Hungry northern pike active in fall rivers
With the weather as hot as it's been the past few days, you might want to consider climbing down out of your treestand and picking up your fishing rod.
There's some real action to be had wrestling with big, aggressive fish.
No, we're not talking about steelhead, the fish that gets everyone's attention in fall, and deservedly so. Northern pike are the game.
Though few people seem to realize it, or at least take advantage of it, October is prime time for tussling with voracious northerns, especially when it comes to one kind of waterway.
You can catch them now on lakes at a pretty good clip. According to catch rate data from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission collected over decades, lake anglers catch more pike per hour in October than in any other month save February.
But the fishing is at its best right now on rivers and streams.
Fishermen pull more pike from flowing waters in October than at any other time of year, with catch rates at about three times their summer levels, according to the commission.
Cooler weather and cooler water temperatures have a lot to do with that, said Bob Lorantas, warmwater unit leader for the commission. Fish sluggish over summer suddenly become feisty again, he said.
That's no surprise to veteran river rats.
“When I first moved up here, the old timers used to tell me to expect the pike to move shallow and get active after the first frost in September,” added Red Childress, owner of Allegheny Guide Service in Warren. “I've found a lot of truth in that old adage. When the water temperatures start to cool, the pike just come alive.”
Pike are a native fish to this area, so any you catch are the result of wild, naturally reproducing stock. The Allegheny River, primarily from Armstrong County upstream all the way to Warren, has a reputation as a tremendous pike fishery. French Creek in Crawford County is another really good place to fish, as is Mahoning Creek in Armstrong County. The Yough River holds them, as does Tionesta Creek.
In all cases, catching them means targeting certain habitats with the river.
Shallow water that holds lots of minnows and small baitfish is a good place to start, said veteran musky and pike fisherman Howard Wagner of Fombell.
“We find them a lot in spots where there's a sandbar on the upstream side of a feeder stream,” Wagner said. “If that sand flat is right next to deeper water, that's perfect because they'll come in there chasing minnows when the fall or winter sun hits the water.”
Focus on spots with structure, too, Childress said. Baitfish like dace, suckers, chubs, shad and even small carp congregate around big boulders, timber, grass, and anything else that breaks current, he said. That structure also makes perfect cover for lurking pike.
“Pike don't go cruising around looking for their food. They're more apt to tuck themselves back in somewhere and lie in wait and ambush their prey as it goes by,” Childress said.
“That doesn't mean you'll find them in every piece of structure. But you can narrow things down over time by process of elimination until you find the spots where they're hiding.”
Live bait — especially slender-shaped chubs and suckers, caught locally from the river you'll be fishing — is a favorite fall pike bait for some.
If you prefer lures, Wagner suggests using 5- to 6-inch musky plugs. If he's using some of his local favorites, Wiley Lures and Leo Lures made in Western Pennsylvania, he goes with natural colors, like ones that resemble suckers or carp. If he's using Rapala shad raps or Rebel crankbaits, he goes with foil or chrome patterns. Childress fishes 7- to 8-inch plastic swimbaits like Curly Sues and 4- to 6-inch spoons like Dardevles and Red Eye Wigglers.
Whatever you use, consider adding some scent, he added.
“Pike seem to be much more responsive to smell than some other fish, like muskies, so sometimes we spray garlic on our swimbaits,” Childress said.
In all cases, be prepared for a first-class battle.
“That cold water is just what they like, so they fight hard,” Wagner said.