Moonglade glares off the ice. A few feet down, it glitters across sunken, black eyes. Patient as gargoyles, they wait silently for a signal, a change—a compelling reason to risk running even shallower to complete the circle their life has drawn.
The full moon pulls and tugs on all living things. Ask any biologist. Better yet, ask anyone who works in an emergency ward. At the end of winter, it may be one of the elements involved in drawing spring-spawning fish back toward the places where they were born. For pike, the biggest part of the prespawn draw occurs during March in most parts of pike country.
Professional anglers Scott and Marty Glorvigen coordinate late-ice visits to Lake of the Woods and places West with the new- or full-moon phases in March. “Pike are making a prespawn run, staging in areas adjacent to marshlands in lakes, eutrophic bays, creeks, and rivers where they spawn,” Marty said. “Over the years, we’ve noticed that moon phase can be one key to finding big numbers in small areas.”
Jeff Andersen, head of Leisure Outdoor Adventures, has tracked late-ice pike on Lake of the Woods for the past 15 years. “Pike might get more active on the major and minor moon phases,” he said. “But I think current flow coming into the lake is the major factor that makes pike move. Moonrise and moonset can sometimes be key times, but the biggest thing is just fishing where they’re at. During those full-moon periods we catch more pike at night, and we seem to catch more fish during that full-moon period overall—but especially at night, as baitfish move shallower under a full moon.”
“Pike come out of the expanse to concentrate near spawning habitats in March,” Scott Glorvigen said. “They’re eventually heading into ‘gator water’—shallow, mucky bays and still-water areas out of the current and off the main river. Where pike run creeks and rivers to spawn, they stage where current flows over the delta of that tributary. Specifically, they hold off the edges of that delta, on the drops or where the bottom flattens out. A sharp transition from shallow to deep water is key, where pike can get out of the current yet it’s evened out and flowing over their heads.”
“With current coming over the top of these breaks,” Marty Glorvigen said, “we think you have tidal scenarios with moon pull. That pull doesn’t just move water on the ocean. It occurs everywhere, and fish can feel it.”
Between moon phases, staging areas can be vacant, according to the Glorvigens. As the full or new moons of March approach, pike begin showing up. Within three days of those phases—before and after—numbers are high. Andersen sees it somewhat differently. “Current is the major factor,” he said. “When they move is largely dependent on the weather, but late February is when you generally find the first pike in really shallow water at that latitude. Mid-March is when the water’s flowing the most, and that’s when the most pike are there.”
“In stable weather, pike move right to the lip of the break, like steelhead moving to the front of a hole,” Scott Glorvigen said. “When weather is unstable, they drop down in the holes. If pike are ready, they go. If they’re not they don’t, and they stage. But we think the biggest numbers of pike move into staging areas during those moon phases in March. Same thing happens in lakes with no tribs to spawn in. Pike move in stages, from the points outside the bay, to the slots leading into the bay, and finally up onto the flats.”
In big rivers, some staging pike may actually move into the last holes in the river proper just upstream from where it enters a lake. “Sure,” Marty said. “Some bust right through that shallow delta and settle into the first deep holes in the river. They stay there until it’s almost time to spawn and then they start working their way upriver. That’s common on the Canadian Shield.”
In the case of smaller creeks, antsy pike sometimes push unbelievably shallow. “When pike are staging in prespawn mode in front of creeks and a thaw occurs, and melting snow starts the water flowing, pike can move right up to the edges of open water,” Andersen said. “When we say shallow, we mean pike move into areas where they have 1 to 2 feet between the bottom of the ice and the floor of the lake.”
So, is it the moon, the conditions, day length, weather, or what? Probably all the above with a heavy dose of “or what.” What makes fish move? All the best minds on the subject have theories. Will pike spawn during a heavy thaw in early February? No. They may not even stage. Will they run during the full moon in March if it’s -40°F? Not likely. The best evidence we have so far is that fish spawn within day-length windows when weather and conditions are right.
