Northern pike — often called water wolves, gators, dragons, or toothies — have a long, powerful body, big mouth full of sharp teeth, and an insatiable predatory appetite. Pike can get absolutely huge depending on the part of the world you are angling in.
These are the fish that your Grandfather used to brag about during bedtime stories when he would say: “I caught a fish thiiiiis big!” This isn’t too far off from the truth, although I’m sure the fish tends to grow in size each time the story is told.
These fish are are one of the most thrilling freshwater fish to pursue and catch. If you want to get in on the action and learn how to catch northern pike, this article outlines everything you need to know to get started.
- The Basics – Getting to Know The Northern Pike:
- Gearing Up For Your Fishing Trip:
- Choosing the Best Bait and Lures for Northern Pike:
- Scouting the Water and Fishing for Northern Pike:
- Three Final Tips to Help You Catch More Northern Pike:
The Basics – Getting to Know The Northern Pike:
Northern pike is a freshwater fish species like crappie that prefers cool water. They average 24 to 30 inches long and weigh between 3 and 7 pounds. In certain areas, particularly isolated lakes in the northern wilderness, pike can grow to over 50 inches long and weigh well over 40 pounds.
Pike are found in lakes and rivers all throughout North America, Europe, Russia, and some parts of Asia. In North America, pike populations extend from Alaska through Canada, into the lower 48 from Washington to Maine, and as far south as Colorado, Nebraska, and Missouri.
Unlike the common carp, Northern Pike are at the top of the food chain in their environment and have very few natural predators other than anglers. Pike are primarily ambush predators, eating just about anything that will fit in their mouths — baitfish, frogs, small birds, muskrat, mice, etc. They’ll even go after members of their own species — anglers often catch pike with wounds caused by the jaws of another pike.
If you want to consistently catch pike, the key is to trigger a predatory response with your lure or bait. Below is a quick video by ProFishermanJones that walks through an effective predatory response simulation before catching a pike.
Pike have well developed lateral lines that start on the head and extend to the tail. Made up of a series of sense organs, pike use their lateral lines to detect low-frequency vibrations. They also use their sensitive inner ear to detect high-frequency vibrations. Both of these elements combined give pike significant predatory advantage when hunting prey, even in low light conditions.
Using lures that create a lot of movement and vibration in the water to will help you catch more pike.
Gearing Up For Your Fishing Trip:
Rod: Although pike can get very large, the majority of the fish you’ll catch will likely be in the 3- to 7-pound range. For that reason, many anglers use a typical bass fishing setup to catch pike. A 7-foot, medium-action rod paired with either a baitcasting or spinning reel is ideal. The reel should have a maximum drag of at least 15 pounds, and should be spooled with 15- to 20-pound braid. With this setup, you’ll be able to land just about any pike that hits your lure.
Reel: If you know there are trophy-sized pike in the water you’ll be fishing — fish in the 20- to 40-pound class — you may want to beef up your rig a bit. Upgrading to a medium-heavy action rod and increasing your line strength to 30-pound test will do the trick.
Line: Whether you choose a lighter or heavier setup, you’ll want a reel that allows you to cast long distances. Covering lots of water is key to successful pike fishing, so for most anglers, this means using a quality spinning reel with a large diameter spool that releases line effortlessly. A reel such as the Shimano Spirex would in the 2500 size would make a perfect pike fishing reel.
Net: Landing pike can be kind of tricky; a good boat net is essential. Any net in the ballpark of 20 by 23 inches will work well for scooping up a thrashing pike. Be sure to get a net with a long handle such as the Frabill Conservation Series to aid in landing the fish.
Pliers: Removing hooks from a pike’s mouth can be intimidating. Bring along a pair of long needle nose pliers like the Piscifun Fishing Pliers to remove the hook quickly and safely. If the hook is set very deep, you may need to use a set of jaw spreaders to remove the hook without losing a finger.
When you’re fishing for pike, most of your problems will take place at the end of your line. Pike have incredibly sharp teeth and are known to cut line like it’s nothing. To increase your chances of bringing fish to the boat and decrease the number of lures lost, wire leader material is highly recommended.
Some of the best wire leader material for pike fishing is made by American Fishing Wire. Their Surfstrand Micro Supreme is the perfect size — 90-pound test, but has a small diameter and is very flexible so it won’t interfere with the action of your lure.
When rigging up your lures or bait, you can attach a 3- to 4-foot length of 20 to 30 pound fluorocarbon to your mainline as a leader, then attach the wire leader to the fluorocarbon. But, if you like to keep things simple, you can skip the fluorocarbon and attach 12 to 14 inches of wire leader directly to your main line using a barrel swivel.
