By: Doug Stange
Not one to claim spring-chicken status any more, and in all the entervening years having seen most of what the pike world has to offer, I have settled on several straightforward strategies to catch the big bad boys during the autumn parade.
Even when I drive to a pike heaven like Rainy Lake, a Canadian Shield lake on the Minnesota-Northwest Ontario border, I usually begin with tactics that allow me to test the waters for the happening fish of the moment. Could be pike, but could also be walleyes, and at times smallmouth bass. Then I tinker from there, switching tactics to more accurately target whichever species is hot and happening.
Of course, hot isn’t always happening. That’s why over the years the strategy I’m about to outline so often becomes the overall tactic of choice, employed in hopes of divining a decent multispecies day by the time the sun tickles the horizon. Wouldn’t be unusual to tally a walleye 10, a pike 20, and a smallmouth 4.5 on this magnificent lake, one of the best drive-to options in North America. Even when it’s only a few of these here and a few of those there, it’s enough teeth and scales to make for a day worth remembering.
Testing the Waters Fall Pike
On one rod is a lure like the #11 Minnow Rap, a slender cranker with one of the best actions in the business. It dives to 6 feet on 12-pound Berkley NanoFil or 10-pound Sufix 832. I use a 4-foot section of 15-pound fluorocarbon tied in with double uni-knots at the end of the superline, then a terminal 12-inch section of American Fishing Wire Surfstrand Micro Supreme, testing 20 pounds. Remove the split ring from the lure to be sure it runs straight on every retrieve, then use a #2 Owner Hyper Snap or a Berkley #1 Cross-Lok to connect to the lure, unless you prefer to tie loop knots. A three-wrap Trilene knot works to connect the wire to the snap. You need to replace the wire when it frays or curls badly. The rest of this set up typically lasts all day.
The Minnow Rap is a light balsa lure, but it’s streamlined enough to cast well, especially with the wind at your back or into a side wind. You can land big pike on a medium-action and medium-power spinning rod 6.5 to 7 feet long. The superlines have break strengths almost twice their labeled rating. My favorite spinning reel remains the Pflueger Supreme—smooth, dependable, durable, moderately priced—typically a 35-size class for this duty, if you’re looking for a recommendation. Lots of companies make awesome rods in the range I’m recommending.
Rocky structures key the bite on the Canadian Shield and many other natural lakes and reservoirs—big rivers like the Mississippi, too. On the Shield, sometimes during early fall pike are still on or around rock points or shoals in big bays, or at the mouth of rocky narrows that lead from large shallow backwater areas. Later, the fish move to similar structural elements in the main lake. Walleyes and pike are both out there later, as water temperatures dive into the 40°F range, but you lose most of the smallmouths, which usually go deep in big bays just off the main lake.
A crankbait about 5 inches long and one that dives to at least 6 feet is right for this duty. Four-inch lures are a little small to trigger bigger pike, while 6-inch lures are a little too large for smallmouths, given that we’re on multispecies duty for the moment.
Work the lure over rocks in 4 to about 12 feet of water. In shallow water, keep your rod tip high and let the lure grind along skipping from rock to rock, until it runs free in deeper water. At that point a steady retrieve works, although I experiment by pausing and snapping the lure sometimes, too. The big fish usually hold just off the edge of drops or roam the area near the edge. A light crankbait is remarkably snag resistant, a key ingredient when working shallow rocks.
For pike that are holding a bit deeper, I rig another rod with a swimbait, typically either a Berkley PowerBait Flat Back Shad on an Owner Saltwater Bullet jighead, weighing 1/2 or 3/4 ounce, or Storm WildEye Swim Shad, measuring 5 or 6 inches. The Flat Back Shad is 5 inches, just right. I use a 5-inch Swim Shad (they’re prerigged) when possible. To probe water 12 to 20 feet deep I switch to the 6-incher. Lots of walleyes bite the 6-inch lure, but it’s a bit large for smallmouths.
Casting and working swimbaits over rocky shallow shoals means too many snags, the reason for the crankbait there. For working deeper along rocky edges and deeper flats, pick up the swimbait.
