The cold was nearly insufferable as we set up the tip-ups; water that splashed
out of the holes that we had drilled instantly froze around our pant cuffs,
turning them to cardboard. But soon after we dropped the last minnow into the
frozen lake we were sipping hot coffee in my marquis outdoor vehicle Ė an í83
Bronco. As we clutched hot mugs of coffee with frozen fingers, fellow writer
Steve Mattson and I barely had enough time to thaw our lips when an orange flag
ďFlag,Ē Steve blurted, nearly spitting out his coffee.
We both jumped out of the truck and ran to the hole. I broke the ice already
forming around the tip-up spindle and then carefully raised it above the ice.
This fish was running...but a few minutes later the spool slowed to a halt.
Cautiously, I took the up the slack until it was tight, then jerked the line to
set the hook. I could feel the sharp hook bury itself into the toothy maw of a
huge northern pike. The boxing match began. As he countered my hookset by
taking more line, I pinched the line between my fingers to fashion a drag of
sorts and applied as much pressure as I dared. A few minutes later the tug-of-war
reversed course and I was able to reclaim nearly all of the line. But as so
often happens, when the fish got close to the ice, it thrust its tail in a last-ditch
attempt to escape, forcing me to once again surrender more line. Hand-over-hand
I pulled back the line once again until the big green head with the cream
colored chin popped onto the ice.
Few fish capture the imagination of anglers as much as the northern pike. The
mere mention of its name conjures up summer images of a toothy predator
suspended below lily pads. To be sure, a big northern is a must-have for every
serious angler. But unlike other glamour fish, he is actually easier to catch
in the winter than the summer.
Ice fishing for pike is popular because it is effective and doesnít require a
huge investment in gear. A lot of fuss is made these days about the importance
of electronics when ice fishing. Well, maybe it helps for crappies and other
panfish, but it adds little to the pursuit of pike. More important than a
boatload of electronic gear is technique and knowledge of where to fish. For
example, first ice means hot action if you fish shallow bays. In the middle of
the winter, deep water holds fish. In the spring, dead smelt on the bottom
rings the dinner bell for pike tipping the scales at 20 lbs. Letís review each
of these in more detail.
First ice sparkles Ė it is a magical time to catch fish. In northern Minnesota,
first ice often occurs in November; in other states it often occurs after the
first of the year. First ice, like last ice, demands a bit of caution. Cold
weather is one thing, but plunge through the ice and you will know immediately
when pike arenít worth it. Most readers have seen charts that indicate required
ice thickness; most are very conservative, for obvious reasons. What is
actually very important but almost never mentioned is the danger of air pockets
under ice. Ice has no tensile strength; if it is not floating on water, it is
unsafe at any thickness. Luckily, air pockets under ice are quite rare. As
long as you have clear ice 3-4 inches thick and water comes out of a freshly
drilled hole, it is safe for you to walk on. You will need more ice to drive on,
but in early season you donít need to drive on the ice, because pike favor
shallow bays often located close to parking locations. I never fish water
deeper than 15 feet in the early part of the season. Bays that contain weedbeds
are often best; just donít fish in the weeds themselves.
Live bait is best for early season pike. Most anglers use shinners or small
sucker minnows, with the nod going to shiners. Hook them under the dorsal fin
and place them one foot above the bottom. Add enough weight to keep them from
swimming to the top. I prefer tip-ups, but jigging rods are often a very good
choice Ė jigging is a definite advantage, and during the early season the
weather is usually warm enough that staying outside is not a problem. A jigging
spoon tipped with a fillet from a sucker or shiner minnow is often very
effective. In most states you can fish two rods, allowing you to jig one and
fish either a tip-up or another rod.
Big fish like big minnows. Those who spearfish for pike (where legal) often buy
foot-long sucker minnows. Unfortunately, tip-up fishermen cannot use these,
because the big minnows trip the flag. At least until recently. A few years
ago I invented a unique method of fishing with big minnows using tip-ups.
Figure 1 shows details for this tip-up, which I call the clip tip-up, and the
sidebar describes its construction.
