Reconsidering northerns

Think pike are pesky? Here’s how to tackle the trophies throughout the open-water season

1Mike Hungle

The moment I set the hook, my drag started singing. The next few minutes were a real treat as the giant northern pike hugged bottom and veered off to the right, then busted hard left. Three times I got the beast to the surface before it again peeled off line and headed back to the bottom, each time making my heart pump harder. Finally, my buddy netted the huge northern, ending the epic fight. I often hear anglers complaining about catching pike, but I sure didn’t—and I was proud to let the fish go to fight another day.

Pike are aggressive predators living at the top of their aquatic food chain, a trait that often gets small and mid-size northerns into trouble with walleye, perch and trout anglers using light tackle. When lines get tangled and lures are stolen, too many anglers overlook the fun of the fight and get frustrated; some even handle the fish roughly or purposely injure or kill them. But these feisty little predators have the potential to become trophies—if only every angler could see them for the great gamefish they are. And the best way to appreciate pike is to go after the big ones.

For targeting large northerns, the perfect set-up is a medium-heavy to heavy-action six-and-a-half- to seven-foot rod, with either a spinning or baitcasting reel spooled with 15- to 20-pound monofilament. Wire leaders are a must—I prefer a 12-inch, 20-pound wire leader with a quality cross-lock snap. When it comes to baits, pike are so aggressive they’ll fall prey to a variety of presentations; large, loud or flashy lures that create commotion are the go-to choice for many anglers. I like a more refined approach, however, matching my presentations to the time of year.

Mike Hungle

Spring

In the early spring, pike of all sizes can be found in shallow-water places, such as bays. Search weedy areas, near cattails and along rocky shorelines facing south, where the water is the warmest after ice-out. During this time, the fish are recovering from spawning and they’ll either be lounging or feeding heavily on all the aquatic creatures that come to life as the water temperature rises. The big pike will also be feeding on smaller northerns.

At this time of the year, fan-casting the shallows can be very productive, either from shore or from a boat. Some of the best baits for this are large, three- to five-inch spoons. Good choices include Len Thompson’s Yellow & Red (a.k.a. Five of Diamonds), PK Flutter Fish in silver or brass (below), Mepps’ Syclops and Luhr-Jensen’s Krocodile. If big pike are following the spoons and not biting, periodically stop reeling and let the bait flutter downward. After a short pause, start reeling again. The fish will often hit on the drop, so be ready to set the hook.1

Lead-head jigs with large, soft-plastic paddletail swimbaits are also a good choice for early-season casting. My two favourites are the five-inch Doc’s Dipper in plain sexy (blue, green and pearl) and the six-inch Elite Sow Belly Swimmer in pearl, both from Tightlines UV. While smaller fish will often inhale a soft-plastic as it’s being retrieved at a constant speed, I find the bigger fish are more inclined to hit when it’s twitched and hopped along the bottom.

Another good spring casting bait is a size 12 or 14 Rapala Husky Jerk, which dives on the retrieve and suspends on the pause. I think the pause mimics a minnow stopping to assess danger, and that’s when a big northern will often strike.

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Bonus tip: Tools for teeth

Part of showing respect for pike is releasing them quickly and safely, which requires a few tools. Instead of grabbing the big fish by the back of the head with a pair of rough gripper gloves, use a large, tangle-free rubber hoop net. For really big fish, a cradle is even better. With their long snouts, pike often deeply inhale lures, so it’s important to have a jaw spreader at the ready to prop that big mouth open and remove your bait. And to grab those baits, you’ll need a good pair of long, sturdy pliers. My favourites are Cabela’s 11-inch needle-nose pliers and Cuda’s nine-inch stainless steel pistol-grip pliers (above).

1Scott Gardner

Summer

As the summer heats up, smaller pike stay in shallow water and often hold on, or adjacent to, weedbeds, where they can ambush prey. As for the bigger fish, they move out into deeper areas where the water temperatures are much cooler. In rivers, that means they find deep holes or move upstream to current areas. In lakes, the biggest pike move to deep-water flats and steep drop-offs. While staging on the drop-offs, the fish seem to prefer holding in rocky areas, which likely helps them ambush unsuspecting prey.

Search for large pike in depths of 20 feet down to the thermocline separating the warmer upper part of the lake from the much cooler water below. Northerns will often hold just above the thermocline, where they snack on baitfish such as ciscoes, as well as burbot, which live out the summer months here.

A great way to find these bigger fish is by trolling the deep-water flats and ridge lines in order to cover lots of water. And since the fish are deeper, they’re less likely to get spooked by the boat moving overtop of them. Spoons, crankbaits and jigs are my favourite trolling lures. My summer spoon selection is basically the same as in spring, but I always start with the largest ones to get down deep.

For crankbaits, I use flatfish-style lures designed to dive to my desired depth. With both crankbaits and minnowbaits, I use silver and gold on sunny days, and something psychedelic, such as hot tiger, on cloudy days. When trolling jigs, I like ¾-ounce heads tipped with large, soft-plastic paddletails. Simply swim the jig, periodically letting it bounce on the bottom.

Because pike are notorious for attacking spinner rigs designed for walleye, some savvy anglers are now building rigs specifically for northerns, with heavy fluorocarbon line or wire leader material to take the abuse of these toothy fish. Also key to this rig is a large, flashy blade and a big nightcrawler or minnow to catch the attention of lunker pike. As when trolling for walleye, use a bottom bouncer rigged with the hooks trailing a metre behind the weight.

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Bonus tip: Bitsy baits

Although big lures are typically the go-to baits for pike fishing, downsizing can sometimes produce astonishing results. In fact, some of the biggest northerns I’ve caught have been taken on the smallest of lures. I accidently stumbled on this pattern when fishing a national park, where lead lures were banned. I didn’t have any lead-free jigs, and the only ones I could find at the local store were small. Reluctantly I bought a few, and ended up catching some giant pike—an exhilarating experience when fishing with light gear.

3Mike Hungle

Fall

Come fall, the pike will stay relatively deep until the lake turns over. Once that happens, and the water temperature becomes consistent from top to bottom, they’ll start moving back into the shallows. There, they’ll lurk along sandbar ledges; you can also find them suspended beneath schools of baitfish.

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Both casting and trolling will continue to produce fish in the fall. However, one of my favourite ways to target trophies is to set up over top of them and vertically jig. I simply watch my electronics for pods of baitfish, combined with larger marks below indicating pike (or maybe a bonus walleye). While jigs and spoons can work for this approach, I get my biggest fish by ripping a Rapala Jigging Rap or Moonshine Shiver Minnow (above), both of which beautifully imitate wounded minnows.

The bottom line is that if you adapt your approach, and show pike a little respect, you’ll find out exactly how fun and challenging it can be to catch them—especially the big ones.

 

Saskatchewan’s Mike Hungle enjoys tackling pike of all sizes.