Their very look is that of a piscatorial predator having few equals in the world of fresh water fishing. The length and breadth of the head, beginning with a wide, deep mouth edged with dozens of prey-grabbing teeth, and followed by a sleek long body of aerodynamic proportions, give northern pike the look of an eating machine that can literally fly through the water. Perhaps it is this look that gives Essox lucius an aura to be both feared and admired by freshwater anglers. Whatever it is, this denizen of freshwater rivers and lakes holds a mystique matched only by its cousin the muskie.
For the most part, anglers catch northern, ranging from sub-legal to hammer-handle size up to about 30 inches in length. Of course, every year brings the occasional fish of 10 pounds and a bit larger from pike waters, but for the most part, anglers catch the smaller version of these toothy predators.
If monster northern pike are your cup of fish, then it would be best to increase your chances of success by fishing waters which, year after year, garner a larger percentage of Michigan DNR Master Angler Awards than other, more mundane waters.
LOWER PENINSULA CHOICES
Lake St. Clair/ Wayne and Macomb Counties : Almost surrounded by metropolitan areas, this huge shallow “Little Great Lake” is best known for its muskie, perch, and smallmouth bass fishery. However, in the past five years the lake has tossed up seven northern that qualified for Master Angler Awards. Many more are boated, but not entered.
In summer months, the larger northerns are found in the shipping channels, especially in the area of the St. Clair Flats. Lake Huron ‘s cooler flow, as it enters the smaller lake, draws pike from all over, due to their liking for cooler water.
Higgins Lake/Roscommon County: This large and deep lake is not readily thought of as giving up northern, let alone some monster northern. Trout, perch, smallmouth bass, and smelt come to mind whenever Higgins Lake is mentioned. It is the latter fish that allows this glacial jewel to grow prodigious pike. Keep in mind that the key word for bait is SMELT!
Certainly there are other notable big pike waters that could be mentioned. Muskegon Lake, Portage Lake in Manistee County, Hardy Dam Pond in Newaygo County, Grand Traverse Bay (another surprise), and Tawas Bay, on the Lake Huron side, all produce huge northern pike and are worthy of any angler’s efforts leading to the capture of a Master Angler Award winner.
UPPER PENINSULA HOTSPOTS
Portage Lake/Houghton County: This huge lake, which splits the Keweenaw Peninsula into northern and southern halves, has coughed up eight Master Award winning toothy torpedoes in the past five years. Early season fishing centers in Pike Bay at the southwestern end of the lake.
Keweenaw, L’Anse and Huron Bay/Baraga County: These three deep water bays of Lake Superior, located offshore of Baraga County at the foot of the Keweenaw Peninsula, harbor, perhaps, more huge northern pike than any other body of water in the state. The islands in, and at the mouth of these bays, as well as inshore areas, have shoal water where Cisco spawn. The resident northerns feed on these silvery fish and grow to monstrous proportions. Every year several pike, caught from these waters, garner Master Angler Awards.
Paul Schmidt of Roseville , MI , and perhaps one of the most dedicated trophy northern and muskie anglers in the state says, “I have caught them out in Huron Bay in the 30-pound class, and lost some that I would swear were a new state record. I know, coming from a fisherman, that doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight [chuckle]. I am convinced that one of these years a new state record will come from Lake Superior , probably caught by someone targeting salmonids.”
When it comes to fishing for northern and muskie, Paul is not one to stretch the truth.
Big and Little Bay de Noc/Delta County: Located east of Escanaba, these two bays are popular with walleye and perch anglers; yet they harbor large northern. In the past five years, 11 pike that called the bays, “home” gained Master Award Angler distinction. Perch and walleye, not always small ‘eyes either, make up the largest portion of northerns’, that swim in these waters, diet.
Lake Independence/Marquette County : This is the smallest of the top monster pike lakes. Being a mere, comparatively speaking, 1,900 acres in size this lake has produced seven northern large enough to qualify for Master Angler Awards. Focus on the extensive weedbeds in the east end, the shallow bays and off creek mouths as well as the mouth of the Yellow Dog River .
WHEN AND WITH WHAT?
Further research into the above mentioned waters and their history of giving up trophy northern reveals boat anglers have brought in 106 fish that qualified for a Master Angler Award, while ice fishermen totaled 46. One of the differences might be due to the fact that boat fishermen/women outnumber their winter month brethren.
Minnows, of one sort or another, enticed 75 of these monster pike to strike and some type of lure accounted for 77 fish. One of the keys in this regards is size. Whatever you use, it needs to offer the fish the opportunity for a mouthful, or, rather, a stomach full of goodies in one gulp.
Ice fishing is centered on weedbeds, with corners of weed lines, if available being the most productive. The fish can range from shallows down to the mid-depths at this time of year and cloudy days, as is the norm during all seasons, seem to offer the greatest opportunity to bring in the larger fish.
Paul Schmidt offers his wisdom, garnered from his passion for catching members of the genus Esox and his long years of experience.
Look for northern in the northeast corner of the lake or large bay where the prevailing southwesterly wind have stacked up the warm water against the shore. The darker the bottom, the better the fishing will be because the dark color attracts and holds the sun’s warmth more efficiently than a lighter colored bottom. The big fish will be available in very shallow water and can be sight fished at this time. Big streamers on a fly rod will do well. Any bay with a feeder stream will also produce fish.
LATE SPRING/EARLY SUMMER
Fish near new weed growth in the same areas, in slightly deeper water. Buzz baits can really produce at this time as the fish are on the feed to replenish their energy expended during spawning activities. There’s nothing like a big pike smashing a topwater lure with murder in its heart.
Big fish are retreating into deeper water due to their preference for water temps in the low to mid 60s. Smaller pike will remain shallower, but the big boys will go deep. Mid-lake reefs, and bottom bowls as well as cool water creek mouths are the places to start the hunt for big fish.
One word: WEEDS!
The big fish start to come back into the cooler water to feed heavily in anticipation of winter. Concentrate on the inside turns of weedbeds using large jigs with big plastics thrown using a flipping stick. Toss the jig well into the weeds and RIP it free of the weeds, repeating this until something “rips” back. The old classic of a black bucktail trolled along the weed wall will work well when fish are not as active. As the weeds die off, the fish will concentrate in the last vestiges of green vegetation. Paul relates, “I have pulled four fish that were between 10 and 20 pounds out of one well placed weedbed that wasn’t even 600 square feet in area during the late fall.
Bay drop-offs and weeds can all produce. Look in the shallows in late winter. Dead smelt, live suckers and jigging spoons all produce fish. If I can find large golden shiners to hang from a tip-up, I go that route. For me, no other bait, with the exception of smelt can beat large golden shiners.
KEEP IN MIND
Trophy northern pike are a much needed resource in any lake. They can go far in controlling the population of stunted fish. It might be wise, after landing one of these toothy torpedoes, to take a photo and then release it back into the water unharmed.
There you have it, from the northern reaches of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the wild Upper Peninsula to urban Detroit , there are several bodies of fresh-water where your chances for catching Master Angler Award-winning northern pike are increased.