I was swimming a jig the size of a housecat and the color of peppermint candy, but it disappeared in gin-clear water a foot off the gunnel like it had been swallowed by a black hole.
It might as well have been.
My eyes adjusted to the glare in time to see the cinder block-size head of a giant pike wheel to my right. A second later I was holding a straightened leader snap between my fingers, trembling with adrenaline, seething with frustration, but mostly smiling in disbelief that places like this still exist.
I’d spent most of the previous day climbing aboard progressively smaller airplanes and crawling back out in strange new places—my ascent north evident by the ground crews’ changing accents.
By the time the landing gear touched concrete in an outpost town called La Ronge, Saskatchewan, I was in a twin-prop barely tall enough to kneel in, and I no longer even recognized the language of some of the folks who grabbed the luggage.
After crawling out of the passenger compartment, I piled into a truck and headed even farther north, dodging the occasional 18-wheeler and vainly trying to develop a taste for the radio’s only program, the Aboriginal Radio Network’s “Top 30 Countdown” (imagine Michael Bolton singing in Cree). Three hours later, I reached the literal end of the road at the south shore of vast Reindeer Lake in the northeastern corner of the province.
It was now 12 hours later, and I was fishing aside Lawrence Bay Lodge guide Vic Jobb, a keg-shaped Cree Indian with a sense of humor wry enough to dry wet boots. His English is comprised of more four-letter words than hip fishing lingo, but he knows pike. The half-dozen giants I’d seen in the first few minutes of fishing—including the ’gator that had just mangled my leader—were proof.
Considering the type of exposure most far-north pike fishing gets through the media, I can guess what you’re probably thinking: This all took place shortly after ice-out in June, when we caught fish in shallow, muck-bottom bays and sightfished soft jerkbaits to lethargic giants. Old news.
If that’s what this were about, I wouldn’t be wasting your time. Truth is, the calendar said we were on the far side of August, and the golden birch leaves screamed that serious autumn was close behind. It’s not a time of year most anglers shoot for when planning Canadian pike trips (which you need to start doing now to get in on most outfits’ 2007 season), but you can find and catch huge pike—if you make the necessary tweaks.
And those tweaks don’t only apply to the subarctic—you can also take them to the bank when fishing near-home pike waters in the U.S. and southern Canada.
Decoding The Pike Calendar
Reindeer Lake spills out across a swath of northern Saskatch-ewan and Manitoba roughly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined—about 2,000,000 acres. Its characteristics and short open-water season make it a unique window into pike behavior transitions.
The lake’s sprawling basin is feathered by countless cookie-cutter bays, most of which feature muck bottoms at their backs, with scattered sunken wood that concentrates fish at ice-out. These skinny water areas slide into deeper, harder-bottomed areas as you move toward the main basin, where cabbage weedbeds set up in July. Off the deep weedline, near the mouth of the coves, you’ll usually find rock reefs and points before the bottom drops out into the main basin.
Many of the bays function as lakes onto themselves, with resident brutes that use the various cover and structure in predictable ways according to the season. Although the transitions progress more rapidly because of Reindeer’s high latitude and short summer, the same types of movements also occur on lakes near you.
“As water temperatures warm and weeds develop, pike begin moving out toward the main-lake ends of spawning bays, where they set up shop on weedbeds and pockets,” says Lawrence Bay Lodge operator Phil Engen. “Once there, they’ll more or less stay put through late summer, then move deeper in October, then return to the bays after ice-up.”
True to form, during my late-August trip, big pike were cruising deep weedlines in eight to 12 feet of water, holding at or slightly below the weedtops.
“Late August is a transition time here, and so you’ll sometimes find fish in a variety of different areas,” he says. “On sunny days they’ll generally be in the weedbeds, whereas on cloudy days you’ll find more and bigger fish suspended off adjacent rocks.”
Wind is another key.
“You’ll definitely catch a lot more pike in bays and off points with the wind blowing into them,” Engen says. The point was echoed by Jobb, who would frequently run past prime structure and cover to fish a bay that had been pounded by wind the previous few days.
Bass Pattern Pike
During my trip, I had the opportunity to share a boat with bass nut Michael Murphy, an FLW rookie who holds a fisheries and aquatic sciences degree from Purdue University. The combination gave him a unique perspective for finding and catching Reindeer’s northern pike.
“When I’m fishing bass, my top big-fish spots are almost always funnel areas,” he says. “They’re places with lots of deep water cut by small areas of shallow structure, where big fish can easily come up to feed.”
According to Murphy, the principle plays out the same for far-north pike.
