Pike are unique in that the methods and spots used to catch small or medium-sized fish can be totally different than those used for larger ones at certain times of the year. Other than trout and salmon, pike are the most temperature-reactive species we have in Ontario. It’s a unique situation. Big pike live and operate in a much different manner than smaller ones. There are two distinct populations of pike in every lake or river. Anyone who fishes for them needs to create a game plan based on the quality of fish that they’re after. And there are times of the year when you can expect big ones and smaller ones at the same times, using the same methods, on the same spots.
Seasonally, the cooling, warming and cold water periods are when pike are the most predictable. I’d argue that these times are also the best for bigger fish as well as numbers of fish. They’re a cold water species, just like lake trout. In most of the province, winter, spring and fall are when the biggest fish are consistently caught. For me personally, this has always been the case. In the summer, good fish are still totally catchable, but always remember that the temperatures and foods the bigger fish need are normally associated with water that most people aren’t accustomed to fishing. If you remember nothing else about northern pike remember this: Big fish use parts of the water that offer them comfortable water temperatures. Water temperature is the number one limiting factor in what the big fish do. It’s not light penetration, current, cover, lunar phase, fishing pressure or anything else. Water temperature trumps it all. Population densities for big fish are always lower than they are with smaller fish. In summer especially, if you’re looking for big pike, you need to adjust your expectations in terms of time spent versus results. Bigger fish are simply less abundant, and hunting them down takes more time. You can have great weekends all summer casting and catching lots of fish under about ten pounds. Just don’t be discouraged if the big ones aren’t mixed in. The problem isn’t that they’re not in the lake or not biting. You’re simply not targeting them in the best ways, whether you realize it or not.
One of the most important things to remember about water temperature is the number you read from your sonar only applies to the upper skin of the surface, right near the sensor. Late in the fall, throughout the winter and right at ice out, the water basically maintains the same temperature from top to bottom. And in summer, water temperatures are highest near that sensor and cooler as you move away from it, deeper. Surface readings on your sonar are only telling you what’s going on within the upper few inches. In mid to late June, surface temps might read 60F or 65F degrees. Try diving off your boat down eight or ten feet. That water is much, much colder, trust me! You need to understand, appreciate and respect what temperature does to pike, but you also need to see the bigger picture. A big part of this is remembering that your sonar only describes a tiny slice of the water column that fish don’t spend any time in to begin with, and that it takes a lot longer for larger slices of water to warm and to cool. On big, deep bodies or water, water takes longer to gain warmth, but it can also hold onto it longer. I get a chance to do some late fall fishing every year with friends from the Kawarthas who visit me on Georgian Bay. Their lakes are much shallower and smaller, and they’re often surprised to find the big water is warmer than the lakes at home.
On top of all that, in spring and early summer especially, there can be huge variances in temperature from one area to the next, and on similar areas from one hour to the next, because of sun, wind or current. When fish are at their shallowest, such as early in the fishing season, pay the greatest attention to temperature. Why? Because a) the fish are using shallower water in general and, b) because temperatures at this time of year can be so volatile. Similarly in the fall, we watch for falling water temperatures to signal things like forage movements and/or the breaking up of travel barriers created when the water gets too warm in the summer. You don’t need to study temperature gradients scientifically or buy special instruments to measure data. But you do need to be aware of changes and what they mean to where and how you fish. All fish respond to temperature in one way or another, pike just happen to be one of the most sensitive to it.
The more time you put into anything, the better the chances you’re going to have success. One of the biggest things you can do to consistently catch good sizes and numbers of pike is to stay on them all season long. The simplest ways to do this is sticking to one or two bodies of water, finding areas where the fish spawn and tracking them out from these areas as the year moves along. I really believe that you’re better off learning a piece of water in great detail rather than running around from lake to lake. If you remember nothing else about finding pike, remember that familiarity breeds success! The best fishermen I know are people who stick to a handful of water bodies and specialize in fishing them. They know the seasonal timing (usually the daily timing, too) the spots on the spots and have the best fishing methods distilled.
