By: Steve Ryan
When it comes to a natural presentation for pike, nothing rivals livebait rigging. Even under adverse water or weather conditions, lockjawed pike can be coaxed into eating a well-placed sucker or chub. These baits react instinctively to the presence of nearby predators. They swim harder and dart about in search of an escape route. This behavior gets the attention of pike and triggers strikes in a manner that lures can’t duplicate.
While ice-fishing anglers are committed to livebait systems for pike, many open-water anglers almost exclusively use artificial presentations that appeal predominately to the most active pike. But by mastering livebait rigging, more and bigger pike are guaranteed to be a part of your daily catch.
Think of livebait rigging as a system, not just a technique—presenting a properly rigged bait, at the correct location, depth, and speed, to catch fish. It’s a two-part process that entails breaking down each part of the system to achieve a perfect bait presentation and then being painstakingly precise in the mechanics to connect with each fish that takes the bait.
The goal is to hook every pike that bites. Most causal livebait anglers, however, are far from that. Not only are they ill-equipped, but they fail to see strikes properly. They get out in front of bites and swing when they should be holding back. The art of livebait rigging takes concentration and patience. It’s about timing and precision to capitalize on every bite.
Pike Location Factor
As effective as livebait can be, it’s not a magic potion. Don’t expect to toss a bait over the side of the boat and have pike race over to eat it. The same fundamental principles for successful angling apply to livebait rigging and that starts with location. For late summer pike, concentrate on edges.
Some of the most easily recognizable edges are those formed by vegetation and rocks. Outside edges along main-lake weedflats are pike magnets, as are steep rock points and ledges. With the right wind creating water movement on these structural elements, pike congregate on these areas in numbers. Longer, deeper, and more defined natural edges generally hold more and bigger pike. They’re also easier to work when using multiple livebait rods. Other productive edges that get overlooked by anglers are those created by current or manmade structures such as dredged channels and retaining walls.
Pike move along these edges and up and down in the water column throughout the day. Light penetration and water movement are the two primary factors that dictate the location of pike. Take note of environmental changes throughout the day. When cloud cover gives way to bluebird skies, pike tuck closer and deeper into cover, whereas a shift in wind may scatter baitfish pods and cause pike to reposition along the edge.
Rarely do pike abandon prime edges, though, so good electronics help to locate fish. One slow pass side-scanning the entire length of edges reveals variations in the structure, as well as the location and depth of both pike and baitfish. With key locations marked on the graph, or marker buoys deployed, it’s time to put livebait to work.
Prime bait choices vary depending on availability, regulations, and local preferences. Options include store-bought sucker minnows, chubs, and shiners, as well as locally caught bullheads and panfish. Sucker minnows are the most widely available option but tend to get lazy and not struggle hard after a short time on a hook. Redtail and blacktail chubs provide more action but typically have to be preordered from bait shops, if available at all. Shiners are terrific when presented slow or stationary but die quickly if actively pulled on bait rigs. These store-bought baits are generally most effective when fished within the lower third of the water column.
Where legal, bullheads make terrific bait due to their hardiness and thumping action. Remove their dorsal and pectoral spines to reduce the likelihood of pike spitting these baitfish. Bullheads work best fished tight to the bottom and in stained-water settings, where their enhanced action produces more vibration for pike to hone in on. They’re especially effective in fisheries where pike are accustomed to feeding near the bottom on prey items such as bullheads, gobies, or mudpuppies.
If regulations permit the use of panfish for bait, crappies, perch, bluegills, and green sunfish in the 5- to 7-inch range are pike candy. Each baitfish has its own unique attributes. Crappies offer more flash than the other wild options. This makes them particularly productive when suspended in waters that have shad or cisco prey bases. Pike don’t mess around when they hit these baits and often swallow them on the initial run. Unfortunately, crappies are the least hardy of all the panfish species.
Green sunfish are highly active and drive pike crazy. Bluegills and perch are generally the most available wild baits to catch. Bluegills present a larger profile when worked suspended in the water column and are sufficiently hardy. Pike tend to mouth them on the initial take, however, and require more time to turn them in their mouths prior to eating them. On the other hand, pike swallow perch like fish sticks. Perch are best placed within a few feet of the bottom, where they’re often found naturally.
Since a healthy bait outperforms a stressed one, make certain to properly care for bait from the moment it’s bought or caught. Water quality, oxygen levels, and water temperature are key factors to keeping bait healthy. Patronize bait shops that have the best-conditioned bait and come ready with a quality bait container like an Engel Bait Cooler. These airtight bait boxes are fully insulated and equipped with a powerful 2-speed air pump to keep bait well oxygenated. The 19-quart Engel Bait Cooler accommodates 2 to 3 dozen baits, and the 30-quart size increases capacity to 4 to 5 dozen.
