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FLY IN FISHING ONTARIO PIKE

 

Finding and Catching numbers of pike and monster pike.
Joel Theriault

Northern Pike, latin name Esox Lucius, have an incredibly aggressive nature.  Their slim profile and muscular body makes them one of the most efficient freshwater predators.  Northern pike can display several color schemes depending on their genetics and the type of waters they live in.  They usually have white or lightly coloured spots set against a darker body, usually greenish or nearly black. 

Their mouths are covered in teeth and the jaw of their mouth has teeth facing the stomach while the lower teeth are more vertical.  With these teeth facing different directions, it allows northern pike to slash their food to death, while holding it tight and pulling it towards their stomach.  It’s a perfect biological predator with many nicknames across the north including the water wolf. 

Northern Pike are found on nearly every northern continent and can live in a very wide variety of conditions from small ponds, to rivers, or lakes.  Small pike find comfort and protection in small warm streams.  Smaller pike under 5 or 6 pounds are less heat sensitive than larger northern pike.  They can be comfortable for long periods of time in 65 to 70 degree water.  Larger pike however feel the need to spend most of their time in cooler waters of 50 to 55 degrees.  These larger northern pike will certainly rise up into the warmer waters to binge feed on baitfish like perch and shiners which prefer the warmth and security of the shallow water weedbeds, but after they have finished feeding they do seek out the deeper colder waters again.  Finding big pike during the warmer season usually means locating food sources next to deep waters.  Food sources are usually found at weedbeds, beaverhuts and beaver dams, rockpiles, log jams, and any other structure that will hold and attract baitfish.

Rarely during the summer months will big northern pike be feeding far from deeper water, but it does happen especially so as the mayflies begin to emerge from the shallow muddy bays.  During this time frame, most of the walleye in the lake will make their way into the shallows, and the large northern pike preferring to feed on 1 to 2 pound walleye will ignore their temperature preference and follow these walleye into the very shallow bays, at least until they have caught their supper.

Northern pike are not a finicky or picky feeder.  They will feed on basically anything to moves in the waters.  They’ll even feed on motionless lifeless flesh, especially so in the early spring months.  Dead fish are great bait for big pike in the early ice out fishing season.  As the water heats up and the pike metabolism speeds up, so does the effectiveness of faster moving spinner baits and heavier spoons which must be retrieved more rapidly. 

In northern Ontario, Northern pike will feed on frogs, tadpoles, crayfish, mice, small muskrats, ducklings, and small ducks.  As pike become larger, they tend to prefer larger meals rather than multiple smaller meals. 

Spring Spawning Time

When approaching the spawning time, northern pike head often head for wind sheltered areas in the back of bays.  They look for last years vegetation and weed beds to lay their eggs.  Submerged grasses that were above water during the fall and large pencil weed beds both make attractive spawning locations.  Generally the smaller males will arrive at the spawning beds before the larger females.  When a large female does arrive, she is often courted by multiple males.  They will swim along side of her and tap her abdomen to instruct her to release her eggs.   A flurry of eggs and sperm will follow and generally 2 to 3 weeks later, a massive group of tiny baby pike will hatch from their eggs.  In northern Ontario, our ice generally will melt about May 10th.  However, in the past two decades we’ve seen ice out as early as April 1st and as late as June 1.  The spawning for northern pike is stimulated by increased durations of sunlight and warmer water temperatures.  For anglers, we can see this timeframe beginning with the slow melting of shoreline ice. 

