Getting it right for Pike
Buck Perry is a pioneer of modern structure fishing. Among his most basic teachings is the need to control speed and depth to successfully map bottom structure and catch fish. To do so effectively, he fashioned his own Spoonplug lures.
If you’re not familiar with Spoonplugs, they’re a hybrid lure of sorts. They combine spoon and plug (crankbait) to create a lure that dives to a prescribed depth at a range of speeds. Perry’s philosophy was to quickly cover as much deep water as possible (where he asserted trophy fish spent most of their time) and thereby draw strikes from fish situated along key structural elements. As such, the Spoonplug was one part bottom-contour detecting device and one part fish-catching tool.
With the sophistication of today’s fishing electronics, the relevance of the Spoonplug’s “lake-mapping” function has been diminished. Perry’s fundamental teachings of speed and depth control, however, remain paramount for today’s those. For anglers focused on catching quality pike, success comes from identifying the location and depth at which they’re holding and then properly presenting baits to them at the correct speed to trigger strikes.
Speed and depth preferences of pike vary throughout the year. The key becomes knowing how and when to adjust presentations to appeal to pike no matter the conditions. During early spring, the depth factor is narrowed to a limited range as pike are primarily in shallow water. They’re either anticipating the spawn, spawning, or recovering from it.
While pike are concentrated this time of year, they can also be frustratingly fickle. In depths of just a few feet, they have distinct preferences of either wanting a bait deadsticked on the bottom, slowly dragged past them, worked suspended in front of their face, or burned on the surface over them. The importance of speed and depth control becomes amplified. Mere inches in lure placement can mean the difference between success and failure.
Although lure placement must be precise, the advantage of fishing shallow water is that individual pike can be sight-fished—identifying a target fish, presenting a lure to it, and then watching how it reacts to the lure. Presentations can then be adjusted based on the fish’s reaction. To avoid spooking shallow pike, use the slowest, most subtle and deepest presentation for starters.
An 8-inch PowerBait Power Lizard rigged on a 1/2-ounce Bait Rigs Esox Cobra jighead in Glow Fire Tiger is a great first choice for wary pike. Lay this bait several feet in front of a pike and slightly twitch the line to get the legs of the bait quivering. Slowly drag the bait across the bottom or give it short hops to get it thumping bottom and creating a debris cloud. Bright-colored jigheads allow for easier viewing, even in slightly stained or choppy conditions.
Pike often approach deadsticked baits in slow motion. They seem to study a motionless bait. At times, a slightly more erratic action or one big hop triggers them into biting. Other times, any abrupt movement spooks them and agonizingly long pauses are required. Scented baits have an added triggering effect with this technique.
When pike refuse to inspect and scoop up a bait on bottom, try meeting them at eye level. Suspending and slow-sinking baits like a 6- to 7-inch soft-plastic jerk shad or swimbait have appeal in these settings. Again, the name of the game is to sight-fish shallow pike by starting with a slow presentation and speeding up from there. If pike respond more positively to baits on the pull, progressively increase retrieve speeds to cover more territory, present baits to more fish, and hopefully draw more strikes.
At times, lures like the Sebile Magic Swimmer Soft rigged flat, with the hook coming through its side, can be skipped across the surface and then allowed to sink slowly in front of resting fish. The quick skipping action gets their attention, while the change in speed and depth acts as a trigger. For this presentation, a Trokar Magnum Weighted Swimbait hook helps gain casting distance and imparts a faster fall rate of the bait.
When wind or water clarity makes sight-fishing difficult, prime lure options include spoons and spinnerbaits. Their speed and depth versatility adds to their popularity with pike anglers. While most anglers have a certain default retrieve speed, always be observant of pike behavior. Take note of whether they’re hitting on the pause or as the lure is being sped up at boatside and adjust retrieve speed accordingly.
At times, pike can be fooled into chasing a lure but won’t bite. This indicates that the depth component is correct but the triggering speed is off. Recognize that as retrieve speeds are increased with spoons and spinnerbaits, their running depth decreases. Based on the dynamics of these lures, greater resistance at higher speeds results in more lift and shallower running depths. Conversely, the running depth of crankbaits and stickbaits is generally increased with greater retrieve or trolling speeds; the faster the retrieve, the deeper the lure goes. As such, lure selection becomes important to achieve the right speed and depth combination.
