It was mid-April when I pulled into Chad Schilling’s dusty prairie driveway outside Akaska, South Dakota. There was probably still enough ice on the main body of nearby Lake Oahe to support anglers on foot, but many of the smaller shallow bays were just opening up.
Schilling puts food on the table guiding walleye anglers and pheasant hunters, but this time of year he loves fishing for northern pike—giant females that lumber into the shallows as the ice rots.
“I’ve been watching the bays, and I know a spot that just opened up yesterday night,” he said as we shook hands below the huge bison head on the wall of his lodge. “Fish should be there and they haven’t been touched by anyone else.”
We hopped into his truck and rolled a few miles through the hills until we reached a narrow creek arm snaked into the main lake. Although it was indeed open, rafts of crumbling ice bobbed all around its surface. We knew the fish would be moving slowly because the pike Schilling targets like this are coming out from under three feet of ice which has sat over their heads for five months. Metabolically speaking, they aren’t on the hunt. The water is only a handful of degrees off freezing, minimizing their activity level and caloric needs.
Meanwhile, he says, there’s a void in the forage base—last season’s young- of-the-year perch, walleyes, white bass and baitfish are big enough to make them more difficult targets and new fish haven’t hatched. On the other hand, in winter’s wake, there are plenty of dead fish scattered along the bottom.
He takes advantage of this perfect storm of factors with a specialized deadbait rig—a simple two-treble quick-strike about a foot up the line from a 3/8-ounce egg sinker or split shot. The rig holds a herring, which exudes an oily slick that pulls in pike.
He cuts a piece of Styrofoam large enough to fill the herring’s mouth, then pries the jaws wide open with a forceps and stuffs the foam inside. He pushes the trailing treble of the rig into the underside, through the Styrofoam and out the top of the herring’s head.
He then winds the steel leader between the two treble hooks around the baitfish and puts the other hook through the top of its back, just in front of the tail.
The setup provides enough weight to make short casts off the bank and keeps the bait in place. The foam, coupled with the way he wraps the leader around the herring’s body, keeps it floating vertically—head-up; tail-down.
This not only gets the bait off bottom where cruising pike can easily see and smell it, the position also helps ensure solid hooksets.
“A pike will flare its gills to suck the bait in and instantly have the lead treble hook in the top of its mouth,” he says.
After letting the rig sink to bottom following a cast, Schilling lays the rod on the bank, with the spinning reel’s bail open. He pinches a loop of line above the rodtip under the metal hook of a round plastic bobber, then sets the float on the bank, a few inches from the water.
As simple as it sounds, it’s actually ingenious. When a fish picks up the bait, it feels no resistance and easily rolls the bobber into the water. You see the bite and the pike can take line.
Near-Shore Ambush Points
Schilling goes to the trouble of floating the baitfish rather than simply hanging it from a bobber for a couple of reasons. First, is that the South Dakota wind typically blows so hard that a bait held under a float would move too much to trigger strikes from the lethargic pike. Along with that, baits need to be placed along very specific structures to put them in front of migrating fish, so even a slight breeze would quickly push a float-rigged herring off key spots.
Schilling calls the structural features “bankboards,” stair-like formations created as the impoundment rises and recedes, eroding the banks like a terraced hillside. They’re common on Oahe, but exist on other waters, especially the other big prairie reservoirs on the Missouri River.
“There are 265 miles of Lake Oahe, and every bay has pike in it,” he says. “But in all that water, I like putting baits on bankboards.”
Schilling says pike tend to follow the L-shaped corner formed at the bottom of these terraces, and then hold tight to them as they move in off the main lake toward spawning bays. Most of the time, the bankboard closest to shore will be most productive, hence he makes short casts.
“Usually fish roll through just about where you can’t see bottom anymore— only like 10 yards off the shoreline,” he says. But if the near-shore spots don’t produce, he recommends spreading out lines and casting some out farther to the next bankboard down the slope.
Moment Of Truth
When a fish takes a deadbait, it’s not the pulse-pounding moment you experience in July when a pike slams into your bucktail and burns the drag. Rather, the round bobber simply rolls off the bank little drama. But what the moment lacks in excitement, it makes up for in results.
“Usually, it’s the biggest fish that move only enough to roll the bobber,” Schilling says. “The ones that just sit there with it are the 20-plus pounders.” After waiting for the fish to position the bait in its mouth—a process that might take seconds or several minutes depending on the day—he slowly takes up slack line until he can feel weight, then makes a fast-reeling, sweep-set to drive in the steel.
As this happens, the loop of line that had been pinched in the bobber’s simply pops off, letting him fight the fish. The approach works—on his best days, Schilling has caught multiple pike over 24 pounds, with several 15-plus pounders!