By Steve Weisman
When the ice begins to leave our northern Iowa lakes, anglers head out looking for ice-out smallmouth bass, pre-spawn walleyes and panfish. However, there is one prolific game fish that is often overlooked: the northern pike. In many cases, they are totally ignored. As a result, a lot of anglers are missing out on some of the best spring action around.
Even if you don’t target northern pike in the spring, they will often target you! After all, they are the consummate predators and, as a result, take on pretty much anything they want. Most people that fish in the spring will encounter northern pike, when the pike decides to take a swipe at their bass, walleye or panfish lures. When a hook up occurs, chaos reigns supreme! Pike are definitely the freight trains of the underwater world.
Mike Hawkins, Iowa DNR Biologist at the Spirit Lake Hatchery, says the northern pike is often overlooked and if targeted, the pike is usually a secondary target or often an afterthought. “Northern pike are really an untapped resource. For whatever reason, anglers just don’t seem to target them.”
Personally, I think northern pike get a bum rap…some say they are tackle ruiners, they are slimers and mess up a net and a boat, they are no fun to handle and filleting them is difficult because of the “y” bones. It’s time that the northern pike get a little more respect for what they really are: willing and aggressive biters, great fighters and fun to catch and good eating (if you learn to take out the “y” bones).
Want to catch lots of pike? Then think about spring. Here in northwest Iowa that means mid to late April with the “spring” bite lasting often through the month of May. The spawn occurs early, many times before the ice goes out. At this time, the pike will move to the shallow flats just offshore. If tributaries are dumping runoff water into the lake and there is a shallow bay or inlet around, that will be a pike hotspot. If you can get to these areas before the spawn, you just might find a little “lightning in a bottle”, so to speak. If the timing isn’t there, however, you will miss the opportunity. Then it is time to wait until they have recovered from their spawning efforts to target pike.
Once the spawn is over, look for the pike to move out into the bay where pre-spawn panfish or baitfish might be staging. The pike will be cruising around or waiting in ambush for a quick, easy meal. Weed growth won’t be anything like later in the summer, so this makes it much easier to fish. However, finding some old weed growth, flooded timber or downed trees can be great spots to catch a pike. If there is any runoff into the lake, that still will be a good area to fish.
Here in the Iowa Great Lakes, the bays on both West Okoboji and Big Spirit hold excellent pike numbers. Numbers on Big Spirit are incredible right now. Hawkins estimates at least 10,000 adult pike (and probably more) are in Big Spirit with strong numbers also on West Okoboji. John Grosvenor (www.fishokoboji.com), a longtime fishing guide on the Iowa Great Lakes, says in the spring he will often offer his clients the opportunity to target panfish and smallmouth bass (walleyes after the May opener) followed by pike fishing.
Grosvenor does most of his fishing on the Okoboji chain from his boat. However, he acknowledges that Big Spirit is also a pike mecca, and he notes that shore fishermen can cash in on this pike bonanza, too, by targeting public access areas or docks where last year’s old weedbeds and the current year’s emerging weedbeds are located. “There are some pretty good access areas, such as the Emerson Bay Campground area, Pike’s Point, Turtle Lake (the canal by Crescent Beach) and Triboji boat ramp area. There are also the public access areas on East Okoboji and all of the bridge areas throughout the entire chain that hold many different kinds of fish. Although I don’t fish Big Spirit much, shore fishing from The Grade on the north end of the lake can be excellent, especially if water is running in from Loon Lake to the north.”
For Grosvenor, though, it’s not shore fishing. It’s about using his Skeeter WX 1900 to access prime pike areas. Most of the time, he finds that he and his clients have little competition when they fish for pike. “Certainly, there are some people that target these fish, but it is certainly never crowded. Our most common tactic is to find a good weedbed and fish just above the weeds.” When it comes to West Okoboji, you can find good weedbeds all over the lake, wherever there is a bay: Emerson, Little Emerson, Millers, Little Millers, Brown’s, Smith’s, Haywards, Echo, North Bay…and on and on. “Lots of what I would call virgin pike fishing territory,” says Grosvenor with a smile. “You can fish the real shallows and find pike, but because of the water clarity, I like to target emergent weed growth in 8-14’ of water.”
Grosvenor says casting chartreuse or white willow blade crankbaits work well, because the pike will react to the bait’s flash and movement and slam the bait. However, his favorite presentation is still the slip bobber and minnow combination. “There is just something about a slip bobber rig. These pike are really aggressive this time of year, which is why the spinnerbaits work well, but dangling a 2-3 inch fathead minnow below a bobber can be incredibly hard for a pike to resist. If you can find spottailed shiners, they are like candy to these pike, and chubs will work well, but then they are expensive. We’ve had many days where we’ll boat 25-30 pike in a two-hour time period. Of course, they are not all big, but they will run from 2 pounds up to 7 pounds. I have had some fish up to 38 inches, but that is the exception.”
Grosvenor uses a one-inch Thill slip bobber and then at the end of the line ties a swivel and a two-foot piece of 14-pound Fluorcarbon leader. He then ties a #2 or #1 (depending on size of the minnow) Octopus hook to the line. A ¼-ounce split shot is placed 15-20” inches above the hook. “I like to hook the minnow through the lips, so that it will be able to stay active. However, be careful when casting so that the barb doesn’t slip around and hook the minnow again. It is important not to whip the bait when you cast. With the slip bobber and splitshot, it will go plenty far with a gentler lob.”
Grosvenor likes to anchor away from the weedbed and cast out over the weedbed. “It’s clear water, and even though the pike are aggressive, it’s still better to set up away from the spot. Since West Okoboji is so clear, I find fishing is better on days when there is a mix of sun and clouds and when there is a slight breeze. With a little chop on the water, the bait just seems to move better.”
As mentioned earlier, this time of year is action time. “Depending on the number of clients, if-say-we have four slip bobber rigs out and we don’t get a bite in 5 minutes or so, it’s a good idea to begin checking baits. You never know when a minnow will be hung up or perhaps you might have whipped the bait too hard and the minnow came off. Pike react to movement, so I like to give the slip bobber a tug every once in a while. This can get the minnow moving and the flash can trigger a strike. It’s also not uncommon to be reeling in a rig and have a pike follow, trying to strike the bobber splashing across the surface!”
Northern pike are excellent table fare with mild, firm meat. However, many people are worried about the “y” bones. Grosvenor says, “I’m not the best at it, and there are many ways to get rid of the ‘y’ bones. The best thing I have found is to go to an area bait shop. They have some skilled pike cleaners. Plus, once you watch the process, you can see it’s not that difficult. Another option is to do a search on the Internet for a You-Tube video.”
This article touched specifically on the Iowa Great Lakes, but northern pike frequent many lakes and rivers in the Hawkeye state. The good news is pike are pike; they follow patterns that can be used in many bodies of water. Don’t you think it’s time you went after the freight train of the underwater world?