Ingenious anglers such as Will Dykstra have developed a system for catching big postspawn pike on slender, small-billed minnowbaits. Jerkbaits such as the Savage Gear Sandeel and Yellow Bird Short Billed Minnow are designed for casting, but their narrow diving range regardless of speed makes them ideal shallow trolling lures. Dykstra slow-trolls on shallow flats with Sandeels at 0.8 mph when pike have just finished the spawn and refuse to chase quick-fleeing baits. On warm, sunny afternoons as water temperatures rise, he increases trolling speeds to 1 to 1.3 mph to get more action from the bait while still covering his preferred running depth of 3 to 5 feet.
As summer gets into full swing, speed and depth preferences become even more defined. Companies such as Eppinger understand the effectiveness of the wobbling and flashing nature of spoons better than most. They also recognize the benefit of working spoons at multiple speeds and depths. As such, their spoons come in a range of weights and sizes, including those of the same length but different weights. Case in point is the standard Dardevle at 35⁄8 inches in length and 1 ounce in weight, along with the heavier Rok’t Dardevle model of the same length but 1.75 ounces in weight. The obvious significance is that the heavier Rok’t model sinks faster. More importantly, Rok’t Dardevles can be worked more quickly but at the same depth as the standard Dardevle spoon.
This added speed can be a game changer when pike are on weedflats. There are times when pike want a spoon barely rocking on its axis and throwing off a flash. Plenty of spoons produce in this setting, including thinner spoons such as the Williams Whitefish and Doctor Spoon. When water temperatures warm into the mid-60s, pike increasingly key on lures swimming just over the top of submerged cabbage that may top out 2 to 5 feet beneath the surface. Speed can be a killer in these settings.
The increased weight and speed of spoons such as the Rok’t Dardevle or Doctor Spoon’s Rocket Doc help trigger more strikes from active pike. The rapid pace of spoons can make a weedbed come to life in a manner that suspending jerkbaits can’t achieve. Quick-moving spoons rigged with single hooks deflect off weeds. They knock aquatic insects and snails from weed stalks and get crustaceans scrambling. Small preyfish take advantage of this newly available food source and the entire food chain kicks into gear. This leads to competition with multiple pike rocketing out of weed pockets to blast lures fleeing quickly above them.
When pike get fired up in these settings, visually exciting baits like spinnerbaits get pike striking right under the surface. In the same token as Eppinger making Dardevle spoons in multiple weights but similar sizes, spinnerbait companies like Revenge and Strike King offer models in multiple weights that allow anglers to manipulate speed effectively without jeopardizing depth and to achieve greater depth when needed. Spinnerbaits like the 11⁄2-ounce Strike King Ledgebuster or 11⁄4-ounce Revenge HD Spinnerbait can be worked fast 2 feet under the surface or along rock ledges at depths of 15 to 20 feet in late summer and fall. For deepwater pike, use standard slow retrieves with an occasional burst of speed and pause to get the blades helicoptering down. Depths surpassing 15 feet can’t be fished effectively with a typical 1/2-ounce spinnerbait.
Late Summer into Fall
As water temperatures cool and shallow vegetation begins to die and hold less forage, pike move to deeper weededges or hold over deep water adjacent to quick-breaking structure. Effective presentation speed decreases and working depth increases during this timeframe. Pike continue to use areas that have adequate water movement and light penetration to support healthy deep vegetation.
When pike are holding at the base of vegetation, neutrally buoyant crankbaits are good options. Deep-diving Rapala and Bagley balsa cranks are tough to beat for fall pike. Reel them down to the desired depth and then slowly work them back with a slow rip-and-stop retrieve. Each pull of the rod gives action to the lure and keeps it at its diving depth. Much like experienced bass anglers, have several casting combos at the ready. Use a casting combo with lighter line to get lures running a few feet deeper and a heavier line combo when slightly shallower running depths are desired from the same deep-diving crankbait.
Late fall finds most pike stationed in or around deep water. While slowly dragged livebait presentations are popular during this period, slow-trolling stickbaits, as well as vertically jigging bladebaits and lipless crankbaits, can be equally productive. Fish all these presentations slowly. When working blades and lipless baits, longer rod-pulls and longer pauses after the bait falls provoke more strikes from cold-water pike. When trolling, keep speeds to 1.5 mph or less.
The biggest key to success during fall is getting location and depth right. Pike hold on steep-breaking points, ledges, and river channels. Based on prevailing winds and currents, these areas consistently concentrate open-water pods of smaller baitfish, trout, and ciscoes. This makes them high-percentage spots for precise trolling along edges, as well as open-water trolling where steep structure drops off into the main basin. As an example, if a lake has a shallow feeding shelf that breaks quickly from 18 to 25 feet of water before abruptly dropping into a 60-foot basin, pike continue to suspend at the 18- to 25-foot range, even over deep water and far removed from the structure.
