A Basic Guide to Catching Northern Pike | Field & Stream

A Basic Guide to Catching Northern Pike

pike basics

A Saskatchewan pike.

Joe Cermele

All fish are predators, but northern pike come dressed for the part: needle teeth, vacant eyes, thick slime, serpentine shape. Their primeval morphology has changed little in 60 million years. Pike belong to the northern wilderness, where they remain most common. But stocking has extended their range south. If your state has predictable ice cover, chances are you have a northern pike lake nearby.

May is definitely the best month to target pike in the northern United States and southern Canada. Recuperated from spawning, they prowl the shallows for panfish and baitfish. With little yet in the way of weed growth, the northerns don't have all that many ambushing spots. They haven't seen a lure in six months. In short, spring pike fishing is as good as it gets. These tips should help you catch them.

LEAVE THE 4X AT HOME
Pike will bite through regular monofilament, so you always need to use a heavy leader of some sort. Twenty- or 30-pound, 12-inch black wire leaders are standard, except when you're using floating plugs (because the weight interferes with the action). For these, get the shortest wire that you can—usually 6 inches—or make your own from 12 inches of 30-pound mono tied to a snap at one end and a swivel at the other.

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE
As tempting as it might be, don't copy Jimmy Houston and offer a pike any public display of affection, not even a quick peck. Some 10 years ago, an overjoyed Russian ice fisherman did just that, and the pike clamped onto his nose and had to be "surgically removed" at the local hospital.

PACK THE PLIERS
Pike won't just bite line, so watch your fingers when you're handling them. If the pike is under 10 pounds, you can grip it across the back of the head, behind the eye, or over the back of the gill plate. Bigger pike should be netted and subdued with a firm grip while in the net. Needle-nose pliers are a must; jaw spreaders can come in handy. Pinch down the barbs of your lures to expedite extractions.

SIX LURES YOU SHOULD USE

White, yellow, and chartreuse are great pike lure colors, probably because they resemble the belly of a struggling food fish.

1. IN-LINE SPINNER In early spring, before weed growth becomes a factor, focus on covering water.The bigger spinners are a top choice here because the weight lets you cast them farther and the blades throw more flash. Retrieve the spinner steadily, just fast enough to keep it off the bottom. Think Rooster Tail, Mepps, and Blue Fox spinners in 1/6- to 1-ounce sizes.

2. SPOON Start by steadily and slowly reeling, just fast enough to keep the spoon wobbling. If that doesn't produce, try a "flutter retrieve," accomplished by imparting a jigging motion as you reel. Spoons are particularly effective along drop offs because you can precisely control the depth. Try Dardevles, Little Cleos, Thomas Buoyants, and Johnson Silver Minnows weighing ¼to 1 ounce.

3. MINNOW-IMITATING PLUG Begin with a steady retrieve. If that doesn't work, try stop-and-start reeling. Early in the season, use a shallow runner. As waters warm up, go to a crank baitor a soft-plastic swimbait that runs in the 10-foot range. You've got plenty to choose from here: the Rapala Original or Shad Rap, Rebel Minnow, Rattlin' Rogue, C.C. Shad, Bomber Model A, Mann's 1-Minus, and the Storm Wild-Eye SwimShad.

4. SPINNERBAIT Draw a spinnerbait past sprouting weeds and stop the retrieve for a three count just as the bait approaches a possible hideout. Add a twist-tail or rubber-wormtrailer for action and color contrast. Models abound. If I had to use only one pike lure, it would be a white spinnerbait with a trailer. If the water is a tall off-color, try a bait with a chartreuse skirt.

5. JIG AND WORM As the temperature in the shallows reaches 60 degrees, pike begin to set up shop along 6- to 10-foot dropoffs. These are best fished with a jig in full, 2-to 3-foot hops. Pike often take the jig as it drops; the strike may feel like a nibble or a perch bite. It's not. Use bucktail and marabou jigs in the ¼- to1-ounce range.

6. SURFACE PLUG In late spring, fish topwater lures over weed beds in the calm water of morning or late afternoon. Over the years the combination of a slim minnow shape and propeller fuss has been most productive for me. Tie on a large (4½- to 6-inch)Jitterbug, Heddon's Crazy Crawler or Dying Flutter, Storm Chug Bug, SmithwickDevil's Horse, Sputterbuzz, or Zara Spook.