Spring is a time when great chunks of the population are all doing the same thing: moving into shallow water to reproduce or feed. Warming, stable water and a soft bottom are two of the keys. Shallow, isolated bays are popular early in the year because this water gains and holds temperature. If your lake has them, you could do a lot worse than just learning a handful of bays and the spots close to them. I’ve seen and caught pike early in the year near river mouths, in big, shallow backwaters and also along patches of protected, sandy or muddy shorelines. In all cases, the water isn’t being mixed and the bottom is right for fish to drop eggs. Thin slices of warm water are easily blown apart by weather changes. As long as fish can get over the right type of bottom and the temperature stays at a level they like, they can and will spawn in some areas you might drive right by. The better you know a piece of water, the more options you’re giving yourself. And even though the general trend for pike in spring is ‘shallow to spawn,’ remember that fish move in and out in waves. You can find pike in differing areas. Some might be waiting to spawn, some might be right in the middle of spawning, some might have spawned and left, and some fish won’t spawn at all. No matter what you fish for, always remember that not all fish do the same things at the same times. There are distinct populations within the same piece of water that live different lives. Fish are like tribes in a jungle. Some raise animals to eat. Others constantly move while following food and hunting. Some might only eat fruits or plants found in a certain area.
Spring is a transition month, just as fall is. It’s a period of change that’s leading towards a period of stability. All you have to do to understand the volatility of spring weather is think back over the past four or five Victoria Day Long Weekends! If you’re a camper or cottager, trips can range from comfortable to downright dangerous. I can tell you that I’ve had many ruined by cold rain, snow, huge winds, hot weather or blackflies. You’ve really got to be prepared for it all. You’re not quite out of winter and you’re not into summer yet, either. 2009 was just exceptionally bad, but not totally out of the norm. We had a pile of rain, very windy weather, and the water stayed cold well into July. Fishing effectively was very difficult in bad winds, and the fish were slow to begin with. Things this early in spring are usually just plain unsettled. For pike, we carry a wider range of gear in spring than at any other time. And even though we’re focused mainly on areas that are closer to shore and less than twenty feet deep, we still try a range of techniques in these areas.
Most of the casting we do is with bass-weight baitcasting rods in the seven to eight foot range and fifty or sixty five pound test braided lines, like Power Pro or Tuf Line. We carry spinning tackle in the same actions too. Sevenstrand wire and fluorocarbon leaders are obviously mandatory no matter what technique you’re using. In the spring you’ll be dealing with a lot of fish most days, and there’s almost always big ones to be had. A good leader that will hold up to a lot of abuse is very important. The last few years, we’ve been using a lot of knotted Seaguar fluorocarbon in forty to sixty pound test. This stuff is durable, you can tie with it, and the average leader will outlast a wire one. Year in and year out, floating and suspending minnowbaits are the go-to lure. Between about five and eight inches seems to be the best size range. In bad winds, larger, heavier, suspending baits like H12 Husky Jerk or Suspending Storm Thunderstick are easier to cast and control. When you’re working lures of this size in bad wind, braided line helps you control and feel the bait when it’s far from the boat and a big bow develops in your line. Plus, even little bumps or pops of your rod tip get transmitted right to the nose of the bait.
Floating minnowbaits kind of fell out of vogue after everyone started making suspenders, but I can tell you that baits that run high in the water and rise when you stop moving them can be magic at times. They’re tougher to cast in bad winds, but well worth the effort! Three of the best are Cordell’s Ripplin Redfin, Bomber Long A’s and the good old #18 Original Floating Rapala. Six to nine inch Suicks are great too, and like the #18 Rapala, they cast very well. You can use floaters and suspenders slowly, with lots of pauses, or fish them faster with more snapping and reeling. Little bass reels like the Shimano Curado or Garcia 6500 eat up lots of line fast, are easy on the body all day and very reliable. Having a ten or twelve pound pike hit while you’re going to start your next snap is almost a spiritual experience after jigging through the ice all winter. It’s a fun and productive way to fish. And jerkbaits can cover a range of speeds and depths to match the attitude or location of the fish.
Jigging and trolling are two options that consistently produce early in the year also. If you’re not doing well casting, try weaving along spots with a baited spinner rig behind a bottom bouncer, like a Northland Rock Runner. If there are good populations of smelts or trout where you fish, try your same minnowbaits behind a small, in-line planer board like Off Shore’s OR-12. Spoons like Williams Wobblers or Lucky Strike Half Waves are terrific also. Many, many springs we get our biggest pike trolling, and usually within five or six feet of the surface. I’ve seen poor days turned around simply by putting down the casting rods and putting the boat in gear. Using a depthfinder+GPS combo will revolutionize the way you fish. Your speed control will improve and so will you knowledge of spots and how thoroughly you work them. Add in a digital map chip and it’s almost unfair! I use Lowrance electronics on my boat with Navionics map chips.
If you really want to slow down and pick apart good spots, jigging through waypoints, icons and trails is also effective. In or near moving water especially, pike will hang out with the walleye and suckers around deep holes, little slack spots or behind humps and other structures. Locking these spots down on your plotter and working them with a plastic or hair jig is time-consuming, but it works. I’ve always found that spots near current really stack up fish of all kinds. Once you mark up a few, you can return again and again and find fish. I had a chance to do a lot of fishing in Northwest Ontario a few years ago, and as the spring runs of walleye and pike tapered off, jigging the humps and seams just outside the rivers was really productive on bigger fish. Having a good sonar really helped eliminate any downtime spent looking for my spots.
