By Chris Nelson
It’s no secret that many fishermen disrespect northern pike. Small pike are maligned as snakes, hammerhandles and a dozen other negative terms, and walleye purists simply feel insulted when duped by a 20-inch “slimer.”
In my opinion, pike are blast to catch, and with the exception of maybe the white bass, nothing rivals them as a kid-friendly fish to battle. They’re aggressive, great fighters and good eating, too. Sure, you don’t want to let your 6-year-old unhook one alone, but landing a nice pike does wonders for a young angler’s confidence.
However, a distinction must be made between pike and big pike. Big pike are different, and the term different is not uncommon in nature whether you’re talking about big fish or big deer or big anything else. There are behavioral differences among some of our favorite hunting and fishing creatures after they reach trophy status. They’re just … well, different.
I chase big pike, which has meant thousands of hours of fishing and thinking about how to catch springtime pike. It has also meant listening to and learning from a lot of people.
This is what I’ve learned fishing reservoirs, specifically Lake Oahe. Sakakawea and Oahe are sister reservoirs, and much of what works on one works on the other. I also believe many of these same ideas can be adapted to smaller reservoirs, such as Shadehill near Lemmon or Angostura near Hot Springs, and some of this will also translate to natural lakes or rivers, as well.
There are many approaches and tactics for springtime pike on reservoirs. The most popular and productive approach for average fishermen is soaking rainbow smelt from shore. It’s not complicated, and it’s effective.
Using large rainbow smelt in the right spot can be lethal on pike. Picking smelt is easy — buy the largest you can find. Picking your spot takes a little more work.
Springtime Locations for Reservoir Pike
Lakes Oahe and Sakakawea are well known in the Dakotas for producing big pike. In fact, the North Dakota state-record weighing 37 pounds, 8 eight ounces came from Sakakawea, and the South Dakota record of 36 pounds, 3 ounces came from Oahe. And for the last few springs, social media has been speckled with plenty of reservoir pike photos where the fish were tipping the scales at well over 25 pounds.
Both reservoirs grow monster pike because of low fishing pressure and abundant prey. The oily, fatty rainbow smelt are like candy bars for pike. Shiners, white bass, perch and other prey are also on the buffet, and when conditions are right, pike will optimize their growth potential from fry to adult.
However, both reservoirs are massive, which means you can’t wet a line anywhere and expect success. In fact, you can rule out about 90 percent of each reservoir in the spring during your quest for pike.
The pre-spawn period is the best time to catch a giant. As the ice goes out on the reservoirs, instinct will position pike near spawning habitats. On these larger reservoirs, that’s the feeder creeks and bays trailing off the reservoir’s main body. When it comes to Lake Oahe, this includes tributary rivers such as the Cheyenne, Moreau and Grand Rivers, as well as their respective tributary or feeder creeks.
Many of these creeks are similar. All will hold pike in the spring, but some will seem to hold more than others. The most important feature to look for in a creek is access to shallow water and spawning habitat. If you can find this, you can intercept pike.
Creeks with both deep and shallow water are never a bad bet. They provide shallow spawning habitat and deep, cool water during the summer. These creeks will have resident pike that spend the whole year in the creek.
These diverse creeks also contain inundated trees and vegetation, which pike will lay eggs on when the water temperature reaches 40-45 degrees. These areas of vegetation grow when the reservoir is low and flood when it rises. Even in years where water doesn’t drop and allow new vegetation to grow, pike will still be in these creeks looking for it.
Keeping on the theme of variety, not all areas of these creeks will retain equal amounts of vegetation. Too little vegetation may mean fewer pike, while too much vegetation may render a spot unfishable.
Also, ultra-shallow creeks and bays will pull pike in during the spring. Their waters warm first, which makes the shallows act like a magnet for pike. In this instance, shallow means 20 feet or less.
The auxiliary spillway just above the Oahe Dam is a great example. When the water elevations are sufficient to fill it, it’s like a mini hot tub for pike. Wandering pike will find their way into the shallow entrenchment and fishing can be absolutely fantastic.
