Bob Gwizdz: Move over, muskies

DELTON — Joe Bednar is one of a dying — some might say it’s already dead — breed. He is a pike enthusiast.

Back in the dark ages (when I was a kid) pike were a big deal, a popular gamefish among a lot of fishermen for a number of reasons, not the last of which was they were sizable. Only muskies were bigger and they were rarer than Detroit Lions championships.

Since then, muskies have thrived and the Department of Natural Resources built an entirely new fishery (salmon) with fish that regularly dwarf pike. Meanwhile, pike have not really prospered; the marshes they need for reproduction have been replaced by beaches and sea walls on many lakes across the state.

Doesn’t faze Bednar; he considers pike the optimum gamefish because of their availability, relative size, relative abundance, hard-striking good-fighting performance and “done right, good eating.”

“As an overall gamefish, I don’t think they can be beat,” he said.

I recently found myself on Crooked Lake here in Barry County, for a short day of trolling with Bednar. We got started around 10 a.m., which is another thing Bednar likes about pike: they bite in the middle of the day.

“I would say 10 a.m. to 2 in the afternoon, 3 p.m. maybe, are the best five hours you can put in in a day,” said Bednar, a 52-year-old federal government administrator. “I’ve caught them all over the place — from dawn to almost dark — but if I tried to nail it down, I’d say the middle of the day is best. And I can sleep in, have a big breakfast, go out and fish for pike, and still get home in time for a leisurely dinner. I’m not getting up before dawn or towing the boat home after dark.”

We had our first fish in the boat within 15 minutes, a legal-sized (24 inches) fish that hit a deep-diving crankbait trolled along the outside edge of some deep weeds. To Bednar, that’s another reason to like pike: they’re easy to pattern in the summer.

“I troll the contour lines, as accurately as I can,” says Bednar, who has a tiller-steered outboard motor because he says he can react more quickly with it than he can with a steering wheel. “In the summer when a thermocline develops, the water above it is too warm for pike — large pike, at least — and the water below it doesn’t have enough oxygen. So it kind of squeezes them into that zone.

“And you constantly flirt with weed-line disaster and the tighter the contours are, the less forgiving they are. When the weeds are developed and you’re not occasionally getting weeded up, then you’re not fishing right.”

We trolled in water that was around 16 to 20 feet deep, which is where the thermocline sets up in southern Michigan lakes. Earlier in the summer he fished a lake just south of the Mackinaw Bridge and the thermocline set up a little shallower there, he said.

Bednar uses heavy-duty braided line and homemade leaders that he builds with 44-pound test wire. He also pinches down the barbs — like many trout anglers do when fly fishing — so that he can release the fish easily without damaging them. Bednar keeps a few fish every year, but he tries to be selective, often taking fish from the lakes that have no minimum size limit, where you can keep up to five but no more than one can be 24 inches or longer. Bednar — who serves on the Department of Natural Resources’ warm water citizens’ advisory committee — says he likes the idea of tailoring regulations to the conditions in particular lakes.

“They’re trying to apply that regulation where they’re slow growing, but there’s high recruitment, at least of the little guys,” he said.

We caught fish steadily for the first hour or so, but missed as many strikes as we hooked up on, something that Bednar said might have to do with the low overnight temperatures (it was down in the mid-50s for the first time after a series of blistering hot days). Perhaps it slowed the fish down a little. The bite slowed a bit — we trolled over the same water a lot — but it was fairly steady action.

Typically, you don’t usually miss a lot of pike strikes. Pike are aggressive killers and that’s another thing Bednar like about them: they’re vicious.

“All fish are cannibals but I think pike are more so,” he said. “That’s probably the reason a baby pike lure is a great bait. In spring and fall I’m throwing something like that all of the time and I would in the summer, too, if I had a deep diver. But when you pinch down the barbs, sometimes it only takes a headshake and they lose the lure.”

We fished for about five hours, boating 11 pike — and two largemouth bass — all on deep-diving crankbaits trolled at around 2.5 miles an hour. (A Storm Lightning Shad was the hot plug.) Only two of the pike would have kept — something that bothered Bednar. He’d have bet we’d have caught a couple of good ones, he said. But he was also disappointed in our numbers. He usually catches about 20 on a five-hour trip.

“Maybe they were starting to move out of that summer pattern,” he said.

Bednar will stay with it until ice-up, he said, and then he’ll get after them though the ice, which is just one more thing to like about them, he said.

“Even in winter, pike give us an opportunity.”

Bob Gwizdz is a longtime outdoors writer and has also worked in public affairs for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.


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