Along with jigging, fishing live or dead baitfish can be the only thing that produces sometimes. I’ve had the best luck doing this in the worst weather, when pike aren’t moving around much and inactive in general. You must stay current on Fishing Regulations based on where you are. Livebait fishing, especially with minnows or coarse fish, is something that regulators are constantly re-regulating. In some cases, they’ve tried banning it altogether. There are many legal issues, and with budget cuts to enforcement, you can’t expect many breaks if you get checked and are doing something questionable. That’s the reality of the situation. Fishing ‘meat’ also requires extra attention to your rigging and technique to make sure fish aren’t deeply hooked and injured.
Anchoring up wind or up current from areas where pike will hang around or travel through is never a bad bet. Slip bobbers like Thill’s Big Fish Slider are normally rigged with a flexible wire and one or two hooks. Regulations are specific on what’s legal as far as rigging, and once again, you have to be 100% clear. Live minnows (chubs and suckers are two of the best) can be kept swimming with a light wire treble or single hook matched to the size of the bait. Single hooks like Eagle Claw’s Model 84 are my favourite. They pick up less junk when your minnow gets near bottom and they’re very easy to set and remove from the fish. Most of the time, I like to keep the minnow struggling in a confined under right under the float. I make thirty pound test Sevenstrand wire leaders about eighteen inches long and anchor them with a heavy egg single right above the top swivel. To keep the weight from sliding and spreading the rig all over the place when a pike hits and runs, peg the weight in place with a round toothpick. I normally peg it and butt it right up to the swivel. You want enough weight to submerge the float ¾ of the way under the water. As an added wrinkle, if you’re looking to cover water with a float using wind, lighten up the weight. More of the float sticks out of the water and helps it move. To pin it down in heavy wind, current or on a good spot, weigh it right down.
When a pike hits, expect it to make some sort of run. Generally, once the float disappears you will see your line begin to move off. With any type of natural bait, you need to be on the ball. Quickly determine the direction the fish is heading, let the line tighten down and sweep the hook back into the fish. Make sure all the slack is out of the line before you drop the hammer. There’s really no advantage to waiting for the pike to ‘swallow’ the minnow. You risk having the fish run through snags along bottom or hooking it deeply. We use eight foot baitcast rods with a soft tip for lob casting these rigs. Rods for livebait are like trolling rods, in that they just need to be reliable. There’s no real need for exotic actions or extreme sensitivity. I use a pair of South Bend composite rods that I bought on sale years ago.
Braided line in sixty five pound test works well because it’s visible, very tough and it floats like a cork. Soaking bait with mono will give you problems when the line sinks along the bottom. Braid keeps the whole package neat and organized on the surface and the sensitivity is great for feeling what the fish is doing and setting the hook. We use it through the ice for the same reasons. Great feel, control and very durable. Garcia 6500 reels with a clicker work well as a reel. A heavy, ¾ to 1ounce jig is a really good set-up under a float too! Nick the minnow through the tail and he’ll fight the weight of the jig all day. I have no idea why, but almost every pike we land on this rig gets the jig right in the corner of the jaw. Maybe the lead ball rolls out of their mouth, almost like a circle hook. Hot orange and pink have proven to be two good colours if you’re looking for a little extra attraction on the minnow.
There’s no way that I could choose between my love of pike fishing and muskie fishing! Luckily, by the time the muskie season opens most places near the end of June, some great pike fishing is going on, using some of the same spots and approaches that we use for muskies. We’re still focusing on the general areas that held fish a month or more earlier. Only now, spots are that much closer to water that’s deeper. One of the golden rules in summer is that good spots are a sum of their combined parts. Early in the summer, and as certainly was the case in 2009, the overall temperature might take a long, long time rise and stabilize. If you can find areas with mixed rock, some budding weed growth and some deeper water right nearby, you can usually start finding good quality fish. The mistake I see people make a lot is hanging around those shallow, flat spots too long. Early in the year, I have no problem being surrounded by six to ten feet of water for hundreds of yards in all directions. But by late June and into July, the depth requirement changes. Fish can still be comfortable in six or eight feet of water, as long as it can be off in thirty feet with a few tail kicks. Lots of the better pike we get casting early to mid-summer are on or near the high spots on the shoals or points, but we’re reaching these fish with the boat in water that might be fifteen to thirty feet deep. The pike are still ‘shallow,’ they’re just much more closely associated with ‘deep.’ The same types of areas always produce. They’re usually large in overall area, close to deep water, and have a great mixture of cover (broken rock, cabbage or coontail weeds) and depth levels. This is a well-worn cliché from magazines and television. And it’s one of those rare ones that happens to be 100% true.
