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Georgian Bay - Pike Open - Where the Big Girls Lie 2011

One of our favourite destinations for spring pike fishing is Georgian Bay; particularly from the Moon River Basin to Pointe au Baril. Opening day for both Pike and Walleye is one of the earliest in the province ... May 1st in Fisheries Management Zone (FMZ) 14.  For a week prior to heading up there we had several  sleepless nights anticipating another spectacular visit.  We have been planning this since our last trip when we wrote the story “Where the Big Girls Lie”. There are very few places in Southern Ontario where it is possible to catch 20 pound fish and 10 to 15 fish over 10 pounds in a single trip - the timing has to be perfect. Last year all the stars were aligned and we had a trip to remember.
After the lull in action since  last-ice Lake Trout on Lake Simcoe, the thought of being back in the boat and getting into a line-burning, post spawn Northern was exciting to say the least. Even the process of rigging rods and packing new baits to test gives you a buzz.  There’s nothing I love more than hooking into a monster in shallow water - from the initial violent strike and headshake to the first uncontrollable rip of line. If you’re lucky enough to be out on a perfect windless sunny day you can watch it all happen. If you can’t see the strike you can certainly feel it and you can tell how big the fish is when she stops after that initial run and you feel that thump – thump -- thump and she can’t be budged. Just one of those makes your whole trip.

Why do Georgian Bay Pike get so BIG?
There are several conditions that optimize a pike’s growth rate. Pike, especially when they grow beyond the hammerhandle stage, are a cool water species. In the north they live longer than their cousins to the south. There are pike that live for over 25 years but on average they live between 8 to 12 years. In the colder northern regions of the Great Lakes pike live longer. They feed all year, although when winter sets in they become lethargic and temper the amount and type of forage. The conditions and diversity of Georgian Bay provides the perfect environment for producing big pike. The key to pike growing really big, over 40 inches, is the ability they have here to make the transition from a shallow (1 to 3 meters)warm water predator in their early life stages, , to a deeper cool water predator (3 to 15 meters) when they ‘grow-up’.  Access to abundant forage such as Cisco, White Suckers, Whitefish, Jumbo Perch and now Round Goby living in cool waters of the bay is also a key growth accelerator. Out in the cool waters of Georgian Bay, big fish can choose their preferred temperatures and feed at will with no fear of other predators and little competition for food.  This is a formula for large fish.

Once pike reach lengths of approximately 28 to 30 inches and have made the transition from shallow weed bed predator to open water shoal predator they are at the top of the food chain with few predators feeding on them.  The places they live and feed are not always accessible by average anglers in small craft. With less pressure from recreational anglers, other than during the short early period when big pike move in to shallows bays to spawn, these large waterwolves do not see a lot of fishing effort from recreational anglers.  

Additionally, with fewer near shore commercial fish harvesters targeting walleye in Georgian Bay there is less chance that these big water predators will be an incidental catch in gill nets.  Big pike have been known to follow staging walleye in to rivers or close to spawning areas in the spring and fall. This was the case when Bill McRobb, proprietor of Moon River Cottages and member of the Easter Georgian Bay Stewardship Council, pulled a 33 pound pike from the nets while collecting eggs from walleye for the ongoing Moon River stocking and rehabilitation program.

Preparing for Spring Pike
 I prepare several rods for pike, all bait casting rigs ranging in length from 6.6 ft to 7.6 ft. All rods are medium heavy  action. The reels are all loaded with 30 to 40 pound test micro braid. Some of the rods are tipped with 60 pound fluorocarbon leader about 24 inches long and the others with 12 or 15 inch tungsten or titanium strand leaders. I use less fluorocarbon these days because the 40 to 60 lb test required for pike is stiff and awkward to work with whereas some of the new tungsten strands from Deep Throat and titanium leaders from String Easy are very fine and flexible. There is no tying or mucking around and virtually no chance of being bit off through the leader.  It is quite likely that I’ll abandon heavy Fluorocarbon in the future. 
Lures range from simple spoons and a variety of jerk baits to various sizes and colours of soft swim baits and flukes. This time out we were testing a new 6 inch Swammer Swimbait from Xzone Lures. Some of the most effective baits are lures that can be worked weightless and ultra slow. Some are simple spoons that can be ripped over shallow grass beds or fan a whole bay to see who’s home. Nothing reflects more light and flash and gets more attention than a big chrome spoon.


