How to catch a northern pike

Illustration of a northern pike

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A northern pike


The northern pike is one of Minnesota's largest and easiest fish to catch. Found in in nearly every Minnesota lake and river, the northern pike is a voracious predator known for powerful runs that strip line from your reel. Though somewhat challenging to fillet, the northern pike is excellent table fare. If you haven’t fished for northern pike you should. It's a cool fish.

When to fish

The inland northern pike season opens in mid-May and closes in mid-February, same as the walleye fishing season. Opening and closing dates vary on waters that border Canada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin.

Check the fishing regulations based on where you want to fish. Some waters have special regulations for northern pike.

  • Inland: waters within Minnesota
  • Border: waters that border other states or countries
  • Special: waters that have special or experimental regulations in place that differ from statewide regulations.

Like many predator species, northern pike tend to be particularly active during early morning and evening. Still, northern pike can be caught most any time of day. Northern pike are sight feeders and don’t bite much at night.

Where to fish

Northern pike are common in most lakes and rivers. In the northeast they tend to exist in lower numbers but have a larger average size than other parts of the state. In north central Minnesota, northern pike are very common, perhaps even too common. Liberal northern pike bag limit regulations that were enacted in 2018 aim to reduce pike numbers so the remaining fish are more likely to reach a larger size. In southern Minnesota northern pike are less abundant but grow quickly.

Within lakes northern pike are often found in two to fifteen feet of water, typically in and around weedbeds, rocky points and other structure where they can conceal themselves while waiting to ambush prey. The northern pike is a lie-in-wait predator. Rather than prowling here and there, northern pike prefer to wait for prey to come them, which they attack with rocket-like speed. So, fish places that have thick under water vegetation – sometimes called cabbage patches – or the edges of bulrush beds. Such are the areas are where this powerful predator will clutch prey sideways in its mouth, immobilize it with sharp backward-pointing teeth and then turn it head-first prior to swallowing.

In rivers, northern pike are often where you would expect to catch most game fish – scoured holes, sunken timber, weedy backwaters and eddies.

Underwater photo of a northern pike

A northern pike

How to fish

Most northern pike are caught by trolling or casting, and they attack with a vengeance. When a northern smacks your lure you know it. It's not an "I think I felt a bite kind of fish."

Preferred lures tend to be spoons, spinners, hard plastic baits and even jigs, though the latter tend to catch smaller fish due to their smaller size. Spoons are very effective because their shiny side reflects sunlight and mimics the white belly of certain prey fish. Also, because spoons are fairly heavy they can be cast long distances and even fished at various depths based on the speed of retrieve. Hard plastic baits are another good chose because these lures are shaped and painted to look like prey. Spinners are good too because they are very flashy and create a lot of commotion.

Though medium size lures are a safe choice don't be afraid to fish with larger lures as a northern pike will readily attack prey up to a third of its length. If you are fishing for northern pike 10 pounds or larger that means an eight-inch lure or larger is a reasonable choice.

Because northern pike are used to bursting into action you retrieve lures at a fairly fast speed. In fact, a common technique is to swim the lure quickly just above the top of underwater weed beds. You can troll fairly fast too. A common trolling technique is do drag lures over the tops or just outside of underwater weed beds. This technique allows you to cover a lot of water is a short time.

Gear

Typical northern pike rods are about seven feet long and moderate or medium-heavy in action, meaning they are stiff enough to put some pressure on the fish. A spin-casting reel will work fine. So will a bait-casting reel. Many northern pike anglers prefer to use braided line of at least 15-pound test because it is less likely to snap than commonly used 8-pound test monofilament line. Also, you’ll want to tie a foot-long steel or fluorocarbon leader unto the end of your line, and then attach your lure to the leader. That’s because northern pike have razor sharp teeth which can easily slice your fishing line.

Those fishing northern pike should also bring a net and a long pliers. You are likely to break a rod tip if you try to hoist a nice-sized northern into a boat. So, use a net. Also, many popular northern lures have two or even three sets of treble hooks, meaning hook removal can be a lot more complex than releasing a bluegill. So, pack some needle-nose type pliers or the like. A good way to release a northern pike if it is being held by just one or two hooks is to bring the fish alongside the boat, grasp the hooks with pliers and undo them with quick snaps of the wrist. This minimizes fish handling damage to the fish. It also keeps the fish’s protective slime off your hands.

What’s important to know
  • The northern pike’s white and mild-tasting flesh includes Y-bones that should be removed prior to cooking. This can be done in a variety of ways. You can find many video tutorials on how to do this on-line on the internet.
  • Adult northern pike have a fondness for perch and suckers in the four- to 15-inch range. Baits that mimic these species are good choices.
  • Northern pike often stalk their prey from below, which means jerk bait lures that mimic an injured or dying fish can be a good choice too.
  • If you aren’t catching fish experiment with different lures, presentations and locations. Something is likely to work as the northern pike is an apex predator and apt to eat most anything it can swallow.
Basic biology
  • Northern pike are typically olive green with short white bar-like spots on the sides and a white underbelly. The fins are reddish.
  • Northern pike often become sexually mature at just two years old. They breed in late winter and early spring in shallow grassy areas, starting when ice still covers the lakes.
  • Northern pike are not fussy eaters. They will eat most any fish, including those with spiny fins.
  • Northern pike have an exceptionally slimy body that reduces friction as it accelerates through the water.
  • Illustration showing six or more pores under the northern pike's jawAs shown in the illustration at right, northern pike have five or fewer pores under each side of their jaw. Muskellunge have six or more.
  • The state record northern pike weighed 14 pounds, 12 ounces.