This time of the year, and on these types of spots, pike have the option of tucking along the sharpest part(s) of the spot, suspending/travelling out away from it, or sulking on the bottom nearby. The location of the fish sounds pretty vague, but I have caught enough from all three zones to say that you must check it all. Casting and trolling are both effective. Medium to large-sized spinners and spinnerbaits catch a lot of fish. Spinnerbaits are one of the most popular lures for pike. They’re great over rocks, through weed, dropped vertically or bumped along the bottom in deep water. You can check multiple zones on a spot with one lure, even within the same cast. Esox Research’s Grinder, Fudally’s Hawg Spins, CJ’s, Rad Dogs, Grimm Reapers and Lindy’s M&G’s all catch pike. You can burn them fast, plowing through weeds, you can troll them, or you can crawl them along almost like a jig. Most of the time with spinnerbaits I’ll either let it hit the bottom before or I start the retrieve or at least once before it gets back to the boat. This is one of those things that’s easy to forget but produces fish! Spinnerbaits are probably the best-hooking lures out there, and very easy on the big fish you’re releasing. As the weeds get heavier and heavier and the water warms up, they tick the deep side of heavy cover and work out into open water. Heavy ones, from three to five ounces, with smaller blades and thinner skirts are great for rolling deeper. Typically, muskie gear is the way to go, using braided line from sixty five to one hundred pound test and a heavy wire or fluoro leader on a good reel and long, heavy action rod. St.Croix’s 8’6 Premier and 8’6 Slingblade models are some of the finest rods I’ve used for casting spinners.
The smaller jerkbaits that worked all spring will still work, but I find myself using larger baits this time of year for their casting distance, diving ability and overall target appeal. A range of dive/rise, twitch and cranking baits all work. Ten inch weighted Suicks, Wades Wobblers, Bobbie Baits and Musky Mayhem’s Big Daddy are what I would classify as garden variety, ‘wooden jerkbaits.’ For the most part, they dive straight down when you reel/sweep them forward and either hang or rise slowly. Big Daddies and Wades run pretty deep and can call big pike up from ten or fifteen feet below them. Even with jerkbaits that come weighted from the factory, I still add a small bell sinker to the front split ring and add heavy wire hooks like Mustad’s 3x. As long as the bait isn’t sinking, it’s weighted right. Most of mine all run very deep and suspend when they stop. Sometimes in heavier weeds and over rocks, more buoyant jerkbaits are better for picking through without hanging up. Baits that dive and rise can be awesome any time of the year. That melodic, prodding action is a natural fish magnet.
Glider-style jerkbaits have been very popular with muskie fishermen for some time now, and their action and running depth fits with summer pike very well too. Most of these lures sink, and they range in action from left to right (or ‘walking the dog’) to up and down, to all over the place! Baits like Esox Research’s Hellhound flutter down almost like a spoon when you stop them and will walk the dog as well as pop upwards and downwards. Ten inch Manta Hang Tens are another good glider. The can be made to run deep and are easy to get in a rhythm with. Pike and muskies will miss these things just as they do erratic, walking surface lures, but there is no arguing their appeal to the fish. I’ve seen pike hit gliders when other baits aren’t working. As a bit of a side note, the same is true about walk the dog surface lures like Jackpots, Weagles, or Magnum Zara Spooks. Hooking percentage definitely falls off, but this type of action simply fascinates pike. I’ve caught few really nice pike well into the summer months that were called up out of deep water while using them for muskie. And to be clear, I’ve missed twice as many.
Magnum, unweighted Bulldawgs are another great one for working deeper. They’re hard to fish wrong and were my #1 bait for quality pike in the cold and sloppy June and July of 2009. Sharpen the hooks and give them a try. They’re deadly. Don’t think twice about casting the Magnum version. With the tail extended these lures are well over a foot long. Pike of all sizes will fold them up like a hot dog bun and engulf them. The key with all these baits is that they get down and stay down, move enticingly, and closely replicate the size and shape of what pike are usually eating this time of year, namely small walleye, suckers, panfish, bass or bullheads. All it took for me to gain confidence in this style of lure was fishing them. I caught pike on them right away and learned very fast that they aren’t a lure that fish toy with or nip at. They hammer them. They’re more durable than you might think too.