 Timing is Everything
Last year’s early spring and unusual warm weather made conditions ideal for big pike at the opening. The ice was long gone and the water temperatures in the bays was approaching 15c to 18c (62F to 69F). It was short sleeves weather over crystal clear flat waters; just the way you want it for sight fishing.- In contrast to last year, in 2011 the ice was barely out of the bays and water temperatures were in the high 40 degree range (5 to 7c). Windy, rainy days with cold nights led up to the opening and those shallow post spawn recovery bays were not warming the way we would like. Being where you need to be when the conditions are perfect means being able to drop everything and go.  In a perfect world you want to be in the bays when the water temperatures have just reached the upper 60’s for a few days. Once the water has warmed for an extended period the big girls will be gone. They might be in the first deep weed beds close to the bays for a while but other than that they will be starting their summer patterns in deep cool waters. 

Pike spawn very early and in some cases they are finished before the last floating ice leaves the bays.  Bays with firm muddy bottoms and scattered weeds that warm early are ideal targets for big post spawn fish. The dark mud warms and holds the heat better than sand.  The ideal bay has a very gradual shoreline leading into dense grass where they will actually spawn. After the spawn pike will stay in the bays to recover, only leaving to hunt and returning to the shallow warm bays to metabolize their meal. Big pike will feed as efficiently as possible so shallow water whitefish, big suckers, or even winter kill fish are the prey when they leave the bays to hunt.

When they return to the shallows they become more opportunistic and prey on pan fish, catfish, crayfish, and just about anything that doesn’t require expending a lot of energy to catch. For several days after spawning they will just belly down in the mud to recover, barely feeding at all. If the bay temperatures are not warming, they will find deeper water and stay there. Smaller males will roam and feed close to the spawning bays but the big girls, exhausted from the spawn just want to recover and until the water warms they tend to ignore even the most enticing meal.

Finding Fish
Finding fish wouldn’t normally be the problem so soon after ice out, but getting them to strike is another matter.  We were staying in Pointe au Baril and from there we could reach our targets as far north as the Georgian Inlet to the north and as far south as Go Home Bay. My spring pike partner Bob Formosa and I have been fishing spring pike on Georgian Bay for over 30 years and between the two of us we have experienced a lot of variables for spring conditions. One condition that is impossible to predict is when a bay that has produced large pike for many years is no longer suitable for spawning because of constantly lower water levels.
Unlike bass and some other fish species that are very adaptable to change, pike require some minimum habitat requirements for a successful spawn. Ideal conditions include shallow firm mud/clay bays and with vegetation close to shore. They typically spawn very shallow in dense vegetation in stable or rising water levels. Studies have shown that some of the best year classes have come from unusually high water levels.  Because they spawn so close to ice out the water levels are normally at their lowest levels of the spring, rising slowly to reach a peek approximately by mid June.

Although the decline in Georgian Bay water levels has slowed in recent years after a sudden and drastic decline through the 1990’s, the spring of 2011 was one of the lowest we have ever seen during the spawn. Combined with an east wind pushing water out, some of the bays were dry or land locked. These new low water levels have taken its toll on ideal spawning habitat. Many of the traditional bays that have provided perfect conditions through the years are now almost dry or the levels are so low after ice out they are landlocked before the spawn.  The near shore vegetation is high and dry and without it female pike with ripe eggs are forced to either discharge them randomly with or without males, or leave to find more suitable habitat.


The rock shows the high water lines of the mid 1980's. The dark line one foot above the water shows the average levels of 2010.

Pike are known to migrate hundreds of kilometres to spawn although less than 30 km is average. There is little evidence that they have any homing instinct but once an area has been abandon because of habitat conditions they are unlikely to return.  With less and less suitable undisturbed habitat, big females are concentrating in fewer places so if you find one big female there is likely to be more. 

