For me, the true mark of excellence is when something looks so easy that you lose sight of its cleverness. In many cases, complex solutions are merely stepping stones toward a more simple and effective way of doing things. Such were my thoughts while fishing for pike with fishing guide Mike Philips last spring, where he shared an approach that was so simple and effective, it seemed hard to improve upon.
Philips guides for pike, walleye, and muskie on the St. Lawrence River, Lake St. Francis, Lake St. Louis, and the Ottawa River. While his territory straddles the Ontario, Quebec, and New York borders, his approaches are applicable to any number of waterbodies.
On this trip, he opted to start working a large weed flat adjacent to a known pike spawning area. The depth ranged from 5 to 8 feet, and there was just enough colour in the water that we could barely make out the bottom if we looked really hard. In places, the vegetation was so thick that it reached the surface.
As is typical for Philips at this time of year, he clipped on in-line planer boards and began trolling, in hopes of locating hungry post-spawn pike scattered throughout the many acres of lush weed growth spread across the area.
We no sooner had lines in the water when one of the planer-board rods started to sing. My eldest son snapped up the trolling outfit and engaged our first fish of the day. The first fish is always an important milestone, and this one provided my son with a much-needed outlet for the pent-up anticipation that started building when I first offered to take him along.
Our guide had grown to rely on the consistency of this area’s burgeoning pike population to put a few easy fish in the boat for his clients, and the approach was working like a charm.
There would be little time to admire the first fish, as the second rod went off, followed shortly by the third and final one. This set the tone for the rest of the morning, as the three of us struggled to keep a full complement of lines in the water.
The weedbed yielded a seemingly endless supply of feisty pike ranging from 3 to 7 pounds. It was a clear example of how effective in-line planer boards can be in the right situation.
The plane truth
There are good reasons to use in-line planer boards for pike. The simple fact that they spread lines out over a wide area means you’re covering more water and fish. This is especially true when running multiple lines, where fish might be exposed to more than one lure in your trolling spread.
Another traditional use for planer boards is to intercept fish that spook from the boat, particularly in clear, shallow water.
Planer boards can also be used to reach into areas too treacherous for a boat. Examples include rocky ledges and boulder fields or humps, which are common shallow-water hangouts for lunker pike.
Even in open water, you will find cases where pike and muskie close to the surface move to the side of the boat.
At first glance, Philips’ system seems simple, while in fact every aspect of it has gone through years of testing and refinement.
For planer boards, he opts for clip-on models from Offshore, which he modifies by replacing the rear clip with a drop-weight clip. It has a centre pin that makes it almost impossible to unclip from the line without some effort from the angler. This enables the board to be reeled back to the boat, rather than coming off while fighting the fish.
On the front of the board, Philips leaves the light-duty factory clip, which will disengage when either a fish hits or the angler applies a sharp snap to the rod tip. In this way, much of the board’s pressure is released when you want to reel in the lines or fight a fish. This requires that the board be unclipped from the line once it gets to the boat, but with a little practice, it’s only a minor inconvenience.
A light-duty line-counter trolling reel and an 8- to 10-foot medium to medium-heavy downrigger rod are ideal for this type of work. Seventeen- to 20-pound mono is preferred, because it offers some stretch to reduce the pressure the board might place on a fish while playing it, hence reducing the chance of the fish tearing free or shaking the hook. The added thickness of the monofilament also helps the board clips to hold.
Line-counting reels allow you to refine your arrangement and dial back into a productive setup once you find it. There are other practical benefits to line counters. At one point during a flurry of action, Philips passed me a rod and instructed me to let out 50 feet of line and then another 50 feet of board line. I was able to understand instantly what he wanted and assist in getting the rod right back into the trolling array.
“When letting out the board, just loosen the drag and let the board slowly pull itself out,” Philips advised. “This allows the board to smoothly pull line off with little risk of tripping the front clip or backlashing the reel. Once the board is out far enough, simply dial down the drag just enough to hold the board.”
This way, if the lure picks up weeds or a fish, the drag will slip, sending a signal to the angler.
“You naturally want to set your drags loose when trolling anyway, given that pike often hit with such force that you need some slippage or you risk having the fish shake off,” he added.
Depth control is one of the most significant considerations for lure selection. Keeping the lure above vegetation or from snagging on bottom is crucial. Moderate-sized wobbling spoons like the Williams Whitefish, Blue Fox Strobe, Mepps Syclops, Strike King Sexy Spoon, Thundermist Python Darter, the classic Eppinger Dardevle, Doctor Spoon, the Len Thompson Original Series, and the Lucky Strike Half Wave are ideal.
Replacing treble hooks with a single Siwash hook also greatly reduces the chances of picking up weeds and makes landing and handling pike easier on fish and angler.
“One reason I like spoons so much is that they tend to run very shallow, especially on a short line,” said Philips.
Even weedless varieties such as the famed Johnson Silver Minnow or the more recent Weedless Northland Live-Forage Weedless Spoon are great options for trolling off boards. They can be worked through dense vegetation without fouling.
Don’t be shy about also sweetening your spoons with scented soft-plastic trailers, an option that not only adds scent appeal, but helps keep your spoon riding high and increases its overall profile.
Spinnerbaits are another top option, given their ability to work over and through a variety of vegetation, and once again the single hook is ideal for landing and releasing fish.
When presented with more open-water situations, long slender stickbaits tend to take precedence. A modest selection of minnow imitators can cover a range of target depths. A well-rounded assortment should include floater/diver models, medium-running suspenders, and big-billed deep divers.
Overly simple or remarkably ingenious? No matter how you describe them, if you use in-line planer boards at the right time and place, they’re indisputably effective at catching numbers of pike.