PIKE IN LIMBO.
In Minnesota and several other states, we're not allowed to pursue pike at ice-out, as seasons open in May. "I do it all over the country," says famous Red Lake guide Jonny Petrowske. "In Minnesota the law reads, 'If it's fun, you can't do it.' But we can fish pike year-round in the incredible fisheries of the Dakotas and Canada."
Petrowske doesn't wait for the ice to entirely leave lakes where ice-out pike are fair game. "I use canoes, inflatables, jonboats, or waders to fish the open water between shore and ice," he says. "We started out by wading, but small boats are a lot more fun. You have to watch the wind. Nothing's worse than getting penned in by 10 tons of wind-blown ice and waiting for it to blow back out."
He likes to patrol the entire edge when possible. "I work my way around the shoreline wherever there's a gap between shore and ice," he says. "Pike find troughs near the mouths of tributaries in these gaps, soaking up the sunlight. By midday, they become aggressive. But once they enter tributaries, they're done. They don't bite much at that point, other than the smaller males. Before they hit the tunnel of love, you're good."
Biologists around Green Bay, Wisconsin, have tracked big pike through roadside ditches leading to swamps and wetlands. "One ditch leading into a Minnesota lake is a half mile long and 10 feet wide," Petrowske says. "The DNR catches hundreds of pike there with trap nets. It happens around every kind of tributary in every pike fishery. The Dakotas offer a prime example. All the pike in a 1,000-acre lake can be drawn to the mouths of two small streams and a ditch emptying into it."
Timing is the key. For Petrowske, that elusive period when ice still covers most of the lake, but not the shallow fringe, is prime. "I pull down NASA MODIS satellite pictures to look at any lake any day and see how the ice is receding," he says. "I can sit in Minnesota and look at reservoirs and lakes in Canada and the Dakotas before launching my 20-foot Go-Devil boat with surface-drive mud motor on a long shaft. It travels in 3 inches of water over logs, chunks of ice, and rocks. Before I had it, we used a 9hp on a 16-foot jonboat. But whatever you use, you're going to get stuck--so wear waders."
Pike need to warm up. "Mornings are slow," he says. "The best days are dead, flat, calm with high sun, days when you take your coat off. If you're feeling good, pike are feeling good. They're never fast, though. A slow presentation works best. Fly-fishing is killer in early season. A tube fly can carry a lot of bulk or you can streamline it. Tube flies swim like a jerkbait. You can adjust their rate of fall, and when a pike grabs it, the fly slides away from the hook so pike can't rip it up or use it as leverage to throw the hook. I use a 3-foot, 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. We run a 6-foot leader off a floating fly-line of 30- to 20-pound mono. It's like flinging a wet sock around. No accuracy required. You're in 3 to 6 feet of water most of the time. It's a lot like a deadbait presentation because you can move it so slowly and the fall is slow. Pike tend to bite when it's dropping."
For spin-fishermen, Petrowske suggests a heavypower, 7-foot, fast-action bass rod with 20-pound mono. "I seldom use braid that time of year because it freezes up," he says. "My leader is a 12-inch piece of 40-pound fluorocarbon. Never in all my years has a pike bitten through one. Most of the time you're fishing so shallow, you hook fish in the corner of the mouth. They're not running after it--just snapping as it goes by. We use classics like Rapala Husky Jerks and Smithwick Super Rogues, replacing trebles with single hooks for retrieving through the dead reeds. You can use soft swimbaits and let them sit on bottom. Long-shank shiner jigs and plastics with shad-tails or paddletails that slow the drop work, too."
Petrowske uses Carolina-rigged soft jerks as well. "Pike pick them right off the bottom," he says. "You have to deal with a lot of snot rockets, but don't let big pike get under the ice or it's game over. You need heavy enough gear to haul on one. Take a quick picture and let 'em go."
Late ice turns gray, then white. "Once it turns black, you're done with tributary bites," he says. "Now look for big, meadowy soft-bottom bays. A big flat 12 inches deep with a little pool where the ditch comes in--that's where you want to be. Pike need flooded grass, so the swampier the better."
The lure was a 5.5-inch Lunker City Freaky Fish on an exposed 4/0 Trokar Flippin' Hook, otherwise weightless, on a 40-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader. Every time it was pitched toward the opening of a short channel between the main lake and a huge spawning bay and allowed to slowly glide toward bottom, it got ripped. This went on for about an hour, and we could have kept intercepting pike there all day as they moved in to spawn. It happened on Misaw Lake in the northeast corner of Saskatchewan, and the pike held there because current was pushing out of shallow backwaters swollen with snowmelt--current that might not be there a month later.
Pike stage just outside entry points to back bays on reservoirs, lakes, and rivers as the ice begins to recede. Perhaps the most overlooked fishing transpires in current areas, as Petrowske mentioned. It happens all around Devils Lake, North Dakota, at ice-out. Pike don't hold directly in current, usually just out of it. Current edges in necked-down areas can be key, too, especially where narrow channels lead into shallow bays and backwaters with silty bottoms. Pike stack up just off the current, hesitant to enter these areas where food is conveyed to them. This happens at ice-out from one end of their natural range to the other. Fishing can be amazing.
