Fishing in northern New England conjures up an image of serenity and relaxation – a contented, droopy-eyed angler, sitting in an old wooden boat with rod in hand, patiently waiting for a few small tugs at the end of the line. However, just where does pulse-pounding northern pike fishing fit into this scenario?
When it comes to northern pike fishing, the adrenaline-pumping action can turn even the most casual angler into a pike-obsessed fishing addict. Among the afflicted is Mark Beauchesne, Advertising and Promotions Coordinator for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. When he’s not working to promote a memorable New Hampshire outdoor experience for the public, Beauchesne provides spin and fly fishing guide services for bass & northern pike, (Fish NH Guide Service: 603-753-2993, www.fishnhguideservice.com). An expert guide for over 17 years, pike fishing is more than just a pastime for Beauchesne, it’s a deep-rooted passion bordering on addiction.
“Each time you’ve gone and experienced it, you know that’s there’s a bigger fish out there,” said Beauchesne. “And you know that by putting in your time, you’ll earn that opportunity to have a shot at that fish. You may hook it, you may see it, you may do what’s called ‘jumping it.’ It may chase your fly or lure and put the fear of God into you. That whole adrenaline-junky piece, I think, is what keeps me doing it, keeps me going back, makes me keep thinking about it, and makes me dream about it, all those things.”
For thrill-seeking anglers such as Beauchesne, nothing quite matches the sheer exhilaration of a rising V-wake on the surface of the water as it accelerates in pursuit of a retrieved lure.
Beauchesne’s favorite northern pike territory is the Connecticut River in the upper valley region of New Hampshire. The Connecticut River watershed is an illustration in contrasting worlds. Beginning at its headwaters in northern New Hampshire, the river features clear, fast-flowing water, with a gravel bottom and boulder-filled runs that form swirling, meandering pools. Farther downstream within the upper valley region, however, the river widens considerably, with steep muddy banks, deep pools, gentle flowing water, and shallow, weed-filled backwaters. This is the territory where spiked-tooth predators roam.
Northern pike are larger, formidable cousins of chain pickerel. Lightning quick on the attack and ruthless in battle, northern pike are the apex underwater predators in the Connecticut River. They can grow in size to over three feet or more. Pike rely on excellent eyesight and a sensitive lateral line along their body for locating prey. Their sleek, streamlined design provides an instant burst of speed for quick pursuit and capture.
In the state of New Hampshire there is no closed season for northern pike. The daily limit is 1 fish with a minimum length of 28 inches. Trophy sizes often exceed 40 inches. The state record northern pike in New Hampshire was caught in 2002 on the Moore Reservoir in Littleton. The fish was 45 inches long and weighed 24 pounds, 14 ounces. Much of the Connecticut River runs along the border of New Hampshire and Vermont, so anglers are encouraged to check the interstate fishing rules when frequenting the river.
The upper valley region of the Connecticut River provides an excellent habitat for pike. It has all the elements needed for northern pike to be successful and thrive. Slow, deep, meandering stretches of water help keep water temperatures stable during summer. An assortment of shallow, weed-filled setbacks provide ideal hunting and spawning grounds. According to Beauchesne, the best pike fishing waters on the Connecticut River extend from Moore Reservoir all the way down to the Massachusetts border. “Some sections,” described Beauchesne, “in particularly the upper valley section from say, Claremont to Piermont, that section of the river is really good pike water. Of course you have a few dams to deal with, but there are a number of setbacks and brooks and things like that.”
The state of New Hampshire manages northern pike as a trophy game fish. This approach contrasts with some New England states where pike are considered an invasive species, such as neighboring Maine for example. “There are only a few select waters that actually can support northern pike in New Hampshire,” Beauchesne explained, “primarily because of our water chemistry. And when I say ‘support,’ that means they also reproduce and propagate on their own. Now that doesn’t mean that a fish couldn’t be moved from one body of water into another and survive. That does happen. But the lower pH of our water, the acidity, affects the sperm motility – it doesn’t make it to the egg.” Therefore it is difficult for northern pike to spread, multiply, and take over other New Hampshire game fish habitats. So there’s virtually no threat to trout, salmon, and other popular cold-water fisheries throughout the state.
