Buck Perry is a pioneer of modern structure fishing. Among his most basic teachings is the need to control speed and depth to successfully map bottom structure and catch fish. To do so effectively, he fashioned his own Spoonplug lures.
If you’re not familiar with Spoonplugs, they’re a hybrid lure of sorts. They combine spoon and plug (crankbait) to create a lure that dives to a prescribed depth at a range of speeds. Perry’s philosophy was to quickly cover as much deep water as possible (where he asserted trophy fish spent most of their time) and thereby draw strikes from fish situated along key structural elements. As such, the Spoonplug was one part bottom-contour detecting device and one part fish-catching tool.
With the sophistication of today’s fishing electronics, the relevance of the Spoonplug’s “lake-mapping” function has been diminished. Perry’s fundamental teachings of speed and depth control, however, remain paramount for today’s those. For anglers focused on catching quality pike, success comes from identifying the location and depth at which they’re holding and then properly presenting baits to them at the correct speed to trigger strikes.
Speed and depth preferences of pike vary throughout the year. The key becomes knowing how and when to adjust presentations to appeal to pike no matter the conditions. During early spring, the depth factor is narrowed to a limited range as pike are primarily in shallow water. They’re either anticipating the spawn, spawning, or recovering from it.
While pike are concentrated this time of year, they can also be frustratingly fickle. In depths of just a few feet, they have distinct preferences of either wanting a bait deadsticked on the bottom, slowly dragged past them, worked suspended in front of their face, or burned on the surface over them. The importance of speed and depth control becomes amplified. Mere inches in lure placement can mean the difference between success and failure.
Although lure placement must be precise, the advantage of fishing shallow water is that individual pike can be sight-fished—identifying a target fish, presenting a lure to it, and then watching how it reacts to the lure. Presentations can then be adjusted based on the fish’s reaction. To avoid spooking shallow pike, use the slowest, most subtle and deepest presentation for starters.
An 8-inch PowerBait Power Lizard rigged on a 1/2-ounce Bait Rigs Esox Cobra jighead in Glow Fire Tiger is a great first choice for wary pike. Lay this bait several feet in front of a pike and slightly twitch the line to get the legs of the bait quivering. Slowly drag the bait across the bottom or give it short hops to get it thumping bottom and creating a debris cloud. Bright-colored jigheads allow for easier viewing, even in slightly stained or choppy conditions.
Pike often approach deadsticked baits in slow motion. They seem to study a motionless bait. At times, a slightly more erratic action or one big hop triggers them into biting. Other times, any abrupt movement spooks them and agonizingly long pauses are required. Scented baits have an added triggering effect with this technique.
When pike refuse to inspect and scoop up a bait on bottom, try meeting them at eye level. Suspending and slow-sinking baits like a 6- to 7-inch soft-plastic jerk shad or swimbait have appeal in these settings. Again, the name of the game is to sight-fish shallow pike by starting with a slow presentation and speeding up from there. If pike respond more positively to baits on the pull, progressively increase retrieve speeds to cover more territory, present baits to more fish, and hopefully draw more strikes.
At times, lures like the Sebile Magic Swimmer Soft rigged flat, with the hook coming through its side, can be skipped across the surface and then allowed to sink slowly in front of resting fish. The quick skipping action gets their attention, while the change in speed and depth acts as a trigger. For this presentation, a Trokar Magnum Weighted Swimbait hook helps gain casting distance and imparts a faster fall rate of the bait.
When wind or water clarity makes sight-fishing difficult, prime lure options include spoons and spinnerbaits. Their speed and depth versatility adds to their popularity with pike anglers. While most anglers have a certain default retrieve speed, always be observant of pike behavior. Take note of whether they’re hitting on the pause or as the lure is being sped up at boatside and adjust retrieve speed accordingly.
At times, pike can be fooled into chasing a lure but won’t bite. This indicates that the depth component is correct but the triggering speed is off. Recognize that as retrieve speeds are increased with spoons and spinnerbaits, their running depth decreases. Based on the dynamics of these lures, greater resistance at higher speeds results in more lift and shallower running depths. Conversely, the running depth of crankbaits and stickbaits is generally increased with greater retrieve or trolling speeds; the faster the retrieve, the deeper the lure goes. As such, lure selection becomes important to achieve the right speed and depth combination.
Ingenious anglers such as Will Dykstra have developed a system for catching big postspawn pike on slender, small-billed minnowbaits. Jerkbaits such as the Savage Gear Sandeel and Yellow Bird Short Billed Minnow are designed for casting, but their narrow diving range regardless of speed makes them ideal shallow trolling lures. Dykstra slow-trolls on shallow flats with Sandeels at 0.8 mph when pike have just finished the spawn and refuse to chase quick-fleeing baits. On warm, sunny afternoons as water temperatures rise, he increases trolling speeds to 1 to 1.3 mph to get more action from the bait while still covering his preferred running depth of 3 to 5 feet.
