September 09, 2013
Long rows of rushes marched into the distance in two directions, disappearing in a haze of morning mist and fog rolling off Lake Huron. Somewhere in that murky dawn, a monster thrashed, noisy but unseen.
My first inclination was to retreat. Having feet planted on terra firma can mitigate most potential catastrophes. When you stand in water with a toothy kraken, uncertainty reigns. They may glide in easily then accelerate, like a remote-control torpedo, dragging trebles into your waders, your flesh, or both. Some open their toothy maw to clamp onto your waders. Your flesh.
Around the Great Lakes and elsewhere, remote pike hotspots that are difficult or dangerous to approach by boat can be accessed by foot soldiers armed with confidence and some simple gear. Get the timing, location, and presentation right, and pike fishing from shore becomes an angling event to remember.
Timing: Wading For Monster Pike
Four key times to target pike from shore: 1) Prespawn; 2) Postspawn; 3) Prolonged wind events from the same direction; and 4) Post-turnover to ice-up. This covers most of the open-water season.
But caveats exist. Spawning habitats (large, protected shallow flats with soft substrates) tend to be marshy. While pike are concentrated shallow, accessing nearby shoreline areas can be difficult, dangerous, or both. Occasionally, shallow, mucky bays border rocky shorelines. I have some spots like that on the Canadian Shield. Pike are protected during the spawn in northern states from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. During prespawn, deadbaits on quick-strike rigs with tandem hooks allow us to release them quickly, and early season fishing is legal in Northwest Ontario, where many excellent locations exist. The Bait Rigs Quickset Rig is still a favorite. Lay a bait on bottom rigged with a small cork or float on the line as a strike indicator. Set the hook as soon as the float dives under.
Another advantage of shore-fishing is that pike don't need to be pulled from the water. Great photos of pike stretched out in shallow water provide striking alternatives to those all-too-common "hero shots."
Bait Rig's Esox Cobra Jig with Mann's Jelly Hoo
Livetarget Blueback Herring
Lunker City Fin-S Head with Lunker City Swimfish
Mann's Super Stretch 1-Minus
Paul Jensen Muskie Clatterbait
Most pike spawn in water from 40°F to 45°F, sometimes slightly warmer, sometimes while ice lingers. At 46°F to 60°F, before dispersing into summer patterns, pike often remain shallow until perch spawn, ciscoes shift into open water, and deep weeds form. The perch spawn ends as water temperatures climb into the mid-50°F range, after deep weedbeds begin to develop.
In summer, timing a shallow bite is a matter of watching wind patterns. Floating food chains form in all kinds of lakes. As the water warms, plankton populations build. At the base of the web, plankton attracts increasing numbers of baitfish, panfish, or both as water warms. In lakes with few or no ciscoes, smelt, or other coldwater pelagic species, panfish fill that niche after they spawn, moving into open water as surface temperatures broach 70°F or so. Pike and muskies lurk below these schools all summer.
Planktonic animals can swim, but not so much. They're at the beck-and-call of wind. Where the wind blows, the food chain follows. When the wind blows in one direction for three days or more, be where the wind pushes into shore in key locations.
Early to mid-spring is a great time to patrol the bank. The bite starts at ice-out in shallow mucky bays, moves to perch-spawning areas, progressing finally to areas where deep weedlines bend close to shore on main-lake points. As perch finish spawning, some pike move to deep weedlines. Any area nearby with healthy cabbage growth at depths of 6 feet or more (down to 18 feet in clear lakes) may hold pike this time of year. They make shallow forays to prey on staging panfish until water temperatures climb toward 70°F. This pattern is common in small lakes, shallow lakes, and lakes with small to non-existent pelagic baitfish populations.
As spring gives way to summer, shoreline spots that may attract big pike are wherever deep water bends in closest to shore. In most cases, they're adjacent to the main basin — the lake's deepest basin. Bays continue to produce big pike all summer in certain kinds of lakes — most prominently deep bays in deep mesotrophic and oligotrophic lakes. These function like small lakes and often are deep enough to provide pike with a coolwater refuge during the heat of summer.
But the best patterns for shore-bound anglers occur on the main lake, where wind has more fetch. Consistent wind pushes floating food chains against shorelines. Spots along windswept shorelines may produce, but key ones are where the shore closely approaches the lake basin. GPS charts put you in the vicinity, but not with unerring accuracy. The most reliable method for finding them without a boat is with Google Earth, as satellite photography reveals landmarks that pinpoint the location of the deep-water intrusion precisely. Satellite photography often reveals where darker, deeper waters come closest to shore.
