January 03, 2016
The strike-stirring wobble and flash of spoons has seduced countless otherwise cautious gators over the years, and continues to do so today. Yet even within the ranks of diehard pike fans, few fully consider the variables in spoon design, size, and finish that determine whether pike spoons get a strike or get passed on our attempts to mimic reality.
First, note that spoons as a lure category are riding a rising tide of effectiveness for pike in many waters. It's a case of a lure coming full circle with the rise and fall of angler use, and corresponding level of fish conditioning to it. While spoons were once the most common—if not the only—type of lure pike saw in many systems across the continent, their use in many waters waned as pike became conditioned to this presentation.
In-Fisherman began focusing on this shift years ago, advising anglers to consider alternatives, including softbait strategies, which were revolutionary at the time. Anglers listened, and as spoons fell out of favor, pike gradually became conditioned to other presentations. Today, reduced use has pushed spoons back toward the top of the food chain. This leads to the job at hand—determining the right spoon size, style, and color for various conditions.
Of all the variables that come into play in selecting the right spoon, choosing one that provides the optimal running depth and speed are most important. It sounds basic, but many otherwise savvy anglers skip this key building block in their rush to address other elements of the presentation, such as differences in finish or color pattern.
"Depth control is key," says veteran guide Ben Beattie, who plies more than 750,000 acres of pike-rich water near Sioux Lookout, Ontario, including legendary Lac Seul and the English River system. To address this key concern, Beattie breaks spoon categories into simple classes of "light" and "heavy," and applies them throughout prime spooning periods. "In spring, lures like the light, fluttery Williams and Doctor spoons work best," he says.
"Pike move into the shallows of bays where the water is a bit warmer. Light spoons are ideal for the 2- to 5-foot depths where pike often lie. And they fit the speed part of the equation, too—light spoons hold their wobble and produce good flash, even when fished slowly."
Light is a relative term, but thin, light-for-their-length options such as the 3¼-inch, 5/8-ounce Original Doctor or 4-inch, 1/2-ounce Eppinger Flutter Chuck are good examples. In general, Beattie focuses on spoons up to 5 inches long throughout the season, relying mostly on 3- to 4-inchers early in the year.
"We typically don't get to sight-fish in these tannic, tea-stained waters," he says. "I make long casts into the back ends of bays, often around last season's reeds or other remnant vegetation. Inlets can be key, as can the presence of baitfish." Often, a spoon provides all the action needed, though at times a twitch or pause triggers strikes better than a straight retrieve.
This calls to mind one of my earliest pike experiments. At age-13, a friend and I spent a May weekend at the Johnson family cabin near Duluth, Minnesota, to fish a shallow, stained lake's pike. Relying mostly on a discontinued, willowleaf-shape Mepps spoon that was slender and light for its length, I racked up twice as many pike (39, to be exact) as my friend boated using a considerably heavier, and slightly longer, Dardevle.
As much as I'd like to say it was due to superior skill, the truth is I could fish my spoon slower than he could. Another variable that may account for the disproportionate catch was color—copper for me and red-white for my friend. I also discovered that three half-turns of the reel handle, followed by a foot-long rod tip snap, were deadly that weekend.
Heavier-for-length spoons, such as 4-inch, 3/4-ounce Williams Wabler and classic Dardevles, get the nod from Beattie in deep water, particularly during fall, when he targets large pike suspended over rocky, main-lake structure such as points and reefs. "A hefty, hard-thumping spoon is a killer in fall, when pike feed on big, fatty baitfish such as smelt and lake herring," he says. Water depths range from 15 to 20 feet, but Beattie commonly casts out, counts the spoon down about 8 feet, and begins a much faster and more animated retrieve than he uses in spring. "I move the spoon faster, using a steady retrieve with plenty of pops and jerks of the rod tip."
Once you dial in depth and speed, you can fine-tune other variables such as size, shape, and color, which determine what the pike sees and feels once the spoon is in the right area, moving at the right pace. Having a well-stocked spoon larder is a plus, including an assortment with the same color pattern in different shapes and lengths. These tools let you dig deep into the nitty-gritty of profile and vibration, while keeping color constant.