As summer gets into full swing, speed and depth preferences become even more defined. Companies such as Eppinger understand the effectiveness of the wobbling and flashing nature of spoons better than most. They also recognize the benefit of working spoons at multiple speeds and depths. As such, their spoons come in a range of weights and sizes, including those of the same length but different weights. Case in point is the standard Dardevle at 35⁄8 inches in length and 1 ounce in weight, along with the heavier Rok’t Dardevle model of the same length but 1.75 ounces in weight. The obvious significance is that the heavier Rok’t model sinks faster. More importantly, Rok’t Dardevles can be worked more quickly but at the same depth as the standard Dardevle spoon.
This added speed can be a game changer when pike are on weedflats. There are times when pike want a spoon barely rocking on its axis and throwing off a flash. Plenty of spoons produce in this setting, including thinner spoons such as the Williams Whitefish and Doctor Spoon. When water temperatures warm into the mid-60s, pike increasingly key on lures swimming just over the top of submerged cabbage that may top out 2 to 5 feet beneath the surface. Speed can be a killer in these settings.
The increased weight and speed of spoons such as the Rok’t Dardevle or Doctor Spoon’s Rocket Doc help trigger more strikes from active pike. The rapid pace of spoons can make a weedbed come to life in a manner that suspending jerkbaits can’t achieve. Quick-moving spoons rigged with single hooks deflect off weeds. They knock aquatic insects and snails from weed stalks and get crustaceans scrambling. Small preyfish take advantage of this newly available food source and the entire food chain kicks into gear. This leads to competition with multiple pike rocketing out of weed pockets to blast lures fleeing quickly above them.
When pike get fired up in these settings, visually exciting baits like spinnerbaits get pike striking right under the surface. In the same token as Eppinger making Dardevle spoons in multiple weights but similar sizes, spinnerbait companies like Revenge and Strike King offer models in multiple weights that allow anglers to manipulate speed effectively without jeopardizing depth and to achieve greater depth when needed. Spinnerbaits like the 11⁄2-ounce Strike King Ledgebuster or 11⁄4-ounce Revenge HD Spinnerbait can be worked fast 2 feet under the surface or along rock ledges at depths of 15 to 20 feet in late summer and fall. For deepwater pike, use standard slow retrieves with an occasional burst of speed and pause to get the blades helicoptering down. Depths surpassing 15 feet can’t be fished effectively with a typical 1/2-ounce spinnerbait.
Late Summer into Fall
As water temperatures cool and shallow vegetation begins to die and hold less forage, pike move to deeper weededges or hold over deep water adjacent to quick-breaking structure. Effective presentation speed decreases and working depth increases during this timeframe. Pike continue to use areas that have adequate water movement and light penetration to support healthy deep vegetation.
When pike are holding at the base of vegetation, neutrally buoyant crankbaits are good options. Deep-diving Rapala and Bagley balsa cranks are tough to beat for fall pike. Reel them down to the desired depth and then slowly work them back with a slow rip-and-stop retrieve. Each pull of the rod gives action to the lure and keeps it at its diving depth. Much like experienced bass anglers, have several casting combos at the ready. Use a casting combo with lighter line to get lures running a few feet deeper and a heavier line combo when slightly shallower running depths are desired from the same deep-diving crankbait.
Late fall finds most pike stationed in or around deep water. While slowly dragged livebait presentations are popular during this period, slow-trolling stickbaits, as well as vertically jigging bladebaits and lipless crankbaits, can be equally productive. Fish all these presentations slowly. When working blades and lipless baits, longer rod-pulls and longer pauses after the bait falls provoke more strikes from cold-water pike. When trolling, keep speeds to 1.5 mph or less.
The biggest key to success during fall is getting location and depth right. Pike hold on steep-breaking points, ledges, and river channels. Based on prevailing winds and currents, these areas consistently concentrate open-water pods of smaller baitfish, trout, and ciscoes. This makes them high-percentage spots for precise trolling along edges, as well as open-water trolling where steep structure drops off into the main basin. As an example, if a lake has a shallow feeding shelf that breaks quickly from 18 to 25 feet of water before abruptly dropping into a 60-foot basin, pike continue to suspend at the 18- to 25-foot range, even over deep water and far removed from the structure.
In-line sinkers help to keep lures down at these depths at slow trolling speeds. Place sinkers in front of your trolling lure with a 4- to 8-foot leader of 20- to 25-pound fluorocarbon. A 2-ounce sinker delivers about one foot of extra diving depth for every 3 feet of line deployed when trolling at speeds of 1.1 to 1.5 mph.
With trolling weights, you also can use a wider selection of lures beyond just deep-diving lures that perform well at slow trolling speeds. Flat-sided shallow diving minnowbaits, with their appealing rolling action, can be brought down to deeper depths, as can line-through swimbaits, which impart a natural tail-kicking action. By making repeated 45-degree turns with the boat every 150 to 200 yards, lures on inside trolling rods slow down slightly and those on outside rods speed up. This not only helps to fine-tune the most effective trolling speed, but also changes the lures’ action to trigger following fish.
No matter where, when, or how you target pike, solving the speed and depth matrix adds to success. Err the side of fishing slower and lower in the water column during coldwater periods. Increase speed and fish higher in the water column as things heat up. Tailor lure selection to optimize the amount of time lures are running at the desired speed and depth and pay attention to any changes that trigger strikes.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an astute multispecies angler and contributor to all In-Fisherman publications.