“One of the best spots we’ve fished here is a flow-through area between two islands,” he said. “There’s a very small shallow spot with cabbage that quickly drops off both sides into huge deep-water areas.”
As in bass fishing, aquatic vegetation is Murphy’s clincher.
“For a place to hold huge fish—whatever the species—it has to have all the ingredients to fuel the food chain needed to support such fish,” he says.
That constitutes everything down to the zooplankton food base. And in infertile, oligotrophic waters like Reindeer, these tiny organisms are ultra-dependent on vegetation—both living and dead—for food.
“Grass becomes especially key later in the year. The zooplankton feed on the plants, baitfish eat the plankton, and the big pike follow,” he says.
This in part explains why subarctic pike relate so strongly to sunken timber at ice-out, then shift to weedbeds as summer progresses—both offer zooplankton the best available food source at the time.
Doing Your Part
Granted, on guided trips like mine, much of this legwork is already taken care of by quality guides who’ve fished the lake for years. But that’s no reason to go on autopilot.
Engen says most of his guests catch at least one 40-plus-inch pike and countless fish in the high 30s during their stay. Still, he says specific return clients always catch several times as many fish over the 40 mark than other anglers in camp—and there’s a reason for it.
“It’s cast placement,” he says. “The better anglers fan their casts and really cover water. They identify key spots and hit them.”
Some anglers, however, get in a stuck in a rhythm and cast the same direction and distance every time, missing key spots.
“I’ve had guides who’ve been forced to constantly change the position of their boat just so their client’s lures wouldn’t land in the same spot every time.”
Engen’s advice bears consideration whether you’re fishing the far north or waters in your backyard. On Reindeer, for example, virtually every bit of structure and cover looks prime. And to a certain extent, it is.
Consistently battling brutes, however, requires whittling down the possibilities to only big-fish spots. Instead of just randomly casting across a weedbed, first scan it and identify the high-odds targets within and around it: sparse spots, thick spots, points, cuts, boulders, drop-offs and transitions from one species of vegetation to another.
“Again, I relate this to bass,” Murphy says. “Wherever you have a transition—be it in bottom type or vegetation—you’re going to have more forage and more top predators. I hit those spots first.”
When you’ve completed your recon and isolated each target, never let your mind stray from your presentation.
“Another thing our most successful fishermen have in common is that they work the bait for all it’s worth on every cast,” Engen says. “If they’re fishing a soft jerkbait like a Slug-Go, they keep that bait darting from side to side at a steady cadence throughout the retrieve. It might take more than a minute to make a single cast, but it pays off.”
Admittedly, maintaining such a methodical approach can be overwhelming on a fishery as vast and diverse as Reindeer. I was nursing a Labatt and sharing those thoughts at camp the first evening when Shakespeare public relations director Mark Davis chan-ged my perspective. Although his South Carolina twang might lead you to believe otherwise, he’s spent years chasing monster pike across Canada’s northern tier, and he knows what it takes to catch the big dudes.
“You’ve gotta keep in mind that there are plenty of little guys up along the bank and in other likely spots, but they’re up there because they’re scared,” he said. “There’s not nearly as many weedbeds out there as you might think, and the big guys own the prime real estate.”
His words came alive the next afternoon as I cast a 1-ounce Rat-L-Trap in a narrow bay an hour’s run north of the lodge. A fire in 2005 had scorched all of the forest within sight, and a thick cabbage bed now grew in the center of the bay.
I fired a long cast to the bank, ignoring the pronounced pocket in the deep weeds just 15 feet off the gunnel. A few cranks into my retrieve, I hooked a 30-inch pike and fought it to the surface near the boat. When the fish slid through the pocket, a green whirlpool the size of a truck hood opened up below as a 50-plus-inch monster slammed into the smaller pike—unfortunately just missing the hooks.
Lessons To Live By
Encounters like that, and of course innumerable successful ones, are only part of the ap-peal late summer Canadian pike trips hold.
You slide across the frosty cabin steps as you head to the lodge each morning, shoot your blood sugar through the stratosphere with a camp breakfast, then run a boat off the edge of the map to pick fights with big fish.
In three days of probing Reindeer’s deep weeds and reefs, I boated scores of pike under 40 inches, a several topping 40 and saw six that would have gone 50-plus.
Fish like this kick your butt—the ones you catch wear you down, and the ones you don’t knock you out. Most of all, they teach you. Dial in your presentation to avoid “average” fish, and you too can wrestle pike that can outweigh a kindergartener who spends too much time watching Spongebob.