One of the most iconic and well-known stories from the Bible is the tale of Jonah. In the story, Jonah is thrown from a ship and swallowed by a giant fish. Now we have interpreted this massive man-swallowing creature to be a whale, yet most ancient paintings and other portrayals of the creature don’t make it look that way at all. The great fish is usually depicted with a long pointed snout, rows of jagged teeth, and a long snake-like body. In short, the fish that ate Jonah often looked like a giant pike.
It's little wonder that those ancient artists chose a pike for the model of the fish. The voracious predators have been around since the late Cretaceous Period, evolving into the ultimate killers that hunt, strike, and quickly devour anything that moves. Pike have been chased by anglers since ancient times, creating their own mysticism and lore around their pursuit. It’s a mystique that the fish retain in the modern world. Today, landing a giant pike is still considered to be one of the greatest angling achievements, and savvy pike anglers know that there is no better time to land a pike worthy of its legend than in the fall.
Though they are classified as a warmwater species, pike—especially large pike, are a fish that very much prefers cold water. This means that for most of the year, you can only catch them by jigging or trolling through deep sections of lakes and rivers where the thermoclines keep the water temps cool and comfortable for the large predators. However, with the coming of autumn and drops in water temperatures, big pike will move away from their deep water haunts and push into the shallows to hunt.
In early autumn big pike follow schools of spawning baitfish onto sand and gravel bars, inhaling the small fish like a kid with a bag of Halloween candy. They’ll move into large weed beds where gamefish like bass and pickerel like to hide, devouring any of these smaller fish that are too slow to get away. In late fall when water temps begin to drop below 50 degrees and true warm water species like panfish and perch begin to move into deeper water, the pike wait on the edges of drop-offs and around the fringes of the deepest and lushest vegetation, allowing their unsuspecting prey to swim right into their gaping maws.
In a nutshell, fall pike are extremely aggressive and extremely hungry and come into the shallows to gorge themselves. This behavior puts these giant fish within easy reach of anglers, who with the right tackle and pike catching know-how, can perhaps land the pike of a lifetime.
Chasing pike in the fall means leaving your light gear behind and hitting the water loaded for bear. Spin anglers and bait fishermen will want to use a medium-heavy to heavy action rod paired with a reel strung with 30- to 50-pound test braided line. This will not only help you handle any monster pike you get into but, as you’ll be fishing in shallow water, the leverage of the rod and heavy line will help to pull you loose from any snags you may encounter. Bait fishermen will want to use large 3/0 to 5/0 hooks which will both keep hold of any large live baits you’re using and will ensure a clean hookset when you get a strike.
Fly anglers will want to use the same heavy rods in the fall that they would use for muskie or for saltwater quarry. A 9-foot, 8-weight to 10-weight fly rod will work just fine but beefing up to an 11-weight or 12-weight isn’t a bad idea, especially if you’re fishing in an area with a lot of wind as it will be easier to cast. Leaders and tippet should be in the 12- to 25-pound range.
In addition, no matter which fishing method you choose, you should always attach a length of bite wire or a wire leader to the end of your line to ensure that you keep your lure, bait, or fly stays with you and doesn’t end up being sliced off by a pikes razor-sharp teeth.
While trophy pike can be caught on a wide array of baits during the spring and summer months, fishing for them in fall is all about going big or going home. The big autumn fish are hungry and hostile, so trying to catch them on the typical small spoons and minnows you’d associate with spring or summer pike fishing can be futile because big fall pike are hunting for big chunks of meat.
Bait anglers can have a lot of success during the fall by using large live and dead baits such as 8- to 10-inch suckers or herring or a larger panfish species, like bluegill or perch, providing that such action is legal in your state. However, as autumn pike are often lying in or along the fringes of shallow weed beds, fishing your baits directly on the bottom will often get them snagged up in the vegetation. So, your best bet is to suspend them just above the weeds with a slip bobber rig. Now, most slip bobbers are designed for panfish like crappie and will be useless for pike fishing as the weight of the large bait will drag the bobber beneath the surface of the water, so you’re going to want to use a large bobber such as the ones used for big catfish. Slip bobber rigs are great as they allow you to suspend your baits at a variety of different depths, making sure that you keep your big baits right in the pike’s faces.
