Tom Slota's 31-inch Spruce Run Reservoir northern.
Northern Pike: Peak Season
By Bruce Edward Litton
More than a decade ago, I took my young son to Lebanon Bait & Sport, bought live herring, and drove the short distance to New Jersey’s Spruce Run Reservoir. Herring had just become available in late April, awkwardly cast by the lighter of our surf rods, eight-foot sticks we use for striped bass and Spanish mackerel. I remembered from my teens the breaking news of Herb Hepler’s 30-pound, two-ounce state record pike from the reservoir, and felt powerfully prepared with big tackle. The state record got broken in Pompton Lakes by a 30-pound, 8.5-ounce pike in 2009, during years when we came to Spruce Run beginning in March, having scaled back drastically on the means of rods and reels, although catching plenty of pike on large shiners.
I’ve met some who use seven-inch trout for bait, bought at the Musky Fish Hatchery. And before Lebanon Bait & Sport closed its doors after the death of proprietor Steve Welgoss, the shop carried extra-large shiners I never felt needed. We catch plenty of three to nine-pound pike on medium power, 5 ½-foot spinning rods, reels loaded with six-pound test monofilament. For those large live shiners, a barrel swivel provides minimal weight, besides a size 6 hook and sinking 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader. Pike weighing more than 15 pounds get caught fairly frequently in New Jersey, especially in the Passaic River, but an average pike is closer to five pounds, packing plenty of power to load light gear.
Pugnacious predators coiling like springs before striking, pike also hit a variety of lures in cold water. My favorite is the suspending Rapala Husky Jerk. Take advantage of the pike’s habit of halting before its body twists to explode on prey or a lure: Pause a lure or shiner during retrieve. Any brand of suspending jerkbaits represent this deadly technique. By short, intense twitches, the jerkbait creates commotion to attract the curiosity of any pike nearby. If you follow the habits of most fishermen, you may notice they don’t twitch the plug enough. Most jerk it a few times and pause, or retrieve constantly while bouncing the rod tip, as if the number of casts makes more of a difference than the presentation. Rather than focus on retrieve, focus on tantalizing any nearby pike by keeping the plug shaking in place as much as possible. The plug will move forward, but slowly. You can twitch for as long as 20 seconds to a full minute to draw any fish from a distance, and then cease all action. That pause can trigger a strike, as if a pike’s mesmerized attention suddenly transforms into action, the target plainly visible and vulnerable. A fast action rod is a must, and I recommend the same for all pike techniques but bobber fishing, when any rod suffices.
With spinnerbaits, kill the action. Let a Colorado blade flutter relatively lame as the lure descends a few feet to bottom, and if no strike occurs, let it sit there a good five seconds. Pike are just as focused as fierce, apt to stare at a lure until you snap it off bottom to rev the motor. Chartreuse is a good color choice, as is any bright color or combination of color during sunny conditions. And brightly colored lure paused on bottom will help fixate a pike’s attention on it.
In-line spinners can be fished the same way if no residual weeds complicate matters, but I prefer short pauses, just enough to make a regular retrieve interesting. Many times, pike will follow. Pausing a spinner the first two or three times may not provoke a take, but by pausing in quicker succession thereafter, a pike may get irritated enough to turn interest into action. A moderately slow retrieve interrupted by increased pace can also provoke a charge.
A long American tradition associates lots of flash with the fierce reactions of pike. Spinners work. And they don’t have to be outsized. A 3/8th ounce, size 6 variety fits the need, but if you can’t find a spinner to your liking with reflective tape on the blade, you can buy tape and put it on yourself. The red tubing on the treble hook shaft of the Mepp’s Aglia Long serves the function of capturing that visual focus of pike and may make the difference, as bucktail offers possibility also—especially in red, chartreuse and white.
New Jersey has lots of where-to-go options. The Passaic River, Pompton River, Millstone River, Spruce Run Reservoir, Pompton Lakes, Budd Lake, Cranberry Lake, Deal Lake and even the Raritan River all have benefitted from the state’s stocking program, although it is the Millstone, not Raritan River, that actually gets stocked, pike working their way into the larger river system. Pike also get caught in the South Branch Raritan River on seldom occasion, since Spruce Run Reservoir and Budd Lake feed its flow. All of these waters involve pike spawning behavior in March and April. Regardless of any marginal reproductive success, the fish seek areas of residual weeds in lake and reservoir coves especially associated with feeder streams. The rivers congregate pike at any dams, or otherwise at the mouths of tributaries. Passaic River veteran Steve Slota Jr. told me about sighting a three-foot pike well upstream of the river in a tiny tributary creek in Verona’s city limits.
Until May warmth breaks the pattern of cool water shallows, pike remain vulnerable like no other time of year. However, during the cold water period of March, when pike first get interested in congregating on spawning grounds, they won’t chase after jerkbaits cranked fast or smash topwater plugs chugged along as if powered by a diesel engine.
Remember that pausing a lure is key to success with it, but if you like using live shiners, possibly this bait is never more appropriate, except for ice fishing. I always set out a couple of bobbers on whatever rods I don’t care to manually fish. Usually, I fish pike with guests, so as many as half-a-dozen get set. Predictably, no matter how well placed the bobbers, most of the pike get caught by live-lining technique, however. A bobber means waiting on fish; it puts you in a dependent position. Live-lining is proactive and will always better produce, at least over time, in the hands of anglers who know how to do it.
Where exactly do the pike in a given cove hang out? They move about, but going after them involves not only your senses, muscles, and judgement based on outward observation of branch stickups, perhaps, or a belly of deeper water or creek channel in a cove. Any and all structure is important, but there’s more to finding fish. Pay attention to your own internal promptings. Urges and ideas never just happen randomly, unrelated to what you’re doing and where you are. They may indicate where a fish is, so long as you are truly intent on discovery.
Why make a cast unless believed in? At the least, let every cast be your best guess, and you may be surprised when something tells you this is the cast that really counts—and it comes true.