By Brian Haines
The river was small. In fact, you could go so far as to call it a stream. The water was shallow, and the channel was less than 20 feet across.
We were there on a whim, my father and I, tired of the crowded lakes and looking for a bit of late-spring adventure.
It was spring: Flowers were blooming, birds were singing, and the sun was shining bright in the sky. Put together, they made for a beautiful morning on the Crow River bottomlands of central Minnesota.
We’d been there many times before, often in the fall to hunt wood ducks seeking safety in the secluded backcountry. This time, however, we were after northern pike – something few people think of when it comes to a narrow waterway like this one.
There are few fish quite like the northern. Its razor-sharp teeth, menacing eyes, and thick slime make it an ultimate freshwater predator – almost like some prehistoric lake monster.
Pike are fun to catch, put up a terrific fight, and offer excellent table fare. At times, however, competition with other anglers makes finding and catching pike a challenge. It’s times like these when fishing in an unlikely place can offer some of the best action you’ll encounter all year.
Few fishing enthusiasts will argue that pike can’t be found in a river, but many of us tend to disregard or ignore the potential that a small river or stream holds. A river, especially a smaller one, can be a haven for predatory fish like pike. The key is structure, and the winding waterway of a river is filled with it. Obstructions such as deadfalls, sand bars, and constant bending of the waterway create myriad depth variances and shoreline composition. All of this makes for an ideal environment for pike to lie in wait and attack unsuspecting prey.
Pike are ambush predators that prefer to lie in wait for their next meal. In fact, you could almost call them lazy. While schooling fish travel through weedbeds and rock piles for food, pike tend to park themselves in hiding places where prey fish are likely to travel. The best spots offer a variety of cover as well as a route that allows them to launch from their hiding places to attack their prey.
In a river, the underside of a deadfall, submerged ledges in the bank, and slow-moving eddies create perfect hiding spots for pike.
If you’re ready to grab your pike gear and head to a river, there’s a good chance you’ll find some action. Like any body of water, however, a bit of pre-game planning will improve the odds that you come home with some fish on the stringer.
Knowing the river’s makeup, having the proper gear, and putting yourself in the right spots can certainly help give you an edge over your quarry.
Know the waterway
As with any fish or game, knowing your quarry’s habitat greatly dictates overall success. Fish – or any wild animal for that matter – try to expend as little energy as possible to conserve calories.
For river fish, that means they tend to stay out of the stronger currents that make swimming difficult. To find a river pike, the first step is to find a calm pool of water called an eddy – a place where the current is slowed by an obstruction like a rock, log, sandbar, or inside curve of a river bend. In these places, the water flow meets an obstruction and changes course, swirling around the obstruction and eroding the bank behind it, thus creating a pool of slow-moving, nearly still water.
Pike like to lie along the edge of the eddy and wait for the next meal to come flowing along the current. Find an eddy, and there’s a good chance a pike is lurking in or near it.
Unlike casting a line on a lake, it’s not worthwhile to spend much time targeting the same spot along a river. Small rivers offer an array of diverse fish habitat that can change dramatically from one bend to the next, and predator fish tend to spread out and find places where other predator fish are absent.
If you haven’t felt a strike after a dozen casts, it’s time to move to the next bend.
The right tackle
We all know that structure can be a good thing, but it also can present an obstacle for an angler. Because small rivers offer so much diverse structure, snagging on deadfalls and rocks is common. Often it becomes downright annoying.
To avoid this hindrance, shy away from heavy lures or jigs that will sink to the bottom. Opt instead for floating-style lures that will rest on top of the water and sink while being retrieved.
In addition, a good steel leader tied to 8-pound-test line will reduce breakage when you find a snag – and you probably will find a snag.
As with any kind of pike fishing, a good pliers and a jaw spreader will save your fingers from those sharp teeth. Of course, a stringer to carry your catch may come in handy.
If staying mobile is key, then traveling light is wise. You’ll probably want to leave the big tackle box in the boat and the landing net hanging in the garage.
One of the best ways to carry tackle for river fishing is in a small box with a few lures that can fit into a pocket or fanny pack. The small, compact tackle boxes used for ice fishing are good choices.
There’s also a good chance you’ll be standing in water while fishing, so hip waders can be a good option. They are light and much easier to walk in than their chest-high counterparts.
Fishing pike in a small river is certainly worth giving a try. There are few places that hold such an abundance of fish species, and chances are there’s a small river somewhere near your home where some hungry pike reside.
This spring and summer, if you’re looking for some fishing that’s somewhat beyond the norm, give a river a try.
If nothing else, it’s always a great place for some solitude. And if you play your cards right, you just might come home with a few fish on your stringer.