By Mike McCafferty
Pike get no respect. The only time most anglers fish for them is during the spring when they are spawning, with the focus on catching a trophy fish. After that they’re forgotten as “walleye mania” consumes most fishermen.
I’m not most fishermen. Pike are hands-down my favorite fish. I don’t consider the pike I catch during summer to be a nuisance. Why? Because I spend a lot of hours fishing specifically for these powerful, top-of-the-line predators.
Contrary to popular belief, trophy pike can be caught year-round. In fact, the vast majority of big pike I’ve caught over the years has not been during the spawn but from the post-spawn period from June through September.
Northern pike spawn immediately after ice cover leaves a body of water, usually during late March or early April when water temperatures near 40 degrees. After they spawn, pike of all sizes tend to hang out shallow, somewhere in 8 to 12 feet of water through late June.
The reason is simple. Life in any ecosystem begins each year in shallow water when new vegetation emerges. This is when most fish species spawn shallow in the new cover, as invertebrates and crustaceans emerge, and as fry hatch and stay shallow for protection. All of the ecosystem’s activity is shallow, because that is where the food is.
Pike are loners. They’re perpetual eating machines that are constantly moving. The abundant concentration of shallow food sources can provide an endless buffet of easy pickings, so during the early post-spawn period, big pike will cruise in and along the emerging weed growth and will eat anything in sight, even other pike.
To catch them you need to get into the salad. Here are a few techniques that have worked well for me during this period.
Spinner baits (musky and bass) are extremely effective because they can be cast into or along the weeds and remain virtually snag proof as they’re retrieved at various speeds and depths with ease.
I prefer a 3/8- to 3/4-ounce spinner bait with a single blade and a big skirt. I open up the hook gap for better hook penetration, and I also like to add bait to the hook, such as a smelt, big shiner or creek chub.
The combination of the flashy blade, dancing skirt and big bait provide sight-feeding pike with a kaleidoscope of movement to focus on and devour.
Bucktail spinners work equally as well. Again, the bigger the lure, the better. Because bucktail lures have a treble hook they can snag a little easier than a spinner bait. I like to put the biggest minnows I can find on each hook of the treble. This helps minimize snagging and adds bulk to the lure’s profile.
I like to cast these lures up shallow into gaps and natural pathways in the weed cover and work them out past the deep edge of the weeds, as well as parallel to the weed edge. I use a sweep/rip technique where I let the lure settle to the bottom, slowly reel in a few turns and then quickly sweep/rip it forward. I then let it drop, slowly reel and sweep/rip it forward again. I repeat this pattern right to the boat.
Most hits will occur as the lure is ripped forward. I use this tactic the full length of the retrieve and right up to the boat because I’ve had pike follow and slam the lure as I was lifting it out of the water. I can definitely say that will get your blood pumping!
I also like to move into the weeds and slowly move through the weed pockets and pathways using my electric trolling motor.
As I creep, I vertically jig these lures. I drop them to the bottom, let them drag a little and then rip them up. The majority of hits will occur when the lure first moves up or just after it begins to drop, so be ready.
Top-water baits are another option during this period. Few things are more exciting than watching a fish hit a bait on the surface. Several species do this, and pike are one of them. It’s one of nature’s finest ballets — amazingly graceful, yet savagely executed.
Top-water baits are extremely effective in, over or along weed beds. My experience has been lure size really doesn’t matter much, because pike will attack anything smaller than a baby hippo.
I’ve caught big pike using everything from top-water bass lures such as hula poppers, a Heddon Mouse and floating frog baits to floating crankbaits and jerkbaits. Just cast them out, and like bass fishing, let them sit for several seconds before retrieving. Use a stop-and-go technique, varying the speed of each retrieval interval.
Another effective technique is an overly exaggerated walk-the-dog style, where you sweep side to side during the retrieve. Both steady and varying retrieves have proven effective. When you get it back next to the boat, let it sit for a few seconds before lifting it out for another cast. Again, I’ve had numerous pike rise from the depths like a submarine and slam it hard. I use 10-pound line with about a 12-inch steel leader for all these presentations.
