The Early Season Offers Great Fishing for Northern Pike

Fisherman poses with early season fishing for northern pike.
Burnie Haney shows the results of fishing for early season northern pike.

Early Season Fishing

Northern Pike (Esox Lucius), also known as the “water wolf” or called a “gator” are one super fun fish to catch.  These fish are eating machines, and using the right equipment at the right time in the right location will often yield spectacular results with relative ease while fishing for northern pike.  

The Biggest Pike

Before we go into details on how to catch these fish, here’s a little information about the current NY State record biggest northern pike taken by Peter Dubuc in 1940 out of Great Sacandaga Lake in Fulton County. It weighed 46 lb. 2 oz. and was caught on a Heddon Flaptail. I can’t say fishing for northern pike will grant you a catch that big, but there are still many big Pike swimming around and each year anglers have a good shot at taking a 15-20 lb. class fish or better on rod and reel.  

Fishing When the Fish Are Hungry

The first thing to remember is a pike will eat just about any moving creature that’s up to one third and sometimes one half their total body length.  They prefer other fish, but are known to eat frogs, ducklings and the occasional small rodent.  In Lake Ontario and the surrounding waterways I’ve discovered that one doesn’t need buckets of live bait or a large vessel loaded with downriggers or planer boards when they are fishing for northern pike. 

Fishing Gear for Pike 

To enjoy open water early season pike action it’s usually best when fishing from a boat. You’ll need a medium to medium-heavy action rod, spooled with 12-15 lb. test line, some leader material and a handful of minnow imitating lures- the best northern pike lures.   At first read that might sound over simplified, but it really isn’t. 

Spawning Behavior 

Early in the year right after ice out when water is 35 degrees pike move into the shallows to spawn.   As the water warms to temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees you can catch quality pike by applying a few easy to follow steps in your quest for a trophy fish.  Here are a few suggestions to get you started. 


When you are fishing for northern pike, you should look for any vertical weed growth in depths of five to twenty feet of water.  I recommend starting in the backs of bays or large flats with scattered vegetation in five to seven foot depths and working your way back out toward deeper water (20 ft). 

I’ve enjoyed most of my early season northern pike success casting some form of minnow imitating lures to submerged weed edges or isolated clumps of cabbage leaf in or around hard bottom areas. I believe early in the season the biggest northern pike frequent these areas for two reasons, the weed beds provide good cover and these areas also serve as excellent ambush positions to successfully intercept other fish moving into the shallows to spawn. 

Downed Trees

Another overlooked area when fishing for northern pike is a flat with scattered dead fall. Pike are notorious for lying next to a downed tree that comes off the bank. Early in the season you’d be surprised to see just how shallow a big fish will be holding.  The key ingredient seems to be large horizontal cover they can lie beside while they wait to capture their next meal.  The best northern pike lures range from 7/16th up to 1 or 2 ounces and anywhere from five to seven inches in length and a pike will not hesitate to choke down almost any lure.  

The Best Lures and Presentation

these two strike king lures are some of the best northern pike lures you can use while fishing for northern pike
Strike Kings are among the best northern pike lures for early season northern pike.

Many people ask “what is the best bait for northern pike”, but I’ve enjoyed the most success casting suspending deep diving minnow lures, rubber swimbaits and Zoom Flukes dressed on a Stormin’ Hornet lead head jig.  When using the jerkbait or swimbait, a key element to the presentation is a steady retrieve. Most often pike will follow for a short distance and then strike the lure. Sometimes you’ll feel a light tap and other times they’ll hit the lure so hard they actually knock slack in the line. 

Getting an Early Season Pike’s Attention

The light tap is a key indicator that you’ve got the fish’s attention, but either the size of the lure or color isn’t quite right, hence the tap and not a quality strike. When this happens I go to the next larger size lure and that usually translates into good quality hookups. If you’re experiencing the slack line strike that’s a good thing because it means the fish is hitting your lure with the intent to kill.  Now all you have to do is pay attention and on the next strike you reel down fast to take up the slack line and set the hook with authority.   

Best Technique for Early Season Northern Pike Fishing

When using the Zoom Fluke or the Stormin’ Hornet lead head jig I prefer a yo-yo style retrieve.  Simply cast out and count it down to the desired depth.  In five to seven foot depths I count it down to three or four, then on a semi-tight line, raise the rod from nine to twelve o’clock position, pause, let the lure pendulum down and repeat.  It’s a very simple retrieve just like casting hair jigs for walleye or smallmouth bass. 

Fishing Setup for Early Season

When fishing for early season northern pike with these presentations, I usually run a short 18-24 inch shock leader of 20 lb. fluorocarbon tied to the main line and I’ve experienced very few bite offs.  Yes, the pike can still bite it off, but usually the bite offs are few and far between and when the fishing  gets tough I believe the fluorocarbon leader will generate a few more strikes compared to fishing with a steel leader.  

Early Season Fishing – Worth a Cast

Angler with two early season northern pike on a boat.
Cold water can produce some hot action when you’re fishing for northern pike.

Over the years I’ve used this set up to capture first place and second place honors while fishing for northern pike in the annual Henderson Harbor Spring Derby held in May. So the next time you want to cast for early season northern pike give these simple suggestions a try and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  

Original Article By Burnie Haney

About The Author

Burnie Haney is the Garrison Chief of Operations at Fort Drum NY, Chairman of the Jefferson County Sport Fish Advisory Board, B.A.S.S. Life Member, Public Relations Officer and Sponsor Product Coordinator for the NY BASS Chapter Federation. He is a member FLW and Pro Staff member for Bass Pro Shops Nitro Boats, US Reel, Temple Fork Outfitter Rods, Lucky Craft Lures and VRX Fishing Products. Haney holds three National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame Line Class World Records (carp, steelhead, Chinook salmon) and one IGFA NY State Line Class Record (walleye). Get in touch with Burnie at

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