During years with plentiful snowfall, some creeks will be running in the spring. Pike will run up into that narrow, flowing water, much like fish running up the flowage of a natural lake. If you find a running creek in the spring that dumps into a reservoir, you can find pike.
However, most fishing will take place in the back ends of bays and creeks with little or no running water. But just because you’re in a good area doesn’t mean you’re in the right spot. You’ve got to target the best area of that spot.
First thing I look for is the correct water depth. When I cast my smelt a half to full cast, I want it to land in 6 to 13 feet of water. This isn’t because pike are only found at these depths — it’s because that spread of depth indicates that I’m not fishing an area too deep or too shallow. I’m on a gently sloping shelf, right where I want to be.
If you’re shore bound and unsure of the shelf depth, cast a jig with one of your walleye rods and count it down. Or, invest in a castable sonar device that can transmit depth readings back to your phone or mobile device.
Some of these shelves drop off into the abyss and you could end up way too deep if you don’t pay attention. Conversely, some shelves extend several hundred feet without dropping much at all. Another general tip to help calibrate your depth is if you’re picking up catfish or eelpout, you’re probably too deep.
A point or the side of a point with a gentle slope attracts pike cruising for food and provides them an environment to stage before they spawn. They’re just waiting for conditions to turn ideal. While varying their depths pike cruise these areas, sometimes hourly, depending on water temperature and weather conditions.
During stable, sunny weather pike will move shallow. When a front moves in, those fish will move deeper. Large fronts, especially right after ice out, will often force pike to suspend in deeper water. You can mark these fish on your locator from a boat and catch them, but it makes for tough shore fishing.
Stable weather, even if water and air temperatures remain cold, will keep active pike on these shelves. Often during the day there will be windows of pike activity. I can’t explain this phenomenon, but it happens.
During the springtime, sunlight intensity starts to concentrate around 10 a.m. and begins to wane around 4 p.m. Typically, I’ve had my best pike action during this midday window when the weather is sunny and stable.
Morning bites before 10 a.m. are slower. I attribute this to the fact there’s not enough sunlight to warm the water. Any bite I get before this time I consider a bonus.
The afternoon bite after 4 p.m. is even less predictable. I’ve experienced bites that last into the early evening and have caught several big pike well after what I’d anticipated as the peak time, including the last hour before sunset.
During changing weather patterns, the bite is less predictable. It may be good in the morning and die in the afternoon or vice versa. Another convention is if the winds are supposed to come out of the north and blow in a front, fish during the morning before it hits. If a south wind and warm up is predicted for the day, wait until it arrives and go in the afternoon.
The right weather and the right spot are important in the springtime. If you’ve got the luxury of picking which days you fish, plan for those stable windows of weather. If you can’t pick your days, my advice is to stick it out even when the bites aren’t coming. A big fish could happen at any time.
Water clarity also makes a difference. Pike are primarily sight feeders, so muddy water hinders that dynamic. Ultra-clear water isn’t ideal either as you can spook shallow-moving pike. Look for water with a little stain to it, if you have a choice. This water will warm quicker because of the sediments it contains and also reduces the chance of spooking shallow-cruising pike.
Also, try and fish out of the wind. Wave action limits light penetration, which warms the water.
Both Oahe and Sakakawea have the correct year-classes right now to put out trophy fish. Smaller pike in that 8- to 15-pound range will still dominate, but fish over 20 pounds are lurking.
Dead-Baiting for Big Northern Pike
There are essentially two dead-bait presentations for pike in the spring — bottom and bobber fishing. Sound simple? For the most part they are, but paying attention to details can make all the difference in getting bites and landing fish.
For this type of fishing, terminal tackle is limited to treble hooks, wire leaders and barrel swivels. A single treble hook tethered to a wire leader will work, but a quick-strike rig works better.
