The Endless Spring for Pike
April 01, 2017
In the vast stretch of North American pike habitat, spring begins anywhere from late February in the most southerly distribution to mid-July in the sub-Arctic. But in all that habitat, over thousands of miles, five key techniques stand out when the water is 38°F to 50°F.
Those five techniques include big flies presented on a floating line, which is where spring for North American pike apparently begins. It happens in Ohio, where Mad River Outfitters guide fly fishermen for river pike on the Tuscarawas, Cuyahoga, and other streams. "We were the first people doing it in Ohio — guiding fly fishermen to big pike," says Brian Flechsig, owner of Mad River since 1994. "The season on pike never closes here, so we can fish for them at ice-out. The northeast quadrant of Ohio is the furthest south we know of for pike fishing."
They reportedly see quite a few in the 35- to 38-inch range. "Not too many over 40 inches here in the southern end of the pike's range, but some real sporty fish on a flyrod," says Guide Josh McQueen. "We practice catch-and-release only, since these rivers don't hold large populations. Our lakes are too warm and shallow, but these rivers have shallow backwaters where pike can successfully spawn. We sight-fish in the backwaters from late February into March. We prefer bucktail flies — the thickest shafted hairs we can find, with a floating line and no-sink tip so the fly just hangs there."
At the other end of the pike range, up around the 60th parallel, at places like Nueltin, Kasba, and Misaw lakes, ice-out happens in June or July. Summer sets in quickly, with aquatic plants shooting up and flowering almost overnight. From there to the far northern extremes of pike habitat, in Great Slave Lake and just beyond, pike stay relatively shallow all summer — which lasts about six weeks — absorbing as much sunlight as time allows. Sight-fishing is in order. Guides and clients wear the best amber-lens sunglasses they own, stalking backwaters and shallow bays, poling the boat slowly until a log with razor teeth comes into view.
Nothing beats a black bunny strip presented on a flyrod in this situation. An unweighted strip 4 to 7 inches long tied to a straight-shank 1/0 to 3/0 hook suffices. It needs to be wet, and should be presented on an 8- to 10-weight floating line. I tie a couple feet of 30-pound mono to the flyline, and connect that to 6 feet of 20-pound mono before tying on a 14-inch nylon-covered wire leader. Nylon is easy. Just loop it through a swivel on one end, the fly on the other, twist the tags tight around the leader and melt the nylon to itself with a match or lighter.
The reasoning is simple: As our friends at Mad River explain, a fly hovers like a baitfish hanging in the wheelhouse of ol' Snaggle Tooth. I've tried every kind of pike fly, and a bunny out hops them all early in the year for me.
In the mid-1990s I ventured north past Flin Flon to the Churchill River with a group of guys who made the trip every year in search of ice-out walleyes and pike. We camped out with a generator and six 55-gallon drums of gasoline for the boats. This group had been doing this for years and had everything figured out. Walleyes came easy on jigs and minnows and all you needed for big toothy critters was a large Dardevle. But after three days, the only big pike caught between 10 anglers bit a jig-minnow combo. Spoons weren't cutting it.
Which came as no surprise. I've never found spoons a strong early-spring option. Great sometimes, but never consistently so. I'd brought several boxes of dead ciscoes purchased from a commercial fisherman on Lake Superior, but nobody was interested in sitting and waiting for a pike to come to them. So I bided my time until one day at shorelunch I announced the adjacent backwater embayment was a fine to place to drop deadbaits and asked if anyone would like to join me. The oldest guy in the party volunteered.
In the 45 minutes that it took the boys to prepare lunch, the old man and I boated five big pike, all within view of our gathered companions. But if seeing is believing, it's not necessarily convincing. The group stubbornly stuck to its guns, continued to throw spoons all week. But only one more big pike was caught by that tactic.
Deadbaits are scattered across most lakes at ice-out. These ghostly specimens of cisco, sucker, shad, smelt, and panfish are not wasted by big pike, which are stressed and hungry after a long winter. Stress, migration, and cold water can make spring pike lethargic, especially in the morning.
Large live suckers used for bait in other seasons can be frozen whole until spring. Whole ciscoes and smelt from commercial fishermen, shad taken in nets, and perch frozen whole (where legal) tend to be the best baits.
Deadbaits have put all my largest prespawn, ice-out pike in the net. The tackle and technique are simple. I use an 8-foot medium-power spinning rod teamed with a moderate to large spinning reel filled with 20-pound Berkley FireLine. I slide a float stop followed by a small cork onto the line and tie on a swivel. The cork isn't used to suspend anything — it's just a strike indicator. I tie 3 feet or so of 20- to 40-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon to the swivel and finish with a quick-strike rig, which can be a couple #6 trebles tied in a line about 5 inches apart with tieable wire like 19-pound test American Fishing Wire Surflon. Tie on a hook with a clinch knot, leaving a 6-inch tag end and tie another hook to the end. Cut the wire 9 to 12 inches above the first hook and tie on a swivel. I've never lost a pike because of a commercially-tied Bait Rigs Quick-Strike Rig, either.
