This is the second article in a three part series explaining all the basics of northern pike fishing. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to celebrate an under-appreciated fish. We’ll help you better understand northern pike, explain some of the best methods to catch pike, and show you how to turn them into delicious meals. If you missed Part One, you’ll want to go check it out.
The strike came in classic northern pike fashion: One second I was stripping a weighted fly toward the back of a buddy’s jetboat. The next, my calloused thumb and forefinger felt an electric jolt through the line. I stripped hard and lifted the rod to set the hook, more of an aftershock reaction than necessary to cement the connection between angler and fish.
An initial run unspooled the fly line and a dozen yards of backing. Kai deftly steered the boat into deeper water, clearing the fighting arena from the weeds in the modest cove from whence the fish came. Each time we’d catch sight of the brute, it sent the drag into hummingbird mode, muscling back toward darker water. In five minutes it felt like the air temperature had increased by 15 degrees. Sweat seeped into the cork handle of the rod, but there was still no sign of the catch.
Kai jabbed his finger toward the dark green fly line disappearing into the watery underworld. An ashen belly winked momentarily as the pike changed directions. Long minutes later the beast came to the boat.
Momentarily spent from the battle, the fish remained docile as I removed the hook from its cartilaginous upper jaw. Lowering it into the water, I held its tail as liver-red gills pulsed beneath olive-patterned plates. On the release it drenched my face with a spiteful slap of its striped tail. At home we checked its length and girth against an online calculator for weight: 18 pounds.
Outsized specimens like that one and larger fuel the aspirations of pike aficionados, but fish in the 2- to 7-pound range are more typical. Even these provide superb sport on spinning, casting or fly gear and are the best eating with mild, flaky, white meat. Hooking up on a northern for supper or sport involves two things: hitting the right habitat and enticing pike with appealing “bait” and technique.
Ambush predators, pike love cover and structure. On lakes, where most pike are caught, they mark submerged and floating vegetation among their favorite hangouts. Underwater weedbeds, where lures or flies can be fished just above dense stands or within sparser cover, are pike magnets. In spring and early summer, focus on emerging vegetation in shallower water. In May, a prime month for pike fishing almost everwhere they’re found, fish move into warmer water in shallow coves and along shelves. Busting a northern in skinny water frequently rewards the angler with a splashy, dramatic battle. As daytime temperatures increase, northerns seek cooler, deeper water, but still favor the cover afforded by aquatic plant growth.
Rock piles, boat docks and sunken trees—the kind of places favored by bait and panfish—harbor pike as well. Higher water temperatures in midsummer nudges northerns into deeper water, but they still like prey-holding structure. Drop-offs between shallow and deep water can be great at this time. Digital or paper maps of a lake or reservoir that show depth contours can really reduce scouting time on an unfamiliar waterbody. They’ll show those magic drop-offs where depth plunges from a few to a dozen feet, and also identify shallow water areas perfect for early season fishing.
Pike can be caught in the middle of a lake, but are most often taken toward shoreline contours. Narrow, extended bays and tiny coves represent sure-fire hangouts for pike. On lakes with more straight-line shorelines, search for shelves holding aquatic vegetation or other cover, subtle points and underwater ridges, and any other type of structure you can locate.
Northerns take numerous types of lures, flies and bait, but first a word on the relationship between those nasty teeth and fishing line. A pike’s chompers will effortlessly sever most monofilament on contact. The easiest antidote is wire leader, ubiquitous among pike chasers. However, the addition of a hunk of wire makes a lengthy pike fly even clunkier to cast. Enter the “bite tippet,” a rig commonly used by saltwater anglers. A standard bite tippet consists of about a foot of hefty fluorocarbon line (I use 50-pound) attached directly to the fly beyond the standard leader. It’s rare a pike’s teeth that will cut the heavy fluoro, though it should be inspected after each catch and replaced as necessary.
A pike’s chompers are also a threat to fingers. I unwittingly put mine into a northern’s mouth to release the hook as an uninitiated youth. The fish bit down, I instinctively jerked my fingers free, and sustained a series of long, bleeding scratches. Use long-nosed pliers and a jaw-spreader if necessary to stay clear of those nasty teeth.
Spin anglers have a myriad of options for lures, but the hefty spinners and spoons flung by old-timers are tough to beat. My first northern took a 1.5-inch, red-and-white Daredevil spoon. Four decades later, it’s still a perfect pike picker. Large spinners and spinnerbaits are also killer on these water wolves. Pike detect prey by vibration as well as sight, making the rotating blades of a spinner a veritable dinner bell. More modern crankbaits and swimbaits are dynamite as well. Locals often have their favorite hardware colors, but yellow, chartreuse, white and red are great starters, though getting the lure in front of the fish is far more important than its color.
“Pike on the fly” was virtually unheard in the 20th century. Nowadays, the voracious predators have a confirmed following in the fly-casting culture. But myths abound. You need monster 10-plus-inch flies to catch a pike, right? Nope. I’ve landed numerous northerns on 3-inch Clousers and other minnow patterns. It’s always a good idea to try to imitate the most prevalent food source for pike in that waterbody, but these fish reward experimentation with different patterns and colors.
Fly or lure, the key to catching pike is keeping the offering at the ideal depth and covering lots of water while searching for fish. When working a fly or lure, it’s better to start shallow then move deeper. The eyes of a pike have a clear view of prey above them, not so much below. If a shallow retrieve fails to draw a strike, let the lure sink before beginning the retrieve. Use a count-down or other timing method to achieve a consistent sink. Don’t cast to the same place and retrieve at the same depth twice. Fan your casts and work different depths to find the fish. Try different retrieve cadences as well, as pike can seem to be incited by one pace but bored by another.
“It’s not over ‘til it’s over” is a maxim to remember. Pike frequently lunge for the bait just as it’s lifted from the water. I once had 6 pounds of pike attack a spinner that was just clearing a lake’s surface at the end of a retrieve. The fish hooked itself midair, no more than a foot from the tip of the spinning rod. Between their penchant for following before striking and attacking from below, it’s a mistake to assume the game’s over until the bait is completely clear of the water. Like with their larger cousin muskellunge, it’s a good idea to work your presentation in a figure-eight pattern next to the boat for a minute, to make sure no still-interested esocid is lurking just out of sight before making the next cast.
Productive pike angling doesn’t end in the fall. They’re awesome quarry for ice fishing, especially in early winter when they’re frequently found in shallow water, still actively hunting. Many of the same fishing concepts apply over hard water. Pulled from a hole in the ice, there’s little to match the culinary delight of fillets from a 4-pound pike for December dinner. In the next installment, we’ll tell you how to put the best meat on the table, deal with those pesky Y-bones and prepare one of the finest eating fish on the planet.
Feature image via Bryan Gregson.