Trophy Northern Pike Fishing on Devils Lake
More anglers are discovering the trophy pike fishing opportunities available in Devils Lake. Considered a top-of-the line predator, pike measuring over forty inches are caught each season. Many of these big fish are caught accidentally by walleye anglers, but some anglers like Devils Lake’s Blake LaFluer specifically target big pike on purpose.
Blake LaFluer along with his father Boyd and brother Nathan spend a tremendous amount of time fishing for trophy class pike and have learned a few lessons along the way.
Like many anglers who grew up fishing on Devils Lake, the LaFluers spent countless days fishing for walleye. Sometime in the early 2000’s, the family became intrigued and obsessed by the elusiveness of giant pike.
“We started off with little direction, but we were determined so we learned on our own,” explained LaFluer.
The family trio started buying tackle and gear specifically for big pike. After the first summer hunting for monster pike the results left plenty to be desired. Recording no fish over 35” would be enough to detour anyone from wanting to go back next summer. Except the LaFluers.
Bound and determined over the next few years and countless days on the water later, the family began to enjoy more success. Now, considered true experts when it comes to finding and landing trophy Northern Pike on Devils Lake.
Destination Devils Lake has the opportunity to pick the brain of Blake LaFluer on how to catch some these incredibly fun fish.
- Starting early in the season and working through the summer months, where do you go looking for a big pike on Devils Lake?
- You have to fish where they live. This means fishing the areas on the lake that give you the best odds at finding big pike. I am a firm believer that the biggest pike in our lake live most of their lives in deeper, colder haunts with seasonal and natural spawning and foraging tendencies bringing them to more predictable areas to be more easily caught.
In the spring, you have to be flexible. The lake is up and down so much that spots change every year. I have good spots from ten years ago that have been desolate when they became too deep, now that the lake is dropping again they might be good again. Conversely, spots that were fantastic three years ago are now poor spots due to either being too shallow, or losing the “edge” around that bay that facilitated the spawning habitat and held forage.
Spring fishing is certainly our favorite time to target big pike. It’s the only time during the entire year that all of the big pike in the system will be up shallow at relatively the same time. The importance of water temp and sunlight cannot be expressed enough. If you have neither, you might as well stay at home. If you only get one or the other you can still catch fish, but when you get them both it brings out an entirely different animal in them.
Find things that reflect and hold solar heat better. Rocks, trees, dark mud bottoms, dark weed masses, cattails, stained water can all be key. Focus on these spots in the peak of the afternoon when the sun has had a chance to radiate for most of the day. The big pike are lethargic, they don’t move around much.
Often times the only movement you’ll see from big pike in cold water is a vertical movement. What happens in the shallows over night is the surface-water cools down rapidly and most of the pike will drop to the bottom for slightly warmer water and become out of view. As the sun warms up the surface layer and objects in the water raise up to take advantage of the newly available heat source, basking with their backs and tail fins up, out of the water. They will literally look like logs floating in the distance if you didn’t know any better.
It takes a big pike a lot longer to warm its body than a small pike, to the point that its metabolism gets going and it becomes catchable. Thus waiting until the peak of the day to target the true giants.
After the pike have spawned and recovered, they move back in shallow to take advantage of other spawning fish. The white bass and perch spawns are time for the big pike to do some major damage in shallow water. The water temps are up enough to get these fish moving earlier in the day, but water temps are not high enough to force them to deeper water.
If I got to choose a perfect spring day, the water would start at 55 degrees, high sun, with just enough wind to create pockets of warming water into a cupped shoreline, concentrating all of the warm water into one area.
Studies have shown pike show a high intolerance for sustained water temps over sixty-four degrees. The big pike will often pull out of these shallow springtime locations as soon as the water warms up to sixty degrees. As weeds grow out, concentrate on the deepest weed edges in the same general areas. On Devils Lake, the weeds often stop around 8 feet depending on the type of weed. Spots that have shallow holding features that quickly drop into deep water are a key during the summer months.
