March 01, 2013

Pines bent above the rock wall in the gusting wind. All across the long Canadian lake, waves swirled as the air currents hit the water’s surface, stopped and then changed direction. On a day when the birds did not fly, I was seeking a corner somewhere to block a portion of the wind and shelter our 18-foot cedar boat. It was our first day, and I headed northeast toward the nearest bay, guiding the boat along the half-mile rock wall and then into the slot hoping to gain some protection from the gusts. The lee shore knocked down some of the wind, and I threw out the windsock to slow us down further. Finally, we started our first drift with high hopes for trophy pike.

My brother and I were actually fishing two northern Ontario lakes, Meta and Ara, that parallel each other and stretch towards the north-northeast. The two dissimilar lakes are joined by an easily navigated one and a half mile winding channel. Ten-mile long Ara Lake is a classic rocky Canadian Shield lake with deep drop offs over a sand and gravel bottom and is the wider of the two lakes. Meta Lake, about a half-mile longer, is much shallower overall – a soft-bottomed and weedy lake with rocky shoals and a mid-lake cluster of islands reaching northeast where it flows into the Albany River watershed. Meta Lake ices out earlier than Ara and draws spawning walleyes and jumbo perch to its warmer waters. The northerns that follow close behind pursue both species and some easy meals. We had fished the two lakes before in late August but had moved our second trip up to the first week in June hoping to find the northerns in the shallows where fighting a big pike can be a special thrill.

We had planned the trip months ahead with early June as our target, hoping to time it just right for perfect water conditions. However, the week before we arrived, heavy rain had blanketed northern Ontario raising lake levels considerably and lowering the water’s temperature. Instead of finding early June conditions where the fish are aggressively feeding in the shallows biting almost anything, we found scattered northerns waiting for conditions to change and slow to bite. Our thinking changed after the first day. We started looking for patterns to tell us where the fish were holding and what methods to use to catch them. We frequently moved to different kinds of cover and depths, as well as changed to a variety of different northern pike lures and techniques.

I fished with several different outfits based on conditions, starting with a 7-foot medium action graphite rod matched with Shimano’s great casting 400 Calcutta round reel filled with 30-pound Berkley FireLine Braid. I also rigged up a duplicate rod and reel filled with 20-pound Fire-Line. I trolled with the heavier line and preferred casting with the lighter braided line. I also have been experimenting with Sufix 832 Superline, which I would also recommend. The manufacturer advertises it as the most durable small diameter braided Superline on the market with improved abrasion resistance, accuracy and longer casts. I certainly agree with their claims. I also fished with a Daiwa SS1300 Tournament spinning reel with 12-pound Trilene XL monofilament matched with a 7-foot medium-light action graphite rod. If I found myself in tight quarters and needing better accuracy, I downsized to a Daiwa SS1000 Tournament reel filled with 8-pound Trilene XL matched with a 5 ½-foot medium action graphite rod. This versatile rod is stiff enough to be a good jigging rod but also casts great with the lighter line.

I once used standard factory steel leaders, but I now build my own wire leaders. I use the lightest possible Terminator titanium wire, either 20-pound or 30-pound test. It is flexible and light enough to cast just about any lure without losing feel or balance. I also like how it stretches, somewhat like the forgiveness of monofilament. You can easily tie simple knots – just follow the directions that comes with the wire. I tie a loop onto one end of each leader and then a Sampo #3 or #4 ball bearing swivel with a Duolock onto the other end. I tie up 9-inch leaders for my light action outfit, and keep an assortment of 12-inch up to 20-inch leaders ready for larger pike.

During the first afternoon on Meta Lake, high wind made casting for pike difficult knocking down many of the baits we normally would toss. We found northerns in about ten to twelve feet of water against a stick and rock strewn shore. After too many back lashes, I was forced to switch from my bait casting outfit to my spinning. I also changed to casting a 1-ounce Dardevle, a great pike lure under just about any situation, pitching it with hard snap in order to keep it low. I could see the lure pivot slightly as it was buffeted by the wind, but the Dardevle punched through the wind flying straight to my target. After both of us switched to Dardevles, we were able to keep fishing despite the wind and started catching some respectable pike. Thankfully, the weather changed overnight, and the wind subsided for the remainder of our week. It was so nice that I only had my rainsuit on for about thirty minutes over the next six days of fishing.

We fished several weedy Ontario bays on the Ara Lake side with beautifully curving contours that proved to be good fishing for walleye, as well as northerns. We fished the outside edges of the drop-offs using different colored 2 ½-inch Storm Hot-N-Tots that dove to between 12-feet and 14-feet in depth. Our best colors were gold or a metallic yellow, “hot tiger”, and some variation of perch. Anglers can find a good selection of Hot-N-Tot colors at Gander Mountain, Bass Pro Shop and Cabelas, as well as some of our better local sport shops. By far the best selection of standard and custom Hot-N-Tot colors, however, can be found at Frank’s Great Outdoors in Linwood (or go to Small narrow bays and creek arms that reached back from the shore proved productive as well. We also explored points just outside of bays, large weedy flats, and shallow areas at the backs of bays. We threw just about every proven pike bait in our tackle boxes – spinner baits, inline spinners, jerk baits, buzz baits, weedless spoons, swimbaits, and the classic Dardevle with success.