A quick-strike rig is simply a wire leader with two treble hooks attached to it. The hooks are commonly spaced anywhere from 3 to 6 inches apart on a standard rig. Leader length varies, but 18-24 inches is common.
The rig is simple, but not without variation. The bottom hook does not move. Depending on preference, the upper hook may be fixed or adjustable. The adjustability of the upper hook allows anglers to match the rig with bait size.
I don’t like the adjustable rigs. As a general rule, I don’t like moving parts on any rig I use for big fish. I want a solid, predictable connection at the point of attack.
Quick-strike rigs are available commercially, but I build my own. I use heavy-duty rigs with bigger hooks and heavier leaders than you find in store-bought rigs. Since they’re easy and affordable to build, it makes sense to produce exactly the type of rig you need for your situation.
For springtime reservoir pike in the Dakotas, a beefed-up version of the rig is prudent. I start with a 45-pound-test steel leader. Some people use up to 60 pounds, but I’ve never had an issue with 45-pound test and find it easy to work with. I won’t go below 45, though.
Next, I attach No. 3 and No. 4 treble hooks with steel connector sleeves. These sleeves are crimped onto the wire lashing the hooks in place. I typically put a No. 4 treble at the bottom and the No. 3 above.
I use two sizes on a single rig for a simple reason. The No. 4 is impaled toward the head of the smelt while the No. 3 is hooked toward the tail. The head, or front part, of the smelt is fatter and absorbs two prongs of the treble better, while the tail is smaller with less meat. I want as little hook exposed on either treble in order to avoid snags or picking up extra moss and weeds.
I space the hooks about 6 inches apart. This works when you’re using big 8- to 10-inch smelt. After the hooks are crimped, fasten a barrel swivel to the top and the rig is complete.
Pair this rig with a slip sinker and you’re ready to go. The slip sinker allows the fish to run without feeling resistance, but you won’t need to let them run very long with this rig, hence the “quick-strike” moniker.
After you cast, leave your bail open and lay your rod on the ground or place it in a rod holder. Attach a big bobber to the slack line between your rod tip and the water. It’s often smart to spread your rods out over a good spot to cover more water. Attaching the bobber will help you spot bites from a distance.
Clipping the bobber on the standard way works if you’ve got a buddy to clip it off for you after the hookset. Another trick is to fold the line over onto itself and clip it together. This will leave a loop sticking out. When this loop is pulled through the bobber clip during the hookset, the bobber will detach and fly off the line leaving you clear to fight the fish.
A variation of the quick-strike rig can also be suspended below a bobber. Actually, a regular quick-strike works for this, too, but I tweak the rig a little. I’m not sure it matters to the fish, but it matters to me. It’s a confidence issue, which I think does make a difference.
A regular quick-strike rig will hang vertically underneath a bobber. I like to modify it so it will hang horizontally in the water column, more like a prey fish would look naturally.
This may not make a difference, as a hungry pike isn’t going to pass up an easy meal, but because pike are primarily sight feeders, I’ve got more confidence if my smelt hangs horizontally. If you’ve ever watched a pike slide in on a spearing decoy in darkhouse, you’ll appreciate what I’m trying to mimic.
Making this variation is easy. I start by attaching a heavy-duty split ring to a leader. I’ll attach a No. 4 treble to this split ring eventually. To this split ring, I’ll attach a 5-inch leader with a No. 3 treble hook on it. Think of it like adding a stinger hook to a jig. This setup allows the smelt to hang horizontal yet retains the dual punch of the quick-strike rig.
I don’t suspend smelt under a bobber often, but it’s the ticket at times. During early ice out, when only areas around the shoreline are opening up, flipping a bobber rig out to the edge can be killer. If the wind is right, it will keep your bait right where it needs to be on the edge of the ice.
That’s it. The rigs are simple, affordable and easy to use. Pick the right spot to use them and you’ll catch pike.
Spring is the time for big pike. Put your time in at the right place with the right bait and you’ll be rewarded.
About the Author: Chris Nelson is a freelance writer from Pierre, S.D.