Stalking Early Spring Trophy Pike
by Ed Carlson
Winters grip now reluctantly fades as ice peals slowly away from bays an creek arms all over the frozen North. As Mother Nature Sheds her winter blanket we too can dare to peal a few layers away and again feel the growing warmth of the sun. Ah, could it be time to dust off a few long rods and make preparations for wonderful things to come?
Very soon some of the best opportunities of the year will arise for trophy pike, true bruisers, and very possibly a chance for that fish of a lifetime.
Wake up, its spring
Winter becomes shorter and the days become slowly but steadily longer. Sun light increases while temperature's creep up beginning the process of eliminating the accumulated snow pack.
Small streams of water meander into slightly larger ones, and thousands of tiny trickles eventually merge into creeks, streams, and rivers.
Through out this process the water will pick up sediments and also gather precious solar heat while gradually eroding the ice and snow it pass's over in rout.
A drop to a trickle, a trickle to a stream, a stream to a torrent, ever flowing faster an wider becoming dark warm and rich searching for a creek, river, lake, or bay to rush into and spread it's warmth and treasures.
At last, spring has shown promise and the scent of this promise is quickly picked up by baitfish, and very soon after that by hungry pre-spawn Northern Pike.
This pre-swawn behavior may begin long before the ice retreats from the banks of the creek arms. Pike start late winter migrations into back bays and channels both in the search for baitfish and to satisfy the urge to seek out spawning habitat.
Pike spawn in very cool water in comparison to other game fish. They are often the first to spawn in many systems, as their preferred temperature range for spawning is 33 to 45 degrees.
Pike Females deposit up to 100,000 eggs at random in what areas they find to be most suitable or avalable. On occasion they have even been known to spawn under the ice during late thaw years.
The scent of spring seeping into the water below the ice appears to triger a response that tells the pike spawn is nearing. The egg mass has been developing in the females since last fall but more energy is needed to fill out the eggs and prepare for the rigors of spawning.
To store energy they need to feed aggressively by means of hunting avalable forage, or scavenging upon winterkilled fish or amphibians left by retreating ice.
The stage is now set for the biggest pike of the year to be highly concentrated and ready to feed.
Evan considering that large portions of the bays or adjoining lakes or reservoirs feed by the early spring run off are most likely still largely covered by ice, the time for scout prime areas to fish is now.
Water temperature has now become the crucial ingredient to locating trophy pike and prospective shore angling locations. As ice recedes from shoreline areas the nutrient and sediment rich waters left behind are rapidly warmed by the growing strength of the sun.
During this period muddy bottom sheltered bay areas and murky creek flowages quickly heat up producing the ideal area for a multitude of pike to lounge in and ripen their bulging egg mass in preparation for spawning.
Conveniently lots of other tasty fish have the same idea so feeding is high on Momma pike's mind, however she is not likely to pursue aggressive presentations in per-spawn mode but key on winterkilled meals more easily consumed.
With all this in mind we look to sheltered back bays allowing warmth and security near likely spawning habitat. Prime habitat for successful spawning has proven to be newly flooded grass or brush.
Cattail bays may hold fish but grass is a better spawning habitat and more easily functions as a good place for pike to spread there eggs and offers a high degree of protection after the hatch has begun.
The ambient air and water temperature will dictate the degree of hunting that pike may pursue during this phase. Experance has shown me that a mid, to late afternoon bite is the norm in these very early seasonal conditions.
Scouting in the evenings or early morning pays dividends in huge pike. Map out several good bay's and creek arms noting the best wind direction for fishing each individual area. Many times the wind will change direction cooling a bay and sending the pike off to hunt for warmer waters near by.
I like to fish pre-spawn monster pike on the creek arms associated with a major resivoire, such as Lake Oahe in South Dakota, and Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. Both systems yield monster pike that have hit the high 30-lb. range, with some approaching 40, huge pike in anyone's book.
These location tactics are not just restricted to these systems but often will prove productive in smaller lake systems and flowages anywhere in the pike's home range.
One handy trick I picked up years back from a long time pike wrangler was to take a pair of binoculars and scan the shoreline from one of the abundant bluffs that line the bays or creeks.
Some times them big black creek logs out in the water just sorta swim off, funny deal? By scanning the water you can actually see large black shadowy hunters slowly moving through the water, huge pike, Momma gator on the prowl, BINGO!
Times to set some bait and see if she want's to play pop goes the bobber.
For shore casting baits I prefer using the long European style predator rods equipped with a good spinning or baitcast reel in order to make long cast's with larger baits with relative ease and precision.