Lure anglers hunting big fall pike are also going to want to beef up their setups. The same spinner baits and jerkbaits that you’d use for pike in summer must be super-sized to attract the aggressive fish’s attention. Instead of using a normal 3- or 4-inch jerkbait, beef up your setup with a massive lure such as a Jerkmaster or an F18 Rapala. Instead of using a single spinner bait, try using an Umbrella Rig paired with some 4-inch soft plastic swimbaits, which both imitate spawning baitfish and give off a lot of flash and action to draw in the big predators. As the pike are looking for a large meal, fall is also a great time to use big swimbaits like the Bull Dawg and the Shine Glide.
Fly anglers can have a lot of luck catching pike during the fall on the same large streamers they would use for trout. However, they will be better served using the giant flies designed for catching muskie if they want a true monster pike. My favorite fall pike patterns include the Double Buford, the Dragontail, the Jerkchanger, and Cohen’s Manbearpig.
Fishing for giant fall pike is all about the edges. The edges of weed beds, the edges of drop-offs, and the edges of structures like rock piles and the tips of islands, are all spots that big pike hunt in the fall and should be your points of attack, concentrating your fishing efforts in 5 to 15 feet of water. Pike will either be holding in these areas, waiting to ambush any passing baitfish, or slowly patrolling them in search of prey so no matter what fishing method you choose to utilize, you’re going to want to cover a lot of water.
Bait anglers using slip bobber rigs should set them up so that their baits will be suspended one or two feet above the bottom. Since you’re trying to cover water, you won’t want to anchor up in one spot. Instead cast your baits out into a likely area and then either slowly drift along with the wind or if you’re fishing in a river, drift with the current. This ensures that you’re presenting your bait to multiple areas guaranteeing that it will eventually drift right in front of a hungry pike.
Trolling the edges is also a great way to cover water and is perhaps the most productive way to get on top of the fish. Position your boat along the edge of weed beds or drop-offs, paying special attention to the inside, curving edges of these areas as they tend to have larger concentrations of baitfish and subsequently the large pike hunting them. Using an umbrella rig or a large jerkbait (or both if you’re fishing multiple rods) start trolling the outer, deepest edge of the structure at varying speeds and then slowly start working your way into shallower and shallower water until you get a strike. As pike move in and out of these areas continuously during the fall, it’s a good idea to troll around a spot several times as the fish may suddenly appear out of nowhere.
Lure anglers and fly anglers will definitely have the most action-packed fishing, as big pike will often chase lures and flies all the way to the boat before striking, ensuring that you’ll have the occasional heart murmur as you see a massive fish closing in on your bait. Cast your lures and flies up into the shallowest water that you can and then retrieve them out over the edges of drop offs or structure, working methodically into deeper and deeper water. If you’re fishing with a spinner or spoon, an umbrella rig, or a swimbait, you should have a continuous retrieve of varying speeds which will call pike in from afar. However, if you’re using a jerkbait or a streamer, it’s a better bet to add in lots of little jerks and pauses to your retrieve and to even allow your bait to sink to the bottom or rise to the surface on occasion. This causes your bait to look like an injured baitfish and is guaranteed to trigger strikes from any following pike looking for an easy meal.
As previously mentioned, there is a certain mysticism to pike. The fish almost seem medieval in their brutality and dominance over the water bodies where they live. They are so revered and so feared that many ancient peoples named their weapons for them and used the fish’s image as totems on their shields and warships. Pike have woven themselves into the fabric of angling history as beasts that can only be challenged by the brave.
During the fall when the air is crisp and cold and the earth feels as if it’s slowing down, giving our minds time to wander, we can look down into the waters where pike reside and imagine the great leviathans drifting in the shadows below. Doing so gives you a sense of wonder and fear about just what may be swimming just below your feet causing an eerie feeling to occasionally sweep over you. It’s a sensation that causes you to pull your toes from the water, move to the center of the boat, and tighten the straps of your life jacket, because just maybe, there’s a giant pike down in the depths of the water that could leap out and swallow you whole.
Feature image via Mike Hehner.