Baits like Esox Research Co.’s Double and Triple D are basically like a Husky Jerk on steroids, and pike smash these things too. Cranking them down and jerk-reel-pausing is really as complicated as it needs to be. Musky Innovation’s Shallow Invader works much the same. It’s a bait that catches big pike and it has earned a regular spot in the boat for about the last two seasons. We do more and more fishing with rubber-tailed plugs every season and they flat-out produce. Standard crankbaits like ten inch Maina-Drifter Jakes, nine inch Grandmas, Bucher Depth Raiders and Rapala Super Shad Raps are also good lures for working deeper spots casting and trolling. Nine inch Grandmas have heavy thump, no rattles and they run and suspend very deep. They’re a real sleeper bait for big pike all season. We fish all these types of crankbaits and jerkbaits on eight to nine foot rods. They cast further and absorb most to the workload from all the ripping and jerking . Making long casts around the edges of good structure with a deep diving crankbait or twitcher is a simple and effective way to catch some nice fish.
Once water temperature maxes out in late summer, targeting suspended fish with trolling techniques will up your average size almost immediately. On inland lakes especially, this has proven to be my #1 pattern for big pike during the dog days of summer. Pike near the upper reaches of the thermocline are un-pressured, well-fed and usually easy to locate with your sonar. Running baits from eighteen to thirty feet down over forty to one hundred feet of water is pretty common. In-line keel weights from 5/8 oz. to 1oz, Dipsey Divers and even downriggers can be used to deliver a range of plugs, spoons or baited spinner rigs. Small baits like #9 Rapala Shad Raps or Spoonbill Rebels can sometimes be just as effective as larger baits, like Cisco Kidds, Jakes or magnum spoons like Eppinger’s Husky Devil. Many of the crankbaits you already use for pike and muskie can be flatline trolled deep enough all on their own. Dropping down to sixty five or even fifty pound test superbraid will help small to medium sized deep divers dig deep. You won’t be making any bottom contact fishing these open water areas, so the lighter line isn’t going to be a problem. Straight and Jointed eight inch Depth Raiders are one of the best lures for running down fifteen to twenty feet on a long line. Of course, line counter reels make this whole procedure easier. I use Daiwa Sealines. The little LCA27’s work great for open water pike. At three miles an hour, about 110 feet of fifty pound Power pro will but a straight Depth Raider down about nineteen feet.
Speed and depth are the two most important factors. Once you get these wrinkles down pat, you can really start seeing patterns and exploiting them. You might need to crawl along at 2mph with small baits on weighted lines to fish deep in the water column sometimes. Other times, powering through areas at two or even three times that speed with baits pounding high and fast over top of the fish will do it. If you’re seeing big clouds of insects, baitfish or gamefish on your sonar over deep water late in the summer, try trolling them. Evenings have proven to be one of the most effective times to try this, and if what you’re marking is close to big, prominent structures, you’ve really got an area to work! As always, punch up icons on your plotter whenever you see good action on the graph, and definitely after you get a strike. Jointed Legend Perchbaits are a great bait for powering over deeper fish late in the summer. They will handle speeds in excess of six miles an hour and their violent action and durability are very good. We released a couple very nice fish in the Severn Sound region of Georgian Bay in September of 2009 on them.
Trolling really comes into its own once fall sets in and the water begins to cool off and the thermal zones within the lake start to break apart. Just like in early summer, pike can be ‘shallow, near deep’ once again. One misconception is that weeds all die in the fall, and that dead or dying weeds repel fish. Both are completely untrue in my experience. Some of best weeds to fish on a lake are the weeds that never die! There are weeds I fish where I can punch a hole over top of them with the auger in February and rip up huge, beautiful plants. They get a constant flush of high-quality water due to their location. They’re on big spots near sections of open water and there’s always natural and wind-induced current to keep the water becoming stagnant or too warm. If you can find spots like this where you fish, please, fish them hard this fall! Some of the growth around the edges or the smaller clumps/fingers will die back, but the main bodies last all year.
These are great weeds to troll. Staying just outside with a large, steep-diving crankbait takes time to learn how to do, but is very effective on big fish. Legend Perch Baits, Junior Hookers, Maina-Drifter Ernies and other crankbaits all get down fast and you won’t need much line out. This is a real key for trolling tight to fall structure. In rough, cooling water in October and November, trolling becomes one of your best and safest options. Plot out spots, and attack areas from different depths, speeds and angles. If edges or open water trolling passes don’t work, we always make at least a couple ‘suicide runs.’ Take your boat and drive baits right over the thickest weeds, shallowest parts of the rock or right up the gut of the spot. You’ll either get snagged/fouled or nail a fish. By mid to late October, some weeds will have their leaves blown off and all that’s left are long, skinny stalks. These are easy to fish through and don’t think for a second that fish have left a spot simply because the weeds are beat up. Good spots are good spots for more than one reason (remember the ‘sum of their parts’ idea?) and in fall, focusing on a handful of good, big areas or spots that you know intimately is the best approach.
