Spring Is Prime Time for Big Northern Pike

Look to Warming Bays for Shallow Pre-Spawn Fish

Photo © Ken Schultz

If you're like many anglers you try to maximize your time on the water, looking for favorite species whenever conditions are right. Those who fish for large, or trophy, specimens especially focus on certain times or periods when the odds are a little more in their favor. That is particularly true when angling for big pike.

Cool Water and Habitat

The prime condition for catching big northern pike is when the water temperature is under 65 degrees, give or take. Many anglers feel that once the water temperature reaches higher levels, big pike become somewhat stressed and the bite subsides. However, small and medium-sized fish remain active and can still be caught, because they're more tolerant of warm water. 

Big pike feed actively in cold or cool water. Many are caught or speared in the winter through the ice, proving that they are active in colder water. The longer a given body of water stays cool, the longer into the season that big pike stay active. In the more northern reaches of the pike's range, many lakes rarely approach or exceed the stress zone, ensuring that pike stay active all year long.

Several types of habitat are needed to produce giant pike. The first one is shallow water with plenty of cover for spawning and rearing. The second is a deeper environment, such as a dropoff along a weed edge, which will still provide cover and a larger source of food. The third is underwater humps and a deep open-water environment with free-roaming forage species like cisco and whitefish. A water body with all of these ingredients can carry pike to maximum growth levels.

Without question, in such a lake, one of the top periods to catch big pike is before they spawn, which occurs from early to late May depending on latitude and seasonal weather. Check local regulations to make sure the season is open in the area you intend to fish.

Bays and Bottoms

Bays are the prime places to find pre-spawn pike. Bays that face the southern sun warm quickest and draw the first fish. Those that lay opposite turn on later.

Pike prefer off-colored, soft-bottomed bays with vegetation, which at this time of year will be carryover. Muck bottoms are better than hard bottoms, and dark water is better than clear water. A feeder stream flowing into a bay adds warmth and also introduces color to the water. However, muddy water is not good.

Bays with a narrow or funneled entrance, which separates and protects them somewhat from the cold main lake, are far superior to bays that have a more exposed or open entrance.

Periods of steadily warming weather will bring the fish toward the back of bays and continuously shallower. Cold fronts will bring them more toward the front of the bay, often suspended in deeper water.


When the weather is steadily warming, pike will be at the back of a bay in shallow water. My favorite plug for this situation is a Rapala Husky jerk bait. Silver is my favorite color, and the clown and silver-gold combo also work well.

The jerk bait is especially good in shallow,  snaggy conditions. Work it with a stop-and-go retrieve, or jerk-and-rest motion, imitating a wounded minnow. This article discusses how to fish jerk baits in more detail. A slow approach is best, as the fish's metabolism is not up to speed. Sometimes you just can't work it too slowly.

If I get follows but no strikes on this plug I'll switch to a spinnerbait. Almost any color works, but red is my favorite. Once again, slow is the order of the day.

If the weather is unsteady with cold fronts, I'll move toward the mouth of the bay into deeper water and use a larger and deep-running jerk bait. The same colors work, but don't be afraid to experiment. If I need more depth, I'll use a Rapala CD 11 Countdown plug, which falls at a rate of one foot per second, giving me depth and precision at the same time.

I use a 6 ½-foot baitcasting rod and 14-pound-test monofilament line for this fishing, and have no problem landing big pike with it. I release all of my pike, and in the spring, when they are preparing to spawn, it's especially important to handle fish carefully and unhook and return them to the water as quickly as possible.

This article was edited and revised by our Freshwater Fishing expert, Ken Schultz.