pretty durable. Give it a twitch-and-glide retrieve around vegetation, especially over the tops of stalks. I rig it on single-strand wire and let it glide down and twitch it back up. It's not as wild as a Slug-Go, which goes in every direction. It glides side-to-side, but not in a steady rhythm. It's hard to describe, but highly effective."
No jig swims and glides like a Bait Rigs Cobra Head. Rig a Gulp! Alive! Eel or Jerk Shad on it sideways and watch it circle and sail on the drop. I often rig them on 5/0 Owner Straight Worm Wide Gap Hooks with the point exposed, too. Cast it over a weedbed and let it glide over and through the stalks with an occasional twitch. At times it takes big pike that even ignore livebaits and deadbaits.
Take a heavy jig and a 6- to 8-inch grub or soft swimbait like the Kalin's Mogambo, Keitech Swing Impact, or Berkley PowerBait Rib Shad. Cast it a mile on a medium-heavy 7.5-foot spinning rod with 30- to 40-pound braid, let it drop halfway down in the water column. Then drop the rod tip and reel. Just reel. Don't hop it, pop it, snap it, rip it, or jig it. I call it a "spinnerbait surrogate." Pike vacuum these big grubs on a steady retrieve.
"Grubs can be rigged on a jig or weighted swimbait hook," Penny says. "But my favorite application is on Shumway's Hot Head Spinnerbait. It's a jighead with a spinnerbait arm you clip on with a #8 Colorado blade. It's more flexible than a spinnerbait with the wire running into the head. I've caught some giant pike on it. I pitch and reel. Nothing fancy. I let it fall into the rocks a bit."
In Lower 48 waters where fishing pressure it higher, swimming a grub or boot-tail swimbait with no blade can be a key presentation. Pike have a range of triggering speeds wider than most — almost as wide as steelhead. On tough days, it's one of our go-to rigs. But other things appeal to pike on slow days, too. The 6-inch Trigger X Big Moe fishes like something far larger. The action tail is so thick and wide it wags the dog unless you weight it with at least a 3/8-ounce head. Rig it Carolina style with a 2-foot leader for pike on deep structure on days where they refuse to chase. Or swim and twitch it over weedbeds on a jig.
Penny, though, prefers a pink, Bass Pro Shops 7-inch lizard on a jighead. "I've caught fish on white and other colors, but pink offers the most leisurely way to catch big pike with artificials I know," he says. "I look for a cabbage bed with wind blowing into it and pitch the lizard 15 feet. I drift with the boat. I tie wire directly to the eye of a Jack's Jigs 1/4-ounce Pyramid Jig. It has just enough weight to sink a little. If the wind's blowing, I switch to a 3/8-ounce Pyramid Jig."
The first time I used a 9-inch Lunker City Slug-Go for big pike, I dumped the first few fish because I used the big offset-shank hook in the package. Even with heavy braided line and a heavy-action rod, and even when gators ripped it right at boatside, the best hook-set I could manage failed because they ball the big bait up in their mouths, forcing the hook point to travel through too much plastic. Ever since then, I've rigged Slug-Gos, YUM Dingers, and Bass Assassin Fat Jobs on straight-shank 3/0 (6-inch version) to 8/0 (9-inch version) Gamakatsu Spinnerbait Hooks, Owner Straight Worm Hooks, or Eagle Claw 084s with the point exposed. After fronts, pike sometimes prefer smaller versions gliding slowly along with the occasional low-energy twitch. With an exposed hook you have to rip it through weeds, which can trigger violent strikes.
"I think I catch more big fish with the 6-incher than the 9-incher," Penny says. "You can Texas-rig it on a wide-gap worm hook and get a solid hook-set. I skin-hook it so I can twitch it though vegetation. But I also rig it wacky-style. I go through the flat side with a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce ballhead jig. Try it with the Bass Assassin Fat Job, too. Let it fall, then twitch it 3 to 5 times and let it fall back down."
I have saved the best for last: Overall, the most effective plastic presentation I've found under most conditions, in Canada or the Lower 48, is a solid-body, soft swimbait on a jig. The Lunker City Salt Shaker on a 3/8-ounce Lunker City Fin-S Head doesn't necessarily catch fish better than a Berkley Flatback Shad or a Big Hammer, but it's a little more durable. It produces more fish per bait and allows me to keep fishing a little longer with each bait during a hot bite. But when pike are finicky, the Flatback Shad's flavor can mean a few more rips each day.
It's hard to fish one wrong. Swim it on a steady retrieve; let it fall to the bottom and snap jig it back to the boat; combine the two; slowly accelerate it all the way back; stop it and snap it; pump it; fish it fast or really slow — the triggering range is limited only by your imagination. By starting the day with a soft swimmer on a jig, you can decipher what speeds and actions pike prefer before moving on to something better designed to accomplish that kind of maneuver.
"I like the Big Hammer and Lunker City Salt Shakers with an Owner jig," Penny says. "I line them up, bringing the hook point out so the bait is perfectly straight, using 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jigs most of the time. I swim them fast around rocks, just reeling it in with a twitch or two. Pay attention. Pike tell you what speed is best. I fish the Big Hammer differently. It has a flat, rectangular tail and I rig them sideways about half the time. Sideways, I can skin hook the point so it comes through vegetation. I fish them around rocks a lot but they're great in weeds, too. Rigged sideways, it drifts when it falls if you reel it for a while and stop."
Pick a softbait. Anything in the bargain bin. Put a hook in it and toss it into pikey waters. It will get shredded eventually. The key then becomes getting shredded more often, and by bigger, pickier, pikier specimens.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid pike angler, fishing them near home and across the continent.