I like throwing spinnerbaits at northerns because of a number of factors. You can fish in the shallows or slow jig them down drop-offs, so slowly that the big blades barely pulse. Because they are close to weedless, you would be amazed at what you can pull them through. They also have lots of flash – a big fish attractor. When a big northern hits one, it is not only an explosive strike, but the fish just about destroys the spinnerbait trying to eat it – a thrilling way to fish. I recommend Northland Tackle’s Reed-Runner ½-ounce Classic Series Tandem Spinnerbaits and their ¾-ounce Reed-Runner Magnum for a number of reasons. Both have a closed wire line tie rather than just a standard “R-bend” or open line tie. A pike angler’s mandatory wire leader snaps securely to its stainless twist-bend wire frame. I prefer its oversized willow leaf blades and many of their colors, especially white shad, sunfish and blackbird. We used them successfully in four and five foot depths near the shoreline, as well as flipping them into pockets in several of the larger weed beds on Meta Lake.

I also like casting certain jerk baits and then “walking the dog” back to the boat. I primarily use Heddon’s 4 ½-inch Zara Spook, Storm’s 6-inch Live Kickin Minnow, and Rapala’s Glidin’ Rap and X-Rap Subwalk. The Zara Spook, around since 1939, has had some great modern colors added. My favorites are their black shore minnow, perch, “fire tiger,” and bone. The bone color is almost totally white, imitating a wounded sucker in our northern lakes. Regardless of the color, bass and big pike will hammer this bait. I do change the hooks on the Zara Spooks, replacing them with Eagle Claw’s 3Xtra strong Lazer Sharp trebles. The Storm 6-inch Live Kickin’ Minnow is a lipless, three-section soft plastic minnow with great side-to-side swimming action. It sinks slowly to about one to two feet, and I use a number of different retrieves – slow and steady at times, then short retrieves with pauses, and sometimes a totally erratic retrieve trying to imitate a struggling baitfish. The 1-ounce Black Silver Minnow and Chub cast like a bullet. My third choice, Rapala’s Glidin’ Rap, fishes differently than the Zara Spook, and it takes some experimentation to get the best action out of this amazing lure. I fish with the 4 ¾-inch version, a slow sinking bait and a slow glider that ever so smoothly moves left and then right. I have been fishing with it for a year now and I am just learning the many ways it can be fished. I brought “hot olive”, perch and “silver flash” with me and all proved effective. If you like a little faster movement, try Rapala’s 6-inch X-Rap SubWalk and walk the dog with this extraordinary lure.

Mepps spinners are another personal favorite. They are simply a great bait and my go-to lure when I am searching for smallmouths and pike. Since this trip was primarily for pike, I brought an arsenal of #4 and #5 Mepps spinners, a few of them with plain treble hooks, but most had dressed trebles, my preference for pike. I fished with silver, gold, “hot fire tiger,” and bronze blades, depending on water clarity and daylight conditions, either a bright sky or a heavy overcast. The other key is matching the dominant forage fish in the lake or river to be fished. Jumbo perch had gathered in the large weed beds in different parts of Meta Lake to spawn, so the bronze bladed Mepps spinners were the best match for the perch. The northerns responded accordingly.

Most often, I fished Mepps spinners with a straight retrieve, though I used different speeds at times and threw in mini-jerks by popping my rod tip occasionally. One afternoon, we found a half dozen large pike sunning in an opening no more than three feet deep at the back of a large weedy bay. I was afraid to spook them so I made a hurried cast about 10-feet beyond the resting fish stopping the lure just before it hit the water’s surface. I started my retrieve immediately and kept my rod tip held at the ten o’clock position turning a gold-bladed Mepps into an instant buzz bait. I kept the spinner buzzing across the surface of the water creating a lot of noise and flash. The result was immediate as one of the large females struck the spinner in one circular motion creating a hole in the water as she turned. Everything held, and I landed the pike, which I estimated at twenty-pounds.

Weedless spoons are also an important part of my arsenal. I fish with classic Johnson Silver Minnows and carry three different sizes in not only silver but with some in gold, perch, and “fire tiger.” I also like Northland’s Live-Forage Weedless Spoons, which are available in ½-ounce and ¾-ounce sizes. I have been fishing three colors – silver shiner, golden shiner and perch now for two years since they were introduced. My first Live-Forage Weedless Spoons were handmade prototypes, and the pike literally ate the paint off them! I especially like their holographic finishes and super-sharp Mustad Ultra-Point hooks. I tip both weedless spoons with a 4-inch twisty-tail grub, an Uncle Josh Pork Rind 4-inch bass strip or an Uncle Josh 4-inch split-tail eel, both in white.

