The northern pike is one of the most aggressive predators swimming in North American waters. Typically known for their aggressive nature, fast paced fight, and large size, they are an incredibly popular game fish, particularly in the Northern USA and Canada. Although pike can be caught all year round on a variety of lures and presentations, one of the most exciting times to fish pike is immediately after ice out every spring. Compared to many other species, pike remain fairly active even in cold water. This, coupled with the fact that they have just finished spawning and are beginning to feed aggressively, makes them a terrific choice for an early spring target.
Spring pike offers an angler many techniques and presentations that allow for a variety of angling methods. Your choice of tackle largely depends on your technique. Typically, lighter pike presentations can easy be accomplished with medium to medium-heavy action spinning gear, whereas heavier presentations require medium-heavy casting or even flipping rods.
Your presentation is largely dictated by the location of the fish, and the water temperature. There are times where the fish are very shallow and you can easily sight-fish them and target individual fish, and there are times where whether conditions force those fish into the adjacent deep water. Sight fishing is by far the most enjoyable, and it requires stealth and sometimes patience to coax the fish into biting.
When sight fishing, a good set of polarized glasses is a must have item. You'll also want to be as quiet as possible while moving in the boat, and be sure to use an electric trolling motor to approach the spot. Soft plastics really shine at this time, because it can be fished fast or slow, and really resembles an injured baitfish. Swimbaits in the 5-7" range rigged weedless work well and can be swam in front of the fish, or you can hop and pause it across the bottom. Medium sized Bulldawgs are another good option, particularly the shallow models. If you find fish in the shallows and they are more aggressive, then try smaller bucktails or spinnerbaits. Inline, French, or willow leaf blades seem to work better than larger Colorado blades. The subtle vibration and flash are all it takes to close the deal on aggressive pike. Shallow running crankbaits can also be used with great success, particularly suspending models. Use them like a twitch bait and include many long pauses in the retrieve. Baits like X-Raps work great for this presentation. Another great option where legal is to fish a cisco or herring on a quick-strike rig under a bobber. Simply cast it out to areas holding the pike and set the hook as soon as the bobber is pulled under. You really don't want to give the fish any time to swallow the hook, an immediate hook set will typically land the hooks in the mouth, not in the gills or throat.
As far as tackle in these shallow water situations, spinning tackle is ideal for the spinners and crankbaits, but you'll want to throw the plastics and the bobbers with a baitcasting or heavy flipping rod. These baits are typically heavier and require a heavier rod to get a proper hook set.
If you're in or around areas that hold post-spawn pike and you're not finding them shallow, don't be discouraged. Chances are the pike are still in the immediate area, however some variable has caused them to slide deeper. Perhaps a cold front moved in, or a strong wind has pushed the baitfish out over deeper water. Regardless, you have to pay attention to the deeper adjacent water. Deeper water pike fishing can be a little trickier because you have to determine exactly what depth the fish are holding in. Typically, deeper pike are not that aggressive this time of year, and so slower finesse presentations are usually needed. Luckily, many of the same tackle options for shallow water also work in deeper water, just with a few modifications. Plastics are hands down my favorite technique for deeper water. Bulldawgs and Tiger Tubes can be used as a jig or cast out and hopped slowly back to the boat. This has accounted for some of the largest fish I've put in my boat. Slowing down and paying attention is critical as these fish rarely slam your bait. Rather, you're looking for a small tick on the line and when you feel it, set the hook hard. Braided line is a must in this situation. Crankbaits also work well, but sinking or "countdown" models are best unless you want to modify your shallow running models to sink deeper. Again, fishing as close to the bottom as possible is what you're aiming to do. Let it hit the bottom and give it a solid rip to stir up the bottom and dart the bait forward. Finally, spinnerbaits can be slow-rolled across the bottom, however I've had less success in this technique than the others.
So now that you know how to catch the fish, where do you start looking for them in the first place? Well, pike spawn immediately after ice out in roughly 36 degree water temperature. They seek out shallow areas with emergent vegetation. Areas with an incoming creek are even better as it will typically be a little warmer and therefore hold more baitfish, and more active pike. Often these areas will have a mix of mud or sand, rock, timber, and generally dead weeds. Many times you'll see baitfish or other species spawning in these areas following the pike spawn. Naturally, some fish will stick around while others will move out of the bays. Fishing smart, knowing the pike's movements, and experimenting with baits will no doubt provide you with an exciting start to your open water season!
Andrew Klassen guides the waters of Lake of the Woods, Winnipeg River and Red River in Ontario and Manitoba Canada for trophy channel catfish, sturgeon, northern pike & muskies. For more information please visit Andrew's web site at andrewklassen.com.