There aren't many better feelings than casting out your most tried and trued pike lure, cranking the reel a few times and feeling a lunker chomp on. That sense of satisfaction piques when you remove the lure from a toothy jaw, release the fish, and share a smile with your reliable lure after tricking yet another pike. We've all got our favorite lure, that go-to lure we turn to with utmost confidence when we're really dying to catch a big pike. But no matter how pretty that lure looks, we can certainly acknowledge it's not the best choice all the time.
Much like one star player on a basketball team can't always carry the squad; one favorite lure is not always enough to find large pike. Being a former basketball player and lifetime fisherman leads me to think like a coach on the water, and that thought process has resulted in a strategy for finding pike I call "The Starting Five Line-up Approach."
Here's the game plan in a nutshell: Rig up five poles with different style presentations and methodically move through top spots alternating poles. Divvy out playing time according to the action and fine-tune your presentation throughout the day by removing lures when they fail to produce and inserting new lures based on tendencies.
Here's why it works: You aren't just giving pike different options, you're giving them different types of options. This approach let's you quickly and efficiently discover the mood of the pike. If you're confident in the types of spots fish are roaming, it just becomes a matter of time before you discover the right presentation to trigger bites.
Here are three keys to the game:
1) LET THE FISH LEAD YOU
The five lures I'm using at the end of the day are often drastically different than the five I started with. 'Drastically different' doesn't mean the difference between a #3 silver Mepps and a #6 Super Vibrax. It's the difference between a jig and a buzzbait. Each presentation in the starting five line-up plays a different role in determining what the fish are looking for that particular day. The 8-inch crankbait attracts pike targeting larger bait, the spinnerbait burned across the surface triggers aggressive hitters and the minnow-shaped jerkbait catches everything in between, while the 3-inch spoon is a proven performer and the plastic minnow offers something slower.
For me, the plastic minnow is the point guard, the one constant player I'm always counting on to set the tone. I rig a 4- to 7-inch plastic minnow on one of my poles 100 percent of the time when I'm looking for pike on a new lake. Slowly dropping a wounded minnow in front of green eyes can do things to a fat, lazy pike that not much else can on a slow day.
It's a constant in the line-up because it can be fished with such versatility – slow, fast, jigged, swimming. It also helps that I have so much confidence in this presentation. I've caught more 40+ inch pike on plastics that with any other presentation, and I have never landed a pike more than 45 inches on anything else.
But I'm beginning to rave too much about plastics. It's a team effort and the plastic minnow is only one of five starters. Depending on the conditions it might not even be the best option, which leads to the next key to the game.
2) DON'T PLAY FAVORITES
As I've admitted, a plastic minnow is my favorite overall option finding pike. But it would be foolish for me to use one all the time. On a day when the bite is fast and furious, a quicker presentation like an in-line spinner might allow you to cover water quicker and reach more active fish. Expectations, previous experiences on a body of water, seemingly obviously likelihoods – none of these should dictate lure choice once the fishing's started. Only results should.
In basketball it can be hard to forget about last night's heartbreaking loss. In pike fishing, it's remarkably difficult to forget about yesterday's success. Human beings were cursed with memories, and boy do we ever remember the way that black and gold crankbait slaughtered the pike last year on Lake Washington. But some details seem to escape us – as evidenced by the woefully high number of wedding anniversaries forgotten by fishermen – and we might forget that conditions last year were completely different.
It could be the only thing pike will budge on this time around is a jig worked slowly. If that's the case, casting crankbaits just because that's the way it was done in the past becomes a pointless tradition; it only proves our stubbornness. You're much better off demonstrating your flexibility, if possible. Flexibility, then, becomes key number three.
3) MAKE HALF-TIME ADJUSTMENTS
If something's not working, do something different. Good coaches develop good game plans heading into the big showdown. Great coaches make adjustments on the fly. In the sport of fishing, this is proven time and time again by the diehards who head out earlier, come back later and catch more trophies by constantly adjusting to what the fish are doing while they're on the water.
Sure, you might be able to anticipate the early morning action and do well initially, but it's those mid- to late-day pike you grind out by adjusting your presentation that really add numbers to your catch. That's when "The Starting Five Line-up Approach" proves valuable. You've got five poles rigged up with different types of lures and a bench full of role players wanting to contribute. Use them appropriately. Try trolling that deep-diving plug parallel to breaklines, rip jigs through deep weeds, pull spinnerbaits over flats.
These sound like clear-cut, different strategies, but oftentimes on a body of water different types of structure run adjacent to each other. You can turn 90 degrees and cast toward pencil reeds, turn another 90 degrees and cast along a breakline, turn another 90 degrees and you're reaching into deeper cabbage, and then come full circle and you're casting at submerged boulders – all without moving the boat an inch. It's helpful to have your starting five line-up ready with role players geared for different situations.
Any approach that helps you make better adjustments quicker is helpful. As much as the weather changes in the course of a day, with the sun sneaking across the sky, the wind, the barometer – and as picky as even pike can be – it's crucial to make halftime adjustments. Better yet, make first-quarter adjustments.
My uncle Jay taught me a valuable fishing lesson years ago as we were snaking our way down the turns of the upper St. Croix River. While pulling walleyes and smallmouth bass and channel catfish into his Kevlar canoe with tricks I had never seen before, he said, "You can fish like every day is the most important day to catch fish, always using your best lures with the highest percentages, or you can fish like every day is the least important day, being creative, having fun, experimenting with new ideas. If you fish like every single day is your most important day on the water, you actually catch fewer fish in the long run."
In other words, it pays to play. And it pays to practice. Have fun practicing with different presentations for different situations. Develop your bench players. Maybe you're a natural run-and-gun style fisherman casting cranks and burning spinnerbaits. Well, developing other options will enable you to catch fish even when the game changes to a grind-it-out pace.
Ideally, you want to develop confidence in your entire pike-catching team. "The Starting Five Line-up Approach" helps. If one player struggles another can step in to help you land that trophy. Once the pieces are put together, it comes down to the coach to use them the right way at the right time. Good luck.
Along the way, you might develop a new favorite feeling: A monster pike pounding a lure you just added to the line-up. Game on.