For swimbait duty, casting tackle works well, but so does spinning gear, so a rod 7 feet long, with a medium action and power, once again. For casting tackle I use 20-pound Sufix 832. For spinning gear I spool with 12-pound Berkley NanoFil or 10-pound Sufix 832. The fluorocarbon needs to be a bit heavier—20-pound—with the terminal wire still 20 pounds. I tie lures direct to the wire, using the 3-wrap Trilene knot I mentioned before.
The swimbait can be used as a precision tool by working it right along the edge of a rock lip. Or you can cast it up shallow and run it shallow on a straight retrieve, killing it and letting it drop to the bottom just beyond the drop-off edge, then working it back to the boat. Or make long searching casts over flats or along long drop-off edges.
Work the swimbait more like it’s a crankbait than a jig. First the lure must paint a visual picture that’s appealing to the fish, then when they begin to track it, the vibrations it gives off stimulate the fish’s lateral line. That’s what seals the deal. So don’t just tip-toe the jig along the bottom, lifting it and letting if fall every foot or so; move the lure along for 5 to 10 feet before pausing it for just a moment and starting up the retrieve again—or move it along for 10 to 15 feet on a steady retrieve, then kill it and let if fall to the bottom momentarily before moving it along again.
How simple is the two-rod strategy I’ve just described and yet it is so effective as to be my favorite overall approach to begin my fishing on most waters. Works in rivers like the Mississippi River Pool 4 near Wabasha, Minnesota, where the fish hold along rocky shorelines near the main channel—mostly smallmouths and some pike there. Works in plateau reservoirs like those in the Dakotas—Fort Peck, Sakakawea, Oahe, Lake Sharpe, and Francis Case—where the fish hold along shoreline-connected points in the main reservoir or similar points near the mouth of large creek arms—smallmouths, walleyes, and pike. In natural lakes, meanwhile, the fish may hold on rocky shoals, but at times often use weededges—mostly pike, but some walleyes, and largemouths at times.
Specifically Fishing Pike
It usually doesn’t take more than a morning of fishing to know whether to continue on a multispecies quest, hoping to scratch a big pike or two in the process, or to switch gears and specifically target pike, as a pattern unfolds.
At times pike hold along deeper edges, so I switch to a bigger (6-inch) and deeper-diving crankbait. At that point, I have that deep crank on one rod and a swimbait on the other, typically the 6-inch Storm WildEye Swim Shad.
The Yo-Zuri Crystal 3D Minnow Deep Diver is one of the best lures in this category, with the 6-inch F983, diving to about 20 feet, and the 5.25-inch F982, diving to about 14 feet. One classic color ready to make a rebound in popularity is the red head that blends into a minnow-patterned body. The Yo-Zuri rendition is particularly beautiful. A color confidence booster like that always sends good vibes drifting throughout the universe. It also pays to tinker with chartreuse and silver, and, in clear water, with anything with flashy purple, one favorite pattern being the Purpledescent offering from Rapala.
Make long casts and use a steady retrieve with the deep divers. At the end of the retrieve, pause the lure as you’re about to bring it up from the depths; then hop it up toward the boat to finalize the retrieve, reeling and using the rod tip to make the hops, as the lure pauses a split second after each of the first two hops, then pauses about 2 seconds after the third hop. Repeat this procedure once more, at which point you reel in and make the next cast.
Pike also move shallow at times during fall, not back into shallow bays and backwaters, but up higher in the water column along the types of edge spots I’ve already described. These fish typically are feeding aggressively and it makes for memorable fishing.
Shallow Options for Pike
Spoons—One classic lure style that’s fallen somewhat out of favor in recent decades that should remake your tackle selection is the spoon. In many waters pike haven’t seen them in years. They are the perfect illusion of flash and vibration.
One new favorite introduced recently is the Williams Yukon, a wide-bodied spoon that weighs 1/2 ounce, and has a finish of genuine silver or 24k gold, for incredible flash. The wide body makes it wobble beautifully and distinctly at a dead-slow speed. Stop the lure and kill it by dropping your rod tip and the spoon does a reverse and drifts backward, wobbling as it goes, right into the face of following fish.
