By Bob Gwizdz
If you’ve got a lot of gray in whatever hair you have left, you probably remember back when you were a kid and there was some old-timer telling you that pike “lose their teeth,” in the summer. Whether he was serious about that or not barely mattered; the fact is that catching pike was pretty rare in summer.
We pretty much know why now; the pike, in most places, were deeper than most guys fished. And they still are.
Battle Creek angler Joe Bednar, who is one of the biggest promoters of pike in this part of the world, says the truth is that pike are easy to catch in the summer if you look in the right place: right at or slightly above the thermocline in lakes that stratify, which is most of them.
Bednar, a 55-year-old bureaucrat/pike aficionado, invited me to fish recently on a southwest Michigan lake that appears to be no different than hundreds of others: not too big, well developed, and weed controlled. He assured me there was nothing magic about it, except it had fairly well defined contours, and that is one of the keys to his pike pattern: trolling along deep(ish) structure.
According the Bednar, the lake stratifies at around 20 feet and that’s how he fishes it – trolling in around 20 feet of water.
We ran big-lipped crankbaits but exactly how deep they were running was uncertain. Bednar said it didn’t matter as long as they were deep enough.
“If you’ve got clear water, you don’t have to be precise,” he said. “You certainly want to get at least 12 or 13 feet down, but I don’t think you need to be 15 or 16. Pike are aggressive. If they can see it, they can get it.”
Just stay above the thermocline.
“They don’t like it deeper,” Bednar said. “There’s not enough oxygen. So if you keep your bait in 15 to 20 feet, you’re going to be there pretty consistently.
“It’s the best fishing of the year if you want to catch both numbers and quality,” he added. “I get my biggest, heaviest fish in the fall when the water cools down – November – but this time of year you get your numbers.”
In the summer, when the shallow water is warm and the deeper water is lacking in oxygen, the pike are “squeezed” into a narrow band, he said.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but Bednar maintains that most places, there’s no reason to fish anywhere else than at the thermocline in summer.
“I’ve caught fish in the summer in a place like Bay de Noc in less than 15 feet of water,” he said. “And I’ll catch them in rivers shallower and there may be places where a cold-water creek comes into the lake where you can catch them, but on inland lakes, they’re at the thermocline.”
We started catching fish immediately – within five minutes after we started trolling – and though our first two were shorts (less than 24 inches) Bednar said it was only a matter of time before we caught better fish as they were where they were supposed to be and they were biting. And he was right; over the four hours we were on the lake, we caught 20 pike, mostly keeper-sized, and six of them were longer than 30 inches.
Not bad for fish that lose their teeth in the summer, eh?
We were using stiff rods with 50-pound braided line and about eight inches of wire leader, which Bednar makes out of single strand wire.
He is something of a minimalist; he fishes out of 16-foot aluminum boat with a 30-horse tiller outboard – it’s a lot easier to follow a contour with a tiller than a steering wheel, he said – and a fairly basic depth finder. He doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of modern electronics because he sticks to the basics – trolling at or above the thermocline, trying to stay close to break lines. That’s it.
What was most impressive is that the lake was abuzz with water skiers and pleasure boaters and the pike couldn’t have cared less. That’s because they were deep enough that boat traffic didn’t bother them, Bednar said.
Bednar releases more than 99% of his pike, keeping only one or two a year for the table, fish he usually catches through the ice. He prefers to harvest fish from lakes with no minimum size limit; he likes them in the 22- to 24-inch range so they’re big enough to fillet, but not too big. Fish larger than that, he believes, have a chance to get really big and he doesn’t want to remove them from the system. Large pike are important predators that help keep lakes in balance.
And he believes he can catch them on virtually any inland lake as long as they’re there and he can troll around the thermocline.