So, one might ask, what is a "Walleye Guy" doing writing about pike fishing? After all, every one knows that walleye anglers hate the slime of a "snake", and despise the lure stealing ability of those "toothy critters". But, I’ll tell you a little secret - I Love Fishing For Pike!
From chasing "hammer handles" as a youth in northern Wisconsin, to casting for "gators" in the expansive weed flats of the Great Lakes, to deep trolling for trophy Pike in the western reservoirs, Northerns have always provided me with a great get away from my real job - walleye fishing (it’s a dirty job, but ….).
As a tournament angler, I make a living exploring new bodies of water by analyzing the situation, choosing techniques and then catching fish. I found those same challenges on a trip a couple years back to northern Saskatchewan on Misaw Lake while filming a TV segment for Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World (work, work, work).
It was July in the lower 48 ... that’s early spring for northern Saskatchewan. My game plan was to search the warmer water of the shallows - both shorelines and bays - with my number one strategy being to cover water. Misaw Lake and the Misaw Lake Lodge have all of the ingredients to provide trophy Pike fishing. There is limited access to the lake both because this is the only lodge on the lake, and because Provincial regulations dictate the maximum number of anglers that can be on the water, so fishing pressure is low. Owner, Bernie Gollig had sent me photos of previous years catches - so I knew there were at least a few big girls with the right genetics terrorizing this pond. Lastly Misaw is all catch and release - so all the big ones just keep getting bigger!
That being said, I want to analyze three distinct patterns that surfaced as the days of this trip progressed. Catching numbers was easy. A long cast with a flashy lure over weed beds would certainly produce 30 fish per day. My goal however, was to try and figure out how to catch a 40 pound class fish ... a Misaw Monster.
Shallow Shoreline Flats
In northern Wisconsin, the fishing opener often requires anglers to search for Pike in shallow warm water - the same is true for July in northern Canada. I decided to cover water as quick as possible - looking for active fish. The small 20 hp engine on the boat I was using was perfect for backtrolling. Flip the outboard into reverse, put a foot on the handle, and start fan casting the shore. It didn’t take too long to put together a pattern.
Much of Misaw is barren, muck/sand shoreline. I coaxed a few follows and some smaller fish out of the indentations in the shoreline where a small reed patch had developed. The real fun started when I hit the areas where there were scattered rocks mixed with the muck/sand bottom. It seemed like there was a pike behind every boulder. Better yet were the areas where the rock and mud had a sprinkling of weeds or reeds growing 10 to 30 feet offshore.
I chose a lure called a Top Prop (by Mepps) to handle this situation. The beauty of this foam bodied lure is that it’s body spins on a wire shaft and the plastic trailer with tentacles attached to the hook makes it look like a skirt - essentially giving you a floating bucktail type spinner. It dives only inches below the surface on a retrieve and floats on a pause. The only modification I made to the lure was to take off the single hook it came with and add a large treble. This seemed to greatly improved my hooking percentages.
The strikes were impressive. Often the pike would swim 10, 20 even 30 feet or more to smash the bait in the clear water. The biggest problem I had was adrenaline. In the shallow water, the pike would push up a wall of water in front of them. Wakes from these "shallow sharks" would sometimes fool me into setting the hook a little too early. A simple two count before setting seemed to remedy the situation.
This pattern worked consistently, tallying many 30 to 42 inch fish - every day - until the weather went bad. If the wind came up, or a cold front suddenly pushed through or a thunder storm threatened - it was like turning off a light switch. No sightings, no Pike and most importantly no bites. After some searching the fix was a new pattern ... deep weeds.
Deep is relative. For walleye fishing deep might be 30 or 40 feet. For cold water pike, deep was 2 to 4 feet with Lily Pads, or as deep as 6 feet with emergent weeds. Obviously, pads can be found by sight, but many of the best deep spots were where I found weeds with my portable depth finder. Even an inexpensive unit can pick out where the bottom transitions from being smooth and clean, to an irregular weedy bottom. There always seemed to be fish in these areas - but the activity seemed to dramatically increase in proportion to how bad the weather got. Time to switch tactics.
It was time to pull out the big gun ... the 7 foot, heavy action Musky rod and reel spooled with 80 pound line and a strong titanium leader . I also needed a lure that could be worked over the deeper weeds, and a black and chartreuse bucktail proved to be a good choice.
The bucktail hit the water between two patches of pads, and I waited a few seconds to let the lure sink before starting my retrieve. Within two turns of the reel handle, the line went tight! It was a big gator ... and fighting it on no-stretch line and a beefy rod let me feel every move the giant fish made. A few minutes later the fish was landed and released. Wow! I thought to myself, that I’d just caught the biggest pike of my life ... an impressive 46 incher.
The action continued for a while, but not at the pace it had in the shallower water. I could have probably triggered more bites with a small lure like a weedless spoon - but I had caught plenty of fish ... I was now on the hunt for trophies.
Lesson learned ... in nice weather, shorelines were the ticket, bad weather pushed the pike deeper - but I was in Pike heaven - there had to be a mother lode. There was ... and it turned out to be one of the most awesome experiences of my life!