As the ice begins to melt along the shorelines, the spawning period for the northern pike begins.  The larger the northern pike, the more eggs it will be able to produce.  Some estimate the number of eggs to be about 10,00 for every pound.  So a 5 pound pike would lay 50,000 eggs and a 20 pound pike would lay 20,000 eggs.  Most depth finders now have built in temperate gauges.  When the water temperature reaches 39 F, look for pike to be massing in these weed beds and grassy areas.  Remember to use slow moving baits at this time of the year. Like spawning salmon, these pike are less inclined to chase baits, but very inclined to hit baits hovering in front of their face.  Anglers can often see the backs of these fish moving in shallow waters in the weeds.  It may take two or three passes in the face of a spawning female to make her hit the bait.  She’s probably not going to hit your bait because she’s hungry, but rather like a bass or steelhead on its bed, she’s hitting your bait because she’s annoyed by it.  As such, remember to use a slow presentation.  I personally like to use suspending weedless minnow baits at this time of the year to keep that bait within the “annoying” distance for these behemoths. 

Growth of the eggs into fish

 Northern pike fry start out at about 8 to 9 mm in length or about one third of an inch.  They feed on their attached yoke sack until the nutrients have been depleted and then start to feed on the phytoplankton and zoo plankton which is slowly growing in the shallows.  Small pike grow rapidly, putting on nearly an inch every second week.  Growth rates for northerns depends hugely on the water temperature of the lake.  Warmer shallower systems will make pike grow more rapidly while deeper colder lakes will cause a slower growth rate.  In these deeper lakes, it is believed that pike can live upwards of 30 years.  Shallower water bodies will grow northern quicker, but without the deeper holes (generally below a 30ft summer thermocline) large northern pike become stressed and die young.  A shallow system will generally have more numbers of pike, while a deeper system will have fewer but generally larger fish.

Picking out a waterbody and a location

Usually shallower lakes and riversystems are more fertile and have a higher abundance of baitfish like perch and shiners.  It comes down to the simple fact that phytoplankton and zoo plankton are the base of the freshwater food source.  They grow best in warmer waters.  Shallower waters warm faster and stay warmer longer than deeper waters.  Where the base of the food supply is abundant, all of the other tiers in the food chain will also be abundant.

Shallow lakes and rivers will produce large numbers of northern pike which will be very aggressive and loads of fun for anglers.   You might find dozens of 20 to 30 inch pike situated in the same 30 yard weedbed, but lunker’s are less likely to survive the heat of the summer.

This is not to say that shallow ponds, lakes, or rivers do not occasionally produce northern pike of monsterous proportions, only to say that you’re more likely to catch big pike in water bodies with plenty of holes deeper than 30 feet than water bodies without these deep water sections.

Some of the lakes we fish will have only one deep water hole. In the summer months, nearly every large pike will migrate to this hole.  They can be found hunting the edges for baitfish and are highly concentrated.

Most anglers seeking out northerns of gigantic proportions will select the deeper lakes, such as Nemegosenda, which have abundant populations o f coldwater fish like lake trout, ciscoes, and whitefish.  Northerns in these clear cold deep lakes are often easy to pick out from pictures with a distinctively smaller head in proportion to a thick heavy body.  Pike in the shallower lakes will generally show a huge head and tail, with a smaller thinner body.

Rivers often provide anglers with a perfect combination of depth and shallows.  A rivers current provides pike with endless ambush locations, where they can hide and rest in eddy’s and pick off baitfish all day long.  Locating these ambush spots can often be done by looking for ripples on the top of the water.  Some type of object is causing a disturbance in the water flow causing the water on the surface to “boil”.    Behind every boil is a section of slack water, where fish can rest and not fight the current.  They can watch as potential prey swims with the current beside their location and ambush as it passes.

Look for a treelimb coming out out the water, or the top of a rock for a suretell sign that an eddy has been formed.  Where a creek enters a river, there is usually an eddy on the downstream side closest to the rivers edge.  Often the backside of a rivers peninsula will create an eddy as well. 

Fishing during the spawn and post spawn period – The Spring

Large trophy size northern pike are extremely catchable during the spawn and early post spawn period.  As I’d indicated, often the urge to feed will be softened by the urge to spawn and one very effective early spring technique will be to look for movement in the shallow weed beds from the fall before and drop baits in front of the pike over and over again, to “annoy” them into biting.

