Northern Pike Fishing Trip/Cook, Minnesota.. July 2003

Check out my fishing picture page from 2004!!

This past weekend I had the chance to travel to Cook, Minnesota with my long-time friend and partner-in-crime, Tim Anderson for some super fishing in the wilderness of northern Minnesota on Lake Vermillion.

I love fishing for northern pike at least as much as I love hunting pheasants. I made my first trip to Ontario to fish for northerns with my grandfather when I was just 7 years old. I have made numerous trips to Onatario, Minnesota and Wisconsin over the last 30 years to fish for these explosive gamefish. One of the few times I have ever got my picture in the newspaper growing up, was with my grandfather and a large pike I caught at his home in PA.

Northern pike are so exciting to me for a number of reasons. Number one, they are not that hard to catch. Number two, they are perhaps the most vicious, nasty creature that swims. It is possible to make them strike your lure just by triggering their pure aggressiveness and outright rage towards your lure. It is not uncommon for a strike on your line from a fish that is not even 2 feet in length to almost tear your rod from your hands. Lastly and not leastly is that pike live in beautiful places, largely in wilderness areas that are almost untouched by humans. Pike are courageous and powerful fighters when hooked. The real battle with a pike of any size usually begins AFTER you get the fish into your boat! Lastly, contrary to what many people will tell you, northern pike are excellent on the table. There aren't too many fish that get high marks in as many categories as pike to for me.

My recent trip to Lake Vermillion was not a well-planned out affair. Instead, you might say it was a well prepared ordeal. Tim Anderson and I met as roomates in the USAF. We spent over 10 years together on the road in the brass section of the USAF band out of Offutt AFB, NE, traveling all over the central United States and the world. I am not ashamed to admit that during these travels Tim and I could quite often be found, fishing gear in hand, scoping out the local fishing holes. I would not have attempted such a last minute camping trip to fish a lake I had never been to over 600 miles away with anyone but Tim.

A series of events the previous weekend that neither Tim or I had planned for left us both with nothing to do this past weekend. This type of trip has always been on the back burner with us for years, so on Thursday we said "Let's go..!!" and at 1 a.m. on Friday morning, gathered our gear and supplies and left Omaha for Cook, Minnesota and Lake Vermillion towing a borrowed boat with Tim's truck. Driving through the night, we arrived at the state forest campground tucked into the southereastern corner of Lake Vermillion around noon on Friday and promptly set up camp, put the boat in the water and crashed in our tent for a well deserved nap before heading out on Friday evening to do battle with the great northern pike that make Lake Vermillion their home.

The first thing we noticed was that Cook, Minnesota is simply a gorgeous area of the US. Situated on the edge of the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area near the Canadian border, stunning is not too strong a word for the scenery that greats you around every corner. Heavily forrested and extremely rocky and sparsely populated by humans, this area truly is among the last wildeness areas in the lower 48. Yeah, don't count on good cell phone reception up here!! I noticed that bait shops outnumber bars about 2 to 1 in the small, but friendly town of Cook. We saw many bald eagles and ospreys around the lake as well as deer and many other furry creatures. My kind of place!

After waking, we headed out on Friday evening to explore the fishing in several nearby bays and we were not disappointed, right off the bat. Lake Vermillion is a large lake, for the area, with many shallow weedy bays and plenty of rocky shorelines, craggy islands and reef areas. The lake is home to plenty of panfish and baitfish species that give the pike and musky population that the lake is known for plenty to eat. There is also a fantastic population of smallmouth bass in the lake, which are also alot of fun to catch and excellent to eat.

Two pieces of equipment, one I had used a lot and another I had never used at all before, came in to major play on the imprompu trip. The first, an Eagle brand fish/depth finder sonar unit mounted in the boat was invaluable for finding the deeper water near the endless, thick weed beds covering the shallow bays of waters in this latitude at this time of the summer. Weeds mean pike, but the deeper water near the weeds is easier to fish and generally will hold the larger pike throughout the day. I like to use the fish finder function to look for panfish and baitfish on the screen. If food is around, pike will be nearby. The other piece of gear was one of the Garmin personal GPS units. Many manufacters are putting these units out now and they are great!! I had never used one before and I can tell you I will never go fishing up north, particularly on a large, wilderness lake without one. Utilizing the same global positioning sateliite system that the US military uses, these units can pinpoint any location on the planet down to about 15-30 feet. Combined with a locally purchased GPS map of the lake, you just punch in the coordinates from the map to the places you want to go (including, thankfully, your own boat dock) name and save these spots to a menu list and then just get in your boat and start driving, (the unit requires you to be moving for a few moments to work correctly) then select your new fishing hole from the list on the unit, hit the button and simply follow the displayed arrow straight to your new fishing spot. Anyone who has ever tried to find some "secret hot bay" using a lake map or local directions or has ever been "turned around" at dusk, miles from the dock on one of these lakes will certainly appreciate the usefulness of one of these units. Anyone who has used a personal computer can figure one of these things out in about 5 minutes. Like must computer tools, it will do much, much more for you than the average person will take the time to learn. I turned the thing on in the truck on the way up and without ever cracking the user manual, I figured out enough about the 6 buttons and dozen display screens to put everything we would need to find our way back and forth from our dock to distant fishing holes in the dark right at my fingertips. This saved us countless hours of guessing at maps and enabled us to cover 10 times the area we could have covered otherwise, neither of us having visited this lake before.

