A Passion for Pike

The author proudly holding one of his first pike at the age of 5, along with his grandfather.

by Casey Hoffman

I love fishing for northern pike and have been infatuated with catching them for as long as I can remember. Stories my Pop-pop would tell of family trips to Quebec had me captivated even before I was old enough to go along to catch one. Once I did get to go fishing for them at the age of five, and saw a pike darting from cover to engulf a bait for the first time, I was hooked. Addicted. Obsessed.

Back then we would use old wooden boats without any electronics, where trolling simply consisted of throwing our lines over the side of the boat and driving around. Lures were usually Rapala minnows, large Mepps Comet Mino Spinners, or spoons like the Lucky Strike Red-eye. I was too young to understand my grandfather’s strategy on boat positioning or lure speeds, only that I was told to HOLD ON TIGHT to that rod!

Since then I’ve had the privilege of pursuing most of the well-known fresh and saltwater gamefish this continent has to offer (and even a little hand-fishing for goldfish in garden ponds of England). I’ve learned from some incredible guides and experienced anglers who have shared their lifetimes of experience for the given species they target. But I always find myself returning to chase pike. Their aggressive nature, and ability to grow to over 4 feet in length just adds to the pike angler’s passion. It’s probably not a coincidence that I now live a short drive from one of the best trophy pike lakes in the country, and the countless other pike filled Adirondack lakes and rivers to explore in the area.

Before you get started

A beautiful 42” pike caught while trolling a shallow diving crankbait over submerged weeds in upstate NY.

Trophy sized pike and muskies are old fish and need to be respected. As a fishing mentor of mine recently put it “the truly huge ones are old enough to go have a beer with you”. Before anyone targets these toothy critters, they should be prepared with the proper gear to release them without either party being injured. A large net specifically designed for musky fishing will not only make it easier to get the fish into the net without catching the lure on the edge as it enters, but provides a holding pen where the fish can be unhooked without removing it from the water. Hook removal is simplified with long needle-nose pliers and a pair of side-cutters to snip off any deeply buried hooks. Quickly cutting a hook from the lure will allow you to get the lure free from the fish and net, preventing further hook damage and eliminating some of the sharp objects from the equation. Every effort should be made to reduce the amount of time the fish is stressed.

Keep the fish upright in the net and make sure the camera is prepared before you carefully lift it out of the water for some quick photos. Make sure that you’ve got one hand carefully placed under the gill plate, but not in the gills themselves, and the other supporting the belly of the fish. Your genuine ear-to-ear smile will happen automatically without any necessary instruction.

Then carefully place the fish back into the water and hold it by the tail until it regains its strength. Some anglers will slide the fish front and back in the water in an attempt to get more water to flow over the gills, but I believe that this just causes more stress on the fish. Before long you will start to feel the fish trying to swim on its own and you will just let it go and watch that tail disappear into the depths.

Watching that scene of releasing a trophy fish unfold, a fish that was likely released by several others before you, will make the countless hours in search of it worthwhile. Knowing that the fish will still be there to enjoy in the future, even bigger, will provide far greater satisfaction than any amount of Facebook likes of your hero shot ever will.

Getting Started

Unfortunately, most articles on trolling for pike today will give beginner anglers the impression that they need a thirty thousand dollar boat decked out with top of the line GPS electronics, specialized rods and reels, and a whole lot of other trolling equipment. But these really aren’t necessary to get started and pike fishing can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it. At times these items absolutely do help to catch more fish, but can be extremely overwhelming, even to novice anglers. Up until recently, most of my fishing was done out of a simple 14ft aluminum boat with 10 horsepower tiller engine.

Other than a few rod holders that help to position multiple trolling lines without tangling, I believe that a fish-finder is the most critical piece of equipment to have and learn how to use properly. Even cheap electronics will allow the angler to understand bottom contours and position their baits at the proper depths. This usually means just a few feet above submerged weeds, but on some bodies of water this can also be around boulders, fallen trees, or current breaks in rivers.

I prefer shallow to deep diving crankbaits that imitate various baitfish, and consistently dive to a given depth. Spending some time to understand how deep certain lures will dive while trolling is critical so that the correct lure can be chosen for a given location. Most lure manufacturers provide estimates of lure diving depths, but they’re not always accurate, and vary greatly on the diameter of line used and distance behind the boat. One of the best ways to determine lure diving depths is to drag them across a gradually sloping sandy bottom area. Simply let out a known amount of line (line-counter reels can be helpful here, but one can also simply count how many hand pulls of line are taken off the spool) and observe the depth on the fish finder at which the lure starts bumping bottom. Once this information is known for a variety of lures, the angler is ready to precisely present the proper lures for a given location.

Once you understand the bottom structure, and how your lures are passing over it, I guarantee that your catch rate for pike, and any species of fish will increase dramatically. If you’re a beginner, I suggest tagging along with an experienced pike angler to pick up a few pointers on catching and safely releasing these incredible fish. If you’re already an expert, find a kid to take with you. You might just change their life. But when you hand them a rod, just do as my Pop-pop did and remind them to HOLD ON TIGHT!