July 14, 2011
By Cory Schmidt
In certain trout-happy sections of North America, pike get as much respect as sea lampreys and bighead carp. In parts of Alaska, pike, though native, have been regarded as unfit for human consumption, their flesh fed to sled dogs. A biologist from a western state once told me that it wouldn't bother him if every pike in his district suddenly floated to the surface. Little doubt that such infamy is based on their vast appetite for mouthfuls of beloved trout.
In most of these regions pike aren't native, though nearly as often, it's trout who've invaded the neighborhood as well — a distinction that can be controversial, given that fishery agencies frequently plant rainbows into non-native waters.
That pike eat trout is a biological reality, though certain trout purists abhor the idea. Pike prefer coldwater, particularly big pike. So do trout. The pike's preferred temperature is about 64°F, the rainbow's 61°F. Throughout most of the season, they mingle in almost every lake zone, giving pike access to a handy food source.
Trout make nice soft meals — a trait that makes them more appetizing than prickly sunfish or perch. Studies indicate that pike select soft-rayed fish such as ciscoes, suckers, and trout first, followed by yellow perch, and finally sunfish.
Not surprisingly, what trout do for pike mirrors what they do to nourish Florida-strain largemouth bass in California reservoirs. Pike that eat trout grow quickly, becoming stout-bodied fish with rather small heads. What further enhances the trophy status of pike-trout fisheries is that many of them are deep, clear, infertile waters with limited spawning habitat. Pike can't become as abundant as in other types of lakes. This creates lower-density populations of robust individuals, not swarms of snakes.
In western trout reservoirs from Colorado to Saskatchewan, fluctuating water levels limit the growth of shallow vegetation where pike typically spawn. In many of these waters, test-netting samples range from 1 to 8 fish per lift, compared to 15 to 30 in many northern natural lakes. That's also true for deep lakes and reclaimed mine pits throughout the continent, where spawning habitat is minimal.
That's not to say you can't catch lots of pike in such lakes. Given their aggressive nature, especially during certain periods, it's possible to hook a dozen pike in the 8- to 20-pound range in a day. Great fishing often occurs after plantings of catchable-size rainbows so don't overlook boat accesses where fishery crews stock fish. Pike and other predators know these locations and fishing them soon after a plant can yield incredible fishing.
In high-country mountain reservoirs, pike become most active in late spring and again in late summer, particularly on shallow flats where they cruise for trout that forage on emerging insects. In warmer climates, pike predation on trout begins again after fall turnover, as oxygen and temperature barriers vanish.
Of course, it's impossible to make generalizations about all the fisheries where pike and trout coexist. Some of them are small windswept impoundments. Some are reservoirs cut into rocky, mountainous terrain. Others occur in two-story lakes in the Upper Midwest. These waters host warmwater fish such as bass and panfish in littoral zones, as well as trout and large pike in deeper, cooler zones. Even in reclaimed mine pits with deep infertile basins, pike grow to gargantuan sizes on a nearly exclusive trout diet.
Several weeks to over a month after ice-out in the mountain reservoirs of western states, pike become increasingly aggressive as sunlight boosts weedgrowth on shallow flats. Most flats occur in the upper reaches of reservoirs or the back ends of creek arms. If you don't live in reservoir country, it's hard to believe how much water-level fluctuations affect fishing. Heavy winter snows produce a deluge of spring runoff, easily raising levels 10 feet or more. High water almost always springboards excellent fishing, particularly if the weather gradually warms.
Water-level changes are another reason pike don't proliferate in these waters — low-water years erase spawning habitat. And a rapidly rising water table can foil spawning success.
In most cases, fishing usually doesn't begin to take off until water temperatures reach the low-50°F range. At higher altitudes, the bite can be delayed for many weeks after ice-out. In some of the better western reservoirs I've fished, an accurate indicator of postspawn pike activity coincides with the onset of substantial midge hatches. This phenomenon is unmistakable, as midge flies sound like hordes of buzzing mosquitoes that luckily don't bite.
In waters where livebait is allowed, fishing can be consistent in early spring using large live- and deadbaits. In many designated trout waters, however, natural baits are banned, and luring pike with artificials can be tricky then. Peak fishing typically occurs after the spawn, during the first warm days of the year.
