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Summer Pike Strategies

Consider water depth and forage locations to find big pike of summer.

Summer Pike Strategies
Big pike are a tough critter, but understanding where they like to spend their time is the first part of the puzzle.

Editor Note: From the pages of the August/September 2024 issue of In-Fisherman magazine.

Musings on the whims and ways of summertime pike have long inspired spirited dockside discussions. The quest to better understand the warm-weather behaviors of these enigmatic predators has also sparked extensive research by In-Fisherman staffers and fishery biologists in a host of different environments. Over the years, a fistful of basic tenets and proven patterns have emerged that reliably guide us to epic Esox adventures for both numbers of fish and above-average odds of hooking up with gator-class giants.

Solid foundations on which to base any given trip's strategies typically include finding a fortuitous convergence of habitat (such as preferred water temperature and/or cover and structure) and prime feeding opportunities. Then it's up to us to dial in the most effective presentation for the depth, mood of the fish, and other conditions. Still, mysteries remain. Productive patterns rise and fall—and some rise again. Meanwhile, enterprising anglers continually blaze new trails to untapped fish missed by the masses. All of which means there's plenty to mull over as we set our sights on summer pike.

Pike Particulars

Dr. Bruce Carlson, professor and biologist, prolific author, and longtime In-Fisherman contributor says his longstanding advice still holds water: The best bet for consistent summer pike fishing is in deeper lakes that still contain cool, well-oxygenated water. In shallow, weedy lakes, fishing for big pike shuts down when the water gets warm, because warm water stresses larger fish. Big pike in these lakes go on brief feeding sprees under ideal weather conditions, such as an approaching front, but your best bet day after day is the deep, cool-water connection.

beautiful lake sunset
Serene pike waters are abundant in the North Country, but big pike are not always easy to find.

So integral is the temperature connection to Carlson's strategies that he maintains, “Next to your rod and reel, a good thermometer often is your most valuable fishing tool. Without knowing a lake's temperature profile, pike fishing during this period usually is an exercise in futility.” He adds, “The thermocline changes tremendously as summer goes on. It tends to narrow—say from 15 feet in July to 3 feet in August—and gradually drops. A thermocline at 30 feet in August could be close to 50 feet in October.”

Deep-water oxygen is also key. Carlson focuses on deep lakes with oxygen below the thermocline. Local fishery biologists, DNR lake information, and other sources can point you toward such waters. “By mid- to late August, in a deep lake with oxygen below the thermocline, virtually all big pike are below the thermocline,” he says. In lakes lacking oxygenated depths, pike and cool-water prey like ciscoes often rotate back and forth above and below the thermocline, playing a physiological game of up and down, hot and cold. If they stay too long above the thermocline hyperthermia sets in. Linger too long in the cold and they risk hypoxia. “Anglers targeting these pike need to know the exact depth of an extremely narrow vertical range of water,” Carlson says.

One pattern for this situation I learned from angling ace Scott Glorvigen is the “Squeeze Play.” Use high-definition sonar to spot the thin layer of suspended particles that often rest on the dense upper reaches of the hypolimnion, thereby making the thermal breakline visible on sonar. If you don't see it, adjust your sensitivity until a slight band appears. You can also determine its location by noting the depth at which you stop marking fish. Find areas where this band of water contacts classic structure such as reefs and humps, then fish a 6- to 9-inch or larger creek chub or redtail on a livebait rig.

Conversely, oxygen below the thermocline allows big pike to freely roam deep water in search of prey. Begin your search where water temperatures range from 55°F to 60°F. Deep rockpiles and similar structures in 35 feet or more of water are perennial producers. A deep flat at or just above the thermocline, that drops sharply into deeper water, can also be good. Deep flats at the base of a steeply falling bar or inside turn are also worth checking. Big pike also roam large open-water areas over main-lake basins in pursuit of suspended baitfish.

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Anglers typically and correctly associate big pike with forage species like ciscoes, but Carlson cautions not to rule out suckers. “I thought suckers were warmwater fish, but it turns out they prefer 56°F to 58°F water,” he says. While shooting deep-water video, he's seen schools of suckers in frigid depths inhabited by big pike. “It's the perfect congruence between baitfish and big pike,” he says, noting he also photographed a whitefish in 80 feet of water, with a “huge scar inflicted by a pike.”

Tactically speaking, Carlson has long advocated trolling crankbaits such as Storm ThunderSticks, Cisco Kids, Grandmas, and DepthRaiders. A three-way rig with a beefy bell sinker on a 15- to 18-inch dropper gets baits to deep strike zones as needed. Trolling speeds in the 1- to 1.5 mph range tend to do best on calm, bright days, while 4 to 5 mph is often the ticket in windy conditions. Bait size also increases as the wind picks up. “When vegetation starts dying down, 1-ounce or larger bladebaits like the old Heddon Sonar can be the hottest thing around,” he adds. “Cast, let the lure drop to bottom, jerk it up a couple times and reel it in.” In a similar vein, large lipless rattlebaits can be deadly on pike and walleyes after weeds like curlyleaf pondweed die off in mid- to late summer.