As a kid I did a lot of fishing in a 12 foot row boat with no engine and certainly no electric trolling motor - drifting was the best ... really, the only boat control. Start at the opening of a bay and let the wind dictate the path while fan-casting the waters ahead of the boat. After one pass, row back, pick a new starting point, and repeat until tired. Drifting - silent and deadly. The old method served itself well in Canada too.
Most anglers realize, that early in the year, the sun stays in the southern sky, therefore northern bays in most lakes receive more sunlight and warm quicker. With a little map work and some exploration, I found an ideal pike haunt. Shallow northern bays that warmed faster than the rest of the lake produced emergent weeds that nearly reached the surface. These weeds seemed to not only hold more pike, but larger - meaner ones too. New situation, new lure - time to break out the weedless spoons.
There are several models of weedless spoons that will work well for these Canadian Pike. A few of the more popular models include the Rapala Weedless Minnow, Johnson Silver Minnow, and Tony Aceta Pet spoon. All perform the same function. By holding your rod tip at the 10:00 position with a moderate retrieve, the lure will "swim" back and forth while bumping off weed tops - very enticing!
Interestingly enough, as I drifted up into the bays, the pike seemed to get bigger, fatter, and more aggressive. Maybe the warmer water attracted additional bait so the big mamma’s staked out that territory as their own, leaving the marginal areas to the smaller pike. Often I would drift all the way to the back of the bay, beaching the boat up against shore and make cast after cast parallel to shore or back out into the bay ... and constantly getting strikes!
One important thing to keep in mind is that a "long fight" is not a "good fight". How often have you heard a story from a fishing buddy that goes something like "Yeah, it was the biggest pike I’d ever seen - way bigger than the one you caught last year. I had him on a good 30 or 45 minutes and all of a sudden he made a big run and broke me off". The one that got away!
Two points. First, a long fight is often just giving the fish more chances to find a weak knot, a nick in your line, or a bent hook to facilitate his escape. When fighting fish - especially big fish, you need to take turns controlling the fight. When a fish makes a run, he is in control. His head is down, his tail is pumping, and if you try to stop him you’ll lose him. That’s when a good drag and strong line are critical. By the same token, when he stops fighting, it‘s time for you to take control. Try to get the fish pointed towards you, lead his head around, and start to pull him in. As long as he’ll let you, keep him coming - just be ready for him to take his turn soon. By moving the fish every time it stops fighting you’ll find the time to netting much shorter, the chances of getting a memorable photo increase greatly, and the chance of an LDR (Long Distance Release) minimized.
The second reason to shorten the fight - and a very valid one - is that it is much better for the fish. Acids build up in a fish as he fights. The longer the fight, the more acids build up. So especially in a catch and release scenario, get the fish in, get some quick pictures and then get him back in the water and revived ASAP!
So how good was fishing up there? Well ... put it this way ... I’m going back! Fishing by myself, I was catching 50 to 70 fish a day, well over half were in the 30 inch plus range. I averaged 5 fish per day over 40 inches. I bet your wondering if I ever caught the "Misaw Monster" I was looking for - well let me tell you a story….
On our final day of the trip, my camera man and I were back in one of those wonderful bays catching lots of nice fish (remember work, work, work). He had captured plenty of great fish shots on camera from cast, to strike, to fight and land, and we knew we had enough for a fantastic show. It was then that I noticed a lure sitting in the corner of the boat - staring at me. The big Squirrely Burt jerk bait measured a good 9 inches with the Squirrely part being a big rubber twister tail glued to the end, making the entire package at least 12 inches long. Unlike the other lures which I had been retrieving straight in, the jerk bait is worked by twitching the rod tip in a downward motion. This creates a side-to-side gliding action that can entice some vicious strikes from big toothy critters..
The first cast was just a refresher course in the retrieve. Twitch, Twitch, pause reel, Twitch, pause, Twitch, Twitch, pause reel…. Nice action about 6 inches under the water. Cast two, the rhythm was coming back. The old Burt was walking nicely side to the side, pausing and rising - looked good - until all of a sudden I didn’t see it any more. All I saw was a big white mouth engulfing my foot long bait. A hard hookset with the no-stretch 80 pound line, and we were off to the races. If you’ve seen the show, I believe my quote was "It’s Huge…Just Huge!!"
I’ve been known to get excited during tournaments when I catch a big fish, even to the point of hyper-ventilating - but the feeling of that big Pike powering through the water was like nothing else in fishing. A "long" 5 minute fight finally allowed me to lift him over the gunnel. One foot of lure caught 4 feet of Pike - truly a Misaw Monster I nick-named him "Mike the Pike".
The good news is that Mike and his brothers, sisters and mother are all there for you at either Misaw or another location in North America. Step one is to find a destination that has big fish ... now! Not 10 years ago, or 5 years ago, but a resort with recent photos and testimonials of trophy Pike. Make sure you cover water and try lots of patterns, remembering that most times, big fish hang out in slightly different places than the "numbers". In cold water conditions (like I had), look at the shallow water patterns - moving to slightly deeper areas with deteriorating weather conditions. Be versatile in your lure selection - and as is often the case with Pike, big lures can produce big fish. Lastly, remember, if this "walleye guy" can catch Mike the Monster Pike, then you can too!