By Rob Olson
Pike must certainly be the most under-appreciated game fish that swims in our waters, and for the life of me, I just don’t get it. They are mean and aggressive and willingly strike lures when the bite is off for other species like walleyes. All the other fish are food for these big, bad eating machines.
Pike grow big and put up as strong a battle as any fish. I find them quite beautiful as well. Ok, they can be slimy in the summer and their smell may not be to most people’s liking and I get that. But in terms of table fare, give me a boneless pike filet (Y-bone removal is mandatory) over a walleye any day, especially out of cold water.
Vance Hrechkosy agrees and he knows what he’s talking about. Vance and his lovely wife Maureen operate Trail End Camp, a first class fishing camp at Pointe du Bois. Vance has guided on the Winnipeg River for better than a couple decades and knows the river and its fish as well as anybody. There’s no telling how many pike and walleye he has cleaned and cooked for his guests and he’ll take a cold water pike if given a choice. As Vance puts it, the meat is firm and chunky.
A group of us recently spent the opening weekend of fishing season at Trail End Camp in pursuit of the misunderstood pike. Opening weekend is usually a magical, special time to target big pike in Manitoba. Depending on the year and the weather, the first weekend of fishing normally has the big pike shallow and easily accessible in marshy, shallow back bays and in and around creeks and streams flowing into lakes.
Pike become temperature sensitive as they age and larger specimens (6 pounds and up) generally flee the shallow spawning areas as the water warms up into June. You can still catch them, but you need to start targeting main lake reefs and shoreline areas down to 25-35 feet deep into July and August. But that’s another story.
The first morning at Trail End started like most fishing weekends in May typically do for me: windy and cold with a few snow flurries! North winds and cold fronts any time of the year normally mean the fish will have lockjaw, and this trip was no exception. In my experience, there’s only one approach when faced with these conditions – stop the boat and soak bait under a bobber (or on the bottom) and give the sluggish fish an irresistible option to feed when they would rather just sulk and wait for positive weather.
This trip was the first spring big pike adventure for my friend Chris Heald’s son Andrew. Andy as I call him is the kind of young lad that makes you feel positive about the future. He loves trapping, fishing and hunting and is so respectful and helpful that you can’t resist wanting him around. Andrew had just had a great doctor appointment at Cancer Care the day we left for Trail End Camp. He bravely battled through a bout of childhood Leukemia years ago, but now remains in remission. He had been packing and repacking his lures for days in anticipation of getting a big one. Let’s just say, the pressure was on to get Andrew on a big pike!
On opening morning, we tried casting normally productive spring pike lures like spoons, spinnerbaits, Rapala husky jerks and plastics in the prime back bays, but we couldn’t even get small pike to oblige. This was likely due to the weather. No need to panic, time to break out the bobbers and herring!
What is it about bobber fishing that is so darned fun for kids of all ages? There’s something about a bobber getting pulled under that triggers a primeval response in us that gets our heart pumping. Bobbers also happen to be deadly at all times of the year for pike, well for every kind of fish actually. Bobbers are especially key when the bite is tough. It puts big, juicy dead bait in front of a pike for so long they eventually can’t take it anymore.
Most people don’t think of the Superstore seafood section as a bait shop, but it is your headquarters for pike bait. Whole frozen herring, scad, milk fish, mackerel and sardines are all awesome pike bait and they are cheap. None of these saltwater fish swim in pike waters here in Manitoba but the pike don’t care! Pike are notorious scavengers so as long as it’s a fish, they will eat it.
Of course, cisco (i.e., tulibee), goldeye, mooneye and whitefish are awesome baits if you can get them on your own or from a place like Neptune fisheries. And don’t worry about using larger specimens as even small pike will take huge bait. For example, a 2 pound frozen cisco or whitefish is not considered too big. It might just trigger the biggest pike in the lake to eat.
We motored into a back bay and dropped the anchor. We rigged up whole herring on a two treble hook quick strike rig with a small rubbercore sinker just above the leader, all of it under a large foam bobber. We used our big summer catfishing spinning rods from Cabala’s to fling these big baits out behind our boat.
It didn’t take too long for the first bobber to go down. Andrew grabbed the big rod and the fight was on. He brought a great looking 6 pound-ish pike to the net. Not a monster but bigger than the usual “hammer handles” you get casting daredevils and a personal best for him. We were all thrilled. My colorful uncle Curt was along and immediately began lobbying to keep this pike that was just small enough (under the slot size) to keep. Curt loves making pickled pike and needed some pike filets (see his recipe below).
Using dead baits under bobbers is almost too effective at catching large pike. It is critical we release the big females. And pike are more fragile than people think. They deserve and require good, respectful handling so that they will live on to reproduce and maybe give another angler the thrill of a lifetime.
Vance had told us about a creek where the suckers spawn. Creeks and creek mouths in the spring are always a pike hotspot, so we hit that next. We were entertained for a long time there watching three otters gorge on suckers and it wasn’t long before Chris Heald’s bobber went down. After a fun and frantic fight, we netted Chris’s personal best pike, a bigger dude in the 13 pound range.
The wind picked up and we knew Chris had a crock pot full of deer stew bubbling back at our rental cabin. As we motored back everyone had a smile on their face. Mission accomplished.
Uncle Curtie’s Crazy Good Pickled Pike
5 cups pike pieces
1 large onion
5 cups vinegar
1 cup sugar
¼ cup pickling salt
Heaping tablespoon pickling spice
4 bay leaves
My uncle is a sausage makin’, fish smokin’ and pike picklin’ son-of-a-gun. He doesn’t boil his pickling brine like others do, but you could. To be sure there are no parasites in the fish, be sure you freeze the filets for at least 48 hours. Remove the rib-cage bones from the filet. If the pike you have fileted is less than about 6 pounds, no need to get the Y-bones out for this recipe since the vinegar will soften the small bones. You won’t know they are there. If it’s a bigger pike, take out the Y-bones. Cut pike filets into bite-sized pieces. Mix all the ingredients together in a big container and refrigerate for three days. Put the mixture into jars and hand-tighten the lids. Keep in the fridge for “a long time” as Curtie says. I’d say a month or two.
Web Extra Video – Getting the Y-bones out the Olson way
Trail End Camp (www.trailendcamp.com or 204-884-2321)
Vance Hrechkosy and his wife Maureen have been long time supporters of the outdoors, conservation and the MWF. They are fantastic people who run a first-class operation at Pointe du Bois. The best part of their camp in my view is that it is a super short drive to get there and the fishing is like a fly-in, it’s fantastic. The walleye fishing is terrific and gets better throughout the summer as main lake weed lines develop. There are no roads east of them till you get to Ontario so it feels like wilderness. You can access the Winnipeg River all the way to the Ontario border. It is also super affordable. Our cabin was $200 per night. That’s about what a crappy hotel room costs nowadays in a city and who wants to be in a city?! Vance will take care of you and put you on fish. He runs cool party boat trips up the river where all you need to do is relax and jig up walleyes. I highly recommend this gem of a place.