Minnesota Outdoorsman - Minnesota Fishing and Hunting Reports
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Reconsidering Northerns

Think pike are pesky? Here’s how to tackle the trophies throughout the open-water season



1Mike Hungle

The moment I set the hook, my drag started singing. The next few minutes were a real treat as the giant northern pike hugged bottom and veered off to the right, then busted hard left. Three times I got the beast to the surface before it again peeled off line and headed back to the bottom, each time making my heart pump harder. Finally, my buddy netted the huge northern, ending the epic fight. I often hear anglers complaining about catching pike, but I sure didn’t—and I was proud to let the fish go to fight another day.

Pike are aggressive predators living at the top of their aquatic food chain, a trait that often gets small and mid-size northerns into trouble with walleye, perch and trout anglers using light tackle. When lines get tangled and lures are stolen, too many anglers overlook the fun of the fight and get frustrated; some even handle the fish roughly or purposely injure or kill them. But these feisty little predators have the potential to become trophies—if only every angler could see them for the great gamefish they are. And the best way to appreciate pike is to go after the big ones.

For targeting large northerns, the perfect set-up is a medium-heavy to heavy-action six-and-a-half- to seven-foot rod, with either a spinning or baitcasting reel spooled with 15- to 20-pound monofilament. Wire leaders are a must—I prefer a 12-inch, 20-pound wire leader with a quality cross-lock snap. When it comes to baits, pike are so aggressive they’ll fall prey to a variety of presentations; large, loud or flashy lures that create commotion are the go-to choice for many anglers. I like a more refined approach, however, matching my presentations to the time of year.

Mike Hungle

Spring

In the early spring, pike of all sizes can be found in shallow-water places, such as bays. Search weedy areas, near cattails and along rocky shorelines facing south, where the water is the warmest after ice-out. During this time, the fish are recovering from spawning and they’ll either be lounging or feeding heavily on all the aquatic creatures that come to life as the water temperature rises. The big pike will also be feeding on smaller northerns.

At this time of the year, fan-casting the shallows can be very productive, either from shore or from a boat. Some of the best baits for this are large, three- to five-inch spoons. Good choices include Len Thompson’s Yellow & Red (a.k.a. Five of Diamonds), PK Flutter Fish in silver or brass (below), Mepps’ Syclops and Luhr-Jensen’s Krocodile. If big pike are following the spoons and not biting, periodically stop reeling and let the bait flutter downward. After a short pause, start reeling again. The fish will often hit on the drop, so be ready to set the hook.1

Lead-head jigs with large, soft-plastic paddletail swimbaits are also a good choice for early-season casting. My two favourites are the five-inch Doc’s Dipper in plain sexy (blue, green and pearl) and the six-inch Elite Sow Belly Swimmer in pearl, both from Tightlines UV. While smaller fish will often inhale a soft-plastic as it’s being retrieved at a constant speed, I find the bigger fish are more inclined to hit when it’s twitched and hopped along the bottom.

Another good spring casting bait is a size 12 or 14 Rapala Husky Jerk, which dives on the retrieve and suspends on the pause. I think the pause mimics a minnow stopping to assess danger, and that’s when a big northern will often strike.

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Bonus tip: Tools for teeth

Part of showing respect for pike is releasing them quickly and safely, which requires a few tools. Instead of grabbing the big fish by the back of the head with a pair of rough gripper gloves, use a large, tangle-free rubber hoop net. For really big fish, a cradle is even better. With their long snouts, pike often deeply inhale lures, so it’s important to have a jaw spreader at the ready to prop that big mouth open and remove your bait. And to grab those baits, you’ll need a good pair of long, sturdy pliers. My favourites are Cabela’s 11-inch needle-nose pliers and Cuda’s nine-inch stainless steel pistol-grip pliers (above).