I love to fish deadbaits below tip-ups and I have caught my biggest pike using that approach. But some great pike fisheries don’t allow the use of meat (live or dead), making tip-ups obsolete. Waters also exist where jigging artificial lures works better than hanging quick strikes. Many times the best approach is the combination of setting a flag and jigging with your second line.
The best jigging bites occur when fish are in position on specific portions of structural elements. Pike patrol spots throughout the day, more often than walleyes, which typically only show up early and late in the day. Pike work the edges of main-lake structures—weedbeds on shoals and in bays, and all manner of shoreline breaks.
Devils Lake, North Dakota, is one of the ice world’s most famous fisheries. Guide Jason Mitchell is well known for putting clients on numbers of pike that typically range up to 10 pounds, although they always have a shot at something much bigger. “Before you worry about fine-tuning your jigging presentation, get on fish,” he says. “Most pike are edge-oriented. I look for weeds or other cover along a shoreline projection that doesn’t get much fishing pressure. With Devils Lake at more than 100,000 acres of water now, that’s not so difficult to find.”
In Northwest Ontario’s Sunset Country, where I spend about 75 days on the ice, pike are just as predictable. Early in the year, it’s all about fishing main-lake structures, the bigger the better. Major humps and reefs, or even small sunken islands, all are magnets for baitfish. A lot of the best spots attract walleyes, too, but we never catch them until late in the day. Before we put our walleye baits down for the two-hour prime-time finish to the day, we often catch pike throughout the day, jigging aggressively with artificial lures. We cut lots of holes to cover spots on structural elements from 10 feet down to at least 40. Some days the fish tell us which depth is key. Often, though, we find fish working many different depths.
As the season progresses pike move toward large shallow bays where they spawn at ice-out. Running and gunning the contact spots leading into these bays is a good tactic throughout March and into April.
In these situations, fish holding depth depends on the layout of the structural element. On rocky projections at the mouth of bays, depths run from about 10 into much deeper water. In bays, with fish often along weededges, depths might be as shallow as 2 to 6 feet.
The past several years, the use of heavy rattling lures has been one of the hottest lure trends in ice fishing for all predator species. Basically, they’re traditional bass lures like the Rattlin’ Rap, transformed into ice lures simply by using them vertically. Talking with In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange about using rattlebaits he made a comment that I also find to be true. “They can be like magic,” he says, “but they can just as easily be the opposite.”
Rattlebaits are the most aggressive of all jigging lures. In most cases I ask clients to try them first, because if hot fish are in the area they usually respond aggressively. A lot of times, too, these lures call fish in. If you see that on your electronics and they don’t bite, quickly drop something else down the hole.
Most of the baits in this category offer their own unique sound and vibration, which, along with the visual picture, are the main triggering quality of these lures. I have been a longtime fan of the original Rattlin’ Rap, but in recent years I’ve switched to the Clackin’ Rap, given the difference in the sounds and fall rates of the two lures. The aggressive fall and knocking sound of the Clackin’ Rap turns pike into suckers.
I was also instrumental in field testing the Northland Live-Forage Rippin’ Shad. It works great and even produced a 20-pound-plus fish on Lake of the Woods during an early trial. The Rippin’ Shad has a higher- frequency sound than most of the other lures. Rapala’s new Rippin’ Rap is another high-frequency lure that should shine for aggressive pike. Another traditional choice has been the LiveTarget Shad.
Rattlebaits can be worked anywhere in the water column, including right under the ice, even over deeper water. Perhaps the sound echoes off the bottom of the ice, which helps to call fish in? Typically, though, I start working the lure a few feet above bottom and move from there until a pattern develops. Rip them up several feet and let them fall back to the starting position. It’s that simple. Call fish in and then let them respond.