One experienced guide who can't wait to pursue ice-out pike on Devils Lake each spring is Aaron McQuoid. He runs a resort in the far western end of the lake at Minnewaukon. Like Petrowske, McQuoid might put on waders or chase the bite along the fringe of receding ice in a boat--whichever his clients prefer. "I do both--wade or go out in the boat," he says. "Wader-fishing for pike appeals to people, and we can get the casts out a little farther than bank-bound anglers. We do a lot of shoreline fishing as the ice is going out, casting lures to the edge of the ice. Sometimes this persists until the middle of May, but all of May is good up here every year. Deadbaits (ciscoes or smelt) under a bobber are effective, but my go-to options are slow-wobbling cranks or 5-inch Kalin's Lunker Grubs on a 1/4- to 1-ounce jig, depending on depths we can reach."
McQuoid and his clients often cast 1/4-ounce soft swimmers, like the Northland Mimic Minnow. "We tell people to touch bottom just now and then," he says. "Once they get the cadence down, it's lights out. Days spent banking 100 pike are common, with average size around 32 to 34 inches. But you have a shot at one over 50 inches. Prior to last year I would have said, no. But we're seeing bigger fish and more people are learning how to catch them."
When jigging or casting soft swimbaits, adjusting weight and speed is a daily necessity. "Increase or decrease weight so you can find that triggering speed and cadence," he says. "Slower the better, especially early when big plastics on a 1/4-ounce jig work well. Most guys aren't doing it, but fly-fishing produced a number of fish from 45 to 52 inches last spring. You may not catch as many because wind can be an issue on big wide-open flats, but you can do things with a fly * you can't do with spinning or casting gear. I've been experimenting with a 10-weight rod, floating line, and big deer-hair flies. Pike sometimes scoop them right off bottom, but that infinitely slow drop is the real trigger."
McQuoid and crew slowly retrieve plastics, trying to keep them up off bottom. "But we're always doing something different, like speeding it up occasionally or pausing, letting it fall to bottom," he says. "Pike often rip it as the retrieve is resumed. Tackle considerations are pivotal. We use 6- foot 6-inch medium action and power Cabellla's spinning rods and Prodigy 2000 reels--typical walleye tackle. But the water is cold and you can wrangle in big fish using 15-to 20-pound PowerPro tied direct to a Knot 2 Kinky titanium wire leader. Areas where the wind comes in are good. The water is cloudy there and we don't need fluorocarbon leaders, but I do use a 40- to 50-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon leader in the middle part of the lake, which has much clearer water than on the west end."
Another reason for fluorocarbon is to keep suspenders horizontal. "Wire can give slow-wobbling suspending baits a nose-down attitude or even make them sink," McQuoid says. "Fluoro seems to work better, using the smallest clips and swivels to reduce weight. We score big with Smithwick Rattlin' Rogues, Reef Runner Little Rippers, and Rapala X-Raps at times. Pike rise up for them, so you can fish shallow divers over old weedbeds, rocks, and gravel roadbeds. We pull them several feet then pause, and you need longer pauses in spring. From 10 to 15 seconds is typically most effective. At times you twitch, sometimes you snap--we seldom bring jerkbaits straight in. There's no right or wrong way. It's the day that makes the difference. I like sunny days. I think pike feed better then, though I catch some of my biggest fish on cloudy days. I let pike tell me what they want. Every retrieve is different until I uncover preferences."
McQuoid says key spots might be anywhere between receding ice and shore. "Hours of hunting help us find these spots," he says. "Lakes don't come with a handbook telling you where to go. You can't just say vegetation, or rocks, or current, or gravel roadbeds are the target. It could be any or all of those. You have to keep moving. Devils Lake has 250,000 acres--a lot of water to cover. But all the big ones and most of our numbers are caught in less than 8 feet of water. That's the zone to target early on."
Last May, McQuoid and his clients hauled in 12 over 40 inches. "Lots of guys say they don't want to go pike fishing, but by the end of the day they're in love with it," he says. "A lot of it has to do with the fryer. Pike taste just as good as walleyes and perch. Different, but just as good. We have such an abundance of pike that I like to demonstrate how to get the y-bones out and fry a few up. Anglers need to know smaller pike are great fish for food as well as fun. It comes down to education. I get more of a kick out of educating than fishing sometimes."
Weather report: Pike are biting no matter what (we hope). "Full moon phases and weather events probably have an effect, but I don't want to think about it," McQuoid laughs. "We have to fish every day. I don't want to think there are days we can't catch fish." Good advice for all of us.
by MATT STRAW *
* Matt Straw is an In-Fisherman Field Editor, chasing pike near home in Brainerd, Minnesota, to the Far North. Contact: Guide Jonny Petrowske outdoorswithjonnyp.com; Guide Aaron McQuoid, mcquoidguides.com.
Caption: Smithwick Super Rogue
Caption: Enrico Puglisi EP Perch Fly
Caption: Storm GT 360[degrees] Searchbait
Caption: Pike: Staging in Limbo
Caption: Ted Cawkwell of Saskatchewan likes a big, slow-sinking fly at ice-out.
Caption: Rapala X-Rap
Caption: Reef Runner Little Ripper
Caption: Livetarget Trout Jerkbait
Caption: Lunker City Freaky Fish/ Trokar 4/0 Flippin' Hook
Caption: Kalin's Mogambo Grub/ Buckeye Lures J-Will Jig
Caption: Northland Mimic Minnow
Caption: Yamamoto Senko/Zoneloc ZL140BN Hook