March 10, 2016
Pike patterns for the spring-to-summer shift
Needless notions of dreadful fishing aside, the word transition often merely implies a change from one state of being to another. For pike, transition equals movement. Here one day, gone the next. Perhaps. Often, catching a couple fish in a spot doesn't mean pike are just passing through. It could mean that in response to environmental stimuli, they're just beginning to arrive, and in the coming days, they'll greatly fortify their numbers. At northern latitudes, transformations in the underwater environment of Esox lucius occur fast. Accelerated water temperatures, aquatic plant growth, and in some environs, current, induce immediate movements of baitfish and predators. Thankfully, with few exceptions, moving pike are biting pike. This offers ample incentive to get out there and cast.
When Minnesota's pike season opens in May, bigger fish are already in the midst of relocating. If spring has been warm, larger pike may have already taken up feeding stations far from spawning zones. Conversely, cool rainy springs can keep big fish in shallow locales, provided the water has warmed enough to attract baitfish into the vicinity.
On a recent opening day, a friend and I caught five large fish in stump-filled backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River before moving to a nearby lake in the evening where we boated more big pike trolling over 100 feet of water. Other years during that period, we've chased big, trout-eating pike in flooded mine pits, often colliding with some monsters in sunken forests.
On nearby mesotrophic natural lakes, there's opportunity to catch big fish on inside edges of new cabbage stands, as well as on 15- to 20-foot rock and gravel points. On other lakes, so long as water temperatures remain in the lower-60°F range, some gators may still be lingering in shallow bays populated by panfish and bass. Meanwhile, on windy reservoirs in Nebraska's Sandhills region, or high-country impoundments in Colorado, pike often have already shifted from shallow upper reaches to main-lake structure.
Sand on the Shield
Farther north, waters warm more slowly, and in early May, pike often linger in shallow bays where they spawned — particularly in larger lakes such as Rainy, Wabigoon, and Lake of the Woods. Later, as water temps climb into the low to mid-60s, the spring-to-summer transition occurs.
It's at this time you often spot Jeff "Gussy" Gustafson afloat in his Lund Predator in areas he calls "in-between" zones — blossoming Potamogeton beds adjacent to the main lake basin. "Everybody knows that cabbage and other pike-attracting vegetation grow in the middle of large bays," says the Kenora, Ontario, based Guide and tournament angler. "Those can be good spots, but they get fished hard."
Years ago, Gustafson discovered an interesting pattern that remains largely overlooked, despite being conspicuous. "On rocky lakes in my area, sand areas can be tough to find, but they can be gems. Any time I come across an isolated beach, especially if it's removed from the main basin, I take note. Often, you find some beautiful early cabbage growing here in 6 to 12 feet of water, and it can hold a bunch of predators.
"I discovered this pattern while fishing for early-summer walleyes years ago. 'Eyes often load up on these beach spots, and they become important forage for big pike during the late May to June transition. If you hit it right, it can be a sweet bite for big pike."
While he's caught pike on weedy beaches in many conditions, Gustafson's found that when wind rolls through the cabbage, it's game-on, and something as simple as a 3/4- to 1-ounce spinnerbait can be as good as it gets. Particularly appealing are heavier bass-sized options, including Northland's Magnum Reed Runner in the White Bass pattern. When wind lies down and pike move out past 8-foot depths, he casts a 5- to 6-inch swimbait rigged on a 1/2-ounce jighead with a big hook. He's found that while many anglers favor lighter heads, a heavier jighead helps activate the tail and brings the bait to life. The 51„2-inch Jackall Ammonite Shad and 5-inch Bass Magnet Shift'r Shad are Gussy's favorite swimbaits, both large in profile and full of action. He prefers blue and pearl blue hues for most of his fishing.
On some beaches, cabbage beds form defined edges, which are visible beneath the surface on sunny days. Gustafson logs waypoints along these edges, so he can return and fish them precisely, especially on cloudy days when cabbage isn't visible.
When fishing edges, he's found that a big jerkbait outfishes other lures. "The Jackall Squad Minnow 128 is an oversized bass jerk, and it's a beauty for big pike. It casts a mile and gives off a ton of sound. And it holds up to violent gashes better than a lot of other baits." So long as walleyes or perch linger on sand, Gussy finds pike there, sometimes well into summer. Particularly when the wind blows, a number of big pike can be caught from just one beach area.