Figure 1: How to Construct a Clip Tip-Up for Fishing with Big Baits
To use the clip tip-up, rig a decoy or other large minnow on the terminal tackle
end. I like to use two single hooks on bigger minnows Ė I pass one hook through
the baitís lips and the other just below the dorsal fin. Using two wire leaders
attached to each other makes this easy. Lower the minnow down the hole to the
depth you want. Remember that early season fish are usually in shallow water.
When you achieve the correct depth, clip the line to the vertical piece of wire
using the downrigger clip; this will keep the fish on the line until a big pike
snaps it off. Set the flag as you normally would and get ready for a fight!
Using this rig I have caught lots of big pike as well as pike that seem to
barely capable of swallowing the decoy minnow, which makes me wonder how large a
bait can get before it becomes too big.
By the time old man winter thickens the ice and dumps a layer or two of snow on
the ice, pike leave the shallows for deeper water. Locating them is much
tougher, and they seem to be lethargic when you do find them. If your
opportunity to fish in the winter is limited, this time of year is one you
should pass if it means forfeiting early or late season trips.
Deep water is hard to prospect, so I like to look for natural funnel points.
For example, a saddle connecting two deep areas is a good place to intercept
pike moving from one area to another. I normally use tip-ups during this period
for a couple of reasons. I can drive on the ice, which allows me to stay mobile.
And just as importantly, it is cold out Ė tending a rod is just too painful.
Even portable shelters limit mobility, because they take time to setup. I use
live shiners close to the bottom for best results, but dead smelt or other oily
fish on the bottom also produce results.
Cold weather freezes water quickly Ė whether it is the hole in the ice, the
water on a rodís guides, or the line on a reel. Any of these conditions makes
fishing difficult. Using a tip-up solves almost all of these weather-related
problems, especially if you fashion a cover to insulate the ice hole. Another
good technique to prevent frozen tip-ups is to kick snow over the hole. This
provides an insulation layer that slows down the rate of freezing. In the past
anglers have used anti-freeze and other eco-unfriendly substances to prevent
freezing. Not only are such methods a bad idea from an environmental
standpoint, they are illegal.
Late winter or early spring is my favorite time to ice fish for pike. They
congregate in bays 20-35 feet deep near shallow water. These bays are often
adjacent to the same shallow water that these fish prefer right after first
ice. While live bait produces an occasional fish, the best bait by far this
time of year is dead smelt or ciscoes. Fish these with minimum weight right on
the bottom using a quick-strike rig. A quick-strike rig will allow you to set
the hook as soon as you sense a bite, be it from a tip-up or a rod.
Quick-strike rigs are best fashioned using large paper clips or a piece of wire.
Straighten a paper clip and then bend a small loop at one end. Next, take a
wire leader and attach a 3/0 hook to one end. Insert the swivel on the other
end of the leader through the loop on the paper clip. What you now have is a
straight piece of wire (the paper clip) with a loop on one end attached to a
steel leader that has a hook on its other end. Carefully insert the free end of
the paper clip wire into the smeltís mouth and push until it exits in the rear
of the fish. Grab this end of the paper clip and pull it through the smelt
until the wire leader passes through the body of the bait and the hook attached
to the wire leader enters the smeltís mouth. Now position the hook so that when
you pull the leader the hook buries itself into the smeltís forehead. Attach
another hook on the opposite end of the leader, and bury this in the tail of the
fish. Now attach the whole works to another wire leader and you are ready to go.
Unlike live bait, there is no need to let a pike run and swallow the bait. Just
set the hook as soon as you detect the fish picking up the bait. Fish hooked
using a quick strike rig are almost always mouth-hooked, so if your intention is
to catch and release, this is the perfect setup.
I have also used live bait in late winter, but the results never match those
using dead oily baits such as ciscoes. In fact, dead ciscoes are also a great
bait in shallow bays right after ice-out.
While others prefer catching dainty little sunfish or perch, a small subset of
winter anglers pursue pike. A trip into the frigid climate of winter for a try
at big pike may not always be successful, but the rewards outweigh the costs.
Big fish, big baits, big fun. With few exceptions, my biggest pike always come
from under the ice.