I have spent many long days on the ice in search of trophy pike. Since they’re a cold water species, winter is a popular time to target them and the season is upon us now. There are several tips and tricks that I have found over the years that help me to ice more pike and with greater consistency.
Of all the time that I have put in fishing for pike through the ice, first light is the most productive. It may be difficult to wake up early for work, but it proves to be quite easy for me when it is time to fish. I try to hit the ice while it is still dark and drill my main holes before the sun is up to minimize extra noise during prime feeding hours. Getting in on that early morning bite when the sun is rising is important. As light penetrates the holes, fish begin to wake up and realize that it is breakfast time.
Setting a Spread
When you are setting up you want to find the most favorable areas for pike. Backwater coves and the edge of weed lines in the cove or even out on the main lake are good places to begin. Having still-green vegetation helps because the water around it will be the most oxygen rich. I like to find where a weed line meets some flats with varying depths as being in a place where two different areas meet gives you options. To cover such an area I set a spread of tilts. In my home waters of Connecticut, we are allowed six devices in total. So that calls for five tilts and my jigging rod so I can keep hole hopping. Be sure to check your local regulations as some states allow more or less devices.
I set out my tilts in what I call a baseball diamond pattern as shown in the diagram. It is easy to watch and I am able to cover a wide area across flats and weed lines to find where the fish are on a given day. Further, when fishing with other anglers this allows us to fully cover a larger expanse of water. When the action slows in mid winter it is important to cover a lot of water because fish become lethargic and it may be difficult—but not impossible—to get them to move far from their holding places to feed. The baseball diamond pattern overlays and repeats itself so I’m able to cover an even larger area if I choose to move some tilts around, and I also have more holes to jig while waiting for a flag.
Baiting the Spread
Early in the season I have all big, live baits set on the tilts, but when things slow as the season progresses my secret to success is keeping “the bases” (outside holes in the diamond) loaded with dead baits, and the “pitcher” (center hole) a lively pondie or fall fish. Having an active live bait in the center of the spread draws fish in and right through a field of dead baits. This gives the fish the choice to take an easy dead bait or an active live one. Scavenging something off the bottom is easy and very little energy is exerted to do so, but some days they simply prefer the live meal. To maximize the attraction of the live bait even further, I tie a small rattle on the shank of the hook so as the baitfish swims around there is a little added noise emitted from center stage.
While I have my five tilts busy, I work the pre-drilled holes on the outside edge of the spread with a jig. A lot of times this is just for the noise to draw fish into the area. Pike can be enticed to travel quite a ways over flats to check out a commotion. I may pick up a fish here and there on the jig, but the main objective is to get them into the field of live and dead baits so jigging something loud and flashy is often just a tool that I use to get fish on the field to play ball as I hope to not strike out.
Setting a Bait
When targeting northern pike through the ice there are standards that everyone goes by. With bait, anglers lean towards large presentations such as pond shiners, fall fish or suckers set below a tilt. Big fish love big baits and suspending a pondie is a good way to ice a northern.
When rigging up large baitfish for pike I use a looped quick-strike rig tied up with a steel leader or heavy monofilament. This type of rig lets me utilize two treble hooks to maximize the hook-up ratio with one placed in the bait’s tail and the other behind its head. Since both hooks are on the same leader they slide together when the bait is taken. This allows the hooks to almost always purchase one side of the mouth as they meet. I prefer this rig over a “Y” shape quick-strike rig because the profile of the rig itself is smaller so baits are presented more naturally. I have found these rigs to be more effective than a basic treble hook not only for hook-ups but also when practicing catch and release. Nothing is worse than seeing a trophy northern bleeding out all over the ice because it swallowed a hook. Beads and blades may also be added to the leader to create more noise and flash.
As the season progresses pike transition to shallower water. They are earlier spawners than fish such as bass and crappie so they stage in the shallows before most other fish. Pre spawn for pike starts in March so looking for shallow water near marshy areas or adjacent to feeder steams is the key. The action will pick up too as we enter that late ice period and the fish’s metabolism and appetite speed up once again. This time of year is when the jigging stick can be just as productive as the tilt.
And lastly, when you do get a flag you should walk and not run to it. Aside from the safety aspect, it is important because the sound of you running across the ice may spook the fish and it can result in a bait being dropped. While sometimes sound can help to attract and catch more fish, making too much noise on top of the ice hurts your chances of catching fish or even just setting the hook.