On expansive feeding flats, it can be beneficial to beach the boat and cover territory by wading. In water less than 4 feet deep, pike can be excruciatingly spooky. This shallow fishing always reminds me of scanning Florida's flats for bonefish.
When I lived out west, I'd join friends Keith Wilder and Matt Stammel on calm mornings when we'd stand like herons, motionless for many minutes, scanning the surface for cruising trout or tailing pike. At least one of us would usually wield an 8-weight flyrod and a 6- to 10-inch black Zonker. The Sluggo Fly, Glimmer Minnow, and Bucket Mouth Bow were other exceptional flies for this scenario.
In calm sight-fishing conditions, fly-fishing often is the best approach. There's something about the undulating action of a long bunny- or leech-style fly that pike drool over. When you drop a big fly on a northern's snout, it rarely spooks and often snaps.
Fancasting with spinning or casting tackle works, too, though particularly in calm water, baits should be small and subtle. A #13 Rapala Original Floater in the rainbow trout pattern has been a great producer, working best with frequent jerks, pauses, and rips. When I lived in Colorado, we often used the old Husky Rapala, which we'd doctor with lead until it achieved neutral buoyancy. This was slashbait fishing before today's genre of precision minnowbaits arrived.
For inactive pike hunkered on the bottom, a simple rubber-legged bass jig is hard to beat. We'd flip a 3/8-ounce black-blue Stanley Jig dressed with a pork rind or 7-inch red shad Berkley Power Worm within 3 feet of a pike's snoot and let it sit. If the fish didn't immediately snap, we'd start shaking the jig in place.
By violently quivering your hand while palming casting reel, you can get the tips of a jig skirt and trailing worm to dance. Picture the jighead rapidly jumping up and down in place — that's the movement you want to impart. Sometimes you have to do this for a minute or two to get a fish to snap, but it remains one the most effective triggers for shallow, reluctant pike. When the fish strikes, rapidly raise the rod and you hook up, as the pike scoots away in an eruption of water and teeth.
As much as we loved sight-fishing on shallow flats, the calm waters it required occurred much less frequently than we would have liked. By late morning, winds usually kick up. Then we'd turn to blind-casting with willowleaf spinnerbaits or Rapalas and Cordell Red-Fins.
In recent years, swimbaits such as Tru-Tungsten's Tru-Life 8-inch Rainbow Trout have become the undisputed masters at fooling enormous trout-gorging pike. Even in waters where pike never see a salmonid, trout baits often reign supreme. I've seen anglers quit fishing swimbaits after a few trials, however, because they simply reel them steadily and fail to entice many strikes. With a steady retrieve, pike follow and nip at the tail, but don't eat the baits the way they should.
The solution is to choose a bait like the Tru-Life Trout, Strike King King Shad, or Castaic Rock Hard Trout, that can be burned fast without flipping over. Not all swimbaits are designed for such speed. You don't need to constantly speed-reel them, but you should inject bursts of acceleration several times during each cast.
The other move is to rip a bait every so often — get it to dart to the side and jump in circular arcs. Popping the rod tip makes a Tru-Life turn away in a sharp 90-degree arc. Done right, with a slight pause just before the rod pop, the bait can execute a complete 180-degree turn. If you've ever seen a trout stricken with whirling disease, that's the motion you want to duplicate. (Search youtube.com for footage). It's a rapid succession of turns and whirling circles. Big pike can't resist, especially when you create that movement in front of a following fish. Invest in a few high-end trout baits and practice retrieves. You won't believe the things you can do with them.
When retrieving a swimbait, you often feel a sharp rap. If the fish doesn't get hooked (don't set right away), it usually means they've hit the tail. Immediately speed the bait, then pause and give it a couple rips before commencing a rapid retrieve. If you continue to reel straight and steady, pike tend to follow the lure to the boat and dart off at the last second, never to be seen again.
I haven't done well with trout baits in calm scenarios. Pike follow, but I haven't triggered nearly as many strikes as with flies, jigs, or minnowbaits. Add a moderate surface chop, however, and swimbaits are back in business. Otherwise, reserve these trout clones for water deeper than 5 feet. Even in waters without trout, they're some of the finest big baits you can throw.