We caught decent numbers of good sized pike and smallies. The weather was mostly great and there there were no bugs to speak of. We fried up several shore lunch type meals and had our fish basket not come untied on the last morning and sink to the lake bottom (joining Tim's cell phone there from the day before!!) we would have brought home a nice pile of filets for a fish fry at home to boot.

We tent camped.The state campground provides a boat dock for campers and the nightly rate for your campsite is just $10.00. Lake access was just a half mile away in the form of an excellent public ramp. Sites were shady, with fire pits, but no electric hookups. The public restrooms were the best I have ever seen but no shower facilities were available. The resident campground hosts were helpful and friendly.

The Minnesota DNR has just this year instituted a slot limit on northerns in Lake Vermillion where any pike between 24-36 inches must be immediately returned to the lake. This bodes well for the future of pike fishing on this lake. The daily limit is 3 pike and only one can be over 36 inches in length. We caught a number of these "slot fish". We didn't catch anything over 36 inches in length although I had one fish in the 40-inch class slash at my bucktail just two rods lengths from the boat. The fish was in full charge and saw the boat at the last second, just bumping the spinner with her nose before vanishing back into the depths next to the weedline we were fishing. I will forever remember seeing that huge mouthful of half-inch long teeth just about to inhale the bait. I swear I could have stuck a tomato juice can in that fish's mouth with room to spare!!

So that's the new things I learned about pike fishing this weekend. For those of you who may be new at fishin' for pike, here are some things I have learned over the years that are very useful when pike fishing:
  • Polarized sunglasses...It's so much more fun when you can seen them coming for your lure.
  • Fish the deep water near weedbeds for bigger fish. The actual weedbeds can get to be a pain to fish, but they are loaded with small pike that are catchable.
  • Big pike are very spooky. You have to sneak up on them in the shallows and make careful, quiet casts. Be quiet in your boat and drift in on them or use the trolling motor as little as possible. Big fish in deeper water are easier to approach in a boat
  • Pike in the summer like a fast bait to attack. Fish bigger baits for bigger fish. I like medium sized baits to make casting and covering big chunks of water faster and easier. Mepps bucktail spinners #4's and #5's are always good. Pike can be anywhere in the huge bays of northern lakes and you have to cover as much of it as possible to find, sneak up on and catch the active fish. When you find a patch of really good, deep water, then drag out the really big baits. Otherwise stick to moderate sized baits or if you are just a "sometimes" pike fisherman likeme, you will kill yourself throwing huge baits all day long.
  • Keep two poles rigged in the boat. I like one spinning and one casting outfit. Both are rigged with 10-12 lb. test line with 9 inch, 30 lb. test wire leaders. I keep the heavier pole, the spinning outfit for the big baits and use the casting outfit as my "speed pole" with smaller baits.
  • Bucktail spinners and spinner baits are good shallow water baits. Spoons and crankbaits are better in deeper water
  • The hooks on your lures can never be too sharp. I sharpen my hooks with a stone every time I tie on a bait (even new ones right out of the package) and after catching several fish. Pike have tough jaws and many are lost right at the boat or tusseling down in the weeds because of dull hooks that don't penetrate enough.
  • Large, lockable, cutting surgical forceps are a must for quickly removing the hooks from northerns. Long before every yuppie trout fly casting dork west of St. Louis had a trendy forceps clipped to his vest, pike outfitters in the north were begging, borrowing and stealing large pairs of forceps from their doctor clients. Keep them locked onto your shirt or jacket at all times for quick access for quick, easy one-handed hook removal.
  • Don't let boated pike flop around in the bottom of your boat. The sound scares fish off for quite a distance. When pike fishing, stealth is key, although almost no one realizes this.
  • Keep one eye on your partner's casts... work different water than he is...you are wasting your to repeatedly throw into the same water he is. But...work out a system with your partner... many times a pike will "swirl" at a bait and miss. A second bait cast immediately into the area of the missed strike will often be met with a savage strike from a thoroughly hacked off northern. Tim and I have been tag teaming northerns like this for years and we nailed several on this past trip in this way.
  • Never bring a large, green pike into your boat! Play them out a bit and if you aren't keeping them, remove the hooks from them in the water without landing them. Large pike can go on a rampage in the boat. I was awed as a child when my uncle boated a large pike caught on a large rapala and it thrashed him off his feet and then drove the plug hooks into the fronts of BOTH his thighs. Very impresive indeed! If you are keeping large pike and must bring them aboard....three words of advice...sawed-off ball bat...no.. I'm not kidding..and if you are smart you'll hollow out the end of it and fill it full of lead shot.

That's about it...Please let me know if you like the pictures!!

Ah...!! I don't know what else to ask for in life when you can catch fish in scenery like this...!

Steve with a nice pike!

Tim with another chunky pike... but mine was bigger!

Making dinner over an open fire!!

Fit for a King!!...pan fried filets, dutch oven potatoes w bacon and onions and baked beans. I could eat this every day!

Tim with another pretty good northern

Me with a still better one!!....

Just knowing that there are places like this in the world makes the daily grind worth it... I can't wait to get back!!

Check out my fishing picture page from 2004!!

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