As summer progresses, big pike will often live off structure where the water is a more desirable temperature and make movements onto the structure to feed on available forage. Devils Lake does not have a pelagic type bait fish like smelt, cisco or tulibee. The main forage is going to be mostly a fish combination of white suckers, white bass and perch. All of these species are readily available near shallow structure throughout the entire year. If a big pike could follow a school of deeper available forage all season in a more preferred water temp range that fish may never have to come in shallow until it spawns.
Wind is your friend in the summer, so are partially cloudy days. If you have a decent amount of wind it helps keep those shallow water temps down by bringing deeper and colder main lake water onto the shorelines.
- In regard to tactics, what are your “Go To” baits and tactics for big pike?
- The way most trophy pike are taken on Devils Lake and area lakes unfortunately is by a spear. It’s truly sad to see how many of our monster pike get speared because you can’t spear and release. In my opinion, good catch and release practices are crucial for maintaining and conserving big pike on Devils Lake.
This is something I think that needs to be addressed sooner than later. I have already seen the impact on certain areas of Devils Lake that used to hold large numbers of trophy pike until dark house spearing become popular. Why someone thinks they need 80 pounds of pike in a single outing is beyond me. It’s one of those cases where “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
There are hundreds of lakes in North Dakota where dark house spear fishermen can enjoy spearing all the pike they want (within limits) that are 3-8 pounds. The state’s larger waters like Sakakawea, Oahe and Devils Lake, that are actually capable of producing 40″-50″ class fish need to be addressed in the near future.
If people just want to catch lots of pike, including great eating sized 3-6 pound fish, target the shallow warm bays around thick weeds and cattails are tried and true methods. Spinnerbaits work great for fishing through cover. Rattle Traps and just about any small twitch bait will catch numbers of pike.
If you are going after trophy-sized pike, you will need to gear up. You can and will catch some big pike fishing small baits, but as mentioned earlier, unless you are fishing FOR them, they’re very rare occurrences.
I’ll start this off by saying I pinch my barbs down on 90% of my baits. The larger hooks on these baits can do more harm than good. Step up your lure size to the 6″-12″ offering and you’ll never regret it. With a few people fishing in the boat, we all start with different baits. The fastest moving presentation will be on the front of the boat while the slowest presentation gets thrown from the back.
Big flashy profile spinner baits cover water fast. The single giant willow blade thumps hard and calls fish in from a long ways. Tandem single 9/0 hooks result in excellent hook up while maintaining its snag free design.
In the cold of spring I will fish a lot of glide baits. Glide baits are heavy, lipless wooden or hard plastic baits that you fish with your rod tip giving it hard short taps on slack line, sending it in a tantalizing subsurface dance moving two or three feet off of center either direction. Depending on conditions and fish attitude I’ll use glide baits from 2oz-8oz. If you know the fish are chowing, you need to be throwing the big stuff.
Crank-baits and twitch baits are another go-to for someone in the boat to be throwing, no matter the conditions. I don’t fish crankbaits fast, I like to fish them just deep enough so I can see it rise on a pause. Incorporate plenty of speed changes going into and out of pauses and hang on tight.
Jerkbaits are also amongst my favorite baits to fish. They are so versatile no matter the conditions or the season. I can fish them as fast as I want or as slow as I want. There are weighted versions that suspend or unweighted for fishing higher. Most of the best jerkbaits are wooden and because of that there are variations in wood densities between baits. Suicks and Reef Hawgs for example are fantastic baits, but often times unless you’re experienced in tuning a bait only one out of a couple you buy might run correctly for you right out of the package.
Rubber baits like Bull Dawgs and Medusa’s are exceptional for big pike, but do come with one big problem. Being soft plastic it might only take one little pike with a big attitude to chomp the back of your tail off. That is a risk you have to decide for yourself at the $15 and up price point for them. There are plenty of different sizes, and weights to use. I mostly use rubber baits in the summer when fishing a bit deeper.