To attach your lure to the line, it’s common practice to tie a snap swivel to the end of the wire leader and attach the lure to the swivel. This makes switching lures much faster and easier, and also conserves wire.
Choosing the Best Bait and Lures for Northern Pike:
Pike can be caught on a wide variety of lures as well as live bait. Using artificial lures is arguably the most fun and engaging way to catch pike, but there are times when you need some meat to satisfy a pike’s hunger.
1. Live Bait for Pike:
Live minnows and other small bait fish are the go-to live bait for pike fishing. Try to match whatever food source is actively swimming around the water you’re fishing. Use a cast net to catch your own bait fish, or head to the local bait shop to buy some. Look for bait fish that are 4- to 6-inches long. Shiners are always a good choice for pike fishing and are usually readily available.
Several different rigs can be used to fish for pike with live bait. The most common is a simple bobber rig consisting of a bobber, a length of fluorocarbon leader, a length of wire leader, and a 1/0 hook. Hook the minnow through its back and fish it suspended one or two feet above a bed of weeds.
When pike are in deeper water, rig your live bait on a 1/4 to 3/4 ounce jig head by hooking it through the lips. This rig can be bounced along the bottom with 2- to 3-foot lifts, letting the bait sit momentarily before lifting and retrieving. Pike will often take the bait on the fall, so be ready to set the hook at any moment.
2. Lures for Pike:
There are a ton of pike specific lures on the market but if you’re just starting out there are only three you need to worry about: the spoon, the inline spinner, and the soft plastic swimbait. These three lures in different color combinations will cover 99% of the pike fishing scenarios you encounter.
Spoons for Pike:
When you let a spoon fall and flutter on the retrieve, it imitates an injured baitfish. If you stick with pike fishing, you’ll no doubt end up with a hefty collection of spoons. Start stocking your tackle box with a small assortment of spoons weighing 1/4 to 1 ounce in silver and gold plus any local favorites. Be sure to get the classic Johnson Silver Minnow and any others that catch your eye.
Inline Spinners for Pike:
One of the best ways to cover lots of water when searching for pike is by casting and retrieving an inline spinner. The most important part of an inline spinner is the blade. On the retrieve, the blade spins and pulsates, sending vibrations in every direction. This action capitalizes on the pike’s sensitive lateral line which is exactly what you need to do to get a strike.
Some inline spinners are dressed with natural materials like bucktail, marabou, and feathers, while others feature rubber skirts like what you’d find on a spinnerbait for bass. Get a few varieties in basic colors like white, chartreuse, and yellow, along with some darker colors for low-light conditions and murky water.
Soft Plastic Swimbaits for Pike:
Soft plastic lures are highly versatile, adaptable, and can be customized to fit nearly any fishing scenario. For pike, minnow-style soft plastics in the 5- to 6-inch range are particularly deadly. There are thousands of swimbait styles, sizes, and colors available, but don’t let that intimidate you. Pick out a few different styles in the go-to pike colors — white, yellow, and chartreuse — and you’re set.
Check out the Owner Bullet Head jig hooks in the 3/4 ounce size for a good all purpose jig head for pike fishing. If you’re fishing heavily weeded areas, try rigging your swimbaits on something like a Gamakatsu Weighted Swimbait Hook, that allows for weedless rigging. Then, grab a few different colors of the Storm Wild Eye Swim Shad. The big fat paddle tail on the Yum Minnow vibrates and wiggles in a way pike simply can’t resist.
When fishing with swimbaits, the retrieve pattern you use is often more of a factor than the color or shape of the swimbait. Experiment. Try different retrieve speeds. Try short pauses and long pauses. Mix it up until you find what works. Once you start getting hits, stick with that lure and retrieve pattern until the fish dictate otherwise!
Scouting the Water and Fishing for Northern Pike:
When you get to a body of water, before you start blind-casting away, take some time to survey the water. Look for areas that look particularly “fishy.” Aerial maps and depth maps can be a real asset when it comes to scouting a lake for pike. Google Earth is another invaluable tool that can help you find promising fishing locations before you even get to the lake, and making sure you have a top quality fish finder will also help.
Bays, coves, and smaller inlets are some of the first places you’ll want to scope out on a lake for pike. Look for shallow, marshy areas that have lots of weeds and grass. Mark any places that have shoreline structure such as submerged logs, fallen trees, and undercut banks. Areas like this typically hold high numbers of bait fish and other prey. Find the food, find the pike.
Another key place to look for pike, especially as summer heats up, are drop offs that give pike access to deeper water. Using either your depth finder or a depth map, try to find areas that quickly go from 1 or 2 feet of water to 8 or 10 feet of water. If you can find an area like this with weeds and vegetation, even better. Typically you should be sticking to docks or boats and avoid kayak fishing or tandem kayak fishing when scouting for pike.