Soft Plastics On Jigheads
On Devils Lake, Mitchell often reaches for jigs tipped with plastic swimbait bodies as his number one option. “I use a jighead with a stout hook in conjunction with a paddletail swimbait,” he says. “The lure looks alive and it hooks fish well. We often sight-fish, especially early in the season when the water is clear enough to see down 5 feet. Pump the lure up and down a foot or so and keep it moving and get in a rhythm so the bait swims in a circle. Sometimes pike hit it when it’s moving—mainly on the fall—but often a pause is necessary to let them take.“
Tube jigs weighted with a jighead, either inside or out, have been my go-to choice for lake trout since I was a little kid. Many incidental pike catches along the way proved how effective they are for pike. I haven’t changed my mind. A lift-fall of a foot to two feet imitates the spiraling fall of a dying baitfish.
I like the larger 5-inch flippin’ tubes designed for bass; they do a great job of imitating smelt, ciscoes, and shiners. White’s tough to beat—and I prefer a 1/4-ounce jighead to get that spiraling fall, instead of the 3/8-ounce heads we usually use for lake trout.
On Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, where smelt are key forage, 5- and 6-inch jerkshads are good as well. I rig them on a Northland Mimic Minnow Jig to give a lifelike look, pumping them up and down a foot or so, followed by a jiggle after pausing.
Plastics like these work great in open water, but they really shine in weeds, because of their predictable fall. It’s tough to work swimming lures like the Jigging Rapala or Northland Puppet Minnow because they work too far out to the side and get snagged.
Horizontal Swimming Lures & Hair Jigs
Horizontal swimming lures are of two types, the first being lures like the Jigging Rapala and Northland Puppet Minnow, the second being larger profile lures like the Salmo Chubby Darter and Lindy Darter. I have caught hundreds and hundreds of pike on Raps and Puppets. I have also watched some of my clients light up pike, including some big ones, with the chubby lures. Both designs are great open-water options, because they cover a lot of water with their wide-swimming actions.
Even a small pike can inhale a #9 Jigging Rap or the #4 Puppet Minnow, so stick with the largest options available. Lift these lures and let them settle back to the starting position and they dart up and swim in a half circle back into position. Pump them 2 or 3 times and they swim in a circle before settling back below the hole. The deeper the water and the higher you pump your rod up the wider they swing, to the tune of about 8 feet in 40 feet of water. Pike almost always take on the pause, and at times it helps to trigger pike by jiggling the lure once it pauses. Work the chubby lures the same way.
Airplane jigs and bucktail jigs have been part of the jigging arsenal of pike anglers for years. My earliest experiences with them mirrored my experiences with tubes, producing many big pike incidental to lake trout. They remain a favorite option for pike in several instances.
First, they can be deadly in deeper water, because in heavy models—at least 3/4 ounce—they get down fast when you see a fish come through. They also fish precisely in that instance. Just lift them and let them fall, then jiggle them to get the hair to pulsate. Rarely do they fail to show up well on your sonar. And on waters with nice-sized ciscoes, various white patterns do a fine job of imitating that baitfish, especially now that jigs are equipped with eyes and are tied in realistic patterns. Finally, on water where you can use meat, tipping a bucktail jig with a piece of sucker belly can help to fool reluctant pike.
Some situations call for fishing deadbaits and the percentages are against fishing with lures. I go with the flow and see what the situation demands. On most of the waters I spend most of my time in areas where I can drop a deadbait below a tip-up as I also jig for pike. The combination effort has long produced exceptional results. No need to complicate the equation for pike this winter.
Rod-and-reel combos for pike tend to be heavier than for most other species, except lake trout. Jason Mitchell offers his own line of ice fishing rods via Clam Corporation, his favorite for pike being the same rod designed for lake trout, the Mackinaw Baitcaster. He spools a low-profile casting reel with 20-pound braid, connects terminally to a 12- to 18-inch section of 20-pound tieable wire, then to a snap to connect to lures.
I helped Frabill design a heavier spinning rod for their Ice Hunter Series. It’s slightly longer—38 inches—than most jigging rods and has plenty of backbone to work bigger lures and handle larger fish. I spool up a spinning reel with 20-pound Power Pro in yellow, which is easy to see, then use a 15-inch section of 30-pound fluorocarbon tied to the braid to prevent bite-offs.
Jeff Gustafson is a promotional angler, freelance writer, guide, and tournament angler who lives in Kenora, Ontario, and can be reached at gussyoutdoors.com. Contact Jason Mitchell at fishdevilslake.net.