There’s a monster lurking in shallow water, gently working its fins to stay still. It’s half-in and half-out of a weed bed, and it’s waiting to explode into action when a perch swims near.
It’s the northern pike, the closest thing to a torpedo with teeth that you’ll find in freshwater.
And if there’s a more exciting fish to catch, I’d like to know what it is!
Large, aggressive, acrobatic: the pike is everything an angler wants in a fish. And while they’re not picky eaters, the spring spawn throws plenty of fishermen for a loop. Summer can be a challenge, too, if you don’t know what to look for, where to find them, or how pike feed.
We’d like to help, and below, you’ll find our analysis of pike basics as well as our favorite pike fishing tips and techniques to catch the big ones.
Table of Contents (clickable)
Northern pike, or Esox lucius, is a long, slender, powerful predator. Its scales are a deep olive green close to the dorsal fin, shading to speckled olive and finally yellow or white on the belly. This excellent camouflage helps it blend into the background, and as we’ll discuss below, this impacts its feeding behavior and where you’re likely to find them.
With average lengths of 16 to 22 inches, these voracious fish are a threat to anything even close to their size, and with sufficient food and warm temperatures, they can grow to an incredible 59 inches and 63 pounds! As is typical, females grow larger than males.
As you can see from this chart, expect average pike to range from 1 ½ to 4 pounds--but you never know when a behemoth will take your lure and give you the fight of your life!
The pike sports large eyes that provide exceptional vision, and when paired with a sensitive lateral line and sensory pores on its lower jaws, it’s an exceptional ambush predator. Pike hunt by finding vegetation to hide in or around, making use of their natural camouflage. Remaining absolutely still, they wait until they see prey or feel its vibration, launching themselves to full speed with an amazing burst of energy.
Prey items include fish of all kinds, including other pike, frogs and other amphibians, reptiles such as snakes, and pretty much anything else that they can fit in their mouths. Speaking of mouths, the pike’s mouth is armed with quite a few sharp teeth, some of which are backward-pointing. As a result, what goes in rarely goes back out!
As winter loosens its grip on the weather, pike will move to the shallows even before the ice has disappeared. They’re not looking to feed, but rather to mate, and these normally aggressive fish simply aren’t hungry. When the water warms to a cold 40 degrees, pike are ready to spawn.
As in all things pike, vegetation is key. As Clark Moen, a hatchery biologist, explains, pike are looking to lay their eggs in “submerged vegetation in shallow water in the bays of large lakes, or at the mouth of a tributary or creek. They do not create a nest for the eggs, nor do they provide any care for the eggs once they are laid.” Instead, the fertilized eggs stick to the vegetation while the exhausted pike recover in preparation for a feeding frenzy in early summer.
To allow this poor parenting strategy to work, the females lay as many as 600,000 eggs at a time. While most won’t make it, the few that do provide sufficient numbers to keep the pike at the top of the food chain.
This temporary anorexia leaves many pike fishermen at a loss--but it shouldn’t.
It’s pretty easy to find where the pike are going: shallow, living weed beds or bullrushes near tributaries, streams, or rivers that empty into a lake. Especially if these areas are adjacent to deep water, they’ll be prime spawning sites.
Instead of hunger, you’ll be relying on irritation and their inborn predatory instincts. You’ll need to slow down and throw your lures with a touch more finesse than you would in summer, and you’ll want to give the pike a chance to see and feel your lure as you work it.
We’ll talk more about techniques and lures below, so keep reading!
When spring gives way to summer, and water temperatures really start to rise, pike will start looking for food. As Greg Keefer writes for Game and Fish, “Most pike begin feeding heavily when the water temperatures reach the 55- to 60-degree range and go into the spring feeding frenzy when it climbs to 65 degrees.” They’re looking to add weight after a hard winter and their spawning anorexia, so they return to their aggressive ways.
Pike are superb ambush predators, and it’s worth taking a moment to assess what this means for you as an angler.
Many pike fishermen swear by braid, especially when they select line based on its diameter rather than tensile strength. As a result, you’ll often see anglers throwing 30-pound braid or heavier.
If you ask them why they’ve made this choice, you’ll hear a variety of answers. Abrasion resistance, some say. Knot strength, reply others. You’ll hear this again and again.
Don’t believe it!
We’ve taken a close look at line before and dispelled a few myths. If you want all the details, take a look at our “Myths Debunked” article. Suffice it to say that these answers reflect some of the misunderstandings we’d like to correct.
Braid is not very abrasion resistant. Breaking strength isn’t a measure of abrasion resistance. And while it’s true that very heavy braid still sports a slender diameter, allowing you to use very strong line, even at 30, 40, or 50-pound weights, braid isn’t as abrasion resistant as mono or fluorocarbon.
That’s a fact, but don’t take our word for it!
