NILES – It didn’t take long. I’d been chunking a spinnerbait up into the shallows – no more than three feet of water – for only a few minutes on the St. Joseph River when I felt something smack into it and I set the hook. It was a pike, less than legal length (i.e. 24 inches) and not at all what I had been looking for, which was bass.
Still, it’s a pretty cool to have something strike at the end of your cast in open water in mid-February, isn’t it?
My partner, Jim Horn struck next when a maybe keeper-sized pike hit his jerk bait. A handful of casts later, he stuck another. And then I felt something hit my bait like a freight train and when I lifted the rod tip, my spinnerbait had been sawn off.
“Well, what do you know,” said Horn, my oftentimes fishing partner for various species, mostly in southwest Michigan. “Power fishing in Michigan in February. Can you believe it?”
Well, this has been a most unbelievable winter, hasn’t it? Many of southern Michigan’s water bodies were wide open well before spring this year, about a month early by my reckoning, and instead of finesse fishing them – slowly with small, unobtrusive baits – we were getting right into their living rooms and daring them to bite. And they did, too.
“This is the mildest winter I can remember,” said Horn, 56, who moved to southwest Michigan from farther north in 1983. “In years past I’ve fished with a jig and minnow by now, but I wasn’t out there throwing spinnerbaits and jerk baits. It’s a good month early.”
Horn had fished the St. Joe two days previous to our trip and had blasted the bass, he said, catching both largemouths and smallmouths with at least one 20-inch specimen of both flavors. We were struggling to get any bass to bite at all – we caught a couple over the course of the day – but the pike were going bananas. They weren’t everywhere we fished – which were mostly slow-sloping shallow flats, the kind of places you’d expect fish to move up on to feed when the water first warms in spring – but they were on most of them.
“This is the best pike fishing I know of in southern Michigan,” said Horn, who fishes around quite a bit. “There are some places where the average size is bigger, but you won’t catch nearly as many. And there are places where you can catch a lot of them, but they’re all small. This is the best place for a combination of size and numbers.
“Several years ago I came down here with some Dardevles – the way everybody used to fish for pike – and did well. There were plenty and they had some size. It was about as a good of pike fishing as I’ve ever experienced.”
We were definitely doing numbers; size was another matter, I’d guess every fourth or fifth pike we caught was a legal keeper, mostly in that 25, 26-inch range. On one particular flat I found a bunch of big fish, but couldn’t seem to catch ’em.
For instance, I hooked one that I had coming toward the boat that just came unbuttoned; when I looked at Horn his jaw had dropped so far I could’ve put a baseball in his mouth.
“That was a 40-incher, I said.
“If it wasn’t a four-footer,” Horn countered. “You could have put a saddle on that one.”
Several casts later, I had one in the same weight class follow my spinnerbait right up to the boat, but dart off. Horn saw that one, too, and shook his head.
“You know there are some muskies in here,” he said. “Maybe that was a muskie.”
Minutes later I hooked another big fish – every bit of 36 inches, anyway – that looked at me, smiled, and cut my line like it was sewing thread. And that’s when we switched gears.
Horn saw a bunch of crappies scatter in front of us.
“There are two ways I find crappies,” he said, as he dug out a couple of spinning rods out and rigged them with bobbers and tiny tube jigs. “Either I catch one on a jerk bait when I’m bass fishing or I see them. But that shows you why you always bring everything when you go fishing.”
We commenced to crappie fishing, spending about 45 minutes tossing out small tubes suspended a couple of feet below a bobber. We caught about a dozen. And they were giants; I don’t guess any of them were an honest 14 inches, but most were just short of that and the small ones were a foot long. I tossed a few in the live well so I could make that photo – you know the picture, two or three nice panfish next to the jig box – but we mostly let them go, which might have slowed the bite some.
We fished until about dinner time then called it, having boated 15-20 pike, a handful of bass, and the aforementioned crappie. Darn good fishing for anytime, let alone mid-February.
Horn called me a few days later to tell he’d returned, fished the heck out of that flat where I’d turned a bunch of big ‘uns, but never caught a pike. There. On another flat he caught one that that measured 39 inches.
“I guarantee it was definitely shorter than those two big ones you had going,” he said.
And he got the crappie again, even better this time.