Often a slow, steady retrieve is all that’s required. But also tinker with killing the spoon. Make a long cast and count the lure down to 5, or about 5 feet and begin a slow retrieve with your rod tip at about 11 o’clock. Retrieve the spoon about 20 feet and kill it by dropping the rod tip to 9 o’clock. Try the kill routine a couple times during the retrieve.
Sometimes making retrieves that are entirely pull-kills is the best option. Count the lure down, position the rod tip up and then pull and kill, pull and kill, all the way back to the boat, retrieving a bit of line each time you pull. With water temperatures still in the 50°F range, the pulls can be more like rips. May you never again be without a handful of these spoons in your arsenal. And I will also remind you that Doctor Spoons are still available, too, from Yellow Bird Products.
Spin Shad—Another hot option when fish are shallow also hasn’t been discovered by pike anglers. The Sebile Spin Shad has a solid lipless body coupled with a concave blade that trails the main body of the lure. The magical action paints a beautiful visual picture along with flickering vibration. The 1/2-ounce Spin Shad fishes best in shallower water. Straight retrieves work well, but you can kill it and it swims beautifully on the fall.
Minus Lures—The classic introduction in this category that is almost entirely considered to be an option only for largemouth bass is the Mann’s Minus 1, but now most companies have Minus 1 and Minus 3 options. Rapala, for example, has the DT Fat 1 and the DT Fat 3. These wide-bodied square-lipped lures have a super-wide, laboring wobble that presents a unique visual picture and a vibration tract that pike have never experienced before.
The DT Fat 1 wakes just under the surface if you make the retrieve with your rod tip high, and it dives about 9 inches with the rod tip low. Strikes are memorable explosions. If you can find shallow pike with the water temperature still in the 50°F range, the Minus 1 lures are a sturdy option. Overall, the Minus 3 designs are more productive during fall. These lures also are options anytime you find fish near shallow weedgrowth and timber, because the square bills deflect off cover.
Finally, an all-time favorite category, especially when fish are shallow during fall. I’ve often discussed the use of flat-sided jerkbaits like the Rapala Glidin’ Rap (the #12). Many other companies make similar designs. The original here was the Bagley B-Flat Shiner. I’ll also toss into the mix the Salmo Slider. Work these correctly and they walk-the-dog just below the surface, wobbling and flashing left-right, right-left; stopping and starting and lurching along in fits and spurts; giving off appealing wounded visual and vibratory cues. The same casting tackle I mentioned previously works well to present these lures; so too the same snap-to-wire-to-fluoro-to-superline setup mentioned before.
Work these lures by nodding the rod tip with the tip up at about 11 o’clock when the lure’s at a distance. As the lure gets within about 60 feet of the boat, lower the rod tip to a position just above the water and stroke down instead of up—nod-glide-stop; nod-glide-stop, with the rod tip moving about 6 inches to a foot on the nod. It’s important for the nod to stroke through a bit of slack line before the line comes taut to get the right wobble and kick to the lure. All total, a typical nod moves the lure 2 to 3 feet once the lure stops after the glide.
On most retrieves, once the lure touches down I let it settle for a couple seconds, then do a series of nod-glide-stops to cover about 15 feet of water. At that point I assume that pike in the immediate area have probably sensed the lure and rejected it or, more likely, there are no pike present.
I often just reel the lure forward 15 feet or so before pausing and doing the nod routine again for another 10 feet, before again reeling the lure a distance—and so on. This allows quickly covering more water. If I’m into a pocket of fish or I’m consistently contacting fish as I move along, I slow down and work the lure all the way back to the boat on each retrieve.
Many other lures work to trigger pike, but this offers a solid multispecies system to help you pattern what’s happening when you get on the water, plus several potentially new or overlooked options, and another solid favorite that’s consistently scored big pike and lots of them.
Sweet dreams are made of this—at least the potential during this season is waiting to burst forth, a little bit of the Hallelujah Chorus here, and dash of the Battle Hymn of the Republicthere—and toss in Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for good measure. Good fishing to you.
This article was original published in the In-Fisherman.