Braid is composed of multiple small strands of super strong material that are woven together to form the final line. If just a few of these strands are compromised by a pike’s teeth, the line’s breaking strength drops tremendously.
As Gary Poyssick explains, “The fact that braided line is manufactured by wrapping multiple strands over the top of each other means that those strands can separate. When they do separate–and they will whenever something hard scratches the surface in just the right way–they allow water to enter what was a sealed surface. When they open up, the water that gets in wears them, and that wear can result in breaks. Trust us when we say that those stresses will result in big fish getting away.”
In head-to-head testing, braid was inferior to both mono and fluoro in abrasion resistance, diameter to diameter. And while you can improve that by stepping up in weight, the question is why?
Why choose the least abrasion resistance choice and then try to make it better?
Braid has poor knot strength. That’s because the polyethylene fibers that make up braid don’t bite on themselves very well. You can work with this by tying very strong knots like the Palomar and San Diego Jam, but physics is working against you.
TackleTour’s tests revealed an average knot strength of just 49 percent with a variety of premium braids. For 20 pound test, then, that means that average line will start to experience knot failure at just 9.8 pounds!
That’s one reason that anglers run super heavy braided lines--they’re compensating for the inherently weak knot strength!!!
With that out of the way, it’s clear that abrasion resistance and knot strength are not the strong suits for braid.
But it is more sensitive than the alternatives, given its lack of stretch. That’s important for bite detection, and we can see the argument for throwing braided main line during the spawn, when pike are going to be reluctant to bite.
But in full summer, pike are going to hammer your lures and baits. Bite detection is really not an issue, but shock strength is. And this is yet another weakness of braid.
Instead, we recommend that you use quality monofilament like Stren Original. It ties well, offers high knot strength, features great abrasion resistance, and provides supreme shock strength.
In fact, when TackleTour testedf the knot strength of even average mono like Trilene XL, they found that it was exceptional: line verified by them to be 10-pound test held 9.7 pounds at the knot.
That’s 97 percent knot strength!!!
To get 10 pounds of knot strength from braid, you’d need to run a minimum of 20-pound test. Even then, its abrasion resistance will probably not equal 10-pound mono!
Indeed, as far as abrasion resistance is concerned, mono is a single filament of relatively thick diameter; moreover, it’s round. Together, this means that mono can take abuse without losing its strength, while also being able to roll across abrasive surfaces. Nylon is pretty tough material, too, and it’s forgiving of tiny scratches and nicks.
For most pike fishing, we just can’t see any good reason to skip mono and throw braid instead.
It’s clear that we recommend monofilament as your main line, but whatever you run, no line can stand up to a pike’s teeth. You may get lucky and miss those mouth razors, but if just one hits your line, it’s pretty much game over.
When I fish for pike, I always run a leader. I really don’t recommend you rely on an abrasion resistant main line to stand up to any fish with sharp teeth.
One option is to run very heavy fluorocarbon, like Berkley’s 100-pound pike leaders. They’re probably thick enough to take a tooth or two, but I generally prefer metal for pike.
There are plenty of excellent options, including Rio’s tapered leader, which is a single strand of knotable wire coated in nylon.
If you prefer to tie your own, I like the Terminator Titanium knottable wire. It’s easy to use, and if you find a pike that can tear through titanium...well...I suggest you stay away from the water!
If you want to learn how to tie your own leaders, Ryan DeChaine from Wired2Fish offers clear instructions:
Pike fishing is a great chance to throw over-sized lures. In warm weather, these fish are simply voracious, as the famous poem by Ted Hughes notes. Carnivorous when possible, pike will eat pretty much anything, and their eyes are often bigger than their stomachs!
Don’t be afraid to throw soft baits in the neighborhood of five inches, as well as crankbaits and jerkbaits in the range of 3 ¼ to 4 inches or even larger. If you’re fishing with live or dead bait, bigger is almost always better.
As legendary pike guide Jon Thelen says, "People are concerned about using small presentations for spring pike, but when the bigger fish are ready to eat, larger baits are just what the doctor ordered.”
The hooks that come on your lures may seem plenty sharp, but they’re usually a budget option to keep costs low for the manufacturer.
One tip you can pick up from the pros is to replace your treble hooks with premium quality alternatives like Gamakatsu. Subtly different in shape, premium hooks improve set and keep fish locked to your line far better than the bargain options.
As the spawn ends, releasing pike to return to feeding, throwing big spinners can be an ideal tactic to land a monster.
The pike are still clustering in the shallows, in and among the weeds near influxes from rivers, streams, and tributaries, and hitting these areas hard with a large spinner is a great way to start pike season with a bang.
I like to work the edges of weed beds really hard with a one ounce Wordens Original Rooster Tail in Fire Tiger or Chrome Whitetail.
