Fish Beat: Northern pike and the late season rush

A northern pike will sometimes eat whatever it can to make it through a cold Midwestern winter. Photo courtesy of Jeff Sundin
A northern pike will sometimes eat whatever it can to make it through a cold Midwestern winter. Photo courtesy of Jeff Sundin

By Jim Hagerty

Staff Writer

In the Midwest, fall often approaches quickly. The morning air becomes suddenly brisk, the leaves begin to turn, and lakes, ponds and rivers begin churning their vegetation in preparation for the freeze.

Fishing, for many species, also begins to slow, leaving the warm, sometimes effortless days on the water left to live in the collective angling memory bank. While early fall fishing can still produce a good number of bass, panfish, cats and walleye, it takes a bit of doing to get some fish moving.

Die-hards wanting to keep up the fishing excitement can almost always turn to the northern pike for a good fight, especially in fall, when the fish start moving to what weed beds are left.

Next to the purebred muskie, the northern pike is the fiercest freshwater game fish in North America. Like the muskie (also a member of the pike family), the northern, which can grow as long as 5 feet, is a solitary predator. It usually does anything it can to survive—including feeding on smaller members of its own species.

In autumn, northern like to hide in flats filled with wild rice, cattails and cabbage weed. These spots, beginning in late summer, become death traps for a number of fish, frogs, mice and other small animals unfortunate enough to lumber in the area of a hungry pike. Here, big northern aren’t particular and are usually after anything to help them through a cold, Midwestern winter.

For many, the days following Labor Day cookouts and family gatherings mark the beginning of some of the best northern fishing of the year. Gearing up for fall northern, however, involves a bit more planning than summer fishing when conventional tackle consisting of a few spoons, leaders and baited hooks does the trick.


Anyone familiar with northern pike knows the fish are ferocious. In warm weather, northern seemingly come out of nowhere with arrow-like accuracy and speed and often bend, break and shred lures. As the cold season approaches, northern tend to allow food to come to them. Big pike, in turn, won’t travel far to chase much. Instead, they become opportunists, pouncing when the time is right.

Northern, in fall, have the tendency of passing on small, flashy fare. The best lures for hooking big fall northern pike are large jerkbaits, bucktails, jigs and top-water plugs. The bigger the better, as the autumn beasts are usually only interested in swallowing meals big enough to tide them over for long periods of time. Ten- to 12-inch lures are preferred.


Because a fall northern will often not take off like a torpedo after striking, hook-setting can be a challenge. Landing a big pike during this time of year involves more than just feeling the strike. A keen eye and patience are vital. Strong tackle will do the initial work. The rest lies in giving the fish enough time to dive back toward the weeds. The last ripple of the tail marks the perfect time to set the hook and hold on for the ride.

Send us your fishing photos

The Rock River Times is interested in seeing pictures of fish caught in area waters. Send digital photos to us at with “Fish Beat Photos” in the subject line. Glossies can be sent to The Rock River Times, 128 N. Church St., Rockford, IL 61101.

From the September 30 – October 6, 2009 issue

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