Is there anything better than having a thick, mad pike on the end of your line when the trees are just starting to bud? Compared to those eighteen inch winter rods, feeling that seven footer buck around is great. Some of the biggest pike of the year are catchable right now. The fishing world changes around pike like clockwork every year, but they sure don’t. You can have success by experimenting with where you fish and how no matter what the spring weather. Don’t get hung up on dates, water temps or what you’ve heard and read. Get out there and poke around.
One of the first things to watch for is the rest of the food chain. What are the walleyes doing if there are walleyes in the water you’re on? In or near the shallow bays, what other kinds of fish are you seeing or catching? Are there schools of spawning perch? What about pods of carp or gar rolling around? Have the smelts started running yet? Lots of fishermen don’t like fishing the mayfly hatch, but I can tell you that some really nice fish are easier to locate at this time than at most others. All you have to worry about is catching them. Use your eyes and your sonar. Pike live under the water just like everybody else, and it’s all connected in one way or another.
Pike, especially big ones, are going to be in and ready to spawn earlier than muskie, bass or panfish, most years. And always keep in mind that different populations of fish do different things at different times. Some pike will be in and out early (some years when there’s still ice in spots) and others will show up late. Others will be somewhere in between all that. Watching what other fish are doing and where they’re doing it helps get a feel for what stage of the game the water is in, and possibly even what’s being used for food. I think you can lead yourself off track pretty easily by thinking, ‘It’s May X and the water is Y degrees, so let’s do this.’ The old Catch 22 is that most of us only get a Saturday and Sunday to figure things out. Making good use of your time becomes even more important. You can catch good fish doing more than one thing, and you can also waste a lot of trips trying to do too much all at once.
When I’m casting, I try to use long, long casts. Spooking the fish has very little to do with it. We all watch the 48 inchers caught in a foot of water on the TV fly-in lakes all winter, but the reality where I fish is that numbers of big fish hanging around water that shallow is extremely rare by the time the season opens. Long casts are obviously good for covering water. But they also give you extra time and space to entice or call fish over to your bait. If and when fishing slow is what’s needed, I’d much rather tease one long, slow retrieve back to the boat over a spot than three or four shorter ones. This is true for five feet of water or fifteen. Having extra time and distance to lay that lure on the bottom, flutter it down, let it break the surface or suspend it really makes a difference sometimes. Finding baits and then deciding to bite them over a longer time period is pretty common for pike early on. It isn’t so much that they’re negative or not interested, they’re just two steps behind. Like the guy at the airport running with a brief case versus the guy trying to run with two huge suitcases. They both still want to make their flight, one just gets there a little slower and needs a little help. Long casts just give you more room to ‘work’ a fish.
For sure, there are times when baits get smacked the second they hit the water or when you’re going fast and wild with them. You can really use speed to comb water, and pike will respond to this also. Most of the better categories of pike baits can be fished over a range of speeds. Sometimes, within the same cast. Floating minnowbaits, as an example, can be ripped and jerked wildly or floated back to the surface after a few slow, smooth pulls. Years before suspending baits like Husky Jerks were invented, baits like the #18 Floating Rapala were the killers, in spring. Long A Bombers were another one. A few cranks, then a few snaps and then letting the lure wiggle all the way to the surface for a few seconds is deadly. Delicate, balsa Slammers are another one. They’re sort of like a large AC Shiner.
I know that pike love lures that hang suspended, but they’re also suckers for lures that float up towards the surface. This works with baits like Suicks, Wade’s Wobblers and Bobbies as well as smaller, more traditional minnowbaits like Rapalas. Try it with a floating bait one time. Get the bait about half way back to the boat at a good pace and then force yourself to stop it dead and let it break the surface. Lots of vibration, noise and maybe flash to get them thinking about it, then the Death Rise. They love it. Spoons and lipless crankbaits work in the opposite way: let them flutter down and/or back near the boat after laying out an erratic, noisy path through the water. Along the same lines, don’t be in a huge rush to start wheeling any kind of lure back to the boat. With some practice feathering your reel, flat-bottomed jerkbaits like Suicks or Bobbies can be laid on the water with a nice ‘splat.’ Fish that get to the bait a little late will pick it off the surface sometimes, or crunch it when you pause it after a few moves. Waiting a few extra seconds to start the lure back to the boat is tough after a winter of jigging through a hole, but it makes a difference some days. I’ve seen it a thousand times: slow down that extra half step and fish start hitting the net. Identical lures, identical spots, just attention to that one critical detail. It’s amazing.
