As I write this, the Minnesota archery season is just starting. It's a tortuous time of year because the urge to hunt is so strong after a long off-season. And while the woods beckon, the lakes are still there promising what is arguably the best fishing of the whole year!
That's because the cool autumn months before winter are prime days to catch fish, and BIG fish, in generous quantities. Why? Because fish feed more voraciously during the fall than any other time of year. They instinctively know that winter's coming, marking a cold-water period of low activity. So, predator fish bulk up for winter by packing in as much eating as they can.
This time also coincides with the fall spawn of baitfish. Basically, the baitfish school-up to move into the spawning grounds and the predator fish follow them.
One such predator in the mix of the fall bite is the magnificent Northern Pike. As anyone who knows me already knows, I LOVE pike! I love the way they look, strike and fight. They have the attitude of a pitbull on steroids! Even a 3- to 4-pounder can give any angler a thrill. Add 20 pounds and you have a serious freshwater battle on your hands!
Cover A Lot Of Water
One of the best ways to catch a bunch of pike in the fall is by trolling and covering a lot of water. Before hitting the water, have a game plan. Study the topographic map of the lake you're going to fish and identify the steep breaks where shallow water drops off into deep structure. These are potential hotspots.
If the shallows in these spots are weedy, look for weedlines that are still green. Weeds that have already laid down and are beginning to decay do not hold fish like they did in the summertime. Fish like GREEN weeds, for the leafy cover they provide, and dying weeds don't offer the same concealment.
On a particular weedline, the top fish-holding locations are points and inside turns. These are key ambush areas at any time of year, including fall.
If the lake you're fishing has no green living weeds, then other types of cover are your next best bet. Rocks are ALWAYS dynamite areas to target big pike, particularly if they're out on a nice point. Add wind ripping into or over that point, and you've got a perfect recipe for big gators laying in wait. The wind creates current that pushes bait into the point, where opportunistic feeders are always hanging around.
After determining the weedlines, rocks, points, etc., that you intend to target, the next decision to make is lure selection. During the fall, northern pike like to eat big meals, so opt for baits that have a large profile. I like to start with a big jerkbait such as a 9-inch Suick in Firetiger, Perch or Red/White, and always clipped to a steel leader.
Other proven performers are big spoons, paddle-tailed swim baits and bucktails. If picking up stray weeds is a problem, troll a jumbo spinnerbait or weedless spoon such as a Johnson Silver Minnow. I typically add a large twist-tail grub body to the shank hook on spinnerbaits and Silver Minnows, to increase the size of the bait's profile, enhance vibration and for a splash of color.
Follow The Contour
Once you get on a weedline depth (typically 10- to 15 feet for most lakes), watch your sonar and stay on that contour. Pike aren't afraid to hit a fast-moving bait, so I usually begin with a troll speed of about 2.5 mph. If that doesn't get results, I'll try slower or faster speeds even up to around 5 mph.
Leave your rod holders at home when trolling for pike, because you'll get a lot more bites if you continually work the lure with quick, hard jerks, steady pull-and-drop movements, and erratic twitching. Pike will routinely follow behind a bait, and the instant it pauses it often triggers an aggressive strike!
Fast trolling regularly results in an immediate hook-up, especially if you're using no-stretch braided line instead of monofilament. I much prefer braid for trolling, because the line transmits the wobble of the lure to my hand and lets me know if the bait is running properly or whether I've picked up a stray weed.
The fall trolling pattern for northern pike can provide you with some of the most action-packed fishing of the year. Handle the fish with care and release them healthy so they go into the winter months stress-free. And don't be afraid to keep a couple of 3- to 4-pounders for the dinner table. Pike is an amazing fish to eat, especially if you de-bone it to remove those nuisance Y bones. Or, leave the bones in and opt for pickling instead. The pickling process turns the bones to mush. And I don't think there's a better pickled fish than pickled pickerel!