By: Matt Johnson
Northern pike are known for their
aggressive-nature and dominance over
prey. Pike are also a very hard-fighting
fish that like to rip drag and max out the
action of a rod. The explosiveness of
hooking a pike in open water can
indeed have similar effects under the
ice. Pike will still spend most of their day
searching for their next meal and they
will still strike with vengeance. Pike like
to eat, and pike like to eat everything.
Dangle a lively minnow in a pike’s face
at it will get bit. Pound a size 12 panfish
jig tipped with a maggot and a pike will
devour that too. I’m sure we’ve all
experienced a time when we’re out
targeting panfish with two-pound test
line coupled with a tiny crappie jig and
a ferocious hammer-handle decides to
join the party. That always gets my
adrenaline pumping and there is just
something about hearing that drag
squeal. However, actually targeting
pike through the ice can be a lot of fun and there are some big fish to be
caught. Let’s take a look at some winter locations and methods for catching
Pike can be found where their food is. This sounds like an obvious answer and
that probably seems that way because it is. Pike will follow around pods of
baitfish, panfish and other small gamefish. Pike enjoy snacking on a meal of
small bluegills or perch—and they do it quite regularly—even in the arctic
winter months. When trying to locate prime pike spots, I like to find areas
where I know panfish and perch tend to roam. Weedy areas are always good
bets for winter pike. Weeds attract baitfish and small panfish, and as we know,
pike will follow their prey. Pike spend a lot of time cruising a weed line waiting
for an easy meal to present itself. Pike also like to locate amongst pockets in
the shallow weeds or areas where weeds grow scarce enough for them to
aggressively attack their prey. Panfish have a sense of security amongst really
thick vegetation and those are typically areas where you won’t find as many
winter pike as you would near flats with more open pockets and lines of sight.
Pike also spend a lot of time cruising flats, both shallow and deep. Pike like
that open space where they have superiority over their prey. Perch that
wander aimlessly over a flat have no place to go when a hungry pike swims by.
Same goes for baitfish. Some of the largest pike I’ve iced have come from
large flats. Mud, sand, rock and gravel tend to make of the majority
content/structure of these flats. Weed flats are common though, but generally
these are areas where you will see a lot of your smaller pike. The larger pike
are out near humps and saddles that are scattered across large open flats.
Flats that are accompanied by deeper water are prime areas as well. Pike
will often-time slide off shallower flats into deeper water as winter begins to
Underwater points and inside turns are probably one of the best winter spots
for big pike—areas where you have a large point that drops into deep water
that is connected and/or adjacent to cabbage or vegetation areas. These
areas will sometimes have inside turns where baitfish likes to congregate. Pike
will slide up and down the large point throughout winter and you can even find
some pike holding to these areas throughout the winter months. Some large
points have all the characteristics of keeping a large pike happy from early to
And last but not least, pike will locate near mid-depth structure. Structure that
stands out over the main lake basin will attract pike. Rock piles, reefs, sunken
islands, bars… these are all areas where you can expect to find winter pike.
Pike will cruise the main lake basin until they see something they like, or
something that draws their attention. More often than not these areas are
holding some sort of baitfish, panfish or perch.
Locating big pike can sometimes be a waiting game. Aggressively searching
for pike can work at times, but there are also days when punching half-dozen
holes over a prime area and waiting it out will out produce hole-hopping. When
working a large flat there is no need to punch holes every ten feet. Covering a
hundred yard area might only need three of four holes. These pike are
roaming and are not likely to situate over a featureless spot for a long period
of time. If a pike is in the area it will stop by and investigate what the
commotion is all about.
I like to jig for pike. My best days on the ice have come from jigging and my
biggest fish have come from jigging. Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t use tip-
ups, because I still do. I like to use tip-ups to help me find out what paths or
locations the pike are using. By putting two lines in the water it allows me to
take away some of the guesswork. If I’m working a sunken island, then I usually
set a tip-up on top or just on the break of the island and then I’ll work a series
of holes off the island with a jigging rod. Pike like movement and action and
you can often times entice most pike into biting a moving or quivering lure. Tip-
ups are great for the dead-of-winter when you have negative pike that only
want dead bait. But, when I’m on a hardcore pike hunt I like to take the jigging
rods out. Although working a jigging rod and a tip-up can be a deadly combo
and I would deploy that one-two punch more often than not.
The lure options available for pike can be endless. Pike will take a jigging
spoon, no doubt about it. A quarter-ounce jigging spoon tipped with a whole
minnow or just a minnow head has been one of my go-to pike baits for as long
as I can remember. I like a spoon with a lot of flash and vibration. Spoons that
make noise and get the fish’s attention are very productive. Flutter spoons
also work very well for pike. Spoons are very versatile and can be fished in a
variety of ways and in several different conditions. I prefer a more aggressive
style of jigging when targeting pike with a jigging spoon. I like to incorporate a
lot of 1-2 foot pops followed by several seconds of shakes and jiggles. I
usually don’t use any pause sequences unless I get a pike that shows up and
just swims around the bait without eating. The jiggle sequence is usually when
the pike takes the bait. The Jason Mitchell Rattlin’ Blade Spoon or the Leech
Flutter Spoon from Clam Pro Tackle are good spoon options for winter pike.
