When discussing pike fishing with fellow ice anglers you will often hear stories of rocking tip ups, screaming line and long-lasting fishing battles. Pike, also known as northern pike, are a predatory fish that can grow to great lengths and weights. These predators have a healthy appetite, and in many ice fishing circles are considered the hardest-fighting fish under the ice.
Pike can be found in streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. They are typically found in shallow, weedy areas where they can ambush their prey. Pike are an aggressive species, especially when it comes to food. They will eat just about anything that they can fit in their mouths, including other northern pike and even small ducklings. This aggressive nature makes them an attractive target for anglers; add in the excitement of pulling one through a hole in the ice and you have the recipe for one of the most fun winter fishing options out there.
Where to Find ‘em
In the winter, pike are usually found chasing bait onto shallow weedy flats and coves. Winter pike fishing success can be had by understanding the relationship between the location of pike and their food source in a specific lake or pond. I seek out a location where deep water comes up to a shallow flat when setting up for a day on the ice. Holes are drilled from about 12 feet of water all the way up to 2 or 3 feet; the last hole in the line is often so shallow that mud and debris is turned up by the auger. In general I find that the shallower holes are the most productive when targeting pike; this is specifically true in the late-ice months. Pike spawn in the spring; late in the ice season they begin moving and stage in shallow areas with high vegetation. I believe this is one of the reasons for pike being so shallow during late ice.
The other reason for shallow water success on ice pike is the location of their food source in the winter. Pike hunt baitfish near weed lines and heavy vegetation, generally found in these shallower areas. They also feed on fish that may have died over the winter. These dead fish are often found along the edges of lakes and ponds and provide pike with an easy meal. When fishing shallow, it is important to consider how noise plays a roll to the fish under the ice. Often, I set up my ice tilts and move away from them so I don’t spook any fish under the ice. I also try to limit my movement and make very little noise so that I don’t scare the fish out of the area.
Rig Up Right
When fishing for pike it is important to use a high-quality tip up. Pike are large and strong fish, many times rocking tip ups above the ice back and forth with their fast bursts of speed and power as they take line. Because pike fishing often takes place in shallow water it is also important to think about the light shining through your hole. When using a conventional tip up, many anglers leave slush in their hole left by an auger in order to help block some of that light. Many companies such as Clam Outdoors, a leader in the ice fishing industry, have developed circular tip ups that cover the entire hole, blocking the light and also helping to insulate the water and prevent it from refreezing.
Hole size is a highly-debated topic. I generally believe that most fish in New England are going to fit through an 8-inch hole and anything larger is overkill. After saying that I know I will probably get a fish this season that doesn’t fit and will be scrambling to make it bigger! A 6-inch hole is much easier to cut but won’t give you the comfort of having some room to get both your hand and the fish quickly and easily through the ice. A 10- or even 12-inch hole is the best choice for ease of fishing and landing the fish. However, with this large of a hole you allow more light to shine into the water. This larger hole can also become a hazard if an unsuspecting person puts their foot through while walking out to their spot.
A pike rig comes in many shapes and sizes. I have seen anglers use a wide variety of hooks from a single circle hook to multiple treble hooks. When fixing your rigs, it is important to check with your local regulations as to what can be used. Many companies have come up with a double-treble hook rig for pike fishing. I practice catch and release on all of the pike I catch and would encourage other anglers to do the same, specifically with large breeding females. For this reason, I cut at least one of the barbs off of each treble hook in order to increase the chances of a successful release.
The rig I use the most when pike fishing is a twin-circle hook rig with the hooks facing away from each other. I attach the bait to one of the hooks and leave the other swinging freely. More often than not it is the free hook that is the one that actually hooks the fish. The hook placement frequently yields a successful hook-set at the top or side of the mouth and can easily be removed. In my experience pike aren’t very line shy; for this reason, many rigs are made of wire, but fluorocarbon and monofilament lines are also fine choices. I use a fluorocarbon rig because this type of line has very low visibility, allowing you to use thicker line without spooking the fish. It is abrasion-resistant, which is very important with these sharp-toothed predators, too. Fluorocarbon also has very little stretch, which helps with hook-sets.
What They Eat
As noted earlier, pike are ferocious feeders and will hit a wide variety of baits. Suckers, smelt and large shiners are all very popular winter bait for pike. Early in the season I like to use large, live baits. As the season progresses and pike start to move shallower, dead bait becomes my bait of choice. When fished in shallow water, a large, dead sucker or golden shiner on the bottom will often entice a pike to bite. I place the hook just behind the dorsal fin when hooking a bait. With a dead bait you’re not trying to mimic a live fish so the bait does not have to swing horizontally. I present the bait so the nose of the fish is on the bottom with the tail just off the bottom. Often in this situation a pike will grab the middle or back of the fish allowing you to perfectly set the hook in its mouth. You don’t have to set the hook hard on a pike; as long as the pike are large enough they will take the bait in their mouth and run with it. When you pick up your line give just enough tension to pull the hook out of the baitfish and right into the pike’s mouth.
Pike offer anglers in New England the opportunity to catch a large species through the ice with great strength and power. I am a big advocate of catch and release, but with that being said many anglers like to eat pike. I encourage those anglers to keep the smaller ones and let the larger females go in order to breed in the spring. With some experience on the ice, and following some of these tips and guidelines, you should find yourself catching pike in greater numbers and quality this year!
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