Ask anyone when the best time of the year is to catch the trophy pike of a lifetime in Northern Ontario and I guarantee you'll be told that it is in the spring, immediately after ice-out, when the fish have finished spawning.
And make no mistake about it; fishing for springtime pike in Northern Ontario is out of this world.
But this is going to shock you. All else being equal, and given my druthers, I'd much rather cast and troll for huge, knee-knocking, Northern Ontario pike, right now in the so-called "dog days of summer".
I call them "gator days", when the sky is azure blue, the weather is gloriously warm and sunny, the scenery is picture postcard perfect and the pike fishing, well, it is out of this world.
Of course, there is a "catch" to getting in on the action. There always is a "catch".
Fortunately, however, this little detail is an easy one to remember. Simply pull yourself away from the warm, shallow weeds, reeds and vegetation where you caught the fish in the spring and find cooler water out in the main lake and fish deeper.
As a matter of fact, if I could give you one piece of information to narrow your search and increase your chances of catching trophy pike right now, it would be to confine your fishing to the same locations you would typically cast and troll for walleyes.
In fact, the last two times I have been out, I've had huge northern pike -- fish so big I wondered if it was safe to go swimming -- savagely attack the walleyes I'd hooked on the end of my line.
Even more ironic, yesterday, when buddy Tom VanLeeuwen and I headed out onto one of our favourite Northwestern Ontario Sunset Country lakes, with the goal of catching at least one 20-pound plus big toothy critter, we were "plagued" by 5, 6- and 7-pound walleyes biting our baits and getting in the way.
That is a nice "problem" to have, no?
And get this: when we boated back to the access point at the end of the day, I struck up a conversation with a walleye angler who was pulling out his boat ahead of us. He was flying sky-high, having caught and carefully released a dandy 28.5-inch walleye that weighed 9 pounds. But, then he blurted out, "You should have seen the size of the pike that attacked one of the walleyes I was reeling in."
I simply smiled.
But it is true -- pick your favourite Northern Ontario lake or river that is famous for its pike fishing, find cool water in the range of 64° to 68° Fahrenheit (18°C to 20°C) and you are going to find the biggest and most active pike in the system.
Just as Tom and I did yesterday.
Carefully watching the sonar unit, it quickly became evident, by the huge black band tracing across the screen between 25 and 35 feet deep, that the thermocline -- the fish-rich zone that separates the warm surface waters from the cold deeper depths -- had set up perfectly.
Better still were the giant balls of baitfish we spotted hovering around the top of the thermocline and the even bigger arcs signifying pike and walleyes feeding on the forage. There is a reason biologists and fisheries managers call it the "cisco layer". It is named after the thin-rayed, soft-fleshed, silvery, sardine-like baitfish almost everything that swims like to eat.
I wish I could say Tom and I then developed a detailed strategy to catch the fish, but I'd be lying. We simply dug out crankbaits we knew we could troll through the fish-rich zone of water, Tom picking a Reef Runner while I snapped on a favourite Rapala TT20 (the "TT" referring to the fact the lure "trolls to" 20 feet deep.)
Almost immediately into our trolling run, I felt the first pike slam my lure and fought a "nice" 10-pound fish to the side of the boat where I quickly flipped it free. I caught the second and third pike as well, as Tom kept catching those annoying fat walleye. (I am joking of course!)
Shortly afterward, however, Tom spotted a huge, isolated, school of fish down near the bottom and just off to the side of a big ball of bait.
"Let's vertically jig these fish and see what they are," Tom suggested.
"Sounds like a good plan," I agreed.
That is when I lowered down one of the new 1/2 ounce Hydra jigs made by Southern Ontario buddy and Freedom Tackle owner (www.freedomlures.com) Michael Tamburro.
The jig with the big eyes, life-like minnow head and unique hook attachment was a huge "hit" at this year's ICAST show in Orlando, Florida and I was keen to try them for pike. I tipped it with a 5-inch long Trigger X paddle tail swimbait, dropped it over the side of the boat and let it freefall all the way to the bottom.
"This shouldn't take long," Tom laughed, following the descent of the lure on the sonar screen and watching it seemingly smack a fish on the head.
This is why I wasn't surprised when I closed the bail on my spinning rod and reeled up the slack that I felt a big fish shake its head. I slammed the hook home, watched my rod tip dangerously toward the surface of the water and listened to the line sing pleasantly as it zinged from the reel.
A few minutes later, I wrestled the big toothy critter alongside the boat where Tom finally netted it and swung it aboard. It was gorgeous -- almost 4 feet long and weighing 24 pounds.
A couple of quick photos later, I kissed the big girl on the lips, slid her back into the water and held her by the thick wrist of her tail. When I felt her regain her strength, I let go and watched her scoot back down to the bottom, as she sprayed me in a huge shower of cool, fresh, Northern Ontario water.
Did I mention, mid-summer is my favourite time to fish for giant pike in Northern Ontario?