Keeping water cool for baitfish is essential. Stand-alone bait containers generally do a better job in warm-weather settings than boat baitwells. Water pumped from the lake’s surface into a boat’s baitwell is already warm. Once in the baitwell, water continues to warm and becomes difficult to regulate. As water temperatures increase, the oxygen-holding capacity of water decreases and fish metabolism increases. This causes baitfish to consume more oxygen and eliminate more waste. Added levels of harmful ammonia reduce the water quality further and eventual stress or kill baitfish. This process of declining water and bait quality can be forestalled by starting with a quality, insulated bait container filled with cool water and supplemented with ice packs throughout the day.
Live Bait Presentation
Rigging livebait is fairly straightforward. Slide a 1/4- to 1-ounce egg sinker onto 20-pound monofilament mainline and tie on a barrel swivel. Add a 36- to 48-inch leader of 20- to 40-pound-test fluorocarbon terminating in a 1/0 to 3/0 octopus hook. Leader length can be adjusted to allow for more or less swimming action from the bait. Always fish this rig suspended. The sinker should never drag across the bottom. Hook size and leader break strength are dictated by the size of bait and size of pike. Sinker weight varies based upon depth and speed of drift.
In most situations, livebaits in the 4- to 7-inch range bring the most action, including trophy caliber pike. In these cases, a 1/0 Owner SSW hook on a 20-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon leader works well. The light leader material and thin-wire hook pierced through the bait’s mouth allows for a natural swimming presentation. Other good hook options include the Berkley Fusion 19 Octopus, Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp L226N, and Mustad Select 1X Super Fine Finesse hook. Choose a preferred hook brand and pack multiple sizes to match bait size. Even sorted bait from bait shops can vary by several inches. When larger baits in the 8- to 12-inch range are used, which is often the case to avoid small pike, heavier 40-pound fluorocarbon is in order, along with a quick-strike rig that includes an additional treble hook behind the bait’s dorsal fin.
Since bait rigs are most productive when suspended, line-counter reels should be used to precisely adjust the bait’s depth as the boat moves shallower or deeper along the edge. Pair line-counter reels with long rods that offer plenty of flex throughout the top third of the rod. St. Croix’s Avid Salmon and Steelhead Series and 13 Fishing’s Fate Silver Series rods are ideally suited for livebait pike rigging. These 8-foot to 101⁄2-footers help spread baits away from the boat. They also allow pike to swim off with the bait, feeling minimal resistance as line is pulled from the reel under only the pressure of the bait-clicker. When the hook is set, these long rods load slowly and provide cushion for a light leader to guard against bite-offs.
By using sensitive rods with soft tips, you can carefully monitor them for increases in bait action as pike approach, as well as the slightest jump of the rod tip when pike first clamp down on a bait and then hover motionless with it in their mouth. Even if this initial rod tap is missed, observant anglers note the increased pressure on the rod blank that causes it to sag slightly lower toward the water’s surface, or not bounce as much with the movement of the boat. When you get to the stage where you recognize these subtle bite signals, your hooking percentage increases substantially.
Pike are generally more cautious than other gamefish species such as bass, when they initially take the bait. Any added resistance or fumbling of the rod typically causes pike to drop the bait. In addition, since it typically takes pike several seconds to commit to a bait, attempting to set the hook at the first sign of a bite tends to reduce fish-landing percentage and increase bait loss.
To efficiently present multiple baits without tangling, consider the following rod spread. Position two rods in holders at the bow of the boat—one on the port and one on starboard side—each perpendicular to the boat at a 90-degree angle. Use heavier egg sinkers on these bow rods to present baits more vertically. A second set of rods can be placed in rod holders toward the boat’s stern and angled back at 45 degrees. Lighter egg sinkers can be used on these rigs to allow them to trail behind the boat. If additional rods are desired, they can be staggered behind the boat on Lindy Pole floats. To avoid snags, suspend the float rigs higher since they cannot be adjusted as easily as the other rigs in the event that the depth shallows quickly.
With the trolling motor steering a slow course parallel along the edge, the inside rods are set slightly shallower and the outside rods deployed deeper. All the reels have their bait clickers turned on and drags disengaged until a bite occurs. When using long rods, the spread of baits can cover a span of more than 20 feet along steep contours to cover multiple depths.
Under ideal conditions, the boat is drifted slowly along the weededge by the wind and the trolling motor used occasionally to correct positioning. The goal is not to constantly troll the livebait but instead to pull it slowly and allow it to freely swim around on the long leaders, prior to be repositioned along the edge. Driftsocks also can help to adjust for slight increases in the wind speed. If the wind doesn’t allow for a natural drift with the waves, rigs can be pulled against the wind with the trolling motor. Be certain to incorporate regular pauses of the trolling motor to allow baits to drop back down in the water column and permit a more natural swimming action as baits struggle against the weight of the sinkers.
Livebait rigging takes on characteristics of a cat and mouse game—with both the angler and pike wanting to play the role of cat. The goal is to have pike take the bait without detecting your presence until your trap is sprung. With the proper equipment and skill set, you can consistently be on the winning end of this exciting game.
This article was first published In-Fisherman. Steve Ryan is an expert multispecies angler and contributor to all In-Fisherman publications.