Another option I really like is the Warbaits 1 ounce spinner. With two blades, an enticing red color in TNT, and lots of flash and vibration, it can be murder once the pike start to get hungry.
A final lure to try with this technique is the awesome BigTooth Tackle Straight-Wire. A refined version of the standard design, it’s about as weedless as this type of lure can be, and ideal for pitching into shallows where you know you’re going to hit the green stuff.
Pike can “hear” the rattle of a lure from quite a distance, and the more that lure looks like the real thing as they approach, the better!
I like to run a rattling lure along the edges of channels and drop-offs adjacent to vegetation. Hungry pike will often rush in from nearby, looking for a quick meal.
One of my favorites is the Rattlin’ Rapala, because it looks like a small baitfish and features a rattling chamber that produces incredible noise and vibration. In larger sizes like the ¾ ounce, 3 ⅛-inch models, this lure can call-up pike from the next county!
Flash spoons like the red and white Dardevle are just the medicine for pike, especially in large sizes like 2 ounces, which runs 4 ¼ inches long. Offered in a variety of colors and patterns, we like to have more than one option on hand. Especially deadly on the fluttering descent, expect pike to brutalize these as they play on both their keen vision and sensitive lateral line.
I like to flutter these over weed beds, retrieving quickly with a pause every now and then to drop toward the weed tops. You can also run these along the edges, work the sides of points, and run them past floating tangles of grass.
I sometimes fish these a bit like a jerkbait, too, ripping them and letting them flutter to a stop.
This unconventional choice is murder on pike. A large tube jig, normally fished for bass, can be rigged on a large jig head, resulting in one of the deadliest pike combos around. We particularly like the 4 ½-inch No products found. rigged on a ¼ ounce YUMbrella Money Head. When fished immediately next to a weed bed, the pike rush in to grab what they think are young fish darting from cover.
Cal Johnson, one of our readers, fishes Rainy Lake for pike. That’s a top spot to catch a real brute, and he’s got some experience on that front!
He likes to throw big Zoom Super Flukes on a 5/0 hook, suspended 18 inches below a large barrel swivel. That makes sense to me: you want to run a substantial leader to prevent break-offs, and a large hook with a fat meal wriggling for all its worth is exactly what hungry pike are looking for.
I like the Zoom flukes, too. Their delicate tail dances with the tiniest twitch of your rod tip, and that life-like action sets the pike’s lateral line on edge.
His favorite colors? Chartreuse, white ice, and bubble gum.
Mr. Johnson agrees with us that you’ll find pike where you find vegetation, and he looks for floating grass and weeds in relatively shallow water.
His personal record is a whopping 48 inch that he believes weighed close to 20 pounds!
We’d love to see a pic of you with that fish, Cal!
When it comes to targeting pike there are many things we as anglers need to take into consideration. Weather condition, the type of lures we use, and of course the time of day are all very important factors. Pike pretty much bite anything that you put in front of them, which is why time of the day plays a huge role in where they are located in the water. Personal experience and decades of pike fishing have helped us determine the best times to catch pike. Note that pike really can be caught all day long, you just need to adjust your fishing patterns to find the big ones. Pike are very territorial and will attack anything you throw at it which is why its all about determining where they are.
Pike in the morning are more active than usual. Early morning right before the sun rises is an excellent time to target hungry pike. You can either find them in open or shallow water hunting down their first meal of the day. Great lures to use in the morning are jointed raps as well as top water splashers like a Hula Popper. Since waters are usually calm in the morning top water lures cause quite the commotion and pike are usually in the shallows looking for baitfish.
After the morning hunt pike usually calm down and head to weed beds or deeper waters; especially when it is hot out. In the afternoon water levels heat up a bit making pike more lazy and difficult to catch. If you want to pike fish in thew afternoon try spinners and weedless spoons and troll them through weed beds. If the doesn’t work you can try deep diving rapalas and troll around 25 feet of water. You may get lucky, but afternoon fishing for pike is usually not your best bet.
Pike will often get a second wind once the sun starts to go down and the water cools off. During this time the pike head out on the prowl again making them and easy target. Fish for pike in the evening just as you would in the AM. Just note that once the sun goes down and the water darkens the pike usually calm down again.
Well from our experience the best time to land monster pike over and over again is first thing in the morning. We like to head out right before the sun starts to come up. As soon as the sun starts to peak you can be sure to nail a few monsters so make sure your set up and ready to rumble. Pike do not feed in the dark of the night so when they head out in the AM they are starving and will attack everything in their path. At about 11 AM once the sun is shining hard we usually call it a day.
Pike haunt the dreams of many northern anglers--and with good reason! Easy to entice, fun to catch, pike are a spring and summer thrill that few other fishing adventures can match.
We hope that these tips and techniques help you catch more (and bigger) pike this season, and we’d love to hear from you!
Please leave a comment below and let us know what works for you on your local lake or river.