Fishing For Spring Pike

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It was early spring and I was at my favourite pike lake, Wabamun, near Edmonton, Alta. The ice had come off and my buddy Arnold and I were feeling great. We were on the water, chucking spoons, cranking plugs and having the time of our lives. Spring pike at Wabamun are almost always in shallow water and we knew that if we covered enough water we’d end up hooking into a big gator, or two, or three. So that’s how we liked to spend our time. Come spring, we chase monster gators, which to us means any pike that break the metre stick. Wabamun is a special lake in that it has a lot of big pike, and every spring we catch a good number of them. My longest was a cool 44 inches. It was a skinny fish, post spawn, so it didn’t weigh nearly as much as it could have. I did catch one, however, that was huge in every sense of the word. She was a solid 41 inches, over 20 inches around, and heavy from head to tail. If ever I had caught a pike that pushed 20 pounds, that was surely it. I didn’t have a scale with me, so I’ll never know for sure how heavy she was, but I strongly believe that one pushed the mark.

Spring pike at Wabamun Lake are a different kind of animal, when compared to the behaviour these very same fish exhibit during the fall. As the water cools in the fall, pike go on a massive feeding binge and they smash and crash any and all lures with reckless abandon. Their metabolism is high and they seem to be forever on the feed. Come spring, the game changes. Pike are just finishing off or have already completed their spawning effort. They are skinnier and they are hungry, but unlike the fish of fall, these critters aren’t recklessly slaying any lure thrown their way. There are days when they do, but that is definitely not an everyday deal. What is cool, however, is the fact that a lot of these spring fish are up shallow and willing to bite.

So the game plan for early spring pike is remarkably simple: hunt them in the shallows and match the lure to the timing of the season and the mood of the fish. So early on, the best lures are slow going, often suspenders or shallow-diving plugs that give pike a lot of time to look things over. I keep things on the smaller side for lure choice. My favourites are the No. 9 shallow running Rapala Shad Rap, perch colour (also known as pike candy), and the Firetiger Husky Jerk No. 11. Both these lures have caught me thousands of spring pike and, despite their smaller size, they have accounted for a good number of very large fish.

As for location, all shallow water is not created equal. I give consideration to water temperature, available cover and bottom composition. A shallow, muddy bay on the north side of a lake warms up a whole lot faster than a muddy bay on the south side of the lake, just because the north side receives more direct sunlight than its southern counterpart. Similarly, a dark muddy bay, wherever it may be, will warm up faster than a light coloured gravel bay for a given location, as the dark mud absorbs the sun’s rays and warms the water, whereas the lighter coloured gravel reflects the sun’s rays, therefore the water stays cooler.

Early in the season, it’s all about finding the warm water. Like us, fish don’t like to be super cold, and this is why the northern parts of any lake are worth exploring. But as spring progresses and more and more of the lake warms, the fish will spread out. So, as the lake warms up, sometimes the southern, shaded shores become more desirable. Knowing this, as the season wears on, I move more and I’ve taken to hunting out changes of bottom composition, rather than searching for individual fish. Using polarized glasses, I can see where a mud bottom hits a newly developing weed edge and I’ll cast my lure there. I’ll see where an underwater point hits a drop off or where mud and rocks meet and I’ll cast my lure there. Anywhere there is an edge and a difference in bottom composition, there is a strong likelihood there will be at least a pike or two nearby.

Sometimes I’ll see individual fish and I can hunt them, but more often than not a pike will simply materialize in these areas of transition and charge in on my lure. I find it truly amazing how well the camouflage pattern of a pike will hide their presence, even in a few feet of water, if they’re just not moving. This is especially true in areas where there’s newly emerging weeds. Even if there is only six or eight inches of weed growth, often that’s enough to hide a large, ambush-oriented pike, which is why I’ll cast my lure at least a time or two to these areas. Sometimes places that appear to be fishless are in fact fish havens, and a cast or two is usually all it takes to get a skinny water pike to charge out and take a shot.