In-Fisherman friend and Destination-Fish host Jon Thelen also avoids warm, shallow weeds where hammer handles reign. Like Carlson, he seeks the alignment of cool water temperatures and preferred forage. On lakes like Lake of the Woods and Mille Lacs, he trolls crankbaits over offshore structure and in adjacent waters. “Baits like a Bomber 25A or Bandit Walleye Deep have a large profile and make a lot of noise to get pike's attention and trigger reaction strikes,” he says, noting that a flashy finish only adds to the attraction.

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Jon Thelen prefers flashy metallic and bright-colored diving crankbaits that also generate noise and vibration like the Bandit Walleye Deep (above) and Bomber 25 (below).
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Either mono or leadcore mainlines on trolling gear used for offshore walleyes work fine, though he recommends a steel or heavy fluorocarbon leader. “Put the rod in a holder, too, to ensure solid hookups when a big pike slams a bait,” he adds, noting trolling speeds run 2.5 to 4 mph with ample speed changes. To ply this pattern on fly-in Canadian walleye lakes, Thelen packs rod holders and trolling gear, then tests deep offshore waters in between walleye outings. “A lot of times you get into pike action that nobody else taps all season long,” he says.

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jon thelen with big pike
Thelen loves trolling the “middle of nowhere” on big waters like Lake of the Woods, but also pulls cranks through the depths of smaller fly-in “walleye” lakes for summer gators other anglers miss.

Top Gun

Deep strategies hold water, but veteran North Woods guide Billy Rosner looks to the ceiling of the pike's world when conditions align to create one of the season's most exciting yet largely overlooked patterns. One of his favorite tactics for taking numbers of high-flying pike topping 10 to 15 pounds, with a shot at bigger fish, excels in the flowing waters of the main outflow of Minnesota's Lake Vermilion.

“The Vermilion River runs 42 miles north to Crane Lake,” he explains. “It gets very little pressure and offers great pike fishing.” He likens the Vermilion to similar mid-sized rivers across the Pike Belt. “It fishes a lot like the St. Louis, Rum, Big Fork, and other rivers in Minnesota, plus countless more in the northern U.S. and southern Canada.”

Forage is a key consideration, but not finned cheeseburgers like ciscoes or suckers. Rosner's pattern heats up when dragonflies fill the air. “From mid-June until the weeds start dying off, pike feed on top when significant numbers of dragonflies cruise just above the surface,” he says. Conducive weather conditions are also important. “It's best with less than 5 mph winds,” he says. “Any more than that and it gets sketchy.

billy rosner with a pike
»North Woods guide Billy Rosner factors beefy spinnerbaits into his flowing water and lake-run summer pike tactics.

Prime areas include places where dragonflies have ample forage. “Soft-bottom areas close to cabbage, wild rice, and other vegetation lying in depths of 1 to 8 feet can be hotspots,” he says. “Forget super-fast water. Topwaters are best over weeds growing on large flats with light current. Rice beds on inside bends are also good, especially adjacent to cabbage beds. In sections with strong flows, look for eddies adjacent to downed trees and logjams.” Rosner quietly eases into the area with his trolling motor with a minimum hubbub, watching for signs of hungry pike such as swirls or wakes. “If the water is clear enough, you can often spot big fish hulking along bottom.”

Casts are fired past fish or potential strike zones. The presentation depends on the mood of the pike. “The fish dictate how to work the topwater,” Rosner says. “Sometimes the bait hits the water and a pike darts over and blasts it right away. Other times, you have to work for it.” Cadences vary according to conditions, fish reactions, and the lure itself. The Booyah Pad Crasher is one of his favorites. “It's an awesome bait when pike are tight to the edge of heavy rice, cattails, or other weedy cover,” he says. “You can launch it into vegetation and work it out without getting hung up.” He typically gives it a twitch shortly after splashdown ripples subside, followed by a series of pulls and pauses, though a straight pull can also trip their triggers.

When pike patrol cabbage adjacent to rice, Rosner often upsizes to a beefier and noisier bait like Bucher's 7-inch TopRaider. “The rotating tail adds a seductive plop-plop-plop to the sensory cues, perfect for provoking strikes from fish idling in or just under the canopy,” he explains. “Cast to the rice edge, let the bait settle a few seconds, then start your retrieve. Experiment with speed. Sometimes they like the tail barely plunking. Other times you have to burn it.” Likewise, he advises experimenting with perpetual motion versus intermittent pauses.

“Like muskies, big pike may follow without striking,” he continues. “When an incoming bait is about 8 feet away and heading straight for the boat, I lower the rod tip into the water and bring the lure parallel to the boat with an L-shaped rod sweep. The sudden dive, change of direction, and burst of speed often trigger following fish to hit.”

Propbaits are another option. Rosner ranks the 35⁄16-inch Heddon Magnum Torpedo among his favorites. “It's generally best to keep the bait moving once you get the blade turning,” he notes. “But here, too, exceptions are the rule. Don't be afraid to pause it once in a while.” Other top props include globe-style baits like Medusa's Topwater Musky Globe, along with the iconic Smithwick Devil's Horse. Rosner's arsenal also includes walking baits like a Heddon Feather Dressed Super Spook Jr. Rapala's X-Rap also shines in such scenarios. “Sometimes slowly walking the dog takes big pike when nothing else will,” he says.