In-line sinkers help to keep lures down at these depths at slow trolling speeds. Place sinkers in front of your trolling lure with a 4- to 8-foot leader of 20- to 25-pound fluorocarbon. A 2-ounce sinker delivers about one foot of extra diving depth for every 3 feet of line deployed when trolling at speeds of 1.1 to 1.5 mph.
With trolling weights, you also can use a wider selection of lures beyond just deep-diving lures that perform well at slow trolling speeds. Flat-sided shallow diving minnowbaits, with their appealing rolling action, can be brought down to deeper depths, as can line-through swimbaits, which impart a natural tail-kicking action. By making repeated 45-degree turns with the boat every 150 to 200 yards, lures on inside trolling rods slow down slightly and those on outside rods speed up. This not only helps to fine-tune the most effective trolling speed, but also changes the lures’ action to trigger following fish.
No matter where, when, or how you target pike, solving the speed and depth matrix adds to success. Err the side of fishing slower and lower in the water column during coldwater periods. Increase speed and fish higher in the water column as things heat up. Tailor lure selection to optimize the amount of time lures are running at the desired speed and depth and pay attention to any changes that trigger strikes.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an astute multispecies angler and contributor to all In-Fisherman publications.
Land more walleye with these rods and proven presentations for ornery ‘eyes.
By Field & Stream Online Editors and Steve Hill
The walleye is better known for its flesh than for its fighting abilities. But we still respect it as a sportfish because its oh-so-light bite makes it oh-so-hard to catch. A good spinning rod for jigging ‘eyes must be strong enough to set the hook firmly and handle big fish, yet sensitive enough for you to detect that subtle take. We gave four walleye fishermen four rods to find out which helped them put the most fillets in the fryer.
These rods helped Field & Stream readers catch more walleye.
Find out which walleye rods and tactics helped Field & Stream readers catch more fish.Field & Stream Online Editors
Four Reader-Tested Walleye Jigging Rods
Our readers tested four popular jigging rods for toughness, power, balance, weight and, most important, sensitivity.
Fenwick Elite Tech Walleye
“Well balanced, lightweight, but very strong.”Field & Stream Online Editors
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Specs – Length: 6’6” • Power: medium-light • Lure weight: 1⁄8 to 5⁄8 oz.
The Lowdown: The Fenwick Elite Tech Walleye earned high praise all around. The test team felt the rod was well made and sensitive enough to detect subtle takes. One tester singled out its hooksetting ability. Hill called it “well balanced, lightweight, but very strong. It’s extremely sensitive from tip to butt.” Reiser said, “To fish eight or 10 hours with a heavy rod” is a chore, but this rod was “a joy to use.” Cicinelli’s one complaint was that the rod proved “a bit underpowered for vertical jigging. It’s better suited to drift jigging with live bait.”
Hits: “You can feel the lightest tap.” –Hill
Misses: “The highest price of all four rods.” –Cicinelli
St. Croix Eyecon Walleye Series
“The ultimate rod handle for all-day fishing.”Field & Stream Online Editors
★ ★ ★ ★
Specs – Length: 6’3” • Power: medium • Lure weight: 1⁄8 to 1⁄2 oz.
The Lowdown: Testers gave this split-grip, fast-tip rod extremely high marks for sensitivity and fish-fighting abilities, but its innovative grip cost it the top slot. St. Croix left the graphite shaft bare from the reel seat down to improve sensitivity and reduce weight. Two testers really liked it; two didn’t. It “feels kind of fragile,” said Hill, and didn’t feel comfortable in his hand. Schill disagreed, calling it “the ultimate rod handle for all-day fishing.” Cicinelli felt the St. Croix Eyecon Walleye Series was the best vertical jigger of the group and said he loved the reel-seat design.
Hits: “Extra-fast action.” –Cicinelli
Misses: “Still on the pricey side.” –Reiser
Bass Pro Shops Walleye Angler Signature Series
Schill liked the rod’s hooksetting ability with enough sensitivity “to feel that twitch.”Field & Stream Online Editors
★ ★ ★ ★
Specs – Length: 6’ • Power: medium-light • Lure weight: 1⁄16 to 1⁄2 oz.
