Northern pike for years were scorned as game fish, called snakes or jacks, and regarded by anglers as non-sporting. From the time I caught my first pike in 1950, I could not get that picture. When the pike are on the move, they are aggressive strikers. Dozens of times a new pike angler has realized the first strike with "Wow!” Pike often smack artificial lures hard, though the largest may simply take the lure and swim off.
While pike rarely jump, they thrash about on the surface when caught in shallow water and when being brought to the boat. Mid-size pike, between 5 and 10 pounds, seek to escape with powerful runs and a side-to-side shaking of the head. Large pike, once hooked, often merely swim off, powerfully taking out line. It is as though they know they are the largest critter around and need not get excited. When a trophy pike gets the message, however, if the drag on your reel is not working or there is a nick in your line, it’s all over!
Where To Find Pike
Northern pike range widely across the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, most of Canada, especially Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, is prime pike country. In the United States, the northern states running along the latitude from Maine to Minnesota are the principal pike locations. Other states, Colorado and Montana in particular, have had some successful planting programs. While most trophy pike fishing is done in Canada, places such as New York, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota surrender 20-pound fish every year.
Because pike favor colder waters, the best fishing naturally occurs in the northeastern United States and, of course, the Canadadian provinces.
Pike do best in relatively cold water. Great Lakes bays and deep, spring-fed lakes are the prime places to look for trophies. In each state, fish and wildlife agencies can provide a list of lakes that provide pike and offer an assessment of both quantity and quality of the fish likely to be caught.
In most pike waters in the United States, a 10-pound fish is a big one. More commonly, pike between 2 and 5 pounds make up the catch. A 10-pound pike, however, is a fine catch and will put up a dandy struggle. In the period since World War II, pike have been somewhat neglected as game fish in the United States, with liberal size and creel limits offering little in the way of protection. In the last five years, however, that pattern is changing. Perhaps more scientific management will establish widespread trophy pike fishing south of Canada.
Unlike some species that become very inactive during winter, northern pike are caught year round. Here, only spring, summer and fall will be considered. What constitutes spring will be much later in The Northwest Territories than in Michigan. And summer will, of course, be much shorter in the northern reaches.
Most pike anglers use bait-casting gear, though spinning equipment works for those that prefer it. Rods are typically 6 or 7 feet long, with a medium or stiff action. Reels should have a quality drag system and sufficient capacity for 12- to 20-pound test line.
Braided line, particularly made from Spectra (there are a number of manufacturers), is becoming popular among pike anglers. The braided fiber lines do not stretch as monofilament does. While that quality permits improved sensitivity and more secure hook setting, it also means that angler errors in playing fish cannot be recovered as the line absorbs stretch.
Wire leaders, either cable or single strand, have been used by pike anglers for decades. Pike have an impressive array of sharp teeth that can cut monofilament in a flash. A recent trend has been to substitute heavy fluorocarbon—80-pound test or more—for wire as a leader material. The fluorocarbon does not reflect light underwater and is less visible to fish. Leaders should be 9 to 12 inches long for casting, longer for trolling.
Fly rod anglers with 8-weight, 9-foot rods armed with deer hair bugs or large streamers do well with pike. A wire or fluorocarbon leader is a must here, too.
Spring Tactics And Lures
Ice-out is prime fishing time for lunker pike, with many large fish lingering in shallow water following the spawn.
Pike spawn in the early spring, often under the ice. Water temperatures will be in the mid-40 degree range.
Ice-out, the period just after the winter ice breaks up, is a prime time for lunker pike. After the spawn, huge fish linger in shallow water. Water temperatures will be in the 50 range. Often, you will be sight fishing. You can choose to throw to a 10-pounder or a 20-pounder—or perhaps an even bigger fish—if they’re present.
The prime locations are shallow bays. I like a modest wind blowing into the bays and search for such spots over other bays.
When pike leave the shallow bays, the first staging area is at the points on either side of the bay. Weeds, particularly pondweed (also called cabbage in pike country), will be just beginning to sprout. You may be able to spot pondweeds on the depth finder before they are visible to the eye. Points with developing weeds are best.
When fish are in the bays, slow top-waters, spoons, large spinnerbaits, soft plastics or jig-and-pig combos are the best lures.
Summer Tactics and Lures
When the water reaches 60 and pondweeds are easy to spot, summer has arrived in pike country. Early in this period, huge pike roam the outer edges of the weeds picking off perch and any white-bodied prey that may exist in the lake, such as suckers or whitefish. Fish around the weeds and over them with top-water lures, crankbaits, spoons and spinnerbaits. Jerkbaits, too, will draw big fish out of pockets in the weeds. Weedbeds near points and shoals are best.
As summer warms up, and water temperatures reach into the upper 60 range or even into the low 70 range, the largest pike will move to deep water, 15 feet or more, and can often be difficult to find. Skillful trolling with deep-running crankbaits with an eagle eye on the depth finder will be the most productive method of finding them.
Smaller pike will linger around the outer edges of the weeds. These are the teenagers of the pike world—strong, full of energy, willing to take on something they do not know (like a hunk of metal or plastic), and don’t know when they are licked! Don’t count these fish out as great sport.
Check out any spots where the water might be cooler than surrounding water. Examples include places where streams, particularly those that have trout or grayling, enter the water or where springs appear on the bottom. Streams are easy to find while springs are a little tougher to locate. Summer cold fronts, which turn off bass and other game fish, tend to turn on northern pike.
Fall Tactics And Lures
In summer the largest northerns head for deep water, but return to shallow weedbeds with the coming of autumn.
When water temperatures begin to drop, autumn has come to pike waters. Big pike transition back to weedbeds, probably the same ones where they staged after leaving shallow bays.
Flats slowly tapering to 8 or 10 feet often hold fall pike. If there are remnant weedbeds on the flats, so much the better.
In lakes that have ciscoes (also called tullibees), these herring-like fish move to rock shoals to spawn just before the lakes ice over. Large pike move onto the shoals to fatten up on ciscoes. Lures that match the size (about 10 inches) and color (black back and silver sides) of ciscoes catch trophy fish every fall.
Playing The Odds
If you are planning a pike adventure, may as well put the odds of catching a lunker in your favor. Big fish of any species are rare. If you want to catch a trophy, go to where the most of them are and fishing pressure is light. While it is good advice to go fishing when you can, if there are choices to be made, early spring and late fall are prime times to catch the pike of a lifetime.
Northern pike are a wonderful game fish. Perhaps keep a small fish or two for lunch. With trophies, take a couple of pictures. Release the fish. And get a fiberglass replica.