Trolling for Northern Pike
March 22, 2018
"Troll first, then cast," says Jeff Matity, a guide at G & S Marina on Saskatchewan's Last Mountain Lake. He recalls his first May opener at the marina as the day this motto started. Arriving at a warming bay before marina owner Rob Shultz, and helping his client land a 36-inch pike by casting a Rapala Husky Jerk, Matity was confident the day would go well. But that changed when Schultz approached, trolling the same lure and he'd already landed four fish up to 41 inches.
Learning to work a jerkbait while trolling, giving it the same twitches and pauses as casting takes time, but the payoff can be worthwhile. Learning to pull lures behind planer boards to trigger strikes or locate key spots also is important. Water clarity has increased in many waters due to zebra mussels, while invasive gobies or perch populations have moved pike away from traditional habitat in some situations. When pike move deeper as vegetation expands, trolling becomes more efficient to check various depths and cover expanses of water.
Trolling should also be used to explore new territory. In some cases fish could be caught by casting, but trolling helps an angler learn more about an area in less time. The best part of exploring is that the fish living in areas where few anglers roam grow larger.
Big River Trolling
The St. Lawrence River used to be so weed-choked an angler had to trim the motor up to depart boat ramps. Now, the clear water of the 1,000 Islands region between Lake Ontario and Montreal hosts mobile pike as vegetation has shifted deeper. Captain John Oravec says, "The past seven years have produced fantastic fishing for those willing to explore. I still see boats on traditional spots, but these areas no longer offer the vegetation or forage base to hold large fish. Increased numbers of perch and gobies have lured big pike to deeper waters. Trolling has always been a part of the search process on this big river and it remains a great approach. Strong currents and deeper reefs lose make it harder to cast, drift, or vertically jig," Oravec adds. "Even leadcore line has its limits."
Although Oravec often carries five presentation options, he notes, "the best way to get a big lure 40 feet down in current is to use wire line or a downrigger." Leadcore is limited to about 30 feet of depth and slow speeds, while casting and vertical jigging work in shallower water or when the current is low. Wire line and downriggers complement each other, depending on the characteristics of a fishing spot. In some cases, he runs wire line and downriggers simultaneously to put more lures in the strike zone.
Finding large schools of perch is easier with the latest sonar technology, and pike stand out as well. "We knew they were out there, but we had to buck years of tradition pulling us back toward shore," Oravec says. "Once we found fish, we tried trolling and it consistently outfished other techniques along upstream edges of windy islands, stair-stepped rocky reefs, and glacial-carved flats."
Muskie tackle and lures also changed the game. The Musky Shop's exclusive Pounder Alpha Dawg outsizes anything available previously and pulls great behind a downrigger, leadcore, or wire line. To upsize the package even further, Oravec adds a 24-inch wire leader to the rear O-ring of a 10-inch Drifter Straight Believer or 8-inch Swim Whizz, then attaches a Williams Whitefish or large Prescott Doctor spoon. This "burger and fries rig" wakes up big pike.
The last piece of the St. Lawrence puzzle is speed. Oravec uses several measurement devices to understand the effects of current, wind, and boat speed. "Big fish want the lure at a specific speed, typically 2.0 to 2.8 mph in water below 55F. Move too slowly in summer or too fast in fall and the bite tails off."
Western pike waters from Eagle's Nest, New Mexico, through Colorado, Fort Peck Reservoir in Montana, and up to Last Mountain Lake near Regina, Saskatchewan, lack classic spawning bays, but offer large flats and endless nondescript shorelines. Here you find clumps of vegetation instead of classic weedlines and gradually sloping banks.
Will Dykstra and Nathan Zelinsky guide on the high-plains reservoirs of Colorado. They adhere to the principle that trolling rules when covering large areas that are not too thick with vegetation. In some areas, vegetation density allows trolling for northern pike only during spring when emerging plant life is still sparse, and in fall when vegetation thins.
"The 400-acre North Bay of Spinney Mountain Reservoir near Fairplay, Colorado, has a maximum depth of six feet," Dyksta says. "It's always been full of vegetation. Wading anglers find knee-deep water over 100 yards offshore and many fly-fishermen work these shallow areas. Years ago, I mapped the area and studied plant types of the bay, looking for clues.
"Before side-imaging, the bay was too big to cast effectively and too shallow to search with 2-D sonar. We had to troll or cast blind. When Lowrance StructureScan and Side Imaging appeared, it became much easier to visualize the weedgrowth and find areas with the tallest plants."
While mapping, Dykstra found a good weedline crossing the bay in an old irrigation trench four feet wide and three hundred yards long. But surprisingly, casting across it didn't produce well. He found and mapped other vegetation features and fished them with only occasional success. It turned out that pike seem to randomly wander across the entire vegetated area, without regard to plant type, height, or water depth. Occasional concentrations of fish form, and they're best approached by trolling planer boards.
Trolling is a key part of the efficiency game on any body of water. Dykstra travels to the Canadian side of Lake of the Woods each summer and, looking back on his Colorado and Minnesota experiences, concludes, "The first half day of predator fishing on any body of water should be spent trolling." Good anglers plopped in the middle of Lake of the Woods can use a Lakemaster chip and current conditions to identify a decent shoreline, flat, or dropoff to explore. He recommends making the first pass at 2.0+ mph while watching side-scan sonar to assess the layout of the reef, vegetation, or ambush points.
While species like walleyes or bass often need the precision of casting a jig, large predators respond and move to attack trolled lures. "Trolled lures move toward ambush-ready predators from a different direction than casting," Dykstra says. "Fish see cast lures approaching them, then heading toward deeper water, which promotes follows. Trolled lures, in contrast, start on a path toward the predator and don't show indications of departing, which promotes immediate strikes."
