Whether you are fishing in Alaska, Arkansas, West Virginia, Wisconsin or take a charter flight to the Northwest Territory, one of the largest game fish anglers target is the northern pike. Northern pike have the "never turn down a meal" attitude. Suckers, smelt, perch, shiners, crappie, sunfish and even small pike are all on the pike's menu of prey. Northerns are unpredictable. You take your chances when fishing pike waters, but in the end the venture is worthwhile.
While many lakes are overrun with what anglers call "hammer handles", a quality lake will hold good numbers of three-pounders as a norm with a ten-pounder or larger moving into the heavyweight class. The northern pike relates to temperature, oxygen content and structure. Their ideal habitat is where a stream or river meets the lake, and a flat weedline area provides cover next to deeper water.
To catch pike, you must know and understand these feisty critters. Northerns are spring spawners. The temperature of the water that prompts the spawn is between 40 to 52 degrees, but their preferred water temperature is 65 degrees. The water wolf is greedy, aggressive, and sometimes throws caution to the wind when he decides to eat. If your lure catches its eye, you're in for a fight.
Presentations for this voracious feeder differ for each season. Let's take a look at each, beginning with the thaw that fishermen anticipate all winter. With a few exceptions, most states and Canadian provinces have a closed season for pike during the spawning cycle. Check your local fishing guide for the northern pike season in your area.
Immediately after the spawn, pike stay just inside a main body of water in marshes and shallow coves. In the spring, and ice-out phases, fish the tributaries and small coves first because they warm faster and attract bait fish. A number of color combinations work well, but the ones that I have found to be most productive are silver and black topwater lures, or spinnerbaits. Spinners with white, yellow and chartreuse or black and white skirts are killer, but red and white spoons with a silver bottom take many pike in the spring season. The flash of the spinner blade is what attracts the pike. When selecting your lure, keep in mind that one major advantage of a spinnerbait is that it has only one hook to remove. That makes it a lot easier to release a snarling water wolf. Dead bait presentations take some pike during the spring season, but action is usually the key to bringing pike out of their weedy lairs.
Following the spawning period, both the male and female pike head for deeper water. The females move into deeper water to rest. At this time, the edge of the weedline is their usual territory. Excellent oxygen supply and ideal water temperatures make for a pike honey hole. Pan-fishermen and predators find perch, bluegills, suckers and other baitfish near the weedline. These are all prey for the water wolf, and lures that imitate these baitfish work well.
Fish deeper as the weather warms. During the summer months, the northern pike seeks a constant, comfortable temperature in deeper water. The weedline marks the edge of deep water.
Pike may hold stationary at a weedline or cruise back and forth. Generally the sun will dictate their location as they move alternately alongside and into the weeds. When working a weedline during the sunlight hours, use a jig tipped with a minnow, or a minnow and slip sinker for a live-bait presentation. The secret is to work the first major drop-off to deep water just outside the spawning area.
Should you prefer to troll, stay on the outside of the weedline. Once you have the lay of the structure figured out, choose the part of the lake or river just off the mouth of a tributary from the pike's shallow spawning grounds. You can use a slow moving presentation, by using a floating jig with the hook placed through the minnow's lips. Also deep divers, emulating baitfish, take a lot of pike while trolling. If you aren't sure of your speed, try putting the tip of your rod in the water as you move along. When the tip causes a 3/4- to 1-inch rooster tail, you are going at the correct speed. Also, try using an "S" or "Z" pattern to slow your boat.
When the sky is cloudy and some time has passed since the last cold front, northerns will move from the deeper water to the edge of a weedline during the day. On "high sky" days, this movement will occur from about 10 A.M. to 4 P.M.
Lunker pike have few natural enemies, so safety is the least of their concern. They don't hide out of fear. They hide because they create fear. Usually the deeper the pike go, the closer they school together. If you decide to anchor and target a specific area, use live bait. Large minnows are the choice of the day. One way to rig your live bait is with a floating jig and minnow. Take a slip sinker and slide it up your line. Attach a floating jig, and then hook your minnow through its dorsal fin. With this method, the minnow continually tries to swim to the bottom, but the buoyant lure eventually floats it upward. Also try using a 3/4-ounce jig and add a trailer hook with a large minnow on the trailer. Another lure you can try is the Gitzit. This is a bottom hugging lure. Present this lure as you would a jig. With its rounded head and skirted bottom, its action is similar to a crayfish squirting away.