Another option for pike is swimming lures. Swimming lures can be fished
without any sort of bait at all. Swimming lures are designed to trigger fish by
their natural appeal and action. Pike will certainly strike a plain Daredevil or
Rapala in open water, so what makes things different under the ice? Pike will
still strike lures without bait during the winter as well. The action of a swimming
lure is designed to mimic baitfish and injured minnows. The circular motion and
hops that a swimming lure gives off when jigged and pumped can really draw
in fish from a distance and cause a lot of reaction strikes. Pike will hit the lure
without much investigation. You will find a lot of aggressive strikes when using
swimming lures. There are a variety of options and sizes to choose from and I
like to try and match the forage that’s in the particular lake or body of water.
For instance, if you know that shiner minnows are the preferred bait in a
certain lake then go with a silver pattern swimming lure. Or if perch are heavily
populated you might want to go with a perch pattern. I like to work a swimming
lure with a lift-fall sequence. A quick two foot pump followed by a return to the
original spot. I’ll also add in a few jiggles and shakes as well. Don’t be afraid to
make the lure quiver or dance while you pull away from a fish if a pike
appears—they hate that!
Another option for pike is a flyer or airplane jig. These jigs are designed to
swim in circles and are usually tipped with a whole minnow through the head or
a plastic tail. You want the effect of a dying minnow as you work the bait. Work
the jig in a lift-fall sequence and add in a lot of shakes and jiggles as if falls.
Also incorporate some short, quick snaps when it returns to its original
location. Lead head jigs can be used for pike as well and shouldn’t be
overlooked. One of my favorite winter pike presentations is to rig a flyer-type
jig with a 4-inch Twister Tail. This technique works great as both a search lure
and triggering option.
When it comes to rod and reel choices for these big pike, I prefer a medium-
heavy or heavy action rod, usually in 32-40 inches in length. I prefer to fish
outside of a Fish Trap, so a longer rod gets more attention on my end.
Although the 32-36” rods will work just fine inside most Fish Trap models.
Then for a reel I prefer at least a mid-sized option, where line capacity allows
for larger diameter lines and a lot of it. Hook into a big pike in 30 feet of water
and you’ll be happy you have extra line! Spool that reel with 10-pound mono-
filament or copolymer. Adding some sort of light-wire or heavier fluorocarbon
leader is an option as well. The Professional Plus series of rods from Thorne
Brothers are a good option, otherwise the Ice Team Professional Series Ross
Robertson rod or Dave Genz Split-Grip Rods will do the job too!
For tip-ups I prefer to use quick-strike rigs. If I don’t actually get to set the hook
when a fish bites, I want to at least be sure that a fish is still going to be there
when I get to the hole. A quick-strike rig will enable you to have confidence
that a fish won’t hit and run. You also get a more natural appeal when rigging
up a minnow or dead bait on a quick-strike rig. A quick-strike rig looks like a
wishbone of sorts. You have almost an upside down “V” with a treble hook and
blade tied on each end. Usually the V portion of the rig in made up of some
kind of stranded wire or tough fluorocarbon. You attach the end of your tip-up
line (I prefer either coated line or some sort of Dacron) to the top of the quick-
strike rig. Once tied on you want to position the minnow so the minnow sits in
an upright and natural position when in the water. I like to barely hook the
minnow so it stays alive and can swim. I also like to add some sort of weight
about 10 inches up from the quick-strike rig, which allows me to get the
minnow down to the desired depth and it also helps hold the minnow in place
so it’s not swimming all over. This same technique can be applied when using
dead bait too. The Trophy Thermal Tip-Up from Clam Outdoors is an excellent
tip-up option, no matter the conditions. Then tie-on a Bigtooth quick-strike rig
and you’re ready!
At the end of the day, it’s finding big pike that usually more than half the battle.
Once you find pike they are usually pretty eager to bite. Smaller pike will stick
around panfish filled areas, but the larger pike have a tendency to move and
cruise mid-lake structure and larger flats. Stay mobile until you find a spot that
looks productive and then give it a few minutes before you move on. If there
are pike in the area, they will stop by to check things out. Work the jigging rod
and tip-up combination. I’m a firm believer in the effectiveness of using a
jigging rod for pike. You never know what you might have missed if you just set
out two tip-ups and play the waiting game. I can’t honestly remember the last
time when using both a jigging rod and tip-up that the tip-up out produced the
jigging rod. And plus, you get the adrenaline rush and line stripping action of
fighting a pike on a rod and reel!!
|Matt Johnson Outdoors 2003-2016
On the Hunt for Ice-Time Pike
Experience the Fishing...