Pike seem comfortable hunting high in the water early on, also. Especially as the days steadily warm up, the trees get greener and the fish move out. Casting or trolling over much deeper water at the tops of bays and in open ‘runs’ near good, shallow structure takes patience, but it works. Again, long casts and working your bait with confidence is really key over deeper spots. Even if it’s a spot that’s 20 feet from the surface surrounded by much deeper water, pike will come get it if you give them time and space. The water doesn’t have to be crystal clear, either. Nowhere is this more evident than when you’re trolling. Long-lining lures behind planer boards or straight behind the boat is so effective. Lake Simcoe, The Great Lakes, Georgian Bay, Lake Nipissing, The French Rivers and a bunch of smaller lakes and rivers have all given up bigger pike when we put the trolling lines in after casting.
I normally focus on the upper fifteen feet on the graph. Even over water that might be thirty or forty feet deep. Pike that have moved out in May and June just seem to like that chunk of water. (By the end of June most years, I start fishing at fifteen feet and work my way down). These fish are reachable casting with most lure types, but I don’t think it’s as efficient is terms of effort in and results out as trolling is. There aren’t many lures I cast with that I don’t also use for trolling. Jerkbaits like Suicks are probably the only ones I use solely for casting. Minnowbaits, crankbaits like #9 Shad Raps, Deep Diving Husky Jerks, Rebel Spoonbills; spoons like Toronto Wobblers, Williams Wobblers and spinners all work. Little #3 and #4 Blue Fox Vibrax spinners are great, too. Remember that with deeper diving crankbaits, they only dive as deep as you let them. This is where planer boards really shine. Even if you want to let a Shad Rap out far enough to run six or eight feet down, let out just enough line to get there and send it way out laterally, behind a trolling board. Lots of turns, lots of neutral and working along between 1.5 and 2.5 miles per hour seems to work best. Two of the biggest spring pike I’ve ever caught were long-line trolling. One on a #18 perch Rapala and the other on a 2/5 ounce, chartreuse Little Cleo. One was over 80 feet of water on a deep, clear lake, the other right over top of a shallow, weedy, offshore hump in a small, dark lake.
Sometimes, much more aggressive baits and trolling can methods work, too. Crunching over and through pods of shoals and islands in the 15 to 20 foot range with bigger crankbaits also works on big pike earlier than you might think. Later in spring, this is one of the best way to find better fish (muskies in muskie season, too). Well into June, picking up the pace while still staying reasonably shallow and lots of rock contact using baits like Ernies, Depth Raiders, Perchbaits, Cisco Kids and Jakes works sometimes. No matter what the weeds look like down in the bays, big pike love rocks. Put a series of large, irregular shoals, rocky ledges or shallow points anywhere near a fertile patch of sheltered spawning water and I will definitely bounce a few baits over and around them. Rocks that have new weeds mixed in are an added bonus. And if weed growth is late, rocks become an even better hide-out option all on their own. You’ll be closer to the boat, making more bottom contact and working pike that are relating very closely to this kind of structure. If nothing’s happening casting shallow or trolling high in the water, give this a try. Just tell yourself it’s October and not June.