Great Lakes Gators
In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan surveys the vast waters of the Great Lakes in hopes of encountering pike passing by small spots. To narrow the search, he focuses on bays, harbors, and rivers — especially where current pushes against solid structure. Current is key to pike location, he says, especially in early summer, before vegetation matures.
"Throughout the Great Lakes, current occurs where wind pushes water through any structural narrows," Ryan says. "Harbor mouths, breaks in seawalls, shipping channels, pier heads, points, and saddle areas can all attract pike. In shipping lanes, flows can be intense, so current breaks become key locations for baitfish. In most areas, current is fairly subtle, providing just enough movement to make pike face forward into moving water.
"Along windblown rockpiles, emerging weededges, or long fast-breaking contour lines, I fish aggressively, casting a #7 Rippin' Rap," he says. Wielding a fast-action spinning rod with 20-pound-test Sufix 832 Advanced Superline and a light 10-inch leader, he casts to up-current sides of cover or current breaks, letting the lure sink to the bottom before ripping it quickly 3 to 5 feet up. He allows the bait to settle before ripping it again. "The combination of the loud rattle and intense vibration alerts pike in the area. Most fish whack the lure as it settles, following the second rip."
If no bites occur, he continues working the Rippin' Rap by lifting the rod from 10 to 11 o'clock to make the bait jump 2 to 3 feet before pausing and shimmying on the fall. He notes that bottom contact isn't necessary beyond the first two rips, as he begins varying retrieve speed and depths. "Pike often follow these baits to the boat without biting," he says. "So as I near the end of the retrieve, I often allow the lure to pause under the boat and then give one more quick rod rip and drop before finishing. Trailing pike often react instinctively and snatch the lure as it falls back."
In clear waters with shad or shiners, Ryan prefers patterns such as Helsinki Shad, Pearl Grey Shiner, and Chrome Blue. As water warms, firetiger hues become standouts.
He says that one potentially terrific pike spot, especially early in the season, is in and around wood pilings, such as old bridges or boat slips. "Even when the water is still in the upper 50s and low 60s, radiant solar heat warms the surrounding water and draws bait — shiners, perch, crappies, and rock bass. Pike hole up here, too. If you can decipher casting lanes through rows of objects like old dock posts, you trigger crazy strikes."
Like Gustafson, Ryan brandishes a spinnerbait or double-bladed bucktail and retrieves it through the cover like a miniature obstacle course. "Watching a big pike turn on the surface and flare its gills on my lure is a rush, so I often burn a double #7 or #8 bladed bucktail, bulging it just under the surface. This move usually reveals big fish in the area."
For fishing blades fast, Ryan cranks an Abu Garcia Revo Rocket with 65-pound braid and a 7-foot 6-inch heavy-power casting rod. Accuracy is key to maximizing the productivity of each cast. He also prefers in-line lures with single treble hooks, as forward-riding trebles often grab wood when battling pike. Spinnerbaits are especially good when cover becomes too dense for in-lines. His favorites for thick wood complexes include the Tandem Nutbuster spinnerbait by Llungen Lures, while the bass-sized profile of the Nutbuster Jr. continues triggering gashes when pike short-strike larger baits.
Rainbows and Reservoirs
Non-native pike are often regarded as public enemy number-one out West. In Colorado, where trout reign supreme, pike are detested by purists because of their appetite for rainbow, brown, and brook trout. Biologists share that sentiment, and have in recent years lifted length and bag limits for pike and lumped them in with bullheads and other "rough fish."
Fishing guide Nate Zelinsky targets big pike on a string of Rocky Mountain impoundments, each flush with freshly stocked rainbow snacks. The waters he fishes — Spinney Mountain, Eleven Mile, Tarryall, Williams Fork, and Stagecoach reservoirs — also contain ample spawning habitat and have self-sustaining pike populations.
"Pike in these high-country lakes spawn in April, and by the first week of May they've often recovered and on a torrential bite," Zelinsky says. "They feed heavily for about a three-week period in May. Sometimes, good fishing lasts into June. I call it the rainbow bite.
"Big pike move along 15- to 20-foot zones bordering large weedflats," he says. "Trout feed on scuds that live in vegetation, and as they move off the flat, pike pick them off. Active pike also occasionally cruise over these shallow areas, but the true shallow bite doesn't take off until the water warms in June."
