One of the largest freshwater game fish around, Northern Pike are rough, cannibalistic, territorial fish with sought-after flaky flesh. Anglers relish pike fishing because they are easy to lure in bites, but not the easiest to reel in. The thrill of battling a pike on the water is unlike most fishing experiences. Prepare to make awesome memories.
What is a Northern Pike?
Northern pike are a carnivorous species in the Esox genus. They’ve been called jackfish, jack pike, snot rockets, and slimers. These pike are identifiable by their oblong bodies and skin that is olive green with mottled sides and white-yellow stomachs. The dorsal fin is near the end of the pike’s back, also covered in spots. A pike is also recognizable by its snout—a flattened, extended, grisly maw of needle-sharp teeth. Pike have sizable sensory pores on the head and the lower jaw, part of the fish’s lateral line system.
On average, Northern pike grow to be around 16 to 22 inches, 3 to 7 lbs. Pike can grow nearly 4 to 5 feet and weight up to 60 lbs. The largest recorded length was 58 inches, and largest weight 68 lbs.
Pike behavior is belligerent in general, but another reason for the cannibalism is the need for space. They develop into ambush foragers, spending long periods of time at rest in the water, striking with amazing speed and vigor once prey is within range. This method is only effective with less competition in their territory, hence the rate at which these fish turn on each other.
Northern pike live 10 to 15 years on average, some living up to 25 years.
Where to Find Pike
You will find Northern pike in freshwater and certain brackish locations, between 0 and 100 feet in depth. They live in densely vegetated lakes, pools, reservoirs, streams, rivers, tributaries, and creek backwaters. They aren’t too picky about the bodies of water they inhabit, as long as there’s food, although spawning periods push them to cooler and deeper waters. The main brackish waters pike roam exist in the Baltic Sea region, at the mouths of rivers as well as the open sea.
The vegetation of their homes is necessary for survival. Pike must obscure themselves in weeded, shallow waters just offshore to survive their larger peers and adequately catch their own prey.
For the most part, pike don’t migrate too much from their feeding waters. For a time, large pike migrate during a spawning season, descending to larger and deeper waters in the winter behind schools of prey fish. Smaller pike continue to hang out in the same locations until maturity.
Northern Pike are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The northern portions of Asia, Europe, North America and Siberia are all thriving pike territories. North America’s range of pike extend from Alaska to Canada to the Mid-Western United States. In Europe, pike have been introduced in numerous waterways.
How to Catch a Northern Pike
When trying to catch Northern pike, you want to consider the weather. Spring is prime pike angling time, because pike are returning from spawning depths to the shallows. Vegetation hasn’t grown in enough for ambush foraging, and they most likely haven’t seen lures in months.
The next thing to consider is the casting location. Pike reside in shallow, vegetated (in the spring, not as much, which is ideal) or rocky areas near the shore. That is where you will want to set up shop.
Attracting pike is often the easiest part of the trip. Pike will eat almost anything, so it stands to reason they will strike at whatever bait or lure that moves near them. There are many options available to someone wanting to angle pike: dead bait fishing, variations of lure fishing, bobber fishing, jitterbug surface fishing, bow fishing, jerk baiting, trolling, and more. There are methods based on lures, based on bait, based on rigs, and combinations involving up to all three. Here we’ll discuss two of our favorite lure-based methods, then discuss two bait rigs to try.
A spinnerbait is a kind of lure that is constructed with metal blades so that it can spin underwater when it is in motion. As it spins, it emits flash and movement that is like small fish. This form of lure is meant to activate the pike’s lateral line system—allowing your quarry to “feel” the lure from a distance. One form of a spinnerbait is the in-line spinner. In the case of pike angling, the bigger the spinner the better. Its weight creates more control when you cast, and it produces even bigger flash. The design of your spinnerbait should be white, chartreuse, black or orange in color.
Reel the spinner in steadily, not too fast or too slow, and you will get the bite you’re looking for.
One of the most common lures used in pike fishing is the spoon. Northern pike love spoons; they are tried and true staples anglers keep in their tackle box. Spoons immediately grab the average pike’s attention, transfixed by the way its underwater movements. You will want a spoon that is around 5 inches, and it needs to be silver, yellow, gold, white or red. They are remarkably effective and it’s easy to control its depth.