Place the end hook in the head of the bait and the second hook near the tail. I like in-line rigs because the bait is on bottom. If it's 5 feet deep, set the float 6 feet up the line from the rig. No need for sinkers. And don't wait for pike to swallow the bait. When the float goes under, set the hook. Deadbaits potentially outfish everything else for pike during the Prespawn Period.
Hearns Bay sits about halfway up to the north end of Nueltin Lake, a wilderness where no active fishing lodge currently exists. It represents mile after mile of spectacular sight-fishing habitat.
Drifting quietly across it, rod at the ready, we scanned for big fish about two weeks after ice-out. Having done the fly-rod thing many times, I wanted to experiment with something different for early postspawn giants. Jigs rose and fell too precipitously, losing a pike's interest. Spoons — still too quick — caught mostly smaller fish. Big crankbaits seemed to have too much action.
While the water remains below 50°F, big pike often prefer that dying baitfish/deadbait dynamic. Something that flutters slowly from top to bottom in shallow water gives fish more time to spot it and also appeals to their drowsy early-spring nature. I call them zero-G plastics. At this time, pike usually prefer sauntering up to a potential meal.
At one point, in a little bump of shallow bay, we saw so many big pike we dropped anchor and every cast for the next hour or so produced a take. Using a stout, medium-heavy St. Croix spinning outfit with 30-pound FireLine, with a short section of 40-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon tied to a nylon-coated, hand-tied wire leader, I cast 5-inch unweighted Lunker City Fin-S Fish on a straight-shank 6/0 Owner hook. The hook point goes in the nose, runs along the back and comes out exposed so the bait runs straight, nothing to interfere with the hook-set.
Cast, twitch it several times to get their attention, and let it fall. The bait flutters, slides, circles, and rests lightly on bottom, where about 80 percent of pike pick it up. If you don't like to fly-fish, or don't know how, or have no deadbait, it's the best way I've found for big spring pike in cold water. Many soft jerkbaits work, including the Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shad, and I've used this tactic successfully all over North America.
About four weeks after ice-out on Reindeer Lake, well south of 60° latitude, we found pike exiting a shallow spawning bay. My Ojibway guide said the fishing had been hot in the 4- and 5-foot depths during the previous month, but we found nothing there. Putting our heads together, we decided to look for the exit ramp and found a trough 8 to 10 feet deep along the south shore, leading to the main lake.
I tied a 1/4-ounce Jensen Jigs Frank's 5-Inch Leech — a mix of bunny and synthetics — to a 12-inch length of Terminator Titanium Leader Material with a clinch knot and pitched it to the shallow lip on the shoreward side of the trough. Keeping the 30-pound FireLine tight, I let the jig swim down the face of the break. When it hit bottom, I pointed the 7-foot medium-power rod down and began to slowly reel, swimming the jig just off bottom.
Pike after pike inhaled the bunny jig, which works for many of the same reasons a big fly works in spring. Each filament of hair or synthetic operates independently at slow speeds, creating the illusion of life from one end of the bait to the other. Even when paused on bottom, any movement of water around the lure recreates this illusion. Remember, spring pike are not adverse to striking baits resting on bottom. Larger jigs, like the 1/2-ounce Jensen Jig Musky Enthraller, become key baits from late spring though fall wherever pike swim, but I like a smaller version early.
The kayak slipped along over a deep weedline just beginning to emerge. It was the 2015 Minnesota pike/walleye opener on a small lake with no landing. We were alone on this small lake, where pike has seen no lures for months. I told my partner, "Cast in any direction." Our 7-foot St. Croix medium-power spinning sticks wielded Lucky Craft Pointer 100s, as I made a long cast over the 8-foot flat. Postspawn pike love 8-foot flats with emerging vegetation, where perch and other panfish gather.
We'd rigged with 10-pound Berkley FireLine, which is friendly with back-to-back uni-knots connecting it to a 10-pound Ande Fluorocarbon leader. To that I tie a 12-inch Terminator Original Titanium Leader or a hand-tied version using the same material. I like titanium because it doesn't kink as easily as wire. Sometimes I use 80-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon — or whichever leader I have that allows the lure to hang horizontally on the pause.
The action that triggers most cool-water pike, most days, is subtle. Most anglers attack with vicious jerks and snaps. I pull the lure down to its running depth and pause. Pull and pause. The pull is so slow the lure barely wobbles. After a long pause I sometimes twitch it with a soft downward snap of the rod tip.
The lure stops. Something's got it. Wrist-snap hook-set and away she runs. She'll find no heavy cabbage or woodcover to wrap up on here. Not now, when spring has so recently sprung. Fighting her on lighter tackle is a blast.
Suspending baits like Smithwick Rogues, Rapala Husky Jerks, SPRO McSticks, and others are good options for big pike throughout the open-water season, but they excel during the cool-water months of spring and fall. One of the top five presentations for spring, suspending baits sometimes surpass deadbait at ice-out.
Huge pike are being caught in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, and other points West these days. These tactics work for pike as well out there during the spring. When the water is 38°F to 50°F, and you're on pike patrol, don't leave home without all five bases covered.