A long shallow bay with summer wed beds surrounding the outer edges is a great location to start fishing.  Small streams feeding into a lake or river are also great starting locations.  Small streams are great in the spring for two reasons – the stream will be carrying warmer water and second, these small streams attract many spawning minnow and fish species, notably suckers.   I often place my minnow traps in these small streams to load up on 3 to 6 inch suckers at this time of the year.  Not surprisingly, the predators of the lake are waiting at the creek mouth for their fill of suckers.

A larger set of rapids is another fantastic starting point for both northern pike and walleye in the early spring.  Spawning walleye will move up to the rapids to spawn and rest in the eddys below or the first large whirl pool below the rapids.  Large northerns take advantage of this situation and feed on the unsuspecting spawning walleye.  I like to cast from the rapids downstream and work my lure back against the current, positioning my lure in a holding position along side any structure like logs or rocks that are creating an eddy in which big northern pike could relax and wait for unsuspecting prey.  Bobbers with dead baits are another great tool to catch lethargic northerns.  You simply need to cast your bobber into the current and let it drift into the whirlpool eddy.  Baitfish will naturally accumulate in the eddy that are stunned coming down the rapids.  Those coming from the upstream side will often be found feeding on the vegetations which has accumulated in the eddy.  This makes it a great spot for walleye, and hence big pike, to be hiding. 

A heavy spoon will need to be retrieved rapidly to keep off the bottom.  A suspending minnow bait can work great during this time frame as it can be retrieved slowly and made to simply suspend in the face of a large spawning female.  A dead bait rig works great during this time of the year.  Remember that cold water means slow metabolism for northerns.  A 1 to 2 pound dead sucker is not going to attract many 2 pound northerns, but is a welcomed treat for pike larger than 10 pounds.  It’s really a matter of deciding if you want action and numbers or patience and size.  You aren’t going to catch fish after fish with a dead bait rig, but the ones you do catch will certainly be worthy of a picture.  I suggest using barbless hooks on a deadbait rig, placing at least 3 hooks onto the tail, dorsal fin, and head of a dead sucker. 

You may want to use a float to get the sucker off the bottom to help big northerns locate your bait.  I’ve heard of placing styrophome in the mouth of the sucker.  I personally prefer adding a large floating jig head to the head of the sucker and connecting them to my leader rig.

If a big northern deeply inhales your bait, its going to be easiest to release the fish unharmed if your using a barbless setup.  You just need to remember that barbs are designed to keep the fish hooked when there is slack on the line.  If you’re going to make a sportsman’s decision to go barbless, you have to really control the fish your fighting and pay attention to keep the slack out of the line.  I often loose the battle right at the boat when I slow down to net the fish.  Keep the fish moving and have a netting plan with your fishing partner to prevent loosing your monster right before you get to take your next wall hanging photograph.

 

The warm water period -  Summer Pike

Many anglers will say that there is a certain time of the year that big fish bite and that you need to go fishing in an particular month.  I’ve never been a fan of that logic.  Do you believe that a 20 pound pike got to be 20 pounds by feeding only in the month of May or the month of October?  Or do you believe its more likely that he got to be that big by feeding at every single opportunity that he could take?  The only difference between fishing during the spring, summer, or fall is the location and technique.  Fish feed all year long and can be caught all year long.  How and where you fish in the summer will determine what you are going to catch.

The question is generally do you want to fish for quantity or quality?  Huge numbers of small pike in the 20 – 30 inch size range can easily be caught in large shallow bays in the 4 – 6 range.  Large northern pike however rarely venture too deep into these areas.  Smaller pike in the 12 – 20 inch size range can spend their entire summer season in less than 6 feet of water.  They are often infected by a black speck parasite on their skin.  The parasite is generally temporary (for the summer season only) but can persist on a year round basis if these pike happen to find a spring water source under the ice during the winter months.  The parasite looks ugly but doesn’t affect the edibility of these small pike.  However, they generally don’t taste very good but are rather extremely “fishy” in flavor.  Soaking the fillets in milk for a few hours will help to take away the “fishy” flavor if its not to your liking, but I personally prefer to eat pike in the 24 – 32 inch range.  I release the larger pike to be caught another day, and to keep the suckers and whitefish in check which eat the walleye eggs in the spring just after they have been laid on the gravel flats.