Deep structure requires the same level of familiarity to fish. Grinding bottom over flats or deep-topping ledges, shoals or extensions off islands with crankbaits is one of my favourite trolling techniques. We use trolling outfits rigged with twenty to forty pound solid wire to stay deep at low speeds, typically between 2 and 4mph. Pike will tuck into any kind of ambush points they can on these spots, or will sometimes be out on patrol, actively moving. Ten Inch Hookers, Legend Plows and a selection of hand-made crankbaits get deep, give off great vibration and are almost totally snag-proof. Their big lips, high buoyancy and the steep dive angle created by the wire line makes for an efficient package. For staying on bottom from twenty to forty feet deep, this type of set-up is the only way to go. Generally, the rougher the bottom, the slower we troll.
Right before pike season closes, normally mid to late November, there’s also some good fishing to be had for big fish in sheltered bays, harbours or other such spots. Slow tapering, shallow (usually less than twenty feet deep) bays or river mouths draw enormous rafts of baitfish when the big fall winds are pounding. Many of these areas can be similar or the same as the ones your season started in. Once again, familiarity with your surroundings and tracking the fish throughout year comes into play. These are the types of areas where commercial bait dealers will net minnows to sell all winter. The amount of baitfish that can show up in these areas can be mind boggling, and they’re off the main lake and out of the nasty seas. Pike will be gorge-feeding on shiners, chubs and other minnows, as well as on the other gamefish present. I have seen this in parts of Cook Bay on Lake Simcoe very late in the year. Hooked fish are all bloated from the excessive feeding. I’ve seen them cough up huge streams of freshly-ingested baitfish beside the boat. We’ve caught some really nice fish in areas like Picton Bay on Lake Ontario very late in the year. Huge rafts of minnows spread over large, sheltered coves and flats, and big pike hang around. Trolling crankbaits slowly and methodically in these areas works very well. The same old story applies. Know how deep your lures are running, use your plotter to always fish ‘fresh’ chunks of water or return to hot runs, and experiment with your speed and the types of spots you drag your baits through.
Probably one of the biggest reasons why I love pike fishing is the fact that they are so readily available through the ice all winter. Not only that, but this is when I’ve caught nearly all of my biggest fish, those ones between twenty and thirty pounds. If I had to pick one season for a big fish, I’d pick first or last ice in the winter. The fish continue to feed actively and are putting on weight for spawning once the ice comes off. You’ll already know some good locations, and once these have been established, the methods used to catch fish are very, very basic. Once safe ice has formed and the winter season has opened, icefishing is a lot of fun and highly productive. Through the ice, you can basically jig or fish with live or dead bait on a stationary rig. Most places allow for at least two lines, so you can use both techniques. Once again, be 100% clear on local regulations. You’re not going to get many breaks from Conservation Officers who have less and less in terms of resources while still having to check and enforce more and more area. One of icefishing’s biggest draws is that anyone can do it. You don’t need a boat. Lots of people icefish and enforcement ramps up accordingly in most places. Not following the rules about number of lines, baits/rigging or what’s in season is an easy way to ruin your weekend.
Fishing in groups of three or four really helps cover areas using different techniques and depths. Where I do most of my fishing, we’re allowed two lines and I normally carry tip-ups and jigging rods. We cut a lot of holes and basically dedicate the bulk of our time to covering good structures. Not only will we fish different zones on a spot, but different spots as well. A lot of the time, good areas are those that pike filter through in waves during the day. It’s very common to have action in fits and starts as packs of fish travel past. Someone will miss one jigging, then a set line goes off. A fish is caught, a line gets reset and another goes off. I’ve seen it many times in the winter with all species, not just pike. Time of day and lunar phase can make all the difference in the world. One lake I fish has produced three pike over twenty pounds, and many others in the eight to fifteen range, on both setlines and jigging. It only produces from 11am until 1pm. I fish it from dawn until dusk and the only action we see is during that window. If they’re going to show up and bite, this is when it will be. If a lunar rise, set, major or minor coincides with this, chances at big fish go up even more. Before and after the window is largely a waste of time. Another area I fish is strictly a morning bite, from daylight until about 10am. You need to get out early, get the holes opened and get set up. Most times we’ve caught our fish and are off the ice before noon. Knowing a few spots on a few pieces of water and the personality of the water you’re on is just such a huge key. Let’s face facts. You’re not running and gunning in winter like you can from a boat. The days are shorter and the water’s colder. Timing and efficiency on pinpoint locations are two of your biggest trump cards. Once you learn these, you’re going to really up your chances through the ice.