1. Presenting the Lure:
Once you’ve identified several areas that are bound to hold pike, it’s time to tie on your lure and start casting.
If you’re fishing heavily weeded areas, tie on either a weedless spoon like the Johnson Silver Minnow, or a soft plastic swimbait rigged weedless on a Gamakatsu Swimbait Hook. Most of the time, pike sit motionless in classic ambush fashion as they wait for prey to swim by. Cast your lure past a weedline, then slowly retrieve along the weeds. If a pike is there, he’ll rush out and slam your lure.
In areas with lots of downed timber, submerged logs, or other sunken structure either along the shoreline or in the middle of a bay, an inline spinner is your best bet. Focus on covering lots of water, but don’t just make random casts; use fan-style casting to thoroughly and methodically cover the entire area. If you don’t get any hits, try to vary your retrieve, going either slower or faster, or by adding brief pauses. If you still aren’t getting any hits try changing lure colors or going somewhere else.
If you find a good drop off, tie on a soft plastic swimbait rigged on a standard 3/4 ounce jig head. When pike go deep, they might not be as aggressive as when they’re actively hunting in the shallows. For this reason, try using a slower lift-glide-pause retrieve, working the lure along the bottom. You’ll have to spend time experimenting with how high to lift, how far to glide, and how long to pause until you find what works. Keep in mind that you don’t have to use this slower retrieve the entire way back to the boat. Instead, you can cast out past where you know the good drop off is, do the lift-glide-pause retrieve in the prime area, then reel in steadily until your lure comes to another likely spot.
2. Setting the Hook:
When you do find a pike that’s willing to take your lure, it’s usually pretty obvious. Most of the time you’ll feel a solid tug at the end of your line. Give the rod a strong, upward hook set and start reeling.
But, sometimes the bite of a pike is more subtle. When bouncing soft plastic swimbaits rigged on jig heads, a pike will often take the bait when the jig falls back down to the bottom. In this instance, it may feel like just a little nibble, but don’t let that fool you. Lower your rod tip, reel in any slack and give a nice hard hook set.
3. Landing and Releasing a Pike:
Once you fight the pike and bring it boat-side, things can escalate quickly. Pike are known to thrash upon landing, which can be a dangerous situation if you aren’t prepared. Besides the gnashing teeth and the whipping tail, your lure is in there somewhere and could come flying out at any minute.
Take our advice and come prepared with a net. You’ll thank us later. If possible, a second set of hands can make a day of pike fishing much easier when it comes time to land your trophy. But, with good coordination and a long-handled net you should be able to land a pike by yourself.
To make landing a pike easier, be sure to play the fish long enough to tire it out. Then, when you bring it boat-side, be prepared with your rod in one hand and net in the other. Or, have your buddy ready with the net to scoop up the fish.
Once you get the fish on the deck of your boat, grab the fish’s head behind the eyes. If the fish is too big to hold the head, you can grab it by the gill plates. Then, with your needle nose pliers reach into the fish’s mouth to remove the hook. If the hook is deep, you can go in with your pliers through the gills to get it loose. Jaw spreaders can come in handy if the fish is reluctant to open it’s mouth, but be careful using jaw spreaders on smaller fish that you intend to release as they can cause permanent damage to the jaw. Snap a photo, then lower the fish into the water, giving it a minute to recover before setting it free.
Below is a great video on how to successfully land and release a pike by Matity’s GetFishing channel on youtube.
If you plan on keeping your catch, drop it in your live well or put it on ice. Many anglers catch pike purely for sport and release all fish caught, but many others enjoy eating pike. The common complaint about pike as table fare is that they are very bony. But, with proper fillet technique you can end up with perfectly boneless fillets and a large amount of meat!
Three Final Tips to Help You Catch More Northern Pike:
To conclude our discourse on how to catch northern pike, we’d like to leave you with three tips to make your pike fishing efforts more fruitful.
- Keep moving. Finding the fish is half the battle, and similar to fly fishing – casting to the same area twice is often wasted effort when searching for pike.
- Keep casting. Try to work every potential pike holding location for all it’s worth. There is some endurance required to successfully catch pike. If you’re lure isn’t in the water, you can’t catch fish.
- If you miss a strike, keep working the lure. Sometimes a pike will “play” with your lure. It might hit it, spit it, and keep chasing it. If you feel a bite, but miss setting the hook, keep working your lure and you might be rewarded with a second or third chance to seal the deal.
- Know your Pike Seasons. Pike fishing in the winter may give you a slightly different results but can be just as effective if you know where to fish. Make sure you are setup with the right ice auger to drill in your preferred fishing location.