Ice-Out Pike: A Cool Transition
By Nick Johnson
I was a small boy when the pike bug first bit me. I can recall staring at the television on Saturday mornings with wide, unblinking eyes as former In-Fisherman television host, Al Linder, would hoist gargantuan pike of alligator proportions from the water. He would display the massive gator for the camera in his hands while talking about things like the fish, the location and the presentation and how I myself could catch one.
Try as I might, the quest for plus sized pike eluded me in Iowa for many, many years. In my evolution as an angler I soon came to realize that targeting bigger pike involves much more than simply fishing locations that look like they may hold them. You must know the pike, how it relates to its environment through the changing of seasons and how it relates to its main forage species. You must also know that bigger pike favor cooler water and that much of their behavior is drawn around these lower temperatures.
In many of our waters, pike are considered a bonus fish caught while fishing for other species. During open water seasons, I can honestly count on one hand the number of people I know that specifically target pike in our state. Pike are most definitely present in many Iowa waters, realistically lots of them. Targeting them is not all that hard per se, but targeting the big ones — well that’s where things get tricky.
The Lake Transition
Catching trophy-sized pike in Iowa is an accomplishment and I would consider anything over 34 inches to be a big fish. We simply lack the ideal ecological situations that grow numbers of big gators like our neighboring states to the north. Still, there are opportunities to catch nice pike in Iowa if the conscious fisherman plays on their seasonal patterns, habits and transitions. Transitional elements in Iowa waters are tough because many of our aquatic systems that contain pike are relatively shallow and devoid of structure. The ones that do boast fishable populations of pike however, contain key elements that these fish relate to in the springtime. Elements such as muddy bays, feeder creeks, underwater springs, points, red beds and other emergent vegetation are all choice locations that big pike will relate to in their cool water patterns.
When the ice begins to leave our lakes, some pike may have already spawned while others are just preparing to spawn. These spawning or post-spawn fish are the adults and often the largest pike in a given system. During this transition time pike remain shallow while the cool waters slowly warm and give fisherman a great opportunity to catch them in highly specific locations. Spawning pike may be somewhat reluctant to bite but the post-spawn fish are strapping on the feedbags and feeding more heavily.
A two to three week window of opportunity presents itself for fisherman targeting post-ice pike in shallow water. The depths of water in lakes immediately following ice-out remains somewhat uniform in temperature for a short period of time and the pike will stage shallow after spawning before the bays warm and they move out deeper once again. The transition begins as the post-spawn pike begin feeding heavily and they slowly make their way from shallow spawning areas to areas of deeper water, deeper new growth vegetation and deeper structure.
The muddy bays with dark bottoms are the first to warm up with the rays of springtime sunshine. Sandy bottoms are next followed by hard, rocky bottoms. The pike will often follow this change accordingly, in sequence, when a body of water presents each type of bottom composition.
The River Transition
Before the spawn in rivers, pike will stage along rocky breaks, pools and eddys, and also below dams. Once water levels rise slightly and the pike start their spawning regime, usually around late April to May, they will travel up feeder creeks and into backwater river bays and sloughs to carry out their mission. Upon spawning the pike will remain in these areas for a period of time before finally retreating back to the main river channel. Backwater bays and lagoons off of rivers find pike acting in much the same manner as they do in similar locations of lakes and sloughs. These backwater areas make ideal locations for targeting bigger pike in our rivers.
The biggest lakes and rivers in our state containing pike are the best option for initial planning. Bigger bodies of water naturally hold more big fish, but do not forget to look into the smaller waters. Smaller waters will still contain some big fish and these big fish will locate themselves in key areas during the spring post-spawn period.
Pike will often spawn in the farthest reaches of weedy bays, backwaters and adjoining sloughs when water temperatures are between 34-42 degrees. The bays that provide refuge adjacent to spawning habitat for the pike should be the first place to look after ice-out. Feeder creeks that enter these bays and backwaters can be magnets for pike as the current draws them in along with baitfish and other forage species. The area of a bay out from a feeder creek is my favorite place to locate hungry pike this time of year.
Other key spring locations include pinch points and bottlenecks leading into shallow bays. These areas concentrate pike and other species traveling to and from the bay. The best bays host a combination of emergent shoreline vegetation, shallow water, muddy or rocky bottoms and adjacent deeper water. When the water temperature reaches into the upper-40s to lower-50 degree range, look for pike to move out from the extreme shallow spawning areas to mid-depth portions of the bay on weed breaks, edges of emergent vegetation, points and structure.
Pike are famous for crushing any bait you feel like throwing at them but do me a favor and lock this logic away for campfire stories when dealing with spring gators. Pike indeed will hit a wide variety of baits in many colors and presentation styles but when targeting coldwater springtime pike, one must narrow their bait selection to key in on somewhat finicky attitudes. Post-spawn fish are not the charged up water missiles they portray in their summertime patterns. They will still devour a bait with authority but often a more subtle approach will trigger more strikes and ultimately more pike on your line.
The top bait choices this time of year in my mind are plastics. Hollow body swimbaits, swim jigs, jerk plastics and other soft plastic baitfish imitators are true, proven pike producers. The subtle, methodical action of these baits appears natural and pike go bananas for them. They can be fished at many depth ranges to suit the contour of the location you are fishing. Many of these baits such as the hollow body swimbaits can be fished weedless, therefore used in situations of weedy cover that pike often lurk in.
Other bait styles that produce are members of the hard bait family such as jerk baits and stick baits. Rapala Husky Jerk, Rapala Flat Rap and Smithwick Rattlin Rogue baits are classic examples. These baits fish shallow and cover a lot of water with good action and flash. Fish these baits over muddy bottom scenarios and on the outside edges of emergent vegetation. They also work well around points and over mid-bay areas. Pike have good eyesight and will travel up from the bottom quite a distance to attack a bait.
Other baits to have along with you include spinner baits and bucktails. These baits can be fished at any depth either slow or fast and give off a tremendous amount of flash and vibration. I have found that black, chartreuse or red combined with a Colorado style blade are great patterns especially in turbid or stained water conditions. These baits are great for covering shallow water areas especially around cover. They can also be fished lower in the water column when the pike pull off the shallow flats and move into deeper water.
The Natural Bait
Somewhat overlooked, natural baits can really shine through when pike become tight lipped and unwilling to strike an artificial bait. In a scenario like this, you may see pike cruising shallow but they will not eat. Or you may have pike follow an artificial bait yet they are reluctant to take your offering. If you have the option for live bait, this is the time to use it.
Live baits in this case are best fished below a bobber, freelined or simply tipped onto a hair-style jig. These natural baits give off scent in the water and a lively minnow struggling below a bobber is like setting a steak in front of a Doberman to a pike. Dead baits also work well in some cases as pike often feed on dead or dying fish in their environment. Hook the dead baitfish using a two hook quickstrike style rig and let it hang below a bobber or inches off of the bottom. If you let the bait hang, rig the baitfish so that it hangs vertically instead of horizontally and twitch the bobber in foot-long sweeping motions every few moments. Pike during this time may be picky so using a heavy fluorocarbon leader instead of a standard wire leader can improve the number of strikes on your bait.
This year’s ice fishing season and mild winter weather has left many anglers scratching their heads and looking forward once again to open water fishing. With the winter ice retreating or gone and the waters slowly warming up once more, I urge you to try your hand at fishing for post-spawn pike. It can be some of the most incredible pike fishing of the entire year in locations that are easily fishable. Good luck fishing and remember to practice CPR on those bigger female pike! Catch, Photograph, Release. Have a great open water season.