Jigging lets you experiment with a range of speeds, depths and actions over a large swath of water. You can not only check the water from top to bottom, but all over a spot too. And pike love vertically fished presentations in any season. They’re erratic, they move in a confined area and have excellent attracting and triggering qualities. Plus, you can add ‘meat’ to just about any winter jig for scent. It will come up again when talking about live/dead bait: pike have an excellent sense of smell. Being an aggressive, sight-feeder overshadows this a lot of the time. I always try to add either a minnow head, tail or strip to my jigging baits when I can. It slows the bait’s fall and bulks it up a bit also.
Spoons like the Williams Whitefish or Wobbler continue to be highly productive. These designs have been around a lot longer than I have, and their vibration, action and shape simply make fish hit. Swimming lures like Jigging Rapalas and Salmo Chubby Darters are also deadly. Rapalas are heavy and don’t have the same flutter and vibration as spoons. But deliberate snaps and pauses make pike go nuts at times. They’re a magic lure, too. They’re called ‘swimming’ lures because the harder and higher they’re jigged, the wider the area they’ll circle in before eventually coming to rest back under the hole again. Airplane jigs like one Northland makes are very similar. The Chubby Darter is actually a wood bait, and is weighted and designed to not only shoot off and dart when you jig it, but also rock and flutter when dropped. It’s a fish-catching machine that has ‘spoon’ and ‘swim’ action. Don’t forget tube jigs, twisters or bucktail jigs, either. They work just as well as they do in the boat. Tubes are a real sleeper winter lure for pike. Add a stinger hook and a small minnow and you’ve got a very versatile rig. Tubes are very similar to the Bulldawg, in that pike just eat these things without a second’s thought. You can get them in more and more sizes and colours every year it seems. Use a jig with a big, sharp hook. Owner Co. makes some really nice tube heads for pike. Experiment with weights from very light to very heavy and everything in between. A big part of any jigging lure’s appeal is how fast or slow it falls. Some days, that sharp ‘thump’ of a Rapala is what pike will like. Other times, a slow, almost stationary tube shaken in place and laid on the bottom is better. Twister tails baited with a tiny minnow or minnow head are a great bait for shaking.
Always mix it up when you jig. This not only applies to working the water from the bottom to top, but also your speed and cadence. If you’re using a good sonar, you can easily see what’s going on down there. What were you doing when that fish showed up on the screen? Were you still doing it when it finally bit? Did you tease it way up off bottom? Did it rush in and smash the lure? Did you do something to make it suddenly flee? If you’ve never icefished with a sonar, I encourage you to. You will learn more about fish behaviour and what it takes to trigger (or spook) fish in one hour than you have in years. Jigging and watching fish under a sonar will totally revolutionize your way of thinking. Lowrance’s little Ice Machine is a portable unit that even has a GPS option. There are many fishermen who like flashers better, like the Vexilar. I’ve fished with both and they are simply invaluable. Would you go out and cast or troll blind, with no sonar on the boat? I wouldn’t.
We do most of our jigging with St.Croix’s line of icefishing rods with the same reels, lines and leaders we use in the spring. St.Croix’s rods are well-priced and good quality. They make a couple thirty six and thirty eight inch models in Medium Heavy and Heavy that work perfect for the baits we use. Rods for pike don’t have to be super-sensitive or fancy. Older, glass or composite rods baited with a simple jig and minnow catch fish all year, every year. Lay the jig on bottom and let the minnow do its thing between light lifts or twitches.
Baited lines can be every bit as good as jigging. The type of rig I use is normally dictated by how cold it is. Tip-ups that feed line from under the water, like HT’s Polar or Thermal will operate no matter how cold it gets. I’ve used them down to -38C. When it’s warmer out, you can get a little fancier. HT’s Windlass tip-up uses a steel fin on a fulcrum-type unit to lift, drop and shake your bait all day. With the line feeding from above the waterline, these are quick to freeze up in the hole on cold days. When left to operate freely though, they are a devastatingly effective tool for presenting baitfish, especially dead ones. We salt cure and freeze all our leftover pike minnows as well as herring and smelt. Herring are greasy and herring stink. And pike can smell them down there in the darkness under the layer of water, the layer of ice and the layer snow on top of all that. It’s smell that guides pike to dead meals, and they do it all year round. They will find them when they’re just left laying on the bottom, motionless. But put them on a perfectly tuned and weighted Windlass so that they bounce around erratically with gusts of wind all day and the pike have no chance. Of course, if you want to rig one with a live baitfish, you can watch the hinge arm dance and keep a close eye on how active your bait is. Simply a deadly way to fish. I spool mine with forty pound Cortland Dacron or eight pound braided line. It’s tough, sensitive and easy to manage when you’re fighting a big fish by hand. Check the Regulations carefully when you’re buying or making live and deadbait rigs. There are specifics that apply directly to hooks, attractors and what’s permitted as bait. If you’re unsure, just put in a call to your local detachment and tell them where you’re planning on fishing.
