Early-season pike: Top tackle and techniques
Secrets for fooling big pike with modified spoons, quick-strike rigs and fly tackle
Pike are the first fish to spawn in predictable locations, often while much of the lake is still covered with ice. The big, famished water wolves will then linger in warm shallow water, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their favourite springtime prey—suckers, walleye and yellow perch. And that’s the time to put the following esox-catching equations to work.
THE SPOON SOLUTION
What’s not to like about spoon-feeding northern pike, especially when you catch the biggest fish of the season? That’s what my buddy Mark Stiffel (below) and I did two years ago on northern Saskatchewan’s Reindeer Lake. Of all the guests at Arctic Lodges, we caught the four largest fish using big Williams Whitefish dressed with curly tail grubs. The key was locating the deepest patches of cabbage adjacent to the main body of the lake, where the pike no doubt thought the spoons were tasty ciscoes swimming over their heads. And this pattern doesn’t just shine at ice-out—it also produces through the summer and into early autumn.
Rod: A 7½- to nine-foot-long medium-heavy-action baitcasting rod or light bucktail-action muskie stick is ideal for swimming spoons over the top of cabbage and coontail beds.
Reel: Use a fast-ratio baitcasting reel—I like the speed demon Shimano Tranx because it winds in almost four feet of line with a single turn of the handle. You need maximum speed and control so you can keep ticking the tops of the weeds without getting snagged.
Line: I prefer 40- to 50-pound Sufix Performance braid for spoon-feeding pike. Why? If I get too close to the vegetation and inadvertently hook a few strands, I can usually cut them with the thin-diameter, non-stretch line, then shed anything that clings to the spoon when I pop the rod smartly.
Leader: Forget stiff wire and stick with a flexible foot-long leader made of 80-pound test fluorocarbon, which will give the spoon better action.
Lure: You can’t beat a size C90 Williams Whitefish spoon in Silver/Gold Nu-wrinkle; replace the treblehook with a single siwash dressed with a white, six-inch curly tail grub (below).
Technique: The key is being able to control the depth of the spoon—you want it weaving along briskly in the zone between the tops of the weed stalks and the water’s surface. That’s where the long rods and fast-ratio baitcasting reels come into play.
THE QUICK-STRIKE EQUATION
If a large dead bait attached to a quick-strike rig is so deadly on pike during the last month of ice-fishing season, why doesn’t anyone use the same presentation a few weeks later when the ice finally melts? I’ve never heard a good answer to that question, but I can tell you one thing—many of my biggest early-season pike have fallen for suspended dead bait.
I especially like to present a big, freshly thawed cisco, sucker or smelt (where legal) along an emerging deep weedline where the big toothy critters love to lie in ambush. They spot the easy meal drifting by, get a whiff of the satisfying odours, open their mouths and devour dinner.
Rod: European anglers are masters at presenting dead baits under floats for giant northern pike, and the light graphite spinning rods they favour typically range between nine and 11 feet long. A long rod enables you to effortlessly fling a big bait, while accommodating a float fixed five to seven feet up your line. It also lets you move enough line to sweep-set the hooks. While the sturdy butt section helps you subdue a leviathan, the rods are light enough that you’re not worn out by sundown. Carp rods work well, as do saltwater surf rods for striper fishing.
Reel: A 6000 to 8000 series spinning reel with large line capacity typically balances the rod best; the rugged Shimano Baitrunner 6000D and 8000D are good examples.
Line: There’s no need for specialty braid, gel spun or fluorocarbon line to float dead baits in the spring; a premium 15- to 25-pound test monofilament, such as Maxima Ultragreen, will do yeoman’s duty.
Leader: There is also no need for a metal leader when you’re presenting a dead bait under a float—the quick-strike rig itself will prevent bite-offs. It’s easy to tie your own rig, starting with, stainless steel or Berkley 7Strand wire. Simply tie or crimp on two #4 Gamakatsu round-bend treblehooks, spaced no more than three inches apart, at one end of the wire. Then add a #4 swivel to the other end to attach to the main line.
Bait: Use a six- to 12-inch long, freshly thawed sucker, cisco or smelt. A good source for bait is in the frozen food section of your local supermarket if you can’t catch your own—I often use mackerel and saltwater herring as substitutes.
Technique: Slide a bobber stop onto your main line ahead of a large banana-shaped slip float, then attach your quick-strike rig. Hook on the dead bait the same way you would when ice fishing: insert one tine from the top treble under the skin near the tail, then hook one tine from the bottom treble around the dorsal fin. You want the bait to hang vertically, head down, once you cast it out; position the float so the bait suspends roughly three feet off the bottom (assuming the water is less than 10 feet deep). With your boat positioned away from the weedline, lob out the bait with a side-arm cast and let it drift with the breeze a few in front of the cabbage or coontail. Immediately set the hooks if you see the bobber dip or start to get pulled under.
THE FLY-FISHING FORMULA
Is anything more electrifying than casting just ahead of a log-sized pike cruising in clear, ultra-shallow water, then watching as the behemoth devours your offering? It’s the stuff of angling dreams. And you can make it happen as soon as you can get into the back end of any shallow, weedy, reedy bay or cove, especially one with a creek, stream or river flowing into it. At the mouth, the moving water creates a lush delta of profusely growing grass, providing the pike with ideal cover.
Rod: A nine-foot-long 9-weight fly rod is the gold standard for early-season pike fishing, but an 8-weight rod will also work well, especially if the average-size fish is slightly smaller. Ditto for a 10-weight rod if you anticipate subduing the trophy of a lifetime.
Reel: A large-arbour fly reel that balances the rod is essential. It can hold a lot of backing to accommodate long runs, but the main advantage is that it lets you retrieve line quickly and control a runaway pike in shallow water.
Line: A weight-forward floating line is ideal for loading these big, powerful fly rods and delivering the large flies, both accurately and with minimal false-casting.
Leader: Early-season pike are not line shy, so attach a five- to six-foot length of abrasion resistant 40-pound test Maxima leader material. The floating properties of the monofilament, as opposed to the sinking nature of fluorocarbon, is a plus at this time of year. So is the slight stretch. Finish off the leader by attaching a 12-inch length of 25- to 40-pound-test titanium or tieable stainless steel wire (below, left) using a simple loop-to-loop knot connection.
Fly: Go for a big, long and gaudy pattern. Ice-out pike are not picky eaters, so start the day with a bright, colourful seven- to nine-inch streamer reminiscent of a Dahlberg Diver (below, right). If you have confidence in it, you’ll be successful. The rare times you encounter moody pike, switch to a long, slinky, black bunny strip streamer.
Technique: Because you’re stalking big fish in skinny water, it pays to watch carefully, move slowly and cast only when you spot a fish. Good polarized sunglasses are a godsend. When you spot a cruising pike, study the direction in which it’s moving, then lead the fish so your fly lands well ahead of it. Whenever possible, I like to position the boat so that I can bring my fly past the pike broadside, as opposed to pulling it towards the fish or away from it.