The Gator Gamble
Casting spoons, looking for weeds and fishing in shallow bays are all good ideas when looking for Northern Pike, but finding big fish involves more than just “good looking water”. With a collaboration of pictures, data records and continuous fishing we have been able to locate big fish at all times of the year. Being passionate about the fishing, and pushing exploration has really developed our pike fishing strategies and given us new perspective on what is possible on this lake. New spots have been found on a regular basis ever since this pike craze of ours took off in the last few years. The more in-depth that we get with this whole new approach, the easier it becomes to predict when and where, but most importantly why to go to a spot on a given day. Keeping a creel sheet is always a good idea when fishing for trophy pike, it allows you to look back and try to build a theory as to why these pike are being caught .
Lake St. Joseph offers great structure for targeting trophy sized pike. The strategy involves timing, and knowing which weeds are at the maximum potential for holding big pike at any given moment. Next, we try to piece together what winds and weather work best with each spot and anything else that may increase the success of an outing. If I had to bet on the best weather for these fish, it would be before, during and after a storm or front. Weather is definitely a key factor in targeting large fish. Although a spot may seem unproductive on a particular day, a change in weather could send this spot into your memory bank pretty quickly. Countless times we have had an explosion of monster pike, sometimes double or triple headers and often they have been associated with a storm or a drastic change in the weather. So why are there so many big pike caught during these storm fronts? We have to wonder if these fish suddenly moved into the weed beds from the depths, or are these fish staying dormant and unwilling to chase one of many casts presented to it. Driving within the limits of a lightning storm is only appealing to a select few of us, but if you keep an eye on the weather there are openings that offer great opportunity. The spots that you know will be holding monsters can be too far away to risk in the upcoming weather. Just as the action starts getting out of hand, the storm usually chases you to shore. Not to say that you don’t find good fishing during stable weather patterns, storms just seem to excite big pike.
At times it may seem that we are just cruising around the lake mindlessly looking for a spot to spread out boats, but there is always a reason. In order to have consistency as a guide or an angler, you better have a good backup plan. Success on the lake sells itself, learning to think about fishing from every possible angle is a good way to build a repertoire of likely spots. Every once in a while we have to settle for little action, but we can dissect a slow day and prepare for the same type of scenario; this is when you start to eliminate the stress, and increase your effectiveness. Large Northern Pike can be elusive, but now that we have taken initiative to understand the fishery and the life within it, our gut feeling usually guides us to more productive days than slow.
This year especially, I started to notice that main lake weed beds hold the biggest fish for almost the entire year, as opposed to most of our spots that last approximately a month. The spots that hold huge congregations are probably the best option for a large group of people, but the timing has to be pretty near perfect. There is usually multiple fish caught in the 37-41 inch range with the outside chance of a true monster. We have plenty of these spots that cycle through stages of productive and non-productive weed beds. One of the needed variables seems to eventually fade out, and it quickly becomes a spot of the past. We decided to take it one step further in looking for spots where there is always a chance at one the biggest fish in the lake. The problem with fishing the main lake spots is the inconsistent action. It may take over two hours, or sometimes just two minutes to hook the pike you are looking for. Generally, the smaller fish aren’t necessarily plentiful in spots that we look for the biggest pike. This may seem to be a downside to some, but trophy hunters learn quickly that catching small pike is no help while looking for a big one, rather more of a nuisance. The upside of this type of pike fishing is the payoff. The excitement of one big fish on the line can make up for a tedious afternoon of cast after cast. Everyday is a different day, some days will only hold one trophy and other days could produce six or more 20 pound fish, along with a dozen in the 12-15lb range. Some days will blow your mind for good reasons and others will leave you with a bitter taste of defeat. I still remember the day I looked into the water and saw that broad-shouldered 20lb pike with my spoon hanging out of his mouth. Not only do I get to watch people catch these beautiful fish on a regular basis, I get to watch it all come together as a guide. There is a sweet feeling of accomplishment when you watch others holler in excitement as the drag screams and they hold yet another big gator out in the complete wilderness of Lake St. Joe.
Guiding or fishing in general can be a stressful time if your head isn’t in the right place. There is ton of things you can do to make yourself a better guide or angler, but I think it all has to come from passion and interest. Unless your willing to tackle the job full tilt, you are not going to have the numbers that are possible for this fishery. Being on top of the fishing has made it quite easy for us all to have fun, our guide staff routinely talks about what’s going on during each and every day, any possibilities of a future pike spot, or one that we’ve missed. Thanks to the collaborative efforts, most days end with exciting stories or a new lead. There are all kinds of lessons to be learned as a guide; rule number one is you can always be better. There is always lake to explore and there are loads of spots that we totally miss. That’s why guiding is never repetitive here, there is always something better out there waiting for you to find it.
The fact that some of our best spots were found in the last couple of years illustrates to me that this lake has no limit, it is always changing from year to year. We take comparison pictures, as Northern Pike seem to have quite distinctive markings near the caudal and pelvic fins. We catch trophy pike on these spots regularly with very little recaptures. We continue to build on what we’ve learned everyday and our strategy seems to make more sense all the time. As much as I hate to admit it, there will never be a day when anyone can say that they have it all figured out. Last years information is all starting to correlate, some things will probably stay consistent year to year, but there is extreme change in weed growth, temperatures and water levels that gives every year its own significance. As guides we have the job and the responsibility to determine the expectations of each individual and plan your week of fishing based around that. Looking for trophy pike is certainly not for everyone, it takes a lot of patience and can often result in slack lines for hours at a time. During each month there are enough spots to fill days for many groups that you know are holding big pike, and there are lots of spots for those who are seeking consistent action on a smaller scale. Some days we feel like a super guide, most days will be good and other days will feel down right miserable. As a guide though, you can‘t let this effect your confidence or your ability to make good decisions will quickly diminish. Fish are more active on certain days, just like people.
Most of our best spots hold big fish at many different times throughout the day. We compared our data to last years and we can see that multiple trophy fish share the same feeding shelf for extended periods of time. All of the summer spots are usually 5-11 feet of cabbage with deep water directly attached to the structure, or near by and accessible. There seems to be no answer as to why the biggest fish feed at certain times, but we have documented the heaviest of fish at all different times of day. The part that seems nearly impossible to figure out is how pike move around the lake. There have been instances where we have had a recapture on a spot, but the closest we have documented was 21 days apart. There were dozens of fish taken in between, and this monster cruised in 21 days later. Its tough to prove if that is his feeding shelf and he occasionally visits from the depth, or maybe each pike doesn’t visit a spot very often . This has been something interesting for us to think about. We know they spend a good chunk of their lives in the depths but we are seeing an alarming number of different big pike all the time. Moving around can be the ticket to a successful day, and can often lead to some of the best days of the summer. If there isn’t a congregation of fish on one spot, its nice to have many others that could be just as good on any given day.
The future looks bright for the Northern Pike fishery on Lake St. Joe. There have never been more big and healthy fish than we have landed this year. Its been a lot of fun in the making, and I think this has been a good year for proving to ourselves that this place has unlimited potential. Although our effective fishing strategy allows us to see more big fish on a daily basis, there will always be room to improve. Our old spots are still producing big fish in high concentrations. It has been unbelievable watching so many different ideas come together to produce this approach we have developed for fishing big pike on Lake St Joe.
- Neil Leduc