Though technically not topwaters, spinnerbaits are another key component of Rosner's dragonfly pattern arsenal. “A spinnerbait bulging just under the surface really riles them up,” he says. Top choices include the Bucher Mini and Tandem SlopMasters, Terminator Pro Series, and Booyah Pikee. Softbait tippings such as a 3- or 4-inch grub add attraction to lures in the half-ounce class, while larger offerings excel undressed.

“Make a long cast, engage the reel just before the bait hits the water, and bulge it back to the boat on a steady retrieve with the blades churning and water flying,” he says. “Make an L-sweep alongside the boat at the end of every retrieve, because big pike are a lot like muskies—you gotta catch half of them beside the boat.”

Rosner's go-to lure colors lean to the natural side of the spectrum. “I match the hatch, either with dragonfly or baitfish colors,” he explains. “Black shiner and perch are killers. In general, dark baits rule on dark days, while lighter patterns are better in bright conditions.” Strikes run the gamut from bathtub-sized eruptions and acrobatic spectacles to subtle swirls. “Sometimes it's hard to tell whether it's a big smallmouth or a pike,” he says. While the natural reaction to topwater strikes is an instant hookset, he encourages patience. “Let the fish turn with the bait before you set,” he advises. “Then get it up and moving before it burrows into weeds or timber.”

Shifting gears to lake-run pike, he says, “It's hard to beat a deep weedline. This holds true from Vermilion's 8- to 10-foot weedlines to outside edges in 15 feet or deeper in clear lakes.” While trolling the base of a deep edge can be productive, Rosner often targets the upper regions of cabbage edges where the plant tops lie a foot or more below the surface. Ideal conditions include wind blowing perpendicular to the edge, activating pike while making it easy to move your boat downwind along the weedline while casting or trolling.

“Pike love the tops of cabbage along the deep edge,” Rosner says. “Bulging SlopMasters or big spinnerbaits is awesome. I also like Storm 360s with the weedless head (he flares the weedguard for maximum protection) and #4 Classic Vibrax Foxtails. I replace the Vibrax' treble with a single hook and put a 4-inch plastic tail on there. TopRaiders and X-Raps are good, too.” Depending on the size and shape of the weedline, he may troll or cast. Zippy trolling speeds from 3 to 3.5 mph are the rule.

dan johnson with a northern pike
Spoons tipped with softbaits are one of the author's go-to moves for pressured August pike.

Spoons are another Rosner favorite he says are undervalued by most pike anglers. “A 5/8-ounce Blue Fox Strobe Tear Drop Spoon with the treble replaced with a 1/0 or 2/0 single hook tipped with a 4-inch white Kalin's grub is phenomenal cast or trolled.” Indeed, the strike-stirring wobble and flash of spoons have seduced countless pike over the years. After being largely shelved due to pike being conditioned to spoons on many waters decades ago, spoons are riding a rising tide of effectiveness on many waters as anglers target new generations of pike not conditioned to spoons.

Rosner's go-to summer pike gear includes 7-foot 3-inch heavy fast-action baitcasting rods and 7-foot 6-inch medium-power fast-action spinning rods from Trika, paired with matching reels. Casting setups are spooled with 40- to 60-pound Sufix braided mainline with a 50-pound, 12-inch titanium VMC leader. Spinning gear gets 20-pound superbraid with the same leader.

As Rosner notes, a spoon and softbait combo can be deadly on summer pike. I like threading the tail section of a 3-inch curlytail on the treble of a thin-metal, flutter-style spoon like a gold, 3¼-inch, 1/2-ounce Williams Ice Jig, with the side hooks removed. Fished with an exaggerated lift-fall motion along the deep edge or in open pockets within weedbeds, the combination of a fluttery spoon and softbait tail produce a tantalizingly slow fall that's very flashy and mildly erratic (mostly straight down). 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 presentation.

One of In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange's tricks when dealing with pressured pike is downsizing to a small spoon like a 2¼-inch Luhr-Jensen Pet 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. He relies on a variation of the classic lift-fall cadence. 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 also shines for this technique, though thin, light spoons are easier to fish in shallow water or higher in the water column, and often produce a more erratic fall, which in itself can be an added trigger, he says.

A final note from Rosner. Forward-facing sonar can be a great tool for locating big pike and other predators suspended off structure. But anecdotal evidence suggests the pattern can become less productive over time. “Guides who for several years have almost exclusively driven around open water using forward-facing sonar to find and target big pike and muskies say at first it was an extremely efficient way to rack up numbers of fish, but the fish apparently got pounded so hard that there's few left in open water and the bite has moved back to structure and weedlines,” he says. This could be a result of fish moving to avoid pressure, compounded by post-catch mortality. Whatever the case, the offshore forward-facing-sonar game has gotten tougher on at least one large A-list Esox lake, Rosner says.




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