Pike and muskie are on the move right now, here’s a great way to catch up with them. The late Jack Burns had a great method for identifying top areas for pike and muskie on water bodies of any size or style. Pin any lake map to the wall, step back five paces, and the ‘first spots to check,’ he’d say, ‘will jump off the paper at you.’ Big, obvious structures that stand out were the starting points.
Jack spent a lifetime prospecting and grinding out fish all over Northwest Ontario, and even though I grew up and fish many hundred miles to the south, my Dad taught me the same things. Large spots that intersect, chop up or interrupt the biggest sections of open water will hold fish. He’d always begin describing his great spots the same way: ‘there’s a big, deep channel between those two shallow shoals,’ or ‘lots of current whips around that point when the winds are from the west and blow between those islands.’ Whatever you want to call them—channels, inlets, neckdowns—areas where waters get tight are hot for pike and muskie right now, no matter where you fish. I’ve spent my entire life fishing them.
We’re well into the summer peak now, and this is a time of mass travel for esox. Fish are on their way to much larger, summer ranges and even though they’re very much on the move, fishing their travel routes actually makes them pretty easy to intercept. Right off the bat, understand that ‘narrows’ doesn’t necessarily mean a tight pathway through two obvious, above-water landmasses (although this is often the case). Think of narrows as anywhere water is forced to move through, up, over or around any obstruction. Two humps might lie six feet below the surface with a twenty foot ditch between them. This is definitely a place where water gets moved, under force. Not only will wind (or river current) push between the high spots, it must also squeeze up and over them, creating a pocket of slower water in behind. You can find these types of diversions a mile off shore, or right along it.
Areas like this that link two distinct sections of water, like shallow, sheltered and fertile with the ‘open sea,’ are key this time of year. Pike and muskie don’t have legs. They’re not going to jog over the rocks to reach summer ranges. They’ll follow these natural travel routes, just like deer or moose do. The best spots are usually big and they link large sections of water. Like Jack Burns and his paper map, these aren’t tiny, out of the way dimples on structure or little zigs in a weedline. They’re prominent, dominant structures. Wind, and the water it pushes, works them from more than one direction, and often cycles through a flux of fresh water and nutrients. Things can get a little stagnant in places way inside narrows, but their mouths typically have better than average weed growth. And like you’d expect, fresh cover and a constant pulse of new water draws a ton of food. Good narrows almost always have things in high gear, as far as mid-summer food chains. Again, watch for less than obvious cues. The dragonfly hatch where I fish normally signals several weeks of good fishing along travel routes. Once I start seeing them buzzing around in big numbers or finding their abandoned larval cases along the docks or shorelines, look out. This period also sees a big baitfish boom, with perch, alewives and later, shiners, balling up.
Like any structure, become a detail freak when you’re assessing and fishing narrows. The details are what make any spot great. The sum of the parts is always greater than one or two of them. Some of my best narrows are the classic, sheer-walled draws. The walls look vertical and barren, but they’re not. Straightaways interrupted by jumbles of rock that have fallen into the water are terrific. One of my favorites for big pike is actually a series of huge slabs that lightning knocked off the main wall during a wicked storm many years ago. A massive pine also got dragged in not far away. It’s the perfect spot. Shallower, flattened little tables along the deeper edges are always great, too. Current and cover are two cues to watch for. How does current strike the spot from day to day based on wind direction? Are there areas along these seams of moving water where activity can mill around? I’ve got narrows that I’ll run a long, long way to fish on certain types of wind—especially if that wind has been beating for long periods of time. Areas where the push of water makes first contact along with the eddy or ‘back draft’ are what I’ll normally focus on. I’ll fish the length of the gap only after checking each end usually. Presentation in these scenarios for me is based on one thing; speed. I target narrows under prime conditions, with the expectation of meeting biters. On the humps, bumps, fingers and other mini-spots within them, slow down by all means. By and large, I set milk runs of three of four spots that I can cycle through, looking for pike and muskie that are moving, perhaps only stopping for a few hours, at most. I’m a troller by trade and I can tell you that with this summer’s high water from a deep winter snow pack and some wild June rains, I’m in complete heaven. Extra clearance over the humps, tight to walls and along sharp, nasty shoals lets me put baits right on the money, and with way more speed than casting and reeling ever could. High water conditions really add a lot of sizzle to your trolling attack.
With water temps still hovering around 70 degrees, pike are normally comfortable just off those first drops, down ten to fifteen feet. They’re also completely willing to drill baits pulled overhead. Muskie are almost always taken on baits close to the boat and running high in the water. Year in and year out, some kind of spinner nearly always emerges as the star. Big, loud baits like the Mepps H210 get noticed trolling. Picking away at cover and targets, I like screaming fast coverage with small bucktails like the Aglia Tandem and Musky Killer. In any kind of slop cabbage or wood, I’ve always loved Suicks and twitchbaits like the Salmo Skinner. Throw and troll with your confidence lures. Narrows fish aren’t typically picky. Work them over fast and force them into making a mistake. This time of year with travel on their little brains, you might only get one crack at a fish that’s just passing through. High percentage baits like bucktails help you get these fish to the net and safely released.
Don’t forget that these same fish who are running out to their summer ranges will be back this fall! Many, many of my top narrows—giant, obvious channels and the less visible, underwater stuff—draw all kinds of pike and muskie again in fall. Talk about a magnetic, ‘must-fish’ type of area. Fish will retrace these same routes as they slowly filter back in September and October.