Covering Water
With a milk run that spans almost 70 km as the crow flies it was important to be able to recognize the most likely bays that would produce.  If we pulled into a bay where the water was below 12c and the water was extremely low we would just leave. If the first few pike were very small it is unlikely to hold big fish because pike are very cannibalistic and small pike are one of the most efficient meals big pike can find. 
Another problem we encountered was smallmouth bass staging for the spawn. If there is one species that is thriving in the bay through falling water levels and invasive species it is smallmouth bass. Their pre spawn feeding binge and the sheer numbers forced us out of more than one bay.

Schools of 20 to 50 hungry fish weighing from 3 to 6 pounds simply won’t allow you to throw anything of any size in the water. I was using a new 6 inch Xzone Swammer swimbait and they hammered it like it was a minnow.  One would hit the bait and get hooked and another would grab the tail and wouldn’t let go.  If we entered a bay and these fish were visible; it was already an indication we might as well try elsewhere..

Our first day was spent- searching around our southern targets and although there were a lot of fish between 24 and 30 inches there were no big girls. The water was simply too cold to hold big, shallow fish.  The first half of our second day was the most disappointing when we spent hours navigating through shoals and rocks only to find bays that were land locked or simply too shallow to hold big post spawning females, or again the water was too cold.

In the last hours of the second day we finally found big fish. The first cast with a weightless swimbait close to shore. The dead-slow retrieve enticed  something big from behind to show us a small wake followed by a very big wake.- Excitement was in the air and I felt certain to be rewarded after two fruitless days of  searching.  But it was not to be. As the swimbait came close to the boat I could see the head of a monster pike over 40 inches. As I got ready for the strike, and saw the gills flare, something suddenly spooked her and she turned and just rolled away.  One more of equal size showed herself but had no interest in us.
Through the two days we caught 14 pike ranging in size from 26 inches to 34 inches (86 centimetres) .and although it was a good trip we couldn’t help but feel cheated by Mother Nature. The expectation of several fish over 40 inches was all conjured up in the nights before we left based on a spectacular year in 2010.

Two weeks have now  passed and the weather had improved with several back to back sunny warm windless days.  We decided that we wouldn’t let the spring go by without one more trip to find the big girls. This time we headed out from King’s Bay Marina just south of Twelve Mile bay and headed south.  There are several great looking bays protected from the cold waters of the outer bay that looked like they could hold big fish. The first bay we entered was ideal but full of smallmouth bass staging to spawn. The second was the same.  We worked our way down the coast navigating through tight gaps and over shoals but we didn’t find any large fish.  We headed into Go Home Bay and on a long weekend with all the traffic our expectations were not high. As we entered we noticed a guy in an inflatable having a little trouble with something big so we stopped to help.  He was just netting a large musky caught while pike fishing and it was a little more than he was prepared for. We gave him a hand to revive and release the big girl who had several spawning scars but swam away healthy.CAROL AND DON GROZELLE of Penetanguishene with a big pre-spawn musky over 50 inches. A quick picture and off she swam

On our way back north we decided to try one more spot before waving the white flag. The bay was ideal for big fish with a perfect shoreline and deep cabbage weed.  My big salt water Bomber Jerk bait no sooner hit the water when a 30 inch fish smashed it. The next cast produced another smaller fish and as we worked our way to shore, I changed to a weedless swimbait and every second cast produced another fish. The bay was loaded up and in the next hour we boated about 20 fish; but no big girls. With over 30 fish in a day it was difficult to be disappointed. Any day on Georgian Bay is a great day and the beauty of the bay often takes the focus away from fishing. We may just have to go one more time before switching targets from pike to bass.

Sooner or later the timing would be right and with a prolonged warm spell the big girls finally showed up - but as will happen in the spring a wedding kept me away while Bob Formosa and Mike Cursio reaped the spoils. Mike Cursio holds a pair of 40 inch pike caught minutes apart. Both fish were released were released to be caught again some day.

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