Giant Pike! And lots of them! And there ain’t no better time than spring to catch that “once in a lifetime” fish. Spring is easily my favorite time for big pike and the reason why is just as easy. Big fish that are predictable.
The first pattern to emerge is right at ice out. By ice out, I’m referring to the period from first open water until surface temperatures reach mid to upper 40’s.
Biologically, pike are programmed to eat dead fish when the ice starts to thin. They are getting ready for or recouperating from the rigors of spawning and are feeding on fish killed by the onset of winter and frozen in the ice. As rivers and streams freeze, a lot of fish are trapped and frozen to be washed downstream during the thaw. This provides the pike with a source of food that is high in calories, yet doesn’t require any effort to catch. They just cruise along and pig out. Immediately after ice out, dead bait is the best key to success.
At this time, there are three good options for location. Long, flat shallow bays, rivers/streams and sandy beaches. The best bays will have a dark bottom and a small stream or river running into the back of it. If you can find a creek or small river leading to a backwater, weedy area, you’re in luck. This backwater area is the pike’s “nursery” and they’ll cruise in and out of here using the creek or river as a highway. Another choice spot is the “washout hole” where a river runs into a bay. In larger rivers, motor in about a hundred yards from the mouth and look for a hole to set up your ambush. Additionally, in areas where suckers are forage, they make a run in early spring and will be found in rivers and especially sandy beaches.
In Europe, where baitfishing is the norm rather than the exception, they have dozens of rigs to cover the seasons and conditions. I’ve found I can narrow this down to just a few and cover ice out nicely. The three rigs pictured here are the ones I use almost exclusively. I am using big rubber shad baits to illustrate how I hook them up. Usually, my dead baits will be at least as big as these. All these rigs work on the “quick strike” principal. That is, you don’t let the pike swim off and swallow the bait before setting the hook. As soon as the pike picks up the bait and starts to move off, Hit ’em Hard! The hook-up ratio will be very high and almost all fish will be hooked in the corner of the mouth making a successful release easy.
The first rig pictured is fished on the bottom using a slip sinker set up. It has a fixed treble on the rear of the rig with another treble attached to a loop. The purpose of the loop is to allow length adjustments to fit the size of the bait being used. I use a leader connector to hold the loop. Once the desired length is determined, I pull on the ends of the rig and tighten the loop up. This then becomes a fixed treble. I like to use this one in areas of slight current like backwaters in a river.
The second rig is simply a large (7/8 inch) floating jig with two fixed trebles. This not only brings the bait off the bottom, but adds a bit of color for an attractor. While it seems strange to me, there are times when pike will show a color preference using this rig. I always start with chartreuse and try orange or pink next. Notice the bevel on the front bottom of the jighead. This provides assistance in lifting the bait up off the bottom in heavier current areas. Again, I use one of the slip sinkers shown with this rig.
The last rig is a bit different and is the one I use with the float. It is basically the same rig as the first one with the length adjustable loop. When using this setup I like my bait to hang horizontal if possible. Once I figure out how long it needs to be to keep the bait hanging even, I pull those ends tight and place the first treble just behind the head and the other one near the tail where it will hold the bait even. The rubbercore sinker pictured is the one I use with this rig. The large float is the one I prefer to use. It’s 11 inches long, unweighted, and made by Float-Hi. This float will hold up a good sized bait with a half ounce sinker and still lay flat on the waters surface. This allows easy detection when a pike picks up the bait.
As the water begins to warm, metabolic rates begin to rise. At the beginning of this period, pike are still slow to chase anything very far, but will instead slash out at anything that gets too close.
Now is the time to hit the dead reeds. Before I get into this very far, let me advise a couple of things. Alot of your success will depend on stealth. That is, you must be very quiet in your approach. Pike, like all gamefish, have a lateral line running down their sides that act as a pike’s ears. A big pike will have a big lateral line, so as you can imagine, it has big ears! If you bang a spoon on the side of the boat or drop something in it, your chances for a success are diminished. When anchoring, place it in the drink as quietly as possible and pay out some line. Also, a good pair of polarized sunglasses are vital for success.
The pike will now be lying back in last year’s dead reeds. If the wind is blowing back into the bays, all the better. Quietly drift through the shallows, looking for targets in the sparse weed growth. These fish will be holding in water that’s 7 feet or less and oftentimes the biggest fish will be in 3 feet or less. The best lure for this scenario is undoubtably the jig or a weedless spoon. I like a standup jig of about 1/2 to 3/4 of an ounce. A bass jig with a rubber skirt works well also. Tip them with a Power Grub or Tube. Cast past your target and slowly swim it past her nose. Only about 1 in 5 will take it , but here’s a little trick to try. Bring the jig in and stop it about 5 feet in front of her. Just let it sit motionless for a minute or two. At times they will jump on it and other times, they’ll just move up slowly and suck it in. If the fish hasn’t moved toward your offering after awhile, try shaking your rod. Try not to move the jig, just shake your rod trying to make the jig quiver. Not all of them will fall for this, but enough will to make it worthwhile. There will also be some big fish holding in the yellowed reeds up next to shore. The weedless spoon shines in this spot. Cast a weedless spoon with a scented trailer back into the tangled reeds and hop it on the surface back through letting it flutter down in open pockets. It’s amazing that fish of this size hold in that tangled mess but they are there and are catchable.
Want a real thrill? Try stalking these pike! A bit of warning is warranted here. This is not for the faint of heart! As you drift through the shallows looking for targets, make a mental note of their location and keep moving. Once you’ve spotted a good one, let the boat drift a ways and either beach it or set out an anchor. Donning a pair of warm waders, slip into the water and very slowly work your way into casting distance. If you are good with a fly rod, a Dahlberg Mega-Diver or a large streamer can be a super presentation in this situation. Otherwise, the jig works as well as anything. Once you hook a fish while wading, the fun really begins! If it swims through the reeds, follow it, keeping a tight line. As long as the fish doesn’t swim for deeper water (they rarely do), you can follow it anywhere it decides to go. At times you may have a pike swim through your legs during the fight. I don’t know of a quick remedy for this! Just wait until you have a pike in the mid 20’s slap your leg while trying to escape. Feels like somebody kicked you. Whoosh! This will make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight out!
About four to six weeks after ice-out, the shiners will spawn in shallow wind swept bays. The wind sweeps schools of shiners towards shore and they are followed by perch and walleyes, who are followed by big pike. The pike are much more active now and are starting to chase down their prey. Spoons, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, they all work well now. Also, at times, a short topwater bait can provide the best topwater action of the year. Keep in mind that at this time of year, smaller baits will produce best. Look to those same dead reeds in the back of the bays. Some will still be back in the reeds and some will be just outside of them, but all will be much more active and willing to bite. If you hit this right, it can be the hottest bite of the year! If you happen to notice shiners jumping out of the water, quick turn and fire a few casts behind you into more open water. Those shiners are being attacked by perch or walleyes and this can trigger a chain reaction. The pike will go on a rampage if they’re around.
When the shiner spawn begins to taper off, usually 1 to 2 weeks, the pike will migrate to the points outside the bays and the river mouths. These can be points of the weedbeds or points of land. I like casting spoons or possibly a spinnerbait now.
Depending on how late or early of spring it is and how far North you are, this should be anywhere from the 1st of June to the 1st of July, and pike will begin their summer patterns.
Good luck out there this spring and if you find that fish of a lifetime, please handle her gently, take a couple of pictures (and send one in to The Next Bite-Esox Angler Magazine and to www.thenextbite.tv), then put her back to fight again. The future of our sport depends on it.