The best locations for big pike are generally good food sources next to fast drop offs to deep waters.  Large spinner baits and large spoons make excellent baits.  I also like to use large hard bait minnow lures, especially so jointed minnow models.  Big baits will catch fewer fish, but bigger fish on a consistent basis.  Each of these terms is worthy of an explanation.  Food for northern pike is like I mentioned, basically everything in the lake.  Baitfish will be found concentrating in weed beds or hiding around fallen brush and timber.  Rock piles will hold large amounts of crawfish.  Pike feeding on baitfish will have a light coloured fillet while pike predominantly feeding on crawfish will have a pink or red coloured fillet.

A fast drop off would be something along the lines of a 45 degree slope or greater.  Deep waters are generally waters in the 15 – 20 feet.  During the summer months, there are multiple temperature layers.  As a scuba diver or snorkeler, you can see these lines and divisions in the water.  The water is stratified and about each 6 or 7 feet, you can visually see a separation.  If you put your head at the separation level, you will see what looks like heat ripples rising up from the colder depths to towards the surface.

Northern Pike of huge proportions will hunt for prey in shallow waters of less than 4 feet during the peak heat of the summer season.  However, if the option is available to remain hidden in deeper more comfortable depths and then rise up to the shallows to grab baitfish passing over, they seem to prefer the option.

I’ve had some fantastic luck finding big pike hidden in the branches of fallen trees.  When your combing a shoreline, and see large whitepines or jackpines that have toppled down steep shorelines into the depths, you should immediately be thinking that a giant “waterwolf” will be hiding in the branches, waiting for an unsuspecting animal to swim above his teeth.  Vertical jigging on the edge of these limbs can be hugely effective.  Suspending minnow baits can be fantastic as well.  Its important to use a heavy line if you’re going to fish this type of structure as most pike will swim back into the branches once hooked and wrap your line around the branches before you get a chance to pull them into the boat.

I prefer a heavy duty braided fishing line to fish this type of structure.  You’ll need to manhandle these fish to keep them from wrapping you.  A thin fluorocarbon line in the 8 to 10 pound test works great in open water where playing out a  15 to 20 lb fish and fighting him for twenty minutes is an option.  I suggest a much heavier line strength if your planning on fishing this type of heavy structure because if the fish takes out drag, he’s likely going back into the branches he came from, and you’ll never see him again.

The return of Cold Water – Fall Fishing for northern Pike

Autumn means colder weather, shorter days, changing colours of the leaves, and for fishermen, deeper waters.  There are three distinct periods during the late summer and fall season, pre-turnover of the waters (generally mid August until late September), early post turn over (early October to mid October) and the late fall period generally coinciding with the end of the moose hunt.

In late august and early fall, I’m still fishing weedbeds, rockpiles, log jams, fallen trees, and beaver huts.  The forage base is still in the shallows and the predators are still seeking out cooler deeper water next to these feeding stations.  As the fall begins, and the temperatures slowly plummet, the whole underwater ecosystem begins to change its preferred holding habitat.

Everything is weather dependent, and these times can change by as much as a month.  The water layers stratified by temperature during the summer months begin to break down as the lighter warmer water just beneath the surface begins to fall and mix with the heavier cooler waters below.  This period of late august to the middle of September weakens  the main thermocline (generally between 28 to 32 feet), which separates the warmer waters from the oxygen depleted cooler waters below.  Eventually, the lake will flip or turn over.  For a few days before and after the fall turn over, feeding seems to slow down as the pike seem to be confused.  This can happen anywhere between the middle of September to the end of October depending on the lake and the weather.  Prior to the turn over, most of the perch and minnows seem to found in the 3 to 6 foot of water range meaning that fast drop offs are key to finding big pike.