Given the pike's amazing abilities to detect vibration, I'd wager that wobble and vibrations produced trump profile in the grand scheme. Pike are accustomed to sensing and tracking prey by vibration before they're able to see it—whether it's out of visual range or hidden from view by cover. This helps explain why a spoon that sounds and feels like a 1-pound sucker attracts more interest from big, aggressive pike than a dainty offering that feels like a fingerling.
Putting these concepts into practice is a matter of learning how spoons work at different speeds, and matching their actions to the conditions at hand without sacrificing depth or speed. Describing and categorizing wobbles is a personal matter. In-Fisherman research on the Dardevle clan by Editor In Chief Doug Stange described the 1-ounce Dardevle's rolling, stuttering cadence as a wupwupwup while a Huskie Devle goes more like woo-woo-wuppa, as in each wobble sequence it stutters left-right, then wuppas sharply back to the left.
As you study the locomotion of each spoon style and size, note the frequency and intensity of wobbles, stutters, and swerves it makes, along with the width of the spoon's path through the water. Time on the water and a good memory—or better yet, a journal give you an appreciation of each spoon's actions and help you put together a comprehensive set of spoon strategies.
During a tough bite or on heavily pressured water, even a well-stocked spoon box stumbles now and then, calling for special tweaks to turn the tide. One of Stange's simple tricks when dealing with pressured pike is downsizing to a 2.5-inch Luhr Jensen Tony's Spoon, and adding a ReelBait Fergie Spoon Clacker to the front of it. He discovered pike's yen for this combo while experimenting for walleyes.
Stange also relies on a variation of the classic lift-fall cadence. When pike stalk but don't strike, he retrieves with the rod tip high (about the 10 o'clock position), then snaps the tip to 12 o'clock and lets the spoon fall backward on slack line while lowering the rod tip. The move puts the spoon in a following fish's face, often triggering a strike. A heavy-bottomed spoon like the Dardevle shines for this technique, though thin, light spoons are easier to fish in shallow water and often produce a more erratic fall, which in itself can be an added trigger, he says.
Beattie thinks tubular. He removes a spoon's treble hook, trims the nose off a 2-inch, soft-plastic tube, inserts the hook in the tube and reattaches it to the spoon. "The tube's tentacles look like a baitfish's tail moving through the water, and can increase strikes," he says. "Another tweak is adding a holographic eye to the spoon, which often boosts bites as well."
At times, I retrieve a spoon with a softbait trailer with an exaggerated lift-fall motion to create an outlandish show. I developed this act a few summers back, while pursuing pike on a moderately pressured, north-central Minnesota natural lake. Trollers relentlessly strain the deep weededge with heavy spoons, diving crankbaits, and the like, quickly removing reckless pike from the population. The remaining fish are jaded, to say the least.
I start by snipping the tail section off a 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Minnow Grub; usually the tail and tail base are enough. I thread this on the treble of a thin-metal, flutter-style spoon—my favorite to date is a gold, 3¼-inch, 5/8-ounce Williams Ice Jig, with the mid-body hook removed. The combination of a fluttery spoon and softbait tail produce a fall that's tantalizingly slow, but very flashy and mildly erratic (mostly straight down). Middle-distance or short casts are fine because I like to guide the spoon into open pockets within beds of cabbage.
Let the spoon fall 4 to 8 feet or more (as depth and vegetation allow) on a semi-slack line, maintaining a bit of control but not impeding action. Then lower the rod tip and rip the spoon back up, either in one sweep or a series of snaps, then let it flutter down again. Repeat the process as you work the spoon to the boat. Often, I've cast other lures into an area and come up empty, only to get violent strikes on this flashy presentation.
Combine the core elements of depth and speed with size, action, and flash—then mix in a few tricks as needed. You're on your way to a hot spoon bite that will get you believing you're living the good old days of pike fishing.
Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a lifelong pike fan, frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications, and director of the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, masterswalleyecircuit.com. Contact: guide Ben Beattie, Moosehorn Lodge, canadafish.com/index.htm.