When the time is right, reel your spoon in steadily, just fast enough to keep it wobbling. This should produce takers, but if it doesn’t work right away consider trying a flutter retrieve. In this instance you will apply a jigging motion as you reel the spoon in. The stop and start movement combined with a fluttering spoon lure will produce viable bites, guaranteed.
This rig will allow you to cover stretches of prime pike locations—weed edges, shorelines, and drop-offs among others. You will take a minnow for bait and hook it through the lips with a size 1/0 hook, adding a sinker weight that works best for the speed at which this rig will drift and the depth your bait will sink. You may have to adjust by adding split shot after split shot until you’ve achieved the weight that gets your fishes’ attention. Once you have a bite, drop the tip of the rod, open the bail, reel in steady, and after 10 seconds to a minute, finally set the hook. The length of time you wait to set the hook depends on the size of the pike, but don’t wait so long that your bait is swallowed.
This rig is best set up near an obstacle, such as around the mouth of a tributary or over a weeded region. The bait can be anything from 6 to 12 inches, on a size 1/0 hook. The rig should have a snelled wire leader connected to a snap-swivel for best results. Using the smallest bobber you can, to minimize the chance of resistance when a pike snatches your bait, position it so that it holds the bait about a foot or more above weeds. Give your pike time to turn the bait around in its mouth as it prepares to swallow, before setting the hook.
No matter what method you use, once they are caught the battle really begins. As you fight to reel in your opponent, remember to keep your physical distance as best you can, because pike are quite vicious. If you are attempting to catch and release, take necessary precautions beforehand so that you can remove the hook safely from the thrashing pike.
Best Bait for Northern Pike
Northern pike generally eat whatever they can find, and the larger they are the more daring their meal choices become. They will eat invertebrates, numerous small fishes, frogs, and even small mammals such as squirrels, birds and waterfowl, shrews, voles and more in striking distance.
Best Tackle for Northern Pike
Is your goal to catch and release, or are you playing for keeps? The best tackle you can use to catch your Northern pike will depend on your intentions for the fishing trip.
The tackle you choose for pike fishing should be heavy-duty across the board. Look for rods with backbone towards the bottom, but more agility around the top. A 7-foot medium-heavy action rod should cover most pike, but opt for heavy-action if you are looking to wrestle with big bruisers. Combine a strong rod with reliable baitcast reels with a good gear ratio. The best lines to choose are monofilament or braided nylon, a weight strength of twenty for the former and around fifty for the latter—minimum.
Generally, you want pike hooks to be 1/0 in size, 2/0 or 3/0 if using treble hooks. The larger the hook, the easier it is to remove from the pike’s mouth—great for catch and release fishers.
Lastly, let’s discuss lures. There is no lure that will work significantly better than others. This is because pike are like heat-seeking missiles to whatever perceived prey is near. If it moves, they will usually come running. Ideal lures are spinnerbait and spoon lures, but minnow-imitation plugs and other topwater lures can work as well.
Value of Northern Pike
In the United States, Northern Pike have major value as game fish. Canada and Alaska also fish pike for sport, but communities in both places subsist on the fish’s commercial value. Pike are eaten by many anglers, but a skilled filleter is necessary to de-bone these extremely bony fish. The ability to do this is valued in communities relying on pike commercial value. Regardless, for some anglers, this is too much trouble and they would rather just enjoy the action on the water and let their quarry go.
There is such a thing as too much pike. Pike are closely monitored in most countries due to their prolific predation tendencies, careful to manage their growth when the ecosystems are negatively affected by pike presence. They are highly monitored once found or introduced in non-native waters. For example, pike have been illegally introduced to south-central Alaskan territories for the pleasure of sport anglers, since there aren’t as many regulations there.
Northern pike have long feeding periods and short digestion times, so if at first you don’t succeed, you will have many opportunities to reel one in again. Most aren’t brave enough to go toe to toe with a Northern pike. Luckily, that means there is more for the action-junky anglers. Go find a Northern pike to wrestle with as soon as you can.
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