Slip bobbers are also very good, and give you a little more mobility than a tip-up does. You can set and adjust you depth, then reel up and plunk the whole works down into a fresh hole. Once again, tougher to use when you’re outside in cold weather, but very time-efficent in a shelter or outside on a mild day. We normally cut holes in clumps of two or three so that we can jump around and jig near a slip bobber. It’s a deadly combination and perfect for getting young people into fishing. We run around all winter in a 2-Person Clam Fish Trap and normally try to have a bobber working all day inside, where it’s warm. Cold weather can actually help you some times. While I’ve never done really well in deep-freeze conditions, having to constantly clear holes, check lines and keep your rigs free and working triggers fish. Pike that are in the area of a set line (or jig, for that matter) can be turned on by something as simple as lifting or dropping the rig a few feet while you clean a hole or check your line. I’ve seen it too many times to discount. When it’s cold and we’re running set lines, we spend the whole day walking between them checking, adjusting and keeping things operating smoothly. On extended trips when a few good areas are producing, there’s normally well-worn paths through the snow between the hot holes. If you’re bait-fishing right, it’s actually a lot of work, especially when it’s cold out. Messing with your sets all day will trigger fish that are looking for that extra trigger to get them to bite. Along the same lines, reeling your jigging bait right up and out of the water works too. Take a second to check your rigging, fire it back down, and bang! The sonar doesn’t lie. Lots of fish that hang around on the screen will hit after the lure disappears for a while then free-falls all the way back down. It’s amazing to watch. The sonar will really help you understand what it takes to make fish bite some days. Pumping a jig in a hole near a live minnow will normally get it nervous and dancing again. If a minnow with a lateral line three inches long can sense your jigging lure, I think it’s safe to assume that a pike with a lateral line twelve times that long can find your bait down there too.
Being properly set-up for icefishing is really what draws the line between a pleasurable and productive trip and an uncomfortable and lousy one. It’s all about the little details. We always carry an extra slush scoop or two, live or dead baits are neatly packaged and not going to leak all over everything, and a small variety of baits are stored in small, durable containers. Jigging rods go into a neat and protective carrying case (check out the ones make by HT and Lakewood) or plastic pail. When broken down, tip-ups can be stored neatly in a roll-up case or pail. Make sure all the nuts, fittings and springs are in good shape. My tip-ups are all over ten years old and still work very well. The days are short in winter, and you have ample time off the ice to check and maintain what you carry. Something as simple as forgetting your slush scoop can be a real headache. If you have flaws in any part of your equipment, from a reel handle to the tow bar on your fishing shelter, cold weather will expose it, and fixing things outside in the winter or having to go without is never fun. Out on the ice isn’t the place for routine maintenance or fixing problems. When the ice is glare, use a pair of creepers on your boots to get you around safely. Make sure you auger is gassed up, the blades are sharp and your chisel has a good edge on it. Let people know where you’re planning to fish, and when you should be expected home. Never go onto the ice without at least thirty to fifty feet of good safety rope or ice picks. I have been through the ice, and it isn’t something I’d rush to recommend to anyone. Done right, icefishing can get you the biggest pike of your life. It has for me. A couple times now.
And that’s about it. Pike, no matter what size, are an awesome fish to target, fight and either harvest or release. I hope in reading this, you’ve been able to feel how passionate I am about these fish, and hopefully you’ve come away with a new tip or two to test out. Fish over forty inches are every bit as special as a fifty inch muskie. In my opinion, given their depth and water quality needs, they’re even harder for lakes to produce. Carrying a good camera, large net with quality mesh (look at the ones sold by Beckman and Frabil) and a simple set of hook-removing tools will make sure that big ones are handled fast and released in good shape. For smaller hooks and split rings, a heavy pair of side cutters works. For heavier tackle, Knipex makes some great tools for cutting hooks and getting fish free quickly. Learn a manageable selection of good spots on a good pike fishery or two, and apply some basic techniques, learning as much as you can every time you’re out.
Follow the fish around through the seasons and you’ll learn to catch ‘em.
by J.P. Bushey