I used to be hung up on heading to the north side of the lake and fishing the warmer water, but that all changed when I started fishing Lessard Lake, northwest of Edmonton. It’s not a big lake and it does not produce trophy pike. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever caught a pike there that breaks 10 pounds. But unlike Wabamun, where the regulations for pike are strictly catch and release, I can keep a pike or two from Lessard, which I value because I like to eat fish from time to time. There are pike that hang out on the north side of the lake, for I’ve caught them there, but I’ve also caught more than my fair share within a couple hundred metres of the boat launch on the south shore. In this case, the south shore is simply better. I suspect it offers pike a better combination of cover and feed after the lake starts to warm, and they choose to make this their home until warm summer temperatures push them out into deeper water. Whatever the reason, the pike are there and they like to bite, so that’s where you’ll find me too.

On any lake, as spring moves forward on its perpetual journey towards summer, the water will continue to warm and it will eventually warm beyond the liking of adult pike. Late spring conditions will still see pike in shallow waters, but I’d more precisely say that these fish are now mid-depth, probably five to 10 feet deep. Weather and location, in my opinion, now play a far greater role. For the most part, I concentrate almost all my efforts on the developed weed edges and I’ll especially look to secondary structure where weed edges butt up to a point, a drop off, a beaver channel or something like this. Shallow to medium-depth water with weeds is my number one target.

The same plugs that I described earlier will work for late spring pike, but I’ll also be chucking spoons more and more frequently as their flash will often generate a response from fish, even if they don’t straight up bite the lure. A swirl, a slashing miss or a follow to the boat are all confirmations of pike in the area. This response tips me off to their location for the day and I can return to these hot spots time and again, tossing other lures, giving me a decent shot at being rewarded with a strike. My favourite follow up lures, if the spoon won’t tempt a bite, is to slow crank a sinking or suspending plug and I’ll be sure to add a lot of pauses into the retrieve. The pauses, quite often, are what generate a lot of my strikes.

While location during late spring is generally deeper when chasing pike, this all goes out the window if cool weather comes in. A day of cool rain can take an otherwise slow fishing outing and turn it electric. The slight reprieve from warmer temperatures, due to a lack of sun and the injection of cool water from the sky, is a game changer. This exact scenario happened to my good friend Wayne Brown and me while we were fishing on Lessard Lake this past summer. All the pike came alive and everything and anything was chasing our lures. It was literally fish after fish. I suspect we caught over 100 pike that day, but after catching a dozen or more, Wayne and I started going through our tackle box to see what these pike wouldn’t hit and we never found anything they flat out rejected. Even the big Suicks and monster plugs I reserve for big fall action got attention. I managed to duplicate this awesome action on two more late spring/early summer rainy day outings, so if it looks like a little rain will be coming your way and you’re going fishing, get ready; you could be in for some of the best fishing of the year. It seems a little water from the sky is sometimes just the spice needed to turn normal pike into feeding machines.

Here in Alberta, a substantial number of lakes open to pike fishing on the May long weekend and, for me, this is always a much anticipated time of year. With spring conditions, there will be a glorious few weeks, sometimes more, where all the pike will be in shallow water and feeding. Fishing is generally outstanding and I’ll be catching pike of all sizes. One cast could produce a 12 incher, while the next produces a 12 pounder. Hunting shallow water pike is just plain excellent and this pattern generally holds until the middle of June, then all bets are off. But for as long as the cool water persists, expect big pike up shallow and good fishing to follow.

The great thing, too, about early season pike is their willingness to strike, so this sets up a perfect scenario where all we really need to do is jump in the boat, engage the motor and ever so slowly work our way around the shoreline, casting as we go. This is one of the few times of the year where a top-water lure like the Zara Ppook Jerkbait can be tremendously productive, as well as a ton of fun. The plugs and suspenders will catch a load of pike, but few things in fishing beat the pure entertainment value of watching a shallow water northern torpedoing in on a Spook. It’s top-water action at its finest. This spring, when the lakes open up to fishing, shake off the rust on that casting arm and chuck lures into the shallows, where I suspect you’ll be greeted by a bunch of pike eager to keep you busy.

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