After this turn over, most of the forage seems to move to the 16 – 18 foot range.  Finding a small bump on an open flat in that 14 – 20 foot range can hold big schools of bait fish and also predators. You can often see them on your depth finder as well as the lunkers hovering just outside of the school.  I usually troll the flats at this time of the year and find the fish more scattered.  During this fall period, you’ll find all sizes and species of fish mixed together.  Its the last gorging event before winter and all predators big and small follow the migration of the minnows from the shallow weed beds to the open expansive deeper flats in the lakes.  As with the summer months, wind direction can have a big impact on fish locations in smaller lakes.

I often find the best fishing to be on the wind swept shoreline of the lake.  With rivers and moving current, the wind seems to have less of an impact.  On these smaller lakes, the wind creates a current that pulls the base of the food source  (phytoplankton and zooplankton) to one side or the other.  This in turn pulls the bait fish, and pulls the predators as well.  This is not to say that every bait fish or every predator will move from one side of the lake to the other side of the lake depending on the wind direction, but only to say that when your fishing, you should consider playing the odds just like cards.  Why not follow the food and put your lure out in front of more potentials?

Often you will see flocks of seagulls chasing these schools of bait fish.  Just like the television documentaries you may have seen with ocean sea gulls picking up the scraps while predators herd schools of baitfish near the surface, I believe the same is true in a fresh water environment.  Everything feeds on something.  A single seagull might not be a great indication of great fishing, but in the fall period if you spot a group of 20 to 30 loons all diving together or seagulls crying and creating noise, I think it might be worth checking out and taking a few casts. 

 

Barometric Pressure – Does a cold front stop the fishing?

As weather systems roll across Northern Ontario, the air pressure rises and falls accordingly.  As a pilot, I see the change on a daily basis as I adjust my altimeter on the plane.  An altimeter tells a pilot the altitude of the plane, and the instrument works by testing the air pressure and as you increase or decrease your altitude, the air pressure will decrease or increase as well.  Underwater these changes in Barometric pressure are much more severe than above water due to the density of the water.  As a scuba diver, we learned a formula that to change your pressure by 1 atmosphere (1 unit) of pressure, you need to go 1000 feet above water but only 33 feet below water.

Most land based animals can feel barometric pressure shifts which are coming, notably a drop in barometric pressure before a storm.  Deer respond to the this shift by feeding heavily before the storm.  Fish respond in the same way.  However, once the pressure has bottomed out, many animals loose their appetite for a while.  In some fish like brook trout, the pressure change can have a severe impact on the desire to feed.  Don’t even think about fishing for brook trout the day after a thunderstorm because its going to be a waste of time.  Both walleye and pike are affected by barometric pressure, walleye more so than pike.  Large northerns seem to be more sensitive to barometric pressure and high temperature than small northerns.  You should still be catching loads of 20 – 30 inch walleye in the weed beds the day after a thunderstorm rolls through on your typical techniques.  You might find better luck using dead bait techniques dropping dead suckers into 20 to 25 feet of water for large northern pike.  I like to use two hooks, one with a lively minnow and one with a large dead sucker.  This lively minnow gives a splash of action to the presentation, and pushes out vibrations which can be felt along the lateral line sensors of most predators in the area.  The dead sucker gives lazy and lethargic fish still suffering from hangover type feelings from the barometric pressure shift an easy meal that they don’t have to chase.  If you’re using much more than a 4 inch minnow, I’d suggest using a stinger hook on the tail, as well as one on the nose of your bait.  More hooks means less waiting time to the hook set which ultimately means less fish will swallow your bait and the angler can be more selective regarding the fish he keeps and release the large trophies to fight another battle another day.

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