Water in lakes "turns over" as deep and shallow temperatures approach similar levels. This generally takes place as the surface waters drop below 60°F in fall. At that point, summer patterns dissipate. Shallow vegetation dwindles. Fall spawning ciscoes group up before heading shoreward to spawn. Flats become less stable with stormy fall weather. These factors tend to concentrate pike on deep weedlines, especially where deep weedlines meet rocky structures extending into the main basin. Wading is possible in those hard-bottom shoreline areas. Wind patterns remain important, but the key is finding deep vegetation meeting shallow rock on main-lake structures.
Late-fall pike patrol the inside turns of those deeper contours reaching shoreward along the sides of a point or reef. But this pattern changes north of the 60th parallel. There, pike bask in shallow water all summer. A stroll along the bank around shallow, weedy bays becomes a sight-fishing expedition with a 10-weight flyrod and an unweighted black bunny strip.
From spring through early summer, few options beat a flyrod. A big bunny-strip fly sinks slowly, giving pike more time to spot it before it sinks into the weeds, and giving you more time to work it after each cast. Postspawn pike are hungry, but physically spent. They may not chase fast presentations. The best flies are 5 to 7 inches long, sink slowly, and swim slowly. They represent a meal that seems incapable of quick escape.
A 10-weight rod or heavier is my favorite Up North. It has the backbone to pick up 25-pound tippets, titanium leaders, and bulky, water-soaked flies. And it can rip a fly through tough vegetation — even reeds and cattails. I tie leaders with a 40-pound mono butt section of about 3 feet, followed by a similar length of 30-pound, followed by a 3-foot tippet of 25-pound fluorocarbon and a hand-tied Terminator Titanium leader. I put a swivel on one end and a Berkley Cross-Lok Snap on the other end of the titanium so I can quickly change flies without having to shorten it. Titanium leaders land five times more pike before turning into a pig's tail.
With bigger lures and plastics I use both spinning and casting gear, opting for stout, heavy, 7- to 81„2-foot rods. I like flippin' sticks for larger baits, even though I never bury hooks into plastics. Pike ball them up in their mouths and hooks won't set, so I want a rod that can rip an exposed hook cleanly out of dense cabbage and coontail.
Telescopic flippin' sticks make a smaller package for walking through brush, and they're right for working skirted, weedless jigs like the J-Mac or Musky Innovations Bull Dawgs. From the bank or a wading position, I work these baits much the same way: Cast and reel. Or let them drop when you can reach deeper water, then work them back with a series of pumps and stalls. A jig can be allowed to hit bottom. From there you can steadily reel it or rip-jig it — snapping it 4 feet off bottom, letting it fall, snapping it the moment it touches, and repeating. But most cover situations in summer and early fall won't allow that so swimming often works best.
Another great tool for shorebound anglers is the St. Croix Tournament Series Slip Stick — an 8-foot telescoping rod designed for slipbobbers. But the action is right for lots of things. It's right for fishing deadbaits with floats, or working lighter plastics and lures in early spring before vegetation gets too thick. And it's a fine backup rod for working suspending baits, soft swimbaits on jigheads, and small bucktails.
It's easy to carry deadbaits. Not so easy to transport big live suckers. Dead smelt or ciscoes work well and can be packed tightly. Double-seal them in zipper-style plastic bags that fit into a backpack — another essential item for carrying lure boxes, fly boxes, rain gear, drinks, and lunch.
Quick-strike rigs, exposed-hook rigs, suspending baits, shallow-diving cranks, swimbaits, small bucktails, soft-plastic jerkbaits, hard-body jerkbaits, floats, flies — any number of items can be pitched from shore. Just match the cover to the presentation.
On small lakes, I like artificials that resemble panfish — perch, bluegill, or crappie. Spinnerbaits with firetiger or perch-pattern blades rule. In trout lakes, use ones that mimic the coloration of brookies, rainbows, or browns. On large lakes, choose blue- or green-backed lures to imitate ciscoes, smelt, herring, or alewives.
Where I can wade out to at least knee depth, my first choice tends to be a suspending bait like the Rapala Husky Jerk (HJ12 or HJ14) or Lucky Craft Pointer 100, which can trigger pike any time of year. You can prolong the presentation by snapping and twitching it in place — an important consideration when you're on the bank. If it's weedy, I twitch an unweighted Gulp! Jerk Shad or pitch a double-willow spinnerbait.
Around weeds, anything that stays high in the water column, like a bladed jig or shallow diver keeps you fishing. Another good call is a small bucktail or straight-shaft spinner. Slow-sinking versions of articulated swimbaits like the Sebile Magic Swimmer and LiveTarget BluebackHerring are great choices, too.
Lure selection is more a matter of what works in your bank-bound environment. They fish are there for one reason. Keep your fingers out of the water.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid pike chaser in all seasons.