Top-waters are an all time classic way to catch big pike. It doesn’t happen often, partially because of the wind, but when it does man is it ever exciting. Rear prop baits, walk the dog and segmented “creeper” style baits are what I’ve had success on, all in that 5″-8″ range. Pike seem to me more scared off by the ultra big top water stuff that many anglers use for musky.
Flies! Now you have my attention. There is nothing more spectacular than watching a giant pike stalk a fly through the water. I encourage everybody to look up “Barry Reynolds Pike on the Fly” on Youtube. Words do no justice in describing just how visually stimulating it is to watch a fish of that caliber move in to absolutely destroy a fly.
Even in the coldest of water, where you have barely exposed shorelines, where pike will not even touch a dead bait, they will smash flies so hard you’d have thought it was July. The only thing I can say is that there is just something about a fly that will make pike come unglued.
Ten weight fly rods are the standard. We throw everything from six-inch top water flies too much larger twelve-inch flies made of pure flashabou or natural hair flies that feel like you’re casting half a chicken.
Having different line configurations is very handy. Full floating line, intermediate line (1”/sec sink rate), and a full sinking line of a 30 foot head sinking 7”/sec with an intermediate running line are all effective combinations for the many situations we will fly fish in.
- There’s a lot of discussion in the industry about the handling or “miss-handling” of big pike and the importance of good releases. As an avid pike fisherman that has landed quite a few trophies, what tips or lessons have you learned over the years that you could pass on to our readers that have helped you successfully release big fish back into the lake healthy?
- The number one thing you need to have in order to successfully catch and release giant pike is preparation. You need to have the right tools on you and ready before you hook a fish.
You need a very long needle nose pliers, the ones we use are double-jointed pliers. These pliers allow you to retain maximum grip up at the tip of the pliers where most long handled ones lose their strength.
Everybody has seen a mouth spreader. You need the large eleven-inch spreaders. The little six-inch spreaders are too weak to open a big pike’s mouth and even if they could, it wouldn’t be open far enough to work on big baits efficiently and quickly.
Time is critical. The only time our fish are out of the water is for a couple split seconds to grab our photographs and then its back into the water, or back into the net again if the fish isn’t doing well or needs more attention. Every second counts when that fish’s head is above the water so having the tools at the ready is essential.
A Knipex bolt cutter has saved more musky and pike lives than anything. When you have a lure with multiple 5/0 hooks on it and they get wedged in different directions, cutting the hook shank is much less traumatic than trying to pry the hooks back out, especially when they are within any proximity to a gill. Cut the Hook shanks with the Knipex, get the bait out, and get that fish back into the water.
A trophy pike needs a big net so they can stay in the water. Do not lift your fish out of the water even inside of your net. Do not bring them into the boat to work on them. The big net has a deep bag for a reason; the fish can stay safely inside the net while still submerged in the water, with plenty of room for you to do the work you need to free the fish. If you do not have an appropriately sized net, hand landing them is more safe, just make sure you know the position of the hooks in the fish’s mouth and which side is safe for you to grab.
Once you are sure that your fish is healthy enough for a return to the lake, have the camera person get ready, get the boat in the right position for good lighting on the fish and make sure there are no shadows on it. This is the only time the fish needs to come out of the water and should only last for about 10 seconds, which is ample time to get multiple pictures.
Holding the fish is as important as anything. Trophy pike are heavy enough that holding them out in vertical positions by their jawbone is proven to do damage to the fish’s spine. The correct manner in which to hold large pike is with one hand having control of the jawbone (not the outside gill flap) and other hand supporting the fish at their midsection from underneath the belly creating a horizontal presentation.
When releasing the fish do not push and pull the fish in the water, this is not doing your fish any good. Simply hold your fish by their tail in a straight upright position until they signal you that they are ready by their tails firming up in your hand. Sometimes you get a bath out of the deal when they kick away but it’s always a good feeling!