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Early Season Pike Fishing

by Bob Papson
Principal Fisheries Biologist
February, 2006

The ice-out or late winter open water period can be a very productive period for northern pike fishing. Although northern pike are not native to New Jersey, fishing opportunities for pike have been available for more than 20 years due to the stocking efforts of the Division of Fish and Wildlife. Experienced pike anglers target this time of the year and know that this cool water fish species is active and willing to hit an anglerís offering. During the pre-spawn and post-spawn period pike are on the move heading to and from spawning areas.

Ice-out normally begins in early March in New Jerseyís northern lakes. However, this year there has been only a short period of ice and a very early start to the winter open water period.

Northern pike spawn in late winter and begin moving to spawning areas in late February to early March. In lakes, pike move into shallow areas near creek mouths and coves with decaying aquatic vegetation or flooded terrestrial vegetation. In rivers, they move upstream to flooded backwater areas and can concentrate below blockages such as dams. During the spawning period, large numbers of pike move in and around these spawning areas, making locating fish more predictable.

There is a year-round open season for northern pike. The Division has no concern about fishing for pike during the spawning period as the fishery is not dependent on natural reproduction. New Jersey is outside the native range for northern pike and although successful reproduction is possible, any recruitment would be considered a bonus and is not expected to contribute significantly to the fishery. Our pike fisheries are maintained by annually stocking fingerlings reared at the Hackettstown State Fish Hatchery.

Fishing techniques for winter pike are relatively simple. Using large live shiners fished on the bottom or with a bobber is effective in both lakes and rivers. Large spoons, such as the Daredevil and Johnson weedless tipped with a plastic tail, have been favorites of pike fisherman for generations. Large spinners, such as number 4 or 5 Mepps cast or trolled, are also effective.

Northern pike
Spruce Run Pike
Photo courtesy of Tom Pagliaroli
Click to enlarge

It is common in northern lakes to have baitfish or panfish that were in poor condition die during the winter and sink to the bottom. It seems that northern pike have adapted to utilizing these food sources. Therefore, using dead shiners or suckers fished on the bottom is also an effective method of catching pike during the winter.
Passaic River pike
Passaic River pike.
Click to enlarge
Pike feed entirely in the daylight and are active all day, with the morning considered to be the better fishing period. Donít feel left out of this fishery if you do not have a boat - during the pre-spawn and post-spawn period pike are on the move and many of the good areas are accessible to shoreline anglers. A prime example is Spruce Run Creek cove in the Spruce Run Recreation Area in Hunterdon County.

Good fishable populations with pike up to 20 pounds are present in the following lakes: Budd Lake, Farrington Lake, Cranberry Lake, Pompton Lake and Spruce Run Reservoir. Rivers such as the Pompton River, and especially the Passaic River, are targeted all winter long. Donít overlook the less known Millstone River which gives up a number of nice pike but gets little fanfare.

Whether you are a general angler with cabin fever or a frustrated ice fisherman, why not try cold water pike fishing for a thrilling experience!

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Last Updated: February 24, 2006