Pike like to eat. Therefore they spend most of their time on major food-gathering areas, which for the most part means a major structure like a bar (shoal). Sunken islands are bars, too, and points, of course, may be portions of bars. In a reservoir with large creek arms, pike key on bars in a creek arm. In flowing rivers, they hold on or near bars within river lakes, backwaters, or side channels. And in lakes or reservoirs without major creek arms, the best spots tend to be combination areas with bars, points near bays, or small creek arms.
The larger and more prominent the structure, or better yet, combination of structures, the more likely these areas are to consistently attract forage that consistently attract pike. One big structural element I fished at least five times on trips to a remote lake in Manitoba lies within a big bay off the main lake. This one-acre sunken island rises from 45 to 10 feet of water. A 25-foot-deep saddle connects the island to shore. The top of the island offers lots of rocks and a few weeds. The weeds, however, aren’t important to this structure.
The combination of the saddle and hump protruding halfway across the bay, like a long arm, gathers wandering baitfish and pike. Six of the eight big pike I’ve caught here (18 to 23 pounds) were using the drop-off breakline on the saddle side of the island. Two fish were in the saddle.
While Ice fishing pike, I never have seen a distinctive saddle portion of any major structural element not attract the most pike, even when the outside or sharp-dropping portion of the island looks good, too. Saddles are that important. If the saddle weren’t present, the deep edge of the bar would have been more important.
Prominent structural elements gather pike. West Okoboji is a deep clear body of water out of place in the landscape. It’s one of North America’s most intensely used bodies of water, rivaling Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota. The number and average size of the pike is reduced compared to my Manitoba hot spot, but the structural story’s the same. Major structural elements attract the pike. With many such elements to fish, two bars that block the entrance of two major bays, Smith’s Bay and Emerson’s Bay, consistently draw fish. The pike move along weededges, rock edges, and drop-off edges on the inside and outside of the bars.
Structural Variety—After considering the prominence of a structural element, consider its structural variety. Weedgrowth attracts forage. So does rock-rubble and other rock combinations. Weeds and rock in combination with sand transitions in shallow water draw pike shallow during portions of the winter season. But when pike drop deep, as they often do during midwinter, rock-rubble drop-off edges and especially deep rock humps near shallow cover usually are where they hold.
Pike suspend in some lakes. But most suspend relative to prominent structural elements. Don’t worry about those that don’t, because I know of no consistent way to find them. Worry, though, about pike movement based on the portion of the winter season. Think shallow, deep, and deep and shallow during early-, mid-, and late-ice.
Early-ice, think shallow—Early-ice usually means good fishing. Some pike are deep because some forage is deep. But at early-ice, most pike—many of them large—have settled into a routine centered around prominent shallow foraging areas.
Shallow at early-ice means plankton, which means zooplankton, which means small fish, which means larger fish. As the season progresses and the ice thickens, light penetration decreases along with water temperature. Shallow is no longer so inviting or advantageous.
Another reason pike tend to be shallow early is because for months they haven’t been bothered by fishermen or boat traffic. Activity on open water or on ice makes a difference. Pike and other fish populations drift deeper as the season progresses. Deeper water means stability to carry fish through midwinter. But lack of fishing pressure and activity on the ice lengthens the time pike stay shallow. Pressure hastens the retreat to deeper water. By midseason, only seldom-fished lakes have many large pike holding shallow.
Early in the season, concentrate on shallow edges on or along prominent bars. Again, bars include sunken islands. The outside or deep side of the weededge usually is the key. Increase the odds of contacting pike by fishing pockets (inside turns) and points in the edge. Weedless pockets in weedgrowth on top of bars, sometimes well away from a drop-off edge or the outside edges of a weedline, also attract pike.
Think combinations. Points or turns in bars or weedlines that coincide with rock bottom and drop-offs attract pike. Look for points that drop off in stairstep fashion as opposed to points that crash immediately into deep water. The best weededges don’t grow to the edge of a sharp drop-off, but have a clear holding-ramp kind of area before the drop-off. Timber, by the way, may replace weeds as a primary source of attractive shallow cover. And don’t forget current areas early, although their productivity declines quickly and doesn’t pick up again until late-ice.
Midseason, think deep—Pike fishing often turns difficult. Look for deeper rocks and generally forget weededges. Look for rocky drop-offs or rock humps near shallow holding areas. Isolated midlake humps may be worth fishing if obvious areas are being pressured. Pike fishermen who don’t fish deeper rocky structural elements usually catch smaller pike. Another option is a trip to a remote lake where the pike haven’t been bothered, which is the reason we sometimes travel to Manitoba.
I’ve jigged pike from 55 feet (fishing for walleyes), by the way, and caught them on tip-ups set 50 feet deep (fishing for pike). Agreed, however, that in most prime lakes, most bigger pike come from 15 to 35 feet of water during midwinter. Granted, too, depth is relative. Twelve feet is relatively deep in a body of water where weedgrowth ends at 6 feet and maximum depth is 25 feet.
Late season, think shallow and deep—In lakes where the pike season runs until ice-out, look for bigger pike to gradually abandon deep water and roam shallow again as ice-out approaches. Deeper weededges on sections of bars adjacent to shallow spawning bays are good spots. Check weedgrowth near current, too. It’s one of the best times of year to catch a huge pike.
A prominent structural element like a bar with a variety of habitat including points that drop off into deep water are the primary key to pike location during winter. Prominent bars gather baitfish and pike, and combination habitat holds them.
Large bays also gather traveling baitfish and pike. If there’s enough deep water and enough combination habitat, pike may use a bay all winter. The biggest pike tend to use bays during early and late season, however, and prefer main-lake habitat during midwinter.
Feeder Creek A—Current attracts pike at early-ice and late-ice. Concentrate on the weed breaks at the mouth of the creek.
Bay B—Good depth leading into this bay. Big pike likely use the weededge all winter. Primarily a first-ice and late-ice spot, however, for during midwinter, larger pike tend to move to main-lake areas.
Bar C—Combinations here include weeds, rock, and sand on a bar that protrudes into the lake, plus rocky points that drop into deep water. Structural combinations plus the combinations of Bay B near Bar C make this area potentially one of the most consistent pike producers in the lake.
Bar D—Should hold pike all season. Plenty of weededges, rock edges, rock drop-offs, plus two rocky sunken islands for midwinter pike use. Anglers could spend the entire season exploring the options on this bar.
Bar E—Another good one, but without the total combinations of Bay B, Bar C, or Bar D. Worth fishing only if better areas are pressured by other anglers.
Bay F—Because of its size and depth, this bay could be considered a separate lake. During early season, fish the inside corner near the outlet and the weed point. Try the saddle between the weed point and the sunken island, and the sunken island during midwinter. Or try the weededge in the not-so-prominent inside turn on the north shore.
Island G—Too small and isolated to hold many pike, but worth checking during midwinter when prominent lake areas get lots of fishing pressure. The key is fishing it before anyone else catches the few (but likely large) pike holding there.
Island H—Same as Island G. However, Island H is a more traveled area. Pike holding near Creek A or in Bay B, for example, could move to Island H as winter progresses.