While Eleven Mile and Spinney produce numbers of pike, including lots of upper-30-inchers, a good day in May on Tarryall yields four to six fish over 40 inches. "The Tarryall fish are monstrous, but it's not a numbers thing there. Spinney has huge pike, too. We've caught a couple over 30 pounds there. They're short fish. In 2010 I caught a giant that broke 30 pounds yet measured no more than 45 inches."
Zelinsky's favorite approach is to locate a prominent weed point with 15 to 20 feet of water nearby. He uses his Minn Kota iPilot's Spot-Lock feature to hold on the point, often spending an entire 6-hour guide trip on one spot. "On Tarryall, pike cruise outside the 12- to 18-foot weedline, hunting for trout as they move on and off the flat. Big pike can swim through any time so I often use sonar to spot and work individual fish patrolling the area," he says.
Holding his boat a cast length from the weedline, he casts big jerkbaits and swimbaits around his position. At times, to locate new spots and roaming fish, he trolls the same baits, before stopping and zooming in. His primary offerings are 8- and 10-inch Storm Kickin' Minnows, which he fishes aggressively.
"I work these lures with a twitch-burn-stop retrieve, which triggers following fish," he says. "In colder water, I use a standard jerk-pause retrieve. It seems they get smarter each season. The water on these reservoirs is clear, unless the wind riles things up. Pike can be leader-shy so I use medium-heavy casting tackle with 14-pound Berkley FireLine and a short fluorocarbon leader of 10-, 12-, or 17-pound test. When fish are highly selective. I sometimes weave tufts of red yarn into the gills of these baits, giving the effect of a wounded, bleeding trout, which pike go nuts over."
Zelinsky says that by early June, water temperatures climb into the 60s and pike start feeding during short windows atop shallow weedflats. He's not certain how many more years anglers will be able to chase these colossal trout-eating pike because of the assault on their populations. "Although numbers of pike are declining in some waters, the size and physique of the remaining fish are amazing."
While it remains common to catch pike in many mesotrophic natural lakes that average 1 to 3 pounds, you can inflate that number by a factor of five or more working near the surface over the deepest water in the lake.
On lakes with 50 to 100 feet of water that also house ciscoes (although not essential), some of the largest pike hunt in the top 10 feet of the water column away from vegetation or structure. This pattern first develops once water temperature hits at least 60°F on the surface, which is often earlier than many anglers realize. The lack of vegetation at that time also plays a role, drawing baitfish into the basin to eat plankton and emerging insects.
By the time you start marking baitfish in open water, or see them rising on the surface, pike are already out there. Most pike are from the surface to about 10 feet down, with many strikes occurring no deeper than 5 feet. Some of the biggest pike I've caught on these lakes strike so shallow that the surface explodes.
It's possible to catch decent sized pike in emerging Potamogeton during this period. But the fishing there is hit or miss during the spring-to-summer transition. The open-water option is stable — at east once you've established fish presence. Even severe fronts scarcely affect the fishing.
What's changed in recent years are the electronic tools we use to find and stay on fish. While I would never have thought to stop trolling and cast to open-water fish just a few years ago, during the past two seasons, this approach has become feasible and even efficient. Using Humminbird 360 Imaging sonar in concert with Minn Kota iPilot and Spot-Lock, targeting individual pike in open water has become a legitimate strategy. Drive around the basin and scan for the thickest clusters of bait — ciscoes and shiners as well as crappies, sunfish, and perch. In shallower lakes, tiny sunfish often assemble en masse in open water in early to mid-summer. The same type of fishing applies there.
Reading the 360 sonar dial like a clock, drop a waypoint on thick bait schools and individual white "slivers," which indicate pike. Hit Spot-Lock on the iPilot remote and fire a cast to the area — say a fish appears at 2 o'clock. Big spoons like Sebile's Onduspoon seem to produce more bites than do crankbaits or swimbaits while casting to open-water pike. During the best open-water fishing, it's not rare to catch up to a dozen pike, many running 5 to 15 pounds.
On those warm, late spring to early summer days, you can achieve near pike perfection. Arrive on the river at dawn and cast spinnerbaits in remote backwaters. Shift to a mine pit at noon, swimbaiting trout replicas through flooded timber. By 5 p.m., launch on a nearby deep lake, trolling and casting for pelagic pike. Transition means movement. Pike remain in perpetual motion. Might as well follow their lead. –
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt lives in the Brainerd Lakes area and contributes to all In€‘-Fisherman publications.