Tricks for Topwater Pike Fishing
May 08, 2014
Trophy pike hunters devote ample attention to time-tested programs. Sashaying soft plastics and slender minnowbaits through fast-warming shallows is a fine option when the main lake is nippy. As temperatures rise, bombing beefy spinnerbaits, glidebaits, and spoons around deep vegetation comes into play. A bit later in the season, trolling deep-running cranks leads the charge for targeting monsters suspended in the abyss.
Given these proven patterns' steady progression deeper in the water column, it's almost heresy to herald tactics for big topwater pike fishing. Yet that's exactly where veteran North Woods guide Bill Rosner takes his act when conditions can create one of the most exciting yet largely overlooked patterns in the summertime playbook.
After cutting his teeth on pike and muskies across Wisconsin, Rosner relocated to northern Minnesota's 40,000-acre Lake Vermilion. He's fine-tuned a number of productive still-water patterns for plucking giants from the big lake's root beer-colored waters. One of his favorites for taking numbers of pike topping 10 to 15 pounds happens in flowing water on the lake's main outflow. "The Vermilion River runs 42 miles north to Crane Lake," he explains. "It gets very little fishing pressure and offers great pike fishing."
Rosner likens the Vermilion to similar mid-sized rivers across the Pike Belt. "In some sections it looks like a Montana trout stream, while in others you have long flat stretches," he says. "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." That's all the more reason Rosner's warm-weather topwater tactics should perk up the ears of anglers everywhere.
As if talking topwaters wasn't unusual enough when discussing big summertime pike, Rosner admits his pattern catches fire when clouds of dragonflies fill the air. "It's not uncommon to see fish rolling and jumping when there's a hatch or a lot of insects buzzing over the surface," he begins. "But I always thought those splashes and ripples were from bass. Then one day I turned to look upriver just in time to see a 10-pound-plus pike launch out of the water at a full-grown dragonfly."
With that event in mind, he set about laying the foundation for a reliable topwater plan for river-run pike. "From mid-June into the weeds start to die off in September, pike feed on top when hordes of dragonflies start cruising just above the surface," he says. "I live close to the river, and can usually tell when it's going to happen by how many dragonflies are buzzing around my yard. Anytime there are significant numbers of large insects that close to the water, pike — including big fish — feed on top."
Weather conditions also are key. "It's best with less than 5 mph winds," he says. "Higher than that and it gets sketchy. Rain doesn't help, either. You can still catch pike on topwaters in the rain, but the bug connection disappears."
Rosner looks for places where dragonflies have ample forage. "They love little bugs, so some areas of the river are better than others. Soft-bottom areas close to cabbage, wild rice, and other vegetation in water 1 to 8 feet are prime. Topwaters are best over large vegetated flats with light current. Rice beds on inside bends are also good, especially when they abut cabbage beds. If you're checking a section with strong flow, look for eddies adjacent to downed trees and logjams."
When Rosner sets his sights on a promising reach, he eases quietly into the area with his trolling motor. "Keep commotion to a minimum," he warns. "You don't want to disrupt feeding activity or spook pike out of shallow areas." As he idles in, he watches for signs of feeding pike. "A jumping fish is hard to miss," he grins. "But you may see just swirls or wakes. If the water's clear enough, you can often spot big fish skulking along the bottom."
Rosner recommends casting past the fish. And much depends on the mood of the pike. "Let the fish dictate how to work a topwater," he says. "Often the lure hits the water and there's an explosion as a pike darts over and blasts it right away. Other times, you have to work harder to get them to commit."
The optimum cadence varies with conditions, fish reactions, and the lure itself. For example, one of Rosner's favorite topwaters is the Booyah Pad Crasher. "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 the weeds and work it out without getting hung up." Typical animation includes a twitch shortly after ripples subside, followed up by a series of pulls and pauses. At times, a straight pull gets the nod, too. "Pike love frog baits, so there's no right or wrong way to fish them."