Dog Days of Summer
By mid- to late June the whole approach to finding and catching big pike changes significantly.
There are two reasons for the shift. The first is that by midsummer a majority of the bigger food sources have left the shallows and dispersed throughout the ecosystem, taking the bigger pike with them.
Secondly, pike are much more sensitive to water temperature than other fish species. Small pike (up to 6 pounds or so) can tolerate much warmer water than big pike. The smaller pike will stay shallow all year long using the weeds for cover and feeding on smaller food sources that stay shallow for the same reason.
Big pike, on the other hand, become stressed when water temperatures rise beyond the high 60s, so they seek deeper, cooler water in addition to following the bigger food sources.
When I say deeper water, it’s relative to a particular ecosystem’s physical attributes. Our prairie lakes vary in shape, depth, cover and structure. Many are considered “bowl” waters with little or no diversity.
However, I have fished a good many of these waters and have discovered one thing they all have in common when it comes to pike behavior: big pike tend to suspend at various depths in the water column off the edges of weed lines, gradual slopes, old creek beds, edges of rip-rapped dam faces, etc. This is contrary to the common belief that most lunker pike hang close to the bottom.
Why do they do this? Because they can. Nothing will bother them, and they can see anything that moves for long distances in every direction.
When searching for big pike, the first thing I do is take a look at the lake with my electronics. I move slowly through deeper water and pay close attention to occasional, lone fish icons/arches that appear on my screen, where they are in regard to the shoreline and at what depths they are showing.
I’ll usually spend an hour doing this to get a feel for the lake, moving deeper on every pass around the cover/structure I mentioned above. After that, it’s time to go to work.
Contour trolling is the best and most productive method for catching big pike during the dog days of summer. I use 8-foot rods with line counters, 10-pound-test line and a 12-inch steel leader. I use deep-diving baits and use the “Precision Trolling” book. This book has diving curves for about 150 different baits (based on using 10-pound line and the amount of line let out).
Although I’ve caught big pike trolling close to the boat off the sides or out the back, I’ve had significantly more success using planer boards to help get the lures out away from the path of the boat. If I’m by myself, I put both of my rods out the same side of the boat, one about 20 feet out and the other about 40 feet out to the side under the boards.
I troll so the boards are between the shore and the boat. I vary the depth of the two deep-diving lures, with one at the top and one at the bottom of the depth range I marked during my scouting trip.
I make several passes over a selected spot in each direction parallel to the shore, changing around the rods so they are always between the shore and the boat. Like any fishing, boat direction often plays a key role in catching fish. When going after big pike, I prefer two fishermen in the boat so we can use four lines, two out each side under boards. This allows me to stagger all four lures at different depths and simply swing the boat around on each pass. Each pass will also present the lures at different depths from the shore out to the boat’s path.
Effective lures for pike are numerous, as their aggressive nature makes them apt to strike about anything that passes in front of their nose. Use large, deep-diving crankbaits that offer flash and wobble. Some of the cranks I use include Burmek B-1 Bombers, Rattlin’ Rouges, Thundersticks, Wiggle Warts, Fat Boys and various musky lures.
Although color can play a role, it is the size and action of the lure running at the right depth that is more important.
Conserving the Resource
Big pike are loners and tend to stake out a territory. My experience has been if you catch a true trophy, it’s best to move on to another spot if you want another.
I also know it takes some time for a pike to get into that 15-pound-plus size range.
Additionally, each body of water can only support a limited number of truly big fish. These big pike are extremely important to the pike population and the fishery as a whole.
Removing too many trophy pike from a body of water can seriously affect the quality of the pike fishery for several years. I encourage pike fishermen to conserve the big-pike resource on the waters they fish by photographing and releasing pike over 12 pounds once the big one is on the wall at home.