Once water temperatures climb into the mid-60°F range, most trout have already shifted into deeper, cooler water. Given evening insect hatches, some trout feed near the surface on and off all summer, particularly in cooler climates. You still have brief shots at shallow pike, but most of them are small fish. While smaller pike remain shallow all summer, most over 5 pounds filter into deeper water along with the trout.
The specifics of these seemingly parallel movements haven't been much studied to my knowledge. Yet there's ample evidence that pike continue eating trout throughout the year. This often means they roam open water, staying within temperature and oxygen ranges. Many pike-trout waters are oligotrophic, with ample dissolved oxygen in the deep waters of the hypolimnion.
Though fish can be at nearly any depth, during the day they're rarely shallower than 20 feet and usually no deeper than 50. If pike and trout are deeper than 30 feet, however, I don't target them, as few survive the fight to the surface. In clear water, run baits 10 to 15 feet above the level of the fish; pike won't hesitate to streak up for a lure.
To find fish, motor over the deep basin and scan with sonar. On big water, you can narrow your deepwater search to the mouths of creeks arms, major points that approach the river channel, or the precipitous terrain near the dam. Once you're over the right sections, the depth range fish favor usually becomes evident. Continue scanning until you've marked enough small arches (trout) to zero in on the active zone.
Now, troll multiple lines with large plugs, lipped swimbaits, or spoons. Run planer boards on outside lines with divers like 7-inch Cisco Kids, Magnum Rapalas, or Musky Armor Krushers. Rig inside lines with leadcore and moderately large spoons, such as the Sebile Onduspoon or Williams Whitefish.
Another fine trolling selection is Castaic's 9-inch Hard Head Quick Snap, a lipped swimbait with replaceable soft-plastic tail. In European pike waters, this lure has been a favorite for several years, particularly in German lakes and the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea. In recent years, the Hard Head has trolled up many pike over 30 pounds, including a jaw-dropping 531„2-inch 47-pound specimen from Starnberger See near Munich.
The Hard Head was designed as a bass bait, so replace its factory trebles with 6/0 Mustad 3551 hooks or something similar. German anglers also run a 4-inch wire stinger that trails the lure's tail. Crimp a length of stranded wire to the eye of the belly hook and let it trail freely, tipped with a 3/0 or 4/0 treble.
Troll with 30-pound PowerPro braid and a 12-inch fluorocarbon leader of 80-pound Seaguar. With 100 feet of line behind a board, a 9-inch "Slow Sink" Hard Head dives to about 16 feet. But you can go beyond 20 feet by doubling line length or adding a 1-ounce in-line weight. Don't hesitate to troll fast — 3 to even 6 mph in short bursts. Speed bursts are powerful triggering moves for pike, not just with plugs or swimbaits, but large spoons as well. To activate a lure behind a planer board, make a sharp inside turn, which whips the outside board and surges the lure forward.
When trolling basin areas, it's often effective to slide toward sharp drop-offs. In mine-pit lakes I fish, big pike hang around submerged trees that lie on the top of breaks into 50 to 100 feet of water. Try that move along vertical rock walls, deep humps, steep riprap on dams, and weed walls adjacent to the deep basin. Pods of trout follow these deep outer edges, and pike make speedy attacks at opportune moments. Deep structures are great places to juice the throttle — get lures to jump ahead as they approach cover objects or structure.
In key spots, you can switch to casting. Among standing timber, I've caught several large pike by saturating the cover with casts. The Tru-Life Rainbow Trout is nearly always my go-to bait here, but sometimes it takes many casts to trees from various angles to tempt pike to dash out and eat.
Within the scope of shallow and deep patterns outlined here, additional presentations work on specific waters and others are yet to be discovered. Everywhere the species overlap, pike eat like kings. Some of the most vibrant trophy pike fisheries occur where trout are stocked. In these waters, pike tend to be overlooked or even despised, depending on where you live. But in most waters, they aren't going anywhere, so trophy pike specialists can reap the benefits.
*Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Nisswa, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler and regular contributor to In€‘Fisherman publications.