“Jaws” is the greatest horror movie of all time. Despite its complete lack of the CGI ghosts or masked psychopaths so prevalent in horror films today, there is something about “Jaws” that still resonates. The movie is about a giant beast of a fish that appears out of nowhere to chow down on a drunken skinny dipper or a chubby kid on a raft, only to disappear just as suddenly. A fish that cannot simply be caught has to be hunted down by a beer-can-crushing fisherman who shows an essential hatred for modern convenience. I think that’s the reason I like it—because it reminds me of pike fishing.
Now I’m not talking about going out and landing any 20-inch hammer handle or tiny overly aggressive snot rocket of a pike that will eat almost anything. No, I’m talking about a Great Northern. A 40 incher or, better yet a 45 with 25 pounds on her. I’m talking about “porkers,” Mr. Hooper. The type of pike that makes you wish you had a bigger boat. The pike of so many anglers’ dreams that, though rare outside of places like Alaska or Saskatchewan, can be targeted and caught almost anywhere pike can be found so long as you use the right equipment and techniques. This is how you catch giant northern pike.
The Best Time of Year to Catch Pike The best time to target giant pike is during the post-spawn period of late spring to early summer when the largest females are through spawning and beginning to hunt in shallow water. Just like with the whitetail rut, this window of time varies depending on where you’re located in the country.
Pike in the southernmost end of their range will finish spawning as early as March, while the fish in more northern latitudes can finish up as late as July. To determine whether the pike in your area are in this vital stage is easy—just go take the water temperature of your chosen fishing spot. Do this often, because water temperature is absolutely vital for success.
Pike spawn right at ice-out, or when the water temperature is in the mid-40s. During this time, both the giant female pike you’re after and the smaller males move out of the main body of water they live in and push up into shallower weedy bays, slow moving tributaries, and backwater sloughs to spawn. Once the water temperature has reached into the upper 40s and lower 50-degree range, the pike will finish spawning and slowly work their way back to the main lake or river, remaining near the area where they spawned to recover and feed.
How to Find Giant Northern Pike Shallow weedy bays in lakes or river backwaters in rivers, slow-moving tributaries or side channels are the first places to begin scouting for monster pike. In the early morning, when the water temperature is in the low to mid 50s, pike hold in the shallowest areas of these spots. When the water is clear enough and the sun is bright, you can actually spot pike from a boat or high banks laying in the sun like fat tourists on deck chairs, though it’s difficult to get them to strike at those times.
As the air temperature rises throughout the day, the bigger fish become more active and begin to cruise around looking for an easy meal while still remaining in relatively shallow water. It’s better to begin fishing these areas later in the day so the fish won’t be spooked by your presence and will be more ready to feed.
Big pike have a small window of time every day when they are willing to bite. It can vary with water temperature, barometric pressure, the time of day, or simply the fish’s mood. Yet there always seems to be those magical times when suddenly every big fish in the area is turned on and you can hook into multiple monsters after a mostly fishless day. This usually occurs when the water temperature peaks between 55 and 60 degrees, but the determined angler should dedicate themselves to a full day on the water. You never know when the big girls are going to be in the mood.
Once you’ve found a potential honey hole, all that remains is to begin fishing it with whatever method you prefer. It’s important to note that however you choose to fish for pike, you’ll want to use heavy gear. A truly giant pike can break a line or even a rod quite easily on its initial run so be sure to use a heavy action rod and a baitcasting reel, spinning reel or fly rig strung with at least 30-pound-test line and tipped with a steel leader to protect from the fish’s slashing teeth.
How to Catch Northern Pike with Bait Pike baits fall into two different categories: alive and dead. Both are incredibly effective during the post-spawn season. Dead baits work better in colder water and live baits are more effective in warmer water, when the big fish are more apt to chase down and kill something.
There’s not much reason to be too choosy about what type of fish to use for bait. Big pike are apex predators and aren’t usually too particular, so you don’t necessarily have to “match the hatch.” There are exceptions to this rule though in lakes and rivers where pike are overly pressured. Golden shiners, smelt, alewives, whitefish, suckers, and even perch and sunfish are all equally effective, so long as the offering isn’t overly large. While the old adage of “big fish eat big bait” generally applies during most other times of the year, during the post-spawn, large pike are more attracted to smaller baits which are easier to eat. Try not to use a bait much larger than 6 to 8 inches.
While pike will pick up dead and barely alive minnows from the bottom, I’ve always preferred to fish with my offering suspended under a float a foot or less above the bottom—right in the pike’s face. Large cigar floats are better since they’re easy to spot from a long way off and their elongated shape provides less water resistance for a pike than a bubble float or bobber, making the fish less likely to drop the bait. Add a couple split-shot 8 to 10 inches above the hook to hold the bait at the desired depth.