Pike are a streamlined fish. They swim quickly from one point to another. They can turn quickly, but being a fish that naturally swims in a straight line, level running lures are an excellent tool. My partner, Herb, prefers shallow-running crankbaits. Silver and black, perch, or white and black are his favorites. You can make the lure run deeper by putting the tip of you rod into the water. The farther into the water you place the tip, the deeper your lure will run.
Crankbaits have hooks that are a mixed blessing. Their advantage is also their disadvantage. Their treble hooks increase the likelihood of a good hook set, but removing those three sharp prongs can be a challenge while holding a slimy pike. Once Herb caught a pike on a crankbait and after netting the fish, it twisted and thrashed in the net. The hooks were badly entangled in the net and the fish. Herb intended to release the fish, but he couldn't because it took too long to remove the hooks. Besides minimizing the impact on the fishery, using barbless hooks will avoid wasting valuable fishing time. Herb took the hint and replaced his treble hooks with a single hook.
Pike tend to move to deep water weed beds or large flat areas of weeds in the autumn months. Buzzbaits with white, yellow or chartreuse skirts, and spinnerbaits with skirts of the same color work well over these weedy areas. These lures ride the top of the weeds and attract the pike with surface noise. When using a spinner, cast it over the weeds and skitter it back across the top of the weeds. At the weed edge, let the spinner flutter to the bottom, then start the retrieve again. Other effective autumn lures are bucktails and jerkbaits.
Another proven pike catcher in weedy flats is the stickbait. An effective way to work this lure is to twitch it, walk it, stop, twitch, etc. One problem you may encounter with stickbaits is that treble hooks attract weeds. The smallest bit of weeds will retard the lure's action. Try replacing the treble hooks with weedless hooks. This may cause you to lose some small fish, but northerns smash a lure so hard that if he really wants your lure, the flimsy little weed guard is the least of your problems.
When the fish are in deeper water, try trolling spoons and crankbaits. The size of your trolling sinker and its distance down the line determine the depth your lure will run.
If you're fortunate enough to live in an area where the water doesn't get hard in the winter, you just need to slow down your presentations. Even if the water doesn't freeze, the fish will slow down enough that chasing a fast moving lure is not an option. For the hard water areas, you can use live bait with a metal leader and core your holes on points and outside weed edges. Sometimes as winter wears on, dead bait can be effective.
Monofilament line, in 10- to 15-pound test, will be sufficient for casting or trolling. You can use the same size line while still fishing, but you might want to attach a metal leader to your line. A medium weight casting rod or somewhat stiff spinning rod in the five to six foot length is an excellent choice.
Always keep your hands away from the mouth of a hooked and netted pike. Use a hook disgorger or needle nose pliers with the handles wrapped in tape to prevent slippage. Northerns are big "slimers", and many anglers won't even allow them inside their boat because of the mess they create. Their slimy bodies make them difficult to hold, and their razor sharp teeth make them a danger to lose a grip on. Use these tools whether the pike wind up in the frying pan or you release them to battle another day. Don't take a chance of being bitten or worse yet, ending up with a hook in your hand. Some anglers use barbless hooks for pike angling because they are easier to release. Never grab a fish by the eye sockets. Always gently release any fish that is not going into the frying pan.
It is sometimes alarming but always exciting to see a "V" shaped wake heading toward your lure. The surly, wild personality of the water wolf fits in perfectly with his lonely character. Whether you use spoons, stickbaits, spinnerbaits or deep divers, the northern pike wants to tear up your gear. You will like pike waters, with the sparkles on the surface and the wind whispering in the willows. These waters have a little bit of everything, but if you are going to make a date with the northern pike treat her as you would any other unpredictable animal -with respect.
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