How Big Should Your Pike and Musky Lures Be?
By Tim Mead April 10, 2014

How Big Should Your<br>Pike and Musky Lures Be?
How Big Should Your
Pike and Musky Lures Be?

Clyde Osborne and Banks Miller were on their first of numerous trips with me to northwest Ontario.   We stopped for the night in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.   Looking to kill time, we wandered through Gander Mountain at the edge of town.   As we passed the collection of musky lures, they asked, “My gosh, what size fish are we going to catch?” Big ones, I assured them, big ones.

Pike on a Shad Rap
Pike on a Shad Rap

Do you really need big lures to catch trophy pike or muskies?   How large an item can one of these critters swallow?

Author caught this<br>on a 7 inch Rogue
Author caught this
on a 7 inch Rogue

A few years ago, I was fishing on Yoke Lake, north of Emo, Ontario.   Half a mile away, Clyde and Tony Garitta were casting over a rocky shoal.   My tiny Pop’N Image disappeared in a huge swirl and the battle was on.   I had a 40 inch musky on a rig designed for smallmouth bass.   During the action, the musky regurgitated a 20 inch, partially digested, pike.   I had no way to take a picture of the musky once I landed it, but I stashed the pike carcass in the splash well to show it to Clyde and Tony.   At least once, a trophy musky could swallow a prey half its size.

Success on several of my trips for trophy pike has been liked to finding spawning white suckers.   In early spring, suckers congregate in small streams.   Entering and leaving, these poor critters run a gauntlet of pike chowing down on the losers.   Mike Quinn and I fished this pattern a dozen years ago north of Red Lake, Ontario.   More recently at Phelps Lake, Saskatchewan, Mike and I caught big pike, many on our fly rods, where suckers up to five pounds were grouped to spawn.   The pike weren’t there for the view.

An Energetic Model of Predator Behavior

An important element of any critter’s foraging strategy is an assessment of the energy net return from any effort to capture prey.   If the prey is large and perhaps dangerous, it may be best to let it pass.   If it is small, even if easy to catch, it may not be worth chasing.  

Prey with a long, narrow shape is easy to swallow, perhaps in a single gulp.   Bluegills, sunfish or crappie may be plentiful but hard to swallow.   We have all seen images on the web of a predator fish with a smaller (or even larger) fish caught in the predator’s mouth.  

In part, that explains why light-colored fish like suckers, tullibees, or whitefish are prime forage for pike and muskies.   These species have lots of fat.   They are long and narrow, a shape called fusiform by fishery scientists.   A nice sucker yields lots of energy.   And slow prey is easy to catch and requires little energy investment.   The short lesson is: bigger, whiter, and slower are prime qualities for a predator seeking fish for dinner.  

In an instant, the predator has to make a judgment whether the prey fits the model of energy reward compared to energy consumed.   Those making the best judgments survive and flourish.

What Do We Really Know?

Beyond anecdote, barbershop boasting, what do we know about the size of prey sought by pike and muskies?  

Extensive research on pike in northern Wisconsin[1] offers a number of insights for anglers.   In these small lakes, bluegills were a major element of pike diet.   Yet the lakes with the most abundant population of small bluegills also tended to have pike populations where the average pike was small.   Sounds very much like the lake in northern Michigan where the Mead cabin is.   Pike were opportunistic feeders, that is, they ate what was available.   Body shape of prey species was particularly important.   Long, narrow prey species, like perch or shiners, were preferred to short, squat species like bluegill or crappie.   Other research suggested the optimum prey size was 40% of northern pike length, but in the Wisconsin study, laterally compressed prey (like bluegills) were 21.1% of pike length and fusiform prey (like perch, shiners or other pike) were 19.5% of pike length.  

Caught on 3 inch tube grub
Caught on 3 inch tube grub

For pike anglers, the size of lure selected is partly a function of the size range of the pike population.   In the Wisconsin study, the mean pike length was 20 inches.   In part, that explains why pike exploited smaller prey.   A long, narrow lure, a Long-A, Thunderstick, Pikie Minnow, or Koolie Minnow, can be longer and still be in the energetic profile of prey because such shapes are easier for pike to consume.   Conversely, lures in the laterally compressed shape should be shorter.   Among the best laterally compressed trophy pike lures are the Stick Shad and the Minus One.   On my first trip to Phelps Lake, Mark Montesbroten, my guide, assured me he had a lure I had never used for pike but that we would want to use.   He was right in one respect, we wanted to use it.   He was wrong in the other respect, however, as I had several Minus Ones with me.   Over the years, I and those who fished with me have caught many trophy pike on Minus One lures.  

Pike took this bait?<br>Size ratio, enough Said
Pike took this bait?
Size ratio, enough Said

While a lure 40% of the length of the pike sought by anglers, that would be 16 inches for 40 inch pike, might be the appropriate size, roughly 20% or eight inches would represent the more common length of prey actually consumed in the Wisconsin study.   In any event, pike anglers should adjust the size of the lure used to the size of the pike available and the shape of the lure.

Comparable research has been done with muskies.   Two prey items dominated the diet of muskies: yellow perch and suckers.   While yellow perch were 30% of the diet they were only 17% of the volume.   Suckers, however, were only 8% of the prey items but 47% of the volume of musky diets.   Both of these species are fusiform in shape.   Some nonfish items were found in the study muskies, frogs, mud puppies, and one mouse, but 98% of the prey items were fish.   Few were walleyes, bass, pike or other muskies.

In the Wisconsin study the size of musky prey to musky ranged from 6% to 47% of musky length.   For a 40 inch musky the range is from 2.4 inches to 18.8 inches.   As a rule, bigger muskies ate bigger prey, but the mean size of prey consumed by Wisconsin muskies was 20% of the size of the predator.   Smaller muskies sought prey within a narrower size range, close to the 20% mark.   Larger muskies consumed a wider size range of prey.

What are the lessons from these and other studies for pike and musky anglers?   While we all have stories of big fish on small lures and small fish on big lures, the best prospects are to match the size of forage most likely to meet the energetic model of predator-prey relations.  

1Terry L. Margenau, Paul W. Rasmussen, Jeffery M. Kampa, « Factors Affecting Growth of Northern Pike in Small Northern Wisconsin Lakes, » North American Journal of Fisheries Management,18:625-639, 1998. Michael A. Bozek, Thomas M. Burri and Richard V. Frie, “Diets of Muskellunge in Northern Wisconsin Lakes,” North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 19:258-270, 1999.



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           Last updated on March 4, 2018