When I fish live bait, I stick a 1/0 or 2/0 circle hook through the baitfish’s nose so that it stays alive longer and struggles more. When I fish dead baits, I hook a 2/0 or 3/0 treble hook through the minnow’s back. This gives it a livelier looking profile and lets the pike to take the bait headfirst.
How to Catch Northern Pike with Lures and Flies Though it’s hard to argue with the productiveness of bait fishing, fly and spin tackle definitely provide a more active and exciting experience. The truly big northerns are moody, fickle, and difficult to entice with lures and flies but the anticipation—being constantly on alert for a predator—it touches some deep part of your soul. It’s hold-onto-the-edge-of your-seat fishing, where every fiber of your being is humming with the expectation of a strike that may or may not come.
Fish arrive out of nowhere. When you’re stripping or reeling away, getting ready to cast again for the 1,000th time, wondering if you should start naming the blisters forming on your fingers, suddenly you’ll see a shadow, materializing from the depths behind your presentation, cruising with pure malevolence like some vaguely intelligent torpedo; so big it doesn’t seem real. Then it strikes, and the whole world explodes. It’s quite possibly the most thrilling moment in all of fishing.
The alternate and highly common end to this story is that the giant shadow does not crush your lure, instead choosing to just watch or sulk nearby. You should always perform a figure-eight with your rod tip and lure or fly next to boat after every cast, but especially when you see a noncommittal follow. Often, moving the offering erratically like a fish trying to hide along the hull will trigger a strike. Sometimes it doesn’t, especially in cold water. If a fish won’t eat, try showing it a different fly or lure, or dropping your fly or lure to the bottom and giving it several feeble and enticing twitches.
The Best Lures for Pike Big, piggy pike of the post-spawn are lethargic fish. While entirely capable of swallowing a duck or a muskrat whole, they much prefer smaller, slower, and easier to catch prey during this time of year. In a desert island scenario where I had a choice of only two lures to fish during the post-spawn I would choose the Rapala Husky Jerk in any size from 3 to 5 inches and a 4 to 6 inch soft-plastic like a Mister Twister Curly Tail Grub or Lunker City Slug-Go or a Largo Shad paddletail swimbait.
The Husky Jerk is a great lure for covering water and drawing in big pike. Because the lures suspends, as opposed to rising or sinking when no moving, you should fish it slow with a lot of jerks and pauses on the retrieve. Pike attracted to the lure’s sporadic movement will swim within a few feet of it on the pause and then absolutely smash it when the lure moves again.
Fish soft plastics on a jig head hook in deeper water and retrieve it with a jigging action. Cast it out and then lower your rod tip, letting the lure touch or almost touch the bottom, before rapidly bouncing it back up and reeling up the slack line. Big pike interested in the bait will often follow it almost to the boat. When this happens, let the bait fall to the bottom and give it a few twitches in front of the pike’s nose. The fish will often inhale it.
The Best Flies for Pike Fly fishing for pike often feels a bit ludicrous in its contrast; using such a delicate and graceful art to pursue something as indelicate and utterly violent as a member of the Esox genus. Yet that contrast is where fly fishing for pike truly shines. Akin to using a long bow for hunting bear, it evokes interactions with larger, saltwater species like tarpon and barracuda.
You’ll want to be sure to use a heavier fly rod like a 10- or 12-weight, when hunting true giants. These rods better handle the big fish and casting large streamers. As far as fly selection goes, I prefer to use flies with which I can create multiple retrieval actions.
Large bucktail patterns like Lefty’s Deceiver that can be jerk-stripped, suspended, or simply allowed to drop on a pikes head are always a great choice. For colder water and more hesitant fish, use more leech-like patterns that provide a lot of action with little effort, like slow jigging or merely twitching as they sink. A large bunny leech works great for this but when it comes to really putting big pike in the net, it’s hard to beat a Mangum’s Dragon Tail.
The Northern Pike of Your Dreams I don’t think there is a single angler out there who doesn’t love chasing big fish. Tales of pursuing them, and of “the one that got away” have inscribed themselves into our cultural folklore and are the reason that movies like “Jaws” even exist. To the uninitiated, a 40-inch-plus northern pike may not seem to compare to a 25-foot great white shark, yet on a certain level they do. Pike are the top predator in whatever body of water they live in. While they may not inspire fear, they do inspire ambition.
Pike, though living far from the ocean, are available in lakes and rivers around the country. They are truly monstrous fish that can transform any given day on the water into an epic fish tale. Big pike are the reason that so many of us drive past a section of “pikey” looking water and, for a brief moment, wonder with apprehension and a shadow of fear what may be hiding just beneath the surface.
Feature image via Bill Lindner Photography