RODS, REELS, AND LINE

Wilderness northerns—pike that you fly to—are bigger than fish that you drive to, and this distinction is what you should base your tackle decisions upon.

For the wilderness northerns, which means fish that weigh 10 to 20 pounds (and occasionally more),choose spinning outfits that handle 14- to 20-pound-test, medium-heavybaitcasting out-fits in 17- to 20-pound test, or 9-weight fly rods.

To catch the latter, 5- to 10-pound northerns, you have to convince a nervous 30-incher that the plug sputtering across the surface really is a wounded perch. Use your bass tackle: 6- to 10-pound-test spinning gear, light or medium baitcasting outfits in 12- to 14-pound-test, or a 7-weight fly rod.

WHERE TO FIND PIKE

Nearly all states in the northern tier of the country have pike lakes. In New England, Vermont has the best pike fishing of the whole region. With its Great Lake border, NewYork is an excellent pike state, as are Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The Dakotas and Colorado have good pike fishing in reservoirs, and Alaska has some fine pike fishing. The wilderness waters in the Canadian provinces have the least fishing pressure—and the biggest pike.

HOW TO READ A PIKE BAY

  • Mouths of swampy inlets make good starting points, but you'll probably catch more pike in the flats just offshore. Find one where the depth is 3 to 10 feet.Pike might have traveled up the inlet to spawn and will now be drifting out into the bay. These flats serve as staging spots for spawning panfish orbait-fish, or gathering spots for any trout (or juvenile salmon or steelhead)that may swim down following an upstream stocking. Like the local Elks Club ata barbecue, pike may not have the schedule down, but they know where the food is.
  • Ice-out pike gravitate to secondary coves, areas that warm before the main bay.In fact, pike might have spawned in the marshy shallows or flooded timber at the edges of such spots. Fish the flats at the mouths of these coves within-line spinners.
  • Prominent shoreline structures—beaver dams, flooded timbers, downed trees—always deserve at least a few casts. Work your way in, combing the flats in front with an in-line spinner. This is a good spot for lunch; cast out a bobber and minnow while you're eating a sandwich.
  • As the spring sun warms the bay, weeds grow and pike orient to cover near dropoffs. Weedy points make particularly good fishing spots, as do mid-bay weed shoals. Search adjacent waters with an in-line spinner, flutter-retrieve a spoon, or stop and start a spinnerbait along the edges of the weeds. If the water is calm, try your topwater lures.
  • Deeper weedlines with access to deep water are the last spots on the springtour. Find the 6- to 10-foot break. In general, pike over 10 pounds are the first to vacate the shallows for cooler water. This edge is the spot to try ajig and worm, or perhaps to flutter-retrieve a spoon.

BAIT RIGS

Some anglers believe that "nervous" baitfish such as shiners are better than chubs and suckers as pike baits, but the minnow's accessibility to fish is more important than its species. That's why proper rigging is key.

  • BOBBER RIG When you're fishing near a prominent obstruction, around the mouth of a tributary, or over weeds, using a bobber is a good approach (you want it as small as possible to minimize the resistance when a pike takes the bait and runs). Rig a bait in the 6- to 12-inch range on a size 1/0 hook, with a snelled wire leader attached to a snap-swivel. Position the float so that it holds the bait, hooked lightly through the back, a foot or two above the weeds. Give the pike a couple of minutes to turn the bait around in its mouth before you set the hook.

  • DRIFT RIG Cover long sections of definable structures such as weed edges, drop-offs, or shorelines. A 6-inch minnow hooked through the lips with a size 1 hook is about right. Match the sinker weight to the speed of the drift and the depth,starting with a single light split shot and adding until you hit bottom—or fish. When you get a bite, drop the rod tip, open the bail, give a 10 count,reel in slack, and set the hook. You may need to allow extra time with bigger baits, but if you wait too long, the fish will either swallow the hook or feel the sinker catch in the grass as it runs and will drop the bait.

  • JIG AND MINNOW Hook a 4-inch minnow through the head, from the bottom to the top. Use a full(2- to 3-foot) but slow jigging motion and be ready for a strike on the fall.When a fish hits, drop the rod tip for a moment, then set the hook hard.Jig-heads in the ¼- to ½-ounce range seem to provide the best minnow action,but it's more important to adjust for the depth and speed of the drift.

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