My personal favorite rod and reel is the 11 foot ABU Boron graphite ABS 110-3M 20-60g #3 F-11 (913971) rigged with a Shimano Baitrunner 6500 reel.
The long rod allows you to make effortless cast's with float or slip rig and also aids in fighting a big fish from heavy cover or steering the fish away from big trouble like logs or brush.
The Shimano Baitrunner reel is a great tool for bait fishing situations. Well engineered with two separate smoothly operating individually adjustable drag systems. One is the main drag and the other a running drag designed to alow for a fish to take the bait with the least amount of resistance and run.
The running drag is adjustable and easily activated by a flick of a lever after you have made your cast.
After a strike and the fish is on the bait and into a run you simply begin the retrieve and this disengages the running drag while simultaneously engaging the main fighting drag.
Set the hook and Wee-Haaa, piggy time. A very functional and dependable system for all bait fishing situations, it pulls double duty for me as a slip float catfish rod with the same great results.
For Baitcaster combo's that work very well for old Exos wrangling look to Bass Pro's Pete Mania line of rod and reel combo's, some very sweet sticks for sure.
The 8-ft. PM80XHT-T rod rated for 2-8oz. Lure wt. 15-40 lb. test, matched up to a PQ 3000M 4.2-:1 ratio reel and a adjustable casting weight balancing system to manage casting fatigue all combine to produce one smooth pike rig.
I look for versatility in a combo and this offers a wide range of cross over potential from trolling for walleye, to live baiting flathead catfish, this combo has what it takes to dance with big fish at a very reasonably priced to boot.
Line choice is a personal preference thing, but as long as it is Berkley XT or Big Game, you should be all right.
Abrasion resistance is the key factor to consider in your personal choice.
I feel a little stretch is a good thing on these bruiser pike, no stretch may lead to hooks pulling free on a thrashing head shake bank or boat side.
Rigging for bait stalking pike
So far we have a plan and the hardware to get us a good shot at a trophy fish, now we need to feed them something they will fall for in this cold water pre-spawn environment.
Mood dictates an appropriate presentation, and in this case bait choice too. Live baits do work well, such as 6-12" white suckers, but dead baits offer more appeal to hungry cold pike.
Fresh water smelt and herring has consistently proven to be the right bait under these conditions.
These oily baits secrete a scent trail that triggers a pike to feed readily when live bait is greatly restricted in appeal to action.
Since the water temperature is not far from freezing, action presentations is a low percentage game at this point in time.
In conditions were the temperature is rapidly and steadily rising crank baits such as a Salmo Whitefish SW 13 SX BS, Salmo S-12 Sting, Count Down Rapala #11, or the Rapala Husky # 13 Jerk, may produce high numbers of active fish and should be kept handy should these conditions arise.
Fan casting crankbaits over mud flats can be a very effective method of covering ground and locating active pike plus the action can turn explosive if the pike are on the feed.
One situation were crankbaits shine is when the early stages of a smelt run on reservoirs coincide with pike concentrations near the mouth of a bay or creek arm.
An abundance of food may increase pike feeding activity but a glut of forage will often make bait sets a low percentage game becoming lost in the crowd of available food.
Two basic bait rigs work well under most pre-spawn conditions, the slip float rig, and the bottom slip rig.
The slip float rig is much the same as others you may have used in past months while ice fishing. A float set to slide from the leader section to a point were a stop bead and slip knot has be placed allowing ease of casting and depth control. The big difference is size, these floats will need to suspend a bait that may exceed 1 ½ lb's, such as a large herring.
The 6-8" long 5/8" diameter Styrofoam pencil style slip float is a good choice as it can be weighted to alow for differences in bait and can be pulled under with little effort thus not spooking a wise old pike.
"Thill" floats in the 4-6" cigar style makes for an excellent choice in springtime conditions. They offer a high amount of buoyancy combines with a minimal overall size but yet enough weight to make casting less cumbersome in wind.
A crafty option that is new to the pike game is the addition of flash to a suspension rig above the bait to entice a pike into the bait offering hanging below.
One ideal flash rig is the Mack's smile blade Flash Lite system. The Mack's smile blade is innovative in that the construction of the blade is such as to be adjustable while extremely light in weight so it will turn emitting a flash in a 360 degree radius with as little as a ½ mile an hour push upon its reflective surfaces.
This can easily be achieved by the slightest wind or currents producing a bobbing motion to stimulate the Smile blade and trigger a pike.
