Fish For Early-Season Pike

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I slowly motored to the middle of the calm bay and cut the engine to start fishing. I launched my big, chartreuse spoon towards the cattail-lined shore and had only turned the crank four times when I saw a wake appear behind my lure. There was no doubt when the fish hit, as my rod was nearly jerked out of my hands. The line peeled off the reel as if the drag wasn’t set with any resistance. The fact of the matter was the drag was set tight and the shear strength of the fish allowed it to pull off line with little effort. I used the full length of my rod to fight the fish and maneuver it away from obstacles and closer to the boat. It wasn’t an easy task and after a long, intense battle I finally brought the fish up beside the boat. It was far too big to fit in the net and I grasped its tail using a cotton glove and slowly lifted it in. My eyes almost popped out of my head when I saw how big the fish really was. Only a foot shorter than me, I held it up for some quick pictures and recorded the weight at just over 30 pounds. It was by far my biggest pike ever.

Early spring is undoubtedly the best time to target big northern pike. Huge fish, seldom seen the rest of the year, can be easy to find and are often concentrated in prime locations. The good news is you can catch dozens of big pike this time of year and test your tackle to the breaking point. The bad news is it will only last a short period of time and if you don’t get out to take advantage of it, you’ll have to wait a full year until next spring rolls around.

That monster pike I boated wasn’t an accidental or random catch, as my dad and I caught 12 other pike from the same bay, ranging between 12 and 23 pounds. It was a spring hot spot and we were there at the right time to take advantage of it.

Pike like the cold and the bigger a pike gets, the more it seeks out cool environments. Big pike are often difficult to locate during the warm weather months because they go deep and scatter throughout a water body. They eat big prey, so they don’t need to feed as often, and anglers often use the wrong lures to trigger the big fish into biting. However, they do like a break from the cold.

Yes, pike are cold-water creatures, but the exception to the rule comes in the spring, shortly after ice out, and just after spawning. The big hens must feel like they simply need a break and head to areas of a lake or river where they can sun themselves, warm their bodies and get their metabolism cranked up for the summer ahead. The prime spots aren’t terribly difficult to find, simply by watching for visual indicators.

Scanning a shoreline, it won’t take long to eliminate cooler waters in large stretches of sand and bare rock in your quest for spring pike. The biggest fish in any system will use the best habitats available. They, too, search the shoreline for the best spot to set up home and relax in the warmth. Not just any spot – the best spot.

Thinking back to where I have caught my largest fish over the years, there are several conclusions that can be drawn:

  • Where there is one big fish, there are usually more.
  • If you are catching lots of small fish, you are unlikely to find a big fish.
  • Areas that hold big fish always have a few productive features that make them better than all the other prime sites on the lake.

Paying attention to detail is critical to locating the absolute best spots.

Start by looking at the south-facing shorelines, which are always a good bet. When spring arrives, the sun is still low on the horizon during the hottest part of the day. The south -acing exposures collect direct sunlight and are the first portions of any water body to be free of ice. This jump-start allows the south-facing areas to be more productive, causing increases in water temperatures and corresponding aquatic life. If you can find a shallow, productive bay with a mud bottom, you’ve struck gold. The dark mud substrate will draw and store the heat from the sun and warm the water quickly. The best way to find the mud-bottomed bays is to look for vegetation that will create an organic bottom. That is, cattail, sedges or bulrushes that line the shore. Beaver activity is another good sign, as they often create dark, organic substrate regions by caching food. Mud simply equates to increased productivity in the spring and when the rest of a lake is still fighting to rid itself of ice, these bays are weeks ahead, of which big pike have learned to take advantage.

Flowing water will also create early spring break up and help to create an environment much warmer than the rest of the lake. Flowing water carries silt and organic materials that are deposited in areas where currents slow down. Where these materials settle, large mud flats are created. The flowing water warms quickly and can draw pike to the current areas looking for a quick shot of warmth and activity. The moving water acts as a conveyor of constant food, washing potential meals to fish that don’t have to use any energy until they see something they want.

The unique thing about flowing water is the ability to hold big pike later into the spring. We know big pike are cold-water creatures and there comes a point when they won’t tolerate the heat of the shallow bays and head for deeper water. Flowing water obviously helps provide the oxygen and temperature range that these big fish are seeking. Having an abundance of readily accessible feed is likely the biggest calling card for pike at the top of the food chain and I always check out creeks and rivers when hunting for trophy-class pike.

If you’re heading to a favourite lake, or waters you’ve never fished, you should check out all the creeks and rivers and any other source of flowing or moving water. Sometimes a lake will have an area that narrows and simple wave action will force water to flow through there. Windy days would obviously be the best times to fish these areas.

Once you have found prime locations for targeting big pike, concentrate your efforts. If at first you don’t succeed, make sure you try again. The lake I fished up north, that produced my trophy-sized fish, would be a hot spot on any lake, including those that are heavily fished. The difference being that there would be fewer big fish on the pressured waters and you’d have to hit the prime location at the same time big fish were using it to feed. I was fortunate to be fishing a lake that doesn’t see a lot of pressure and there were plenty of big fish to keep the hole active at various times of the day. Returning to the spot two or three times a day allowed us to catch big fish that weren’t there on previous visits. Being persistent and working the prime spots at different times of the day can mean the difference between successes and thinking the spot doesn’t hold fish at all.

The hardware you use to target big fish is also very important. I like using a heavy spoon to start my search patterns. They provide lots of flash and action. The best feature is that you can cast them great distances to cover lots of water, without disturbing the area with the boat. If it’s cloudy, I use a three-quarter-ounce Crocodile in chartreuse. It shows up extremely well under low-light conditions and the weight puts off incredible vibration the fish can feel from long distances away. If the sun is bright, or there is a dark stain in the water, I like to use the Williams Bully or Len Thompson No. 4. They are natural heavy weights and come in silver or gold with a variety of colours to meet different needs and conditions. I believe the silver and gold finishes reflect lots of light in shallow water and will trigger fish from greater distances.

I like to use black leaders, which are less obvious. Leaders are essential when fishing for big pike. These fish have large mouths and engulf a spoon and a portion of your line. Without the protection of a good leader, there is a strong likelihood your line and the pike’s teeth will meet and we all know who is going to lose.

Long rods help maneuver fish away from potential hazards and I prefer one with an action tip to bend and surge when a fish takes powerful runs. The flexible rod tip helps to fight fish and reduces the strain on your line. A good bait-cast reel provides a superior drag system, reducing the risk of equipment failure. I seldom use line greater than 10-pound monofilament, unless I’m running a braided line. Braided line does have superior breaking strength, but is unforgiving on hard-fighting fish. If you run a braid, make sure you back off your drag to allow fish to take off when they want to.

Pike are often thought of as one of the easiest sportfish to catch with consistency. There may be some truth to the statement with smaller pike, but when it comes to the big ones they are one of the toughest fish to master with consistency. I can catch walleye much more consistently than big pike, which is why I never overlook the prime time and locations to take advantage of catching trophy-class fish. Any pike over 12 pounds has been around long enough to know its environment and to take advantage of prime habitat and feeding locations. Small pike are well dispersed in any given lake, but those that pay attention to detail are more likely to catch the cunning, larger pike.

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