Jump-Start the New Season
Pike Pounce on Shiners and Spinners Earliest
New Jersey’s northern pike fishery is enhanced to a real presence, and early season after ice-out is the best time to enjoy it. Southeastern New York is void of pike, perhaps because pike fishing is great to the north and west. But thanks to New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, plenty of these large freshwater gamefish are available here: Spruce Run Reservoir, Budd Lake, Pompton Lake, Farrington Lake, Cranberry Lake, Passaic River, Pompton River, and Millstone River all have been stocked for years; Pompton Lake holds the state record at 30 pounds, 8.5 ounces.
Pike spawn shortly after ice-out, moving into shallows as early as late February, depending on when ice melts. In lakes and reservoirs they seek out the mouths of creeks and streams, and areas of residual vegetation in shallow coves. Key spots at Spruce Run are the entryways of its five feeder streams, especially Spruce Run Creek and Mulhockaway Creek. The former is best fished from the earthen jetty, the latter by boat. Budd Lake has three creeks that attract spawning; Pompton Lake is fed by a larger stream, for examples.
Early spring is the habitual time for river pike to move upstream, not to a headwater destination as salmon do, but into slow backwaters and in lakes, tributary streams. A friend reported that a creek in Verona hosted three-foot, Passaic River northerns in March. Since pike turn upstream for these areas, dams are often great spots to fish. The Wilhousky Street dam on the Millstone River in Manville is worth a shot. Not only does it block migration further upstream, to the left of it facing downriver is a slow, shallow backwater eddy.
I prefer live lining shiners at least until April water warms above 50. Medium shiners under three inches long work, but large shiners allow lengthier casts. Unless heat waves, like those we’ve had the past couple years, send the pike towards a summer pattern, they are accessible in shallows until about May 1st. They can be caught in a foot of water, or the 10 foot depths around the Spruce Run jetty. It won’t be impossible to hook up with in-line spinners, spinnerbaits (slow-rolling them off bottom especially), and suspending jerkbaits like the Rapala Husky Jerk. But consider the following. Over winter a slightly higher statistical average of pike forage dies and sinks to bottom. Into March, pike will scavenge on carcasses. So if pike will hit dead bait (freeze some herring and try them on bottom next year, their body oil attracts), this at least makes my predilections favor using shiners and fishing them slowly near bottom until water hits 50. Use no weight if line-lining besides a barrel swivel. The shiner will swim down to bottom. Just lift rod tip every 10 or 20 seconds or so, and retrieve slack.
When I began pike fishing seven years ago, I was prepped by a distant relative who had caught a 40- inch pike off the Spruce Run jetty using a live bait release reel, and a heavy stick. For bait he uses seven-inch rainbow trout purchased legally at the Musky Fish Hatchery. My impression, owing to the previous 30-pound, 2-ounce state record at Spruce Run, was that pike were much larger than they usually are. I had also witnessed a 39-incher caught on Budd Lake, and I’ve heard of them as large as 48 inches from the Passaic. But an average pike weighs less than five pounds. If all you care to catch is a fish over 20 pounds, you may fish the rest of your life for nothing. So my advice is to use light tackle. I like the same 5 ½-foot, medium power St. Croix I usually use bass fishing. And I risk 6- pound test, although I do use 15-pound test fluorocarbon leaders against razor-sharp teeth. A small circle hook will, in almost all instances, get caught in the corner of the jaw. I stay with plain shank, size 6 hooks just because I like them—but I set the hook quick so that the fish is good for release.
Pike will not usually bunch up at a creek mouth. The entire football field length of water inside the Spruce Run Creek mouth and jetty is worthwhile, for example, and we catch most of our pike towards the end of it on the reservoir side. I find that especially into dusk, pike move into very shallow water of two or three feet along Route 46 at Budd Lake in the spring. Near the theater and marina spring water enters the lake just west of a dock structure, a spot accessible by boat. Pike require either persistent casting search (my preferred method) or patient bobber or possibly bottom fishing with dead herring or shiners before weather warms up. When still fishing, multiple rod sets are best, but quicker retrieves are sure to draw savage strikes in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers alike once water temperatures move through the 50s.
Make no mistake about it, these are large freshwater gamefish. Don’t feel that we just don’t have it anything like upstate New York, or Saskatchewan. Of course we don’t. Pike aren’t native here, and our waters are not up to supporting such size. So accept what we do have and be there, instead of imagining something else. In any of the waters I’ve mentioned it’s possible to catch a pike over 15 pounds, and on light tackle that’s a tussle to remember.