Northern pike are ambush predators, earning them the nickname “water wolf.” Often they will lie hidden around natural structure, waiting for a worthy meal to come swimming by. Then they strike with lightning-quick proficiency.
“When they’re on the feed, they will move around,” said Beauchesne. “Otherwise they’re just going to be kind of similar to the lie-in-wait kind of predators. Not lazy by any means, but they’re waiting for an opportunity to come by them. They’ll use their camouflage and stealth and just kind of hang out and wait. They’re not going to swim along and track down prey, but they may move to places where there’s prey-fish activity. So for instance… if there’s a bug hatch, there may be yellow perch or sunfish or baitfish feeding on those insects and the pike will tune into that.” Then, once a target is acquired, the pike uses its sleek body to coil up into an “S” shape and shoots forward in an immediate burst of speed, much like a slingshot. “It’s instantaneous,” said Beauchesne. “It’s not like it comes on slowly. It’s boom and it’s there. That’s why their strikes, when you’re on ‘em, they can be so vicious. And I think that also feeds the addiction, the ferocity of the strike.”
Due to snow and ice considerations, open-water fishing for pike on the northern Connecticut River generally doesn’t begin until late April. After the fish complete their annual spawning cycle, they revert to their springtime, cool-water feeding patterns. With water temperatures ranging in the mid 40s, the best time of day to fish the river is during midday and early afternoon, when water temperatures have had a chance to warm up and the pike are more active.
“In the springtime, the fish are going to be in the setbacks or in shallower water,” said Beauchesne. “Typically I’m targeting the areas where there was known vegetation from last year and there may be some new emergent vegetation coming up now, whether it be in the center of the body of water, or the shoreline, or what have you.” The key, stressed Beachusene, is to cover as much water as possible. “Covering water is the big thing because it’s not the last cast you just made, it could be the next cast that’s going to catch you a fish. It’s a lot of casting, and what a great way to shake off winter!”
Later in the spring, when water temperatures begin to approach 50 degrees or more, pike fishing tactics revert back to the typical dawn/dusk fishing patterns, and during rainy and/or overcast conditions. Later still, when the weed-filled backwaters become too warm for the pike, it’s time to focus on the main river. During the warm-weather months, keep an eye out for confluences where a brook or spring empties into the river, where water temperatures remain cooler. Also look for and target weed lines, downed logs, stumps, sand humps, islands of vegetation and other natural structure, which serve as hiding areas and provide shade from the bright summer sun. When working along weed lines, try to align your boat so that you can cast horizontally along the entire edge of the weed line. This tactic allows you to retrieve your lure along its length thoroughly, thus covering more ambush areas efficiently.
“If you’ve got a grass line going from left to right,” explained Beauchesne, “it’s harder for me to sit in the boat and cast into the middle of it and pull it out. If I can line myself up and cover that whole grass line with a couple of shots, then I’ve increased my chances that much more.”
Pike are very sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure. This is due to the makeup of their swim bladders and how it affects their ability to maintain buoyancy. Veteran pike anglers know to monitor changes in air pressure and look for conditions when the barometric pressure is falling, ideally just before a storm front moves into the area. That’s the time to drop everything, call in sick to work, cancel all appointments, and get out on the water. “Twelve to twenty hours ahead of a front,” offered Beauchesne. “That’s the turn-on point. It’s a falling barometer.”
As summer turns to fall, water temperatures begin to drop again and fishing patterns change accordingly. Invariably, mid September through the end of November is prime pike fishing time on the Connecticut River. “Fall is when I’ve gotten my biggest fish by far,” stated Beauchesne. “They’re fattening up for the winter, but so is everything else. So everything else is on the feed too. All those other small baitfish or the medium size panfish are moving around eating. Pike are intercepting them and saying ‘I can eat too.’ Typically when you’re into the fall pattern you’re fishing over the summer’s vegetation that’s on its way out, starting to die back a little bit. And that’s great ambush cover for northerns, and also where you’re going to find those forage fish.”