The Lowdown: Although not the top performer, the price of the Bass Pro Shops Walleye Angler Signature Series made it a solid value. “It’s not as rugged as the others,” Cicinelli said, “but it’s plenty tough.” He didn’t love the ratcheting reel-seat mechanism, feeling that “it might not hold the reel tight over time.” Reiser thought it was “innovative.” Hill said the rod had plenty “of backbone for handling fish” but felt the tip could have been more sensitive. Schill liked the rod’s hooksetting ability with enough sensitivity “to feel that twitch.”
Hits: “Good sensitivity.” –Reiser
Misses: “A little heavy.” –Hill
Shimano Clarus CSS66M2B
“Well built and durable.”Field & Stream Online Editors
★ ★ ★
Specs – Length: 6’6” • Power: medium • Lure weight: 3⁄16 to 5⁄8 oz.
The Lowdown: The only two-piece rod, the Shimano Clarus CSS66M2B was cited by two testers for its portability. But it drew divided opinions about its suitability for jigging walleyes. Two thought the rod performed admirably; two thought it was “too heavy” to handle light-biting walleyes. “The action was a little too slow and sluggish,” said Cicinelli. He did say the rod was “well built and durable,” an appraisal echoed by Schill. Despite feeling that the rod was a bit stiff, Schill said it helped him land fish quickly, and the rod’s construction made it versatile, improving its overall value.
Hits: “Rugged.” –Schill
Misses: “Poor balance.” –Hill
New Expert Ways to Land More Walleye
Learn their secrets or be left behind this season with an empty cooler and plenty of frustration.
1. Go Bold in the Cold
After a cold front shuts down the bite, most anglers go to lighter tackle and slower presentations. Not Perry Good. He goes bold, using bigger lures and erratic retrieves to provoke reaction strikes.
“I like to rip a jigging spoon,” Good says, noting that this classic ice-fishing lure can also fire up lethargic open-water walleyes. Choose a ¼- to ½-ounce model and cast to the edges of weedbeds, timber, or rocky structure. Wait for it to flutter to the bottom, then jerk the rod tip to rip the spoon toward the boat. Let it sink and repeat. If this action doesn’t trip a fish’s fuse, Good tries the same presentation with a 1/8- to ¼-ounce jig and a 3-inch shiner.
2. Use a Planer Board
For eliciting bites from walleyes, the use of planer boards has been, according to Tommy Skarlis, “the biggest advancement in the last 10 years of tournament fishing.” But, he admits, it’s all for nothing if you miss those strikes. When he trolls a crawler harness beneath a board, Skarlis boats more of the subtle biters by adding an Offshore Tattle Tale Flag strike indicator ($22; 800-237-4444; cabelas.com). The flag signals any slight change of the planer’s action. Also, because short-striking walleyes often nip the bait below the terminal hook on a standard harness, Skarlis puts a No. 10 light-wire treble at the very end of the crawler to nab sneaky bait stealers.
3. Add a Slider Rig
To increase hookups as he searches for scattered fish suspended in open water, Ted Takasaki adds slider rigs to his trolling setup. These are basically droppers attached to the main trolling line via a sliding snap about halfway between the planer board and the boat. Where legal, sliders let you cover a wider swath of water and try a variety of baits to pinpoint what walleyes want on a given day.
Takasaki uses a heavier dropper line (usually 20-pound) than his main line to help prevent tangling. The key to the tactic, he says, is to vary the depth (by adding more weight or longer line) and spinners and crank-baits until you start getting hit.
4. Try a Roach Rig
A roach rig is a classic setup for slowly trolling or drifting live bait along promising bottom structure. It typically features an 8-pound-test main line and leader and a ¾-ounce sinker. But when the bite turns tough, Mike Gofron tweaks this old standby for a more natural presentation. First, he lightens things up with a 6-pound mono main line, a 3/8-ounce sinker, and a 4- to 8-foot-long 4-pound leader. Second, he anchors directly above marked fish and presents the rig vertically.
“With your finger on the line, you’ll feel the minnow start to get livelier,” Gofron says. “It’s acting that way because a walleye is right on its tail.” That’s when you want to open the bail to let the bait swim free–the panicked flight will attract a strike from the walleye.
5. Crank a Crawler
The crawler harness isn’t just for bottom fishing anymore. When walleyes suspend high in the water column (and where multiple lines are legal), Paul Meleen pairs this traditional favorite with a deep-diving crankbait. This enables him to better control the depth of his presentation. Meanwhile, the crankbait’s diving action keeps the lures separated and contributes movement to the spinner.