Three other weedless lures, which bear mentioning, are all made by Eppinger. The first two are the ½-ounce Original Rex Spoon trimmed with feathers and the ½-ounce Rex Classic Spoon dressed with a rubber skirt along with a stinger hook. The third lure is the ½-ounce Spin’N Rex, which adds an in-line spinner to a Rex Classic. All come equipped with tempered steel twin weed guards that make them close to weedless. I started fishing them two years ago and was surprised to see how effective they were in heavy cover – weed beds, standing reeds, and downed tree limbs. You can pull them through just about anything. I carry nickel, gold and copper and especially like the Spin-N Rex in copper with a black skirt.

Dardevles are also key lures for early season pike. The Dardevle spoons throw easily as I mentioned earlier, and they have an enticing side-by-side wobble that catches just about any species. I recommend two sizes for pike – the ¾-ounce Dardevlet and the 1-ounce Dardevle. Of the many great colors to choose from, my favorites are classic red and white stripe, yellow with red diamonds, “hot mackerel,” hammered nickel with red and blue, and black perch. I also make sure I have a mixture of nickel-backed Dardevles, as well as the copper backed and brass backed versions. Replace the treble hooks with a super-sharp Gamakatsu Siwash single hook on the Dardevles that you troll. You will get a higher percentage of hookups when trolling. Spoons are also far more weedless this way and it is much easier to remove a single hook from the mouth of a thrashing fish than a treble hook.

One other great spoon for pike is a 4 ¾-inch big lake trolling spoon called the Stinger Magnum and made by Advance Tackle in Boyne Falls. I replace the Stinger treble hook with single Siwash hook for the same reasons as the Dardevles I troll – a higher percentage of hookups, its weedless feature, and easier hook removal. The Stinger swims beautifully with a sharp side-to-side action that creates plenty of flash, and it will troll over emerging weeds that climb to two to three feet of the surface. I prefer their hammered finishes and carry a selection of colors making sure that some have nickel backs, gold backs and copper backs.

Swimbaits is a class of lures and a newer technique that all pike fishermen should be fishing. I use different hollow bodied swimbaits in 4-inch, 5-inch or larger sizes rigging them three ways. The first is with a wide-gap single hook rigged so the hook is buried. It is weedless and almost weightless and a good choice for fishing open pockets in heavy weed cover. I also use a weighted hook rigging it exposed with just the tip of the hook showing, or exposed with a ¼ ounce to ½-ounce jig based on conditions and the size of the swimbait. Regardless, I like the way swimbaits vibrate and shimmy after they land. I let the swimbait fall to the bottom if it is relatively clear of snags, or I count the swimbait down if fishing weeds, a rocky area or other cover. Pike strike it savagely just about any time but mostly during one of the pauses when the bait is falling or at the top of the lift. Varying the retrieve, sometimes fast with small choppy jerks or a medium retrieve pulling it left, then right is effective. I also snap the lure hard, which turns it 90 degrees and then pause for several seconds. The snap turns the swimbait sideways, a move that at times is irresistible for a following pike. I have been fishing with Berkley’s 4-inch and 5-inch HollowBelly swimbaits, 5-inch and 6 ½-inch Yum Money Minnows, as well as Northland’s new 5-inch Impulse hollow belly swimbaits.

We fished “catch and release”

for the northerns only keeping an

occasional walleye for the table.

We did, however, have one challenge during the week. The bigger early-season pike were stressed out by the time they were netted and took some time to revive. Initially, we were

netting them, carefully removing

the hooks, pulling them from the water, and then taking photos. This proved to be too much, especially for the larger female pike, so we changed our boating tactics. Sometimes we were able to remove the hook

without netting the fish. Other times we ended up carefully netting the pike next to the boat holding them momentarily in the water while

removing the hooks. After checking the fish’s condition, we simply released the fish watching as it

swam away.

Fishing on Meta and Ara Lakes initially brought us difficult conditions that thankfully changed, so we had a week full of exciting pike fishing and agreeable weather. The pike had been scattered, and we had to work hard to find the precise combinations of cover, depths and fishing techniques to use. We also relearned the importance of using the right lure colors for catching northerns. At one point, my brother and I were fishing almost identical Stinger Magnums. The only difference was that my Stinger had a nickel back and his was copper backed. He was out-fishing me five to one to the point that he suggested that I put my rod and reel away since I was so busy releasing fish for him! Regardless, we felt we were just a cast away from a fish of a lifetime.

We were guest of Meta Lake Lodge with hosts John Wiersema and Cheryl Clavet. Meta Lake is in the Arctic watershed on the Albany River system. To get to the lodge you drive to Nakina, Ontario, and then fly from Cordingly Lake, which is only three miles from Nakina with the Lueneberger Air Service, an easy twenty-five minute flight. Meta Lake Lodge opens May 18 and closes in mid-September. For more information, email or call (866) 330-6382.