Near current or on really poor-weather days, jigs can be dynamite. In these cases, fish them right on the bottom. Pike that are deeper in more open areas love jigs, too. The same sizes and colours in the twisters you’d use for walleyes right now are like candy to bigger pike. Dragging or just plain soaking can work as well as anything. Tubes are lethal, and so are bucktail jigs. Tubes have to be one of the most under-used jig styles for pike and walleye there is. Tipped with bait or otherwise, you can do a lot worse than laying a jig under the boat and giving them a few vertical bumps every so often. The nice thing about jigs is that they work when fish are right in shallower on a late spring and also when things have moved along quicker and you want to check deeper spots or possibly even weeds. Very, very versatile in terms of how they can be used and where. Jigs are great on the bottom in cold, nasty weather or in current, and they’re unbeatable out on deeper spots once its gotten hot out for good. I could easily fish pike 12 months a year with a spinning rod, a small selection of jigheads and an assortment of scented plastic bodies and bucktails.
Swimming a jig with a slow, steady retrieve is another good option. In 44 degree water on the Detroit River one April, slow-reeling 4 inch Sassy Shads deep along wing dams and dykes was awesome. The pike pushed them forward lightly when they hit, and completely engulfed them. Fished vertically just off the main flow, the same baits with heavier jig heads worked equally well right under the boat on the same days. Glow and hot chartreuse with metal flake worked well in both the dirty main river and in the clearer, warmer water behind the dykes.
Live or dead bait fishing in the spring is another reliable technique. And the way I approach it, it’s just as active as casting or trolling is. I use floats and am constantly steering the rig around, paying out anchor line and adjusting depth. If you use the right rig and pay attention, I can assure you that a Husky Jerk’s three treble hooks beat up a pike a lot worse than a live/deadbait rig does.
Wind, or in a few cases, current, is the number one factor I look for when setting up in an area to float dead or live bait. If I can use the wind to push my bait across a spot while inching my boat along by letting out anchor rope, that’s ideal. It’s basically like super slow-motion trolling. You can really strain through a spot this way. Live chubs, suckers or stinky dead baits are all very effective. The less casting/reeling you have to do with any of them, the better. I like dunking the float gently overboard a short distance and then letting the wind and wave action take it from there. One cast to cover a large piece of water. Dead bait works a lot better with a tandem-hook rig than live bait does in my experience. If your live minnows are seven to ten inches, you can rig up a second hook without over-powering them, though.
Most of the live stuff I use this time of year is smaller, up to about six or seven inches. With a #2 to 2/0 single hook through the tail or dorsal area, you’ll nab most pike cleanly if you watch your float and hit the fish sooner rather than later. Depending on the size of deadbait, a quick-strike rig works very well. With smelt or herring especially, the less casting you do the better. They’re soft. All the leftover suckers and chubs from the winter we salt and set aside for deadbaiting. This toughens them up a bit, making them easier to hook and use. They also work awesome on a wire-snelled spinner rig behind a bottom bouncer all season or on the back of a jig. I doubt I’m the only guy in Ontario who’s had a big pike take a bottom bouncer and bait rig while walleye fishing in May.
It’d be a mistake not to mention bottom bouncers as a great option early in the season. Plain deadbait, spinner rigs or floating minnowbaits are all good behind bouncers. For working along fast, motor trolling a spinner rig tied on light wire or fluorocarbon is an excellent presentation for covering water. These kinds of rigs are also excellent in terms of hooking percentage. Over sharper structure, snaggy bottoms or if pike are extra slow, drifting and slowly weaving along with a live or dead bait fish can be every bit as effective as jigging. The same harnesses used for float fishing work well here also.
Don’t lock into one way of fishing in the spring for pike. Be willing to cast and reel in different ways and in different areas, and don’t leave your patience back in your ice shack. Being as deliberate and methodical as you’ve been all winter will pay. I’m as guilty as anyone. After a long layoff, firing baits around like a maniac is an easy pattern to slip into. Bring your trolling rods, and definitely don’t be afraid to work a float or other bait rig in slow motion on some spots. There are so many types of spots pike use early. They’re not one trick ponies, and we shouldn’t be, either. On many trips, good fish are seen and caught in vastly different areas, using totally different techniques. Watching how the water and its inhabitants progress once the season starts and a willingness to try something out of the box are two easy ways to get good fishing. Every piece of water we fish will have its own personalities and populations. Playing the game in more than one way is productive and fun.
By J.P. Bushey – Follow J.P. on facebook at: www.facebook.com/TheBusheyAngle