Yet trolling isn't always the final solution. The technique eventually catches enough fish to narrow down any expanse of water and reveals location trends. "I put a waypoint on each fish I catch trolling," Dykstra says. "My waypoints eventually depict an area of fish concentration that I can cast to." He's used this method to corral pike on the extensive sandflats of Minnesota's Mille Lacs, while exploring shorelines on Lake of the Woods, and back home at Spinney Mountain Lake in Colorado. This process can decipher an otherwise unmanageable area.
Dykstra's lure selection includes many Savage Gear swimbaits. The sinking 3D Line Thru Trout comes in trout and perch hues and is the most realistic lure in the lineup, while a jointed Glide Swimmer walks-the-dog when pulled at slower speeds. The Hybrid Pike is a big soft lure that trolls well, too. If pike are hitting spinners, he rigs a Big Tooth Tackle Juice or Sound Science Bucktail behind a planer board.
At Spinney Mountain, vegetation grows to the surface and trolling become ineffective. That's when his collection of waypoints pays off. While other anglers cast toward visible shoreline areas, Dykstra confidently casts buzzbaits and spinnerbaits over vegetated areas offshore where he found fish earlier in the year. "Thickening vegetation makes it hard to search these areas," he says, "but I've found hotspots that aren't on any map. All the largest fish I've caught casting have come from poking around waypoints that I dropped while trolling."
The other half of Colorado duo, Zelinsky focuses on the skills to troll effectively. "I teach people to pull planer boards, then see them practicing the next weekend. Their success rate rises as they gradually master the details."
One of his key lures is Storm's Kickin' Minnow. The 8-inch version of this swimbait has unique properties that fit his trolling requirements. First, it consistently runs 4 to 10 feet deep with a minimum of line behind the planer board. Second, it sinks slowly when stalled. Third, it's relatively inexpensive so the occasional snag or bite-off doesn't wreck the budget. His second choice is an F18 Original Floating Rapala that resembles a small pike. Both lures have enough wiggle to appeal to predators.
Zelinsky uses Lowrance Structure Scan to locate pockets in large beds of coontail and cabbage. When his boards go over these gaps, he slows down and allows the lures to run deeper until the vegetation thickens. The Kickin' Minnow shimmies when stalled, creating vibration changes, then moves closer to pike moving between ambush points, searching for perch and rainbow trout.
He also favors light line. "The heaviest I use is 14-pound Berkley Trilene XT," he says. "I often drop to 10-pound-test and see an increase in bites." He doesn't use fluorocarbon or wire leaders here and says big pike won't strike heavier setups. Everyone has a story of a big pike or muskie landed on 6-pound line fishing for walleyes. I feel that in those situations, big fish were caught because of the light line, not in spite of it." He's had his share of lost fish but, over the years, extra bites have more than made up for it.
Power Fishing the Provinces
Back at Last Mountain Lake, Matity and Schultz have caught loads of big pike, many while trolling in spring. "As much as I like casting, our trolling program works better," Matity says. "Four #14 Rapala Husky Jerks on white 20-pound Sufix 832 braid tied to a 4-foot leader of 20-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon with a 12-inch single strand leader of 20-pound-test black titanium is our setup. At 1 mph, we set two lures behind the boat and two on Church TX-6 mini planer boards." The slow speed and tight turns mimic the jerk-pause motion a caster would use with them. The boards off to the side pull harder and pause longer than the lines out the back.
Trolling also is the way to go when a northwest wind kicks up. "Casting can be dangerous in these waves since we don't always have a sheltered bay to escape," Matity says. His time as a fishery worker with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada also demonstrated the effects of wind on pike. "I did all the data processing for over 300 tagged fish around this 60-mile lake. Results emphasized how much pike move.
"Strong wind helps cool these waters during summer. A big blow creates massive waves, which affect pike location. When warmer surface water is pushed to the windward side of the lake, colder water wells up from the depths on the protected side, attracting big pike. While the walleye bite can be excellent in windy areas, giant pike take advantage of cooler water across the lake. They move to feed in shallow areas near protected rocky outcrops. In this situation, trolling helps find the newly-relocated fish.
"Once found, nothing beats a 5-inch Storm GT360 Searchbait or a Big Hammer swimbait cast along the shore." Requirements for Matity's trolling program include: being able to run true at up to 5 mph, luring big bites, and covering multiple depth zones. He keeps a selection of Rapala Shad Raps, Storm Hot-N-Tots, and Rapala Deep Taildancers to fish from 3 to 30 feet deep. Shad Raps go on a planer board near shore, while two long lines are set behind the boat on planer boards to cover deeper breaks.
To fish shallow shorelines and when on a new lake he pulls Rapala Super Shad Raps fast. "The Super Shad Rap tracks flawlessly at 5 to 6 mph and mimics a fleeing cisco," Matity says. "From Last Mountain Lake to Lake of the Woods, speed-trolling Super Shad Raps is the epitome of power-fishing pike."
Matity spells out his philosophy: "Trolling vast areas with an eye on sonar and a hair trigger on your waypoint button can reveal daily hotspots where the pike are holding and help you visualize how they're setting up on structure. Once located, the decision to cast or troll is up to you."
David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, is an avid angler and outdoor writer. He contributes to many In-Fisherman publications. Guide contacts: Jeff Matity, 866/334-3306, gsmarina.com; John Oravec, 585/590-2045, captjohnoravec.com; Nathan Zelinsky/Will Dykstra, 720/775-7770, tightlineoutdoors.com.