Big northern pike are elusive critters. They spawn in shallow marshes and weedbeds in very early spring, often under the ice or just after ice-out. The rest of the year, big pike seem to disappear, while skinny "hammer handle" or "snake" northerns plague bass and panfish anglers who fish weedbeds.
Fall is a great time to catch big pike, if you know where to find them. The first step is to select a lake with trophy potential. Deep, clear lakes with a forage base of ciscoes tend to produce bigger pike than do lakes with a forage base of panfish or golden shiners. Pike that chow down on oily ciscoes, or lake herring, really put on pounds in a hurry.
"To put it in human terms," says Patriot Boats pro staffer Rick Graskey, "the guy who eats a cheeseburger every day for lunch will put on more weight than the guy who eats a salad."
Big pike often follow schools of ciscoes, picking off weak and dying fish that present an easy meal. Throughout most of the year, ciscoes roam over deep water and the pike roam with them. They can be anywhere, and targeting them is a hit-or-miss proposition. In late fall, though, ciscoes move onto shallow reefs and rock bars to spawn, and the pike are right behind them. Even before the ciscoes spawn, once water temperatures drop into the 40s in fall, pike on many lakes move into shallow water in pursuit of food.
Big, shallow-running minnow baits are just the ticket for fall pike. Trolling them at night can produce some of the best fish of the year.
Pike are primarily daytime feeders, but on clear lakes with heavy boat traffic, they often feed at night. Graskey has his best luck at night for pike ranging from 15 to over 20 pounds, trolling over rock bars with shallow-running crankbaits, such as ThunderSticks, Rapalas and Reef Runners. He uses a variety of colors, but white baits outproduce any other color on a lake with ciscoes.
In late fall, after the ciscoes have finished spawning and a lake has cooled down, some pike will stay in extremely shallow water, seeking the few degrees of warmth provided by a day or two of sunshine. Other pike follow the cisco schools back out to deep water, where they may suspend a few feet below the surface, again seeking warmer water. Regardless of where they are, they can be reached with the proper trolling technique.
Graskey's specialized trolling gear makes for a precise presentation. Rod-holders bolted to the gunwales secure 7 to 7-1/2-foot rods equipped with free-spooling line-counter reels. He fills his reels with 12-pound-test premium monofilament line and adds a 40-inch hand-tied leader of 27-pound test seven-strand wire to prevent bite-offs. Since big pike often roll up in the line, shorter wire leaders don't work as well.
Pike in the shallows are hard to approach by day. At night, however, they feel more secure and, thus, are more easily caught. The best action comes when wind puts a good chop or even 3-foot waves on the surface. Big pike seem to hit better on a falling barometer, too, Graskey says.
In shallow, clear water, a boat often spooks fish when it passes over them, even at night, so Graskey recommends using lightweight planer boards that take lines off to the side of the boat.
"A lightweight board puts very little stress on the rod, and when you have a fish on, you're not fighting the board as much," Graskey says. "A light board also lets you detect even a small piece of weed on a bait."
Graskey prefers boards with a rubber "pinch-pad" type release, rather than a plastic clip release, which can crimp the line and weaken it. Boards should be run a few yards apart, starting a few yards off to the side, but don't spread them out too much. They can be run closer to the boat at night.
"The closer you run a board to the boat, the better chance you'll have of getting a good hookset when a pike hits," Graskey says, "because you don't have to pick up as much slack line."
Speed + Depth = Strikes
Line length, trolling speed and a lure's diving ability all come into play for a successful presentation.
Different crankbaits dive to different depths, and even the same bait will run deeper on a lighter line or if it is trolled farther behind a boat or planer board. Using Mark Romanack's Precision Trolling guide and line-counter reels, Graskey sets baits at precise distances behind his trolling boards to run near bottom but clear weeds, rocks and other obstacles.
"Sometimes 2 or 3 feet more or less on a line counter will spell the difference between catching fish and not," Graskey says. "I usually run a No. 13 Rapala on the board closest to shore because I know that 12 feet behind the board, it will run a foot and a half deep, and 18 feet behind, it will run 3 feet deep."
Boat speed can be critical when trolling in fall. Graskey monitors his speed on his GPS unit and keeps it between 1 and 1.2 miles per hour. "Even though these fish are in shallow water to feed, the cold water slows down their metabolism," he says. "Troll too fast and you won't get many hits."
The Tailgun Trigger
Graskey often runs several boards off each side and a "tailgunner" flatline 100 feet behind the boat. When trolling the contour along a shoreline drop-off, he will run several lines on boards toward shore, a tailgunner line behind the boat and no lines on the outside. "As the boat follows the contour," he says, "the tailgunner line will speed up and slow down as it crosses over structure at a different angle than the planer-board lines, giving the fish another perspective, which often triggers strikes."
Graskey hoists an 18-pound beauty caught on the tailgunner line from Wisconsin's Big Cedar Lake.
Some anglers troll for pike in deeper water using downriggers to keep a bait at a precise depth, but a downrigger cable and ball will spook pike in clear water, Graskey says, so he rarely uses them. "In clear water, you have to run a bait 100 feet behind a downrigger, which puts a lot of line between you and a good hookset. Downriggers can also be a hassle on lakes with a very uneven contour, where the depth changes suddenly and often."
To fish a sunken island or offshore bar at night, Graskey will trace the outline of the structure with his GPS unit on the first pass, then troll back and forth over the structure, filling in the center of the GPS outline to make sure he covers the entire structure.
Late fall can get pretty cold on the water, so dress accordingly, especially at night. Snowmobile suits and insulated boots are the clothing of choice for blustery November weather. A pair of fingerless gloves will keep your hands warm and still let you handle tackle and fish. Tailgunning may not be for everyone, but if you want to tangle with a 20-pound pike, it's hard to beat tailgunning the shallows after the sun goes down.