The Flash Lite blades are rigged on a steal leader with a high quality snap on one end and an equally high quality swivel on the other. This can be easily added to a quick strike leader below a float to produce additional attraction and bite off protection when the need arises.
Individual blades can be pre-rigged on leaders if a more subtle flash is desired. Originally designed for trolling scenarios they are extremely effective with live and dead bait presentation such as this.
These new blades are hot for many species not just pike, and were responsible for some big wins on the PWT circuit last season.
Leader choice for both the suspension rig and the bottom set rig should be constructed from quality leader materials; such as Bait Rig's Quick Strike rig or a Titanium leader.
Longer the better is the thing to remember as bite offs and high abrasive conditions will raise havoc on the first 3 foot of leader or line above the bait itself.
I often make my own leaders from stock 7 strand wire and start them at 3 ft with many up to 5 ft in really tough creek arms conditions with a lot of timber or brush.
Quality hooks are a must, hooks such as Partridge Vb quick strike hooks, 6 o/t circle hooks and a stinger, or Excalaber treble hooks.
I prefer the Partridge Vb.'s or the circle hook and a stinger as they will not harm a fish as much and a released fish shows less stress, wear, and tear.
Dead baits should be thawed prior to use or they tend to float up. On a bottom set rig frozen may be advantageous, but not so on a suspension rig.
Proper hook placement on these jumbo baits is crucial to insure a good hook up.
The head should be hanging downward on a suspension set. Place the first hook in the bait just above the tail and the bottom hook at the base of the head. A helpful hint is to carry a bag of small dental bands to aid in holding the bait to the wire leader while casting.
One band worked over the first hook and placed about mid way between the first and second hook will greatly help prevent bait loss on long hard casts.
Bottom slip set rigs are much the same as the float rig with the addition of a egg weight just above the leader to hold the bait in position.
The crafty Europeans have many productive variations to a bottom set and well worth experimenting with once you read up on them a bit.
We are in the stone age's compared to the advanced bait presentation tactics developed by Europe's top bait fisherman. I would recommend further reading on their tactics if you were serious about bait fishing.
Might very well make for some good bank side reading while waiting for a pike to make that big run?
Bait set placement
Putting this all together we know to look to creek channels feeding into bays to locate pike. Look also for likely runs that hunting pike may follow with careful consideration given to inside corners and points.
Large mud bays are a crapshoot so just get the bait out there and see if they cruise on by. You can up your odds by studying area topography carefully noting where old creek channels brush up against shoreline areas, flooded timber, or brush.
Often these old channels are like highways to pike moving in and out of bays, most certainly a high percentage area worth staking out and making a few sets.
Necked down areas funneling into creek runs is a choice location and should be sought out if available. Suspension rigs in these areas may be best run high off the bottom.
If the estimated depth of the creek is 8' set the bait at 4'. Many of these huge old pike ride mid water column as they cruise the bays and channels.
A good plan is to mix it up, one high, one low, feel free to experiment. This flexibility will pattern their preference much faster and up your odds considerably in landing that trophy pike of your dreams.
Responsibilities we all must share
Angler ethics is a critical issue we all face and often we need to make snap decisions of what fish to keep, or if a location is posted should we do the right thing by asking the land owner for permission, or just sneak on in.
Regulations, laws, ethics, and personal needs dictate what fish you choose to keep for eating, hanging on the wall, or possibly to be release to grow even larger.
We anglers must choose well for all our sakes. Land access is a concern that effects all anglers, be considerate and ask before you fish.
Most landowners are willing to alow access if you show them the respect that they are due. By not following this basic expression of respect it often leads to areas being closed to all for good!
Every landowner that has denied my request has had the same response; "People just don't respect the area so I shut it down for good." Can we blame them if their lands are trashed or mistreated by careless individuals driving off trails and causing damage and soil erosion?
The golden rule does certainly apply to this situation, and if followed will insure a good place to fish for all who do show the appropriate respect due to the landowners and the environment.
Most of us do, but many more could improve their landowner relations' skills and show appropriate respect for the environment.
Ah at last, spring and the simple pleasures such as a good day in the sun, and a pike on the line, a hard combination to beat for sure. I hope you can find time this spring to stalk a pike from a favorite creek or bay. With a bit of luck and preparation you may find that trophy pike of a lifetime eager to squeal off a few yards of line and race your heart into spring.
Good fishing to you, and if at all possible please release pre spawn fish to fulfill their cycle of life and produce the next generation of drag squealers for all to enjoy. A photo is worth a ten thousand meals or more if that big female pike has the opportunity to reproduce.
Ed On The Red Guide Service