Pike fishing gear starts with a medium-heavy or heavy freshwater rod and reel spooled with at least 10-pound-test mono or braided line. A heavy mono fluorocarbon (60-pound or more) or wire leader is added the end, one that can hold up against the pike’s sharp, pointed teeth.
“I don’t mind using a six-and-a-half-foot medium-heavy rod, much like we’d be using for largemouth or smallmouth tackle, and throwing lures that are up to an ounce-and-a-half, ounce-and-three-quarters all day long,” said Beauchesne. “I think that’s where tackle considerations come in. It’s what you’re throwing on the other end. I mean, any modern tackle can handle a northern as long as you’ve got a rig that’s strong enough, and you’ve got a wire leader.”
In addition, a jaw spreader, which holds the pike’s mouth safely open, is an invaluable tool to help you keep all your fingers intact, especially when trying to unhook a thrashing 3-foot gator.
For tackle, large, gaudy inline spinners, heavy spoons, topwater lures, buzz baits, and minnow-style swimming and jerkbaits are all effective. Keep a variety of lures on hand and change your presentations based on the results. For an added challenge, fly fishing is a very exciting method for catching Connecticut River pike.
“It’s a lot more fun to hook them on the fly rod,” declared Beauchesne. “It really is. It’s a blast because typically you’re hand-stripping that fly in. And as you’re pulling or stripping, and that fish hits it, your hand almost comes back up and wants to go through the guides because they hit it so hard. And then you just clear line and put ‘em on the reel.” Fly anglers use a 7- to 9-weight fly rod with floating or intermediate line. Effective flies include large baitfish imitations, balsa poppers, and diving deer-head flies, size 1 or bigger. Effective color combinations include yellow, white, and red among others. “From springtime until the water temperatures get really hot, they’ll actually eat surface flies,” said Beauchesne. “So diving flies, Dahlberg Divers and things like that, big-hair flies that push a lot of water and make a lot of noise, they’ll bring up fourteen- to forty-inch pike.” Beauchesne’s favorite pike flies include rabbit strip divers (yellow), deer-hair poppers (red & white), Lefty’s Deceiver (yellow), the Seaducer (red & white), and the Double Bunny (chartreuse & white).
Voracious and opportunistic hunters, pike can also become quite finicky at times. This may be caused by several factors, not the least of which includes how recently their last big meal was consumed. “A few years back we ended up keeping a fish just because it was hooked deeply with a fly,” Beauchesne recalled. “The fly was probably 2½ inches long, a red and white fly, and the fish was 29 inches and some change. But it had a 10-inch rock bass in it. It wasn’t hungry, it was just the fact that it was close enough and the fish thought, ‘oh, I can have a little snack after dinner.’ So sometimes downsizing your offerings will bring you more success than going big, because going big limits you. If you have a big lure, chances are only a big fish is going to eat it, but that big fish has to be aggressive enough and hungry enough to do so.”
If there was one major key to success for Connecticut River pike anglers, Beauchesne said it would have to be flexibility. “It’s constant experimentation with speed of retrieve, and color selection too, because one day the Clown pattern may work, and the next day it doesn’t. It switches just like that. You know, you can have the same water clarity on two given days, but if there are different food sources that are coming through – say they’re eating golden shiners, or they’re on suckers, or panfish, or bluegills – you’ve got a color variation there that you’ve got to consider.” In situations such as these, pike anglers have to try to avoid getting stuck doing the same thing all the time and adjust accordingly. “It’s having that willingness to change – change locations, change tactics – because if they’re not on the grass, they might be on the wood. And if they’re not on the wood, they might be on the ledges. You know, it’s just being an angler for lack of a better term. Just trying to find out really what’s going on and be dedicated to that. The pike are there, they are definitely there.”