Here’s how to rig it: A three-way swivel goes on the end of your main line. To the top ring, tie a 5-foot leader and connect a crawler harness with a quick-change clevis. On the remaining ring, tie a 10-foot leader and attach a snap and a crankbait. With the snap and the clevis, you can change baits easily. Switch often until you start nailing fish.
6. Throw a Jerkbait
When bass pros complained about catching too many walleyes on his home waters in west-central Wisconsin, Nick Johnson copied their tactics. He started retrieving a suspending jerkbait over shallow structure and discovered that aggressive postspawn walleyes are just as quick as bass to clobber what appears to be a wounded baitfish.
Copy Johnson by casting a Berkley Frenzy, Rapala Husky Jerk, or Lucky Craft Pointer SP to shorelines, rock piles, or submerged weeds in 2 to 6 feet of water. Point the rod tip toward the water. Snap it sharply back three or four times while reeling in slowly to create an erratic, rolling action. Pause several seconds and resume snapping. Be ready for walleyes to strike on the pause.
As a professional angler, part of my job is to adopt whatever new baits I believe will help me sack more bass. However, I don’t want them to replace baits that have proven to be consistent bass catchers for decades.
The key is to integrate new baits with the tried and true. Here’s my take on five bass baits that will never die.
When it comes to flipping flooded bushes, laydowns and other wood cover, you can’t beat a jig for consistency. That is never going to change.
Soft plastic flipping baits tend to cycle through. The latest hot soft flipping bait seems to catch them better than the one that was the deal three years ago. Denny Brauer was slamming bass on a flipping jig when I was a little kid. It still slams them today.
For one thing, a jig imitates a crawfish extremely well, which will always be on the menu for bass in shallow water. And there’s probably something about how that skirt undulates in the water when you work it in heavy cover that bass can’t resist. I’ll always have flipping jigs in my boat. You’d be at a huge disadvantage not to do likewise.
A walking bait
In my opinion, a dog-walking bait is the best topwater of them all. It has been duping bass for roughly 100 years, and it’s just as deadly now as it ever was. Bass never get wise to it.
You can’t say that for other topwater baits. Over the past five years, several new topwater plugs have made a big splash. Their bass appeal is already fading away, but the walking bait keeps going strong.
The side-to-side sashay of a walking bait is just so natural that bass never get accustomed to it. The surface noise the bait makes is also a very natural sound.
That’s not true of topwater baits that come on strong and then fade away. The noise they make excites bass when these lures first come out, but the bass quickly learn to avoid them because they don’t produce a natural sound.
In my opinion a Senko is the best soft bait ever made. What makes this bait so good is that it has a quivering action when it sinks that can’t be duplicated with any other bait. That subtle action is something that bass see a lot from minnows, bluegills and other young baitfish.
There’s a time and place for worms that move water, like a worm with a big paddle tail or a curly tail. But the Senko has a realistic profile and doesn’t move a lot of water. It catches both active (feeding) and neutral (non-feeding) bass, and that’s something not many baits can do.
The hard jerkbait has been around for ages, but its bass appeal has never faded. Every year it produces multiple tournament wins and high finishes for pro anglers and weekend warriors.
It has that side-to-side action of a walking bait, except it struts its stuff beneath the surface. On days when bass don’t want to commit to a topwater bait you can catch them with a jerkbait.
For years, the traditional way of thinking, especially for me, was that a jerkbait was only good for catching suspended fish in cold water. I used to put my jerkbaits down once the water got pretty warm in the spring. But over the last several years, Elite pros like Kelley Jaye have opened people’s eyes to fishing a jerkbait all year long. I’ve learned that a jerkbait will play with shallow bass anytime you have decent water clarity.
A deep crankbait
A deep diving crankbait has been jacking bass offshore for decades and will always be one of the best ways to catch bass out off the bank.
I can’t say that about many other baits for deep bass. Swimbaits, big flutter spoons and hair jigs are nowhere near as effective now as they were three or four years ago because bass have seen too many of them.
But when you burn a big crankbait through a school of bass, it still rouses them to react to it. They get in competition for it. And when one eats it, the others fire up and you can catch multiple fish very quickly.
Nothing can beat a big crankbait for covering water fast and for deflecting off cover to spark a reaction strike. The more casts I make to bass offshore the better my odds for success.
Just remember to mix in the “tried and true” with the “latest and greatest” when it comes to bait selection and you will put more fish in the boat.