When pike are patrolling a cabbage bed adjacent to a wall of rice, Rosner may sling a bit beefier and noisier bait such as Bucher's 7-inch TopRaider. The rotating tail adds a seductive plop-plop-plop to the mix of sensory cues to provoke strikes from fish under the canopy.
"Cast to the edge of the rice, let the bait settle a few seconds, then start your retrieve," he says, noting that experimentation often helps to dial in the right speed. "Sometimes they like it so slow the tail is barely moving. Other times, you have to burn it to get bit." He also recommends experimenting with perpetual motion instead of intermittent pauses. "Steady is hard to beat with baits like this, but pike don't read the playbook," he says.
Rosner adds that like muskies, big pike may follow the bait to the boat without striking. "If you can't get the fish to hit near the cover or in the target area, don't give up," he says. "When an incoming bait is about eight feet away and heading straight for the boat, I plunge the rod tip into the water and bring the lure parallel to the boat with an L-shaped rod sweep. Often, the sudden dive, change of direction, and burst of speed causes a following fish to nail it." If it misses the bait or follows multiple times but won't commit, he gives it a rest.
Propbaits are another fine option. Rosner ranks Heddon's Magnum Torpedo high on his list. "As with the TopRaider, it's generally best to keep the bait moving once you get the blade turning," he notes. "But there are exceptions. Don't be afraid to pause it once in awhile." Other favorites include globe-style baits like Medusa's Topwater Musky Globe, along with the 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. "There are times when a slow walk-the-dog presentation takes big pike when nothing else works," he notes.
His favorite colors lean toward the natural side of the spectrum. "I like to match natural prey, whether it's dragonfly or baitfish colors. Black shiner and perch are great. But in general, dark baits are the rule on dark days, while lighter patterns are better in bright conditions."
Strikes range from acrobatic assaults and bathtub-sized eruptions to subtle swirls. "Sometimes it's hard to tell if it's a big smallmouth or a pike hitting the bait. Or they may miss the lure and their whole body flies out of the water like a missile."
Topwater piking is a great program for adrenaline junkies. The natural reaction to an explosive topwater strike is an instant hook-set. But be patient with the bait before you set," he says. "Then get them up and moving so they don't bury in weeds or wrap in timber."
When throwing mid-sized topwaters, Rosner favors relatively light tackle such as a 7-foot medium to medium-heavy spinning outfit. His pick is a St. Croix Premier paired with a 3500 Daiwa Lexa, spooled with green, 10- to 20-pound-test Sufix 832 or PowerPro braid. "If you go too heavy, you kill a topwater bait's action," he cautions. "But for slinging spinnerbaits or bigger topwaters, I switch to an 8-foot, medium-heavy St. Croix Legend Top-N-Tail matched with a Lexa 300 baitcaster and 40- to 65-pound braid."
When following the dragonfly pattern, he favors fluorocarbon leaders. "No lighter than 30-pound-test, no heavier than 90," he says. "Sevenstrand or titanium leaders are my next choice." Leader length averages a foot, though Rosner tweaks length and pound-test until he finds the best match for each lure and situation.
Though not technically topwaters, spinnerbaits are a key component to Rosner's dragonfly system. "There's something about a spinnerbait bulging just under the surface that gets under a big pike's skin," he says. Top picks include the Bucher Mini and Tandem SlopMasters, Booyah Pikee, Lindy Big Fin, and Lindy M&G Muskie Tandem. Plastic tippings such as a 3- or 4-inch YUM Walleye Grub add attraction to baits in the 1/2-ounce class, while larger offerings excel undressed.
"Make a long cast," Rosner recommends, "engage the reel just before the bait hits the water, and bulge it back to the boat with a steady retrieve so the blades churn the water. Always perform an L-sweep alongside the boat. Big pike are a lot like muskies — you catch half of them next to the boat."