“We’re looking for funnel areas in mid-February,” Andersen said. “Pike follow any deep edge leading toward spawning creeks and bays. They funnel between shallow humps, along the break at the edge of shallow shoreline points, and so forth.” Andersen starts drilling over depths of 18 feet directly outside the creek mouth in late February and moves in closer as thaws increase the current. “From open water they travel along that edge at depths of 15 feet or so until they find that current and warming influence,” he said. “That’s where the real fun starts.”
Pike come to the delta with an eye for easy meals. It’s been a long winter under the ice. Foraging to maintain those long, green bodies takes a toll. “Big pike in cold water often feed on dead fish during prespawn,” Marty Glorvigen said. “The longer a forage fish has been dead the better, I think. Maybe it becomes easier to digest?”
Deadbaits on tip-ups accounted for a lot of giant pike over the years, but the Glorvigens became frustrated with classic methodology. “Too often prespawn pike just nip at baits,” Scott said. “At times our hook-up ratio was really low, even with quick-strike rigging. Fish often were running and dropping baits. The closer they come to actually spawning, the less active feeding they do. It was like you had to be sitting right over a tip-up in order to set as soon as it hit in order to get hooks. That’s just not possible with many tip-ups out.”
The Glorvigens solved this problem by going hole-to-hole with Frabill 24-inch Ice Hunter combo rods and reels with 30-pound braided line. “It’s not that they weren’t hitting,” Scott added. “They were dropping it. So we went to live 14-inch suckers with two positive results: (1) More movement and water displacement, so pike can home in on the bait better; and (2) our Northland Predator Rigs help keep a sucker crosswise to the current, with one hook near the head and one hook near the tail, creating even more vibration and a bigger profile.”
“Pike are moving nose first into the current and here’s this big sucker,” Marty said. “He’s toast. We put a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce egg sinker above the swivel on the rig to get it down through the current on braided line. The pike are right under your feet, so hook-sets are immediate.”
Andersen opts for tip-ups, saying he rarely observes finicky behavior among staging pike. “I think they’re there to feed,” he said. “You have high-pressure days where pike grab the bait and drop it. That’s when deadbaits work best (we use herring flown in from the East Coast). I think an 8- to 9-inch deadbait is optimum. It’s more subtle. Live suckers get more bites sometimes, but 8 out of 10 days deadbaits are best.
“We also rattlebaits on rods and we catch fish. But the biggest and the most pike usually want deadbaits lying on the floor of the lake or dangling up higher under tip-ups. It’s an easy meal they don’t have to expend a lot of energy to catch. These fish are on the feed bag most of the time during late ice.”
Andersen is a partner in Big Tooth Tackle, which makes quick-strike rigs that can be used on rod-and-reel or under a tip-up. “Some days our Big Tooth Fluorocarbon Quick Strike Rig get more bites ,” he said. “People worry about breaking them, but you don’t need to set hooks like you’re hoisting a truck through the hole.”
If the gator won’t come to you, why not go to the gator? “With sonar, you can see where they are,” Scott Glorvien said. “It’s sight-fishing with sonar, almost like you do with panfish. We drill a series of holes shallow-to-deep in all directions and keep moving with a shelter. When the fish are active they seem to be shallow and when they’re inactive they’re in the deeper holes. Or you can just walk around without a shelter dipping the transducer in every hole until you see a big mark.
“I’ve got the rod in hand and a sucker squirms when a big pike comes around,” he added. “It’s like a warning buzzer. You know pike are approaching when that sucker starts to struggle. One of my biggest pike last year—23 pounds—I could feel her approaching before she arrived. When they take it, I drop the rod tip and set. With those two trebles in the head and tail, it’s a sure deal. On bigger baits, we go with the rigs with #2 trebles.”
Whether the Glorvigens see a pike in the vicinity or not, they slowly yo-yo those big suckers up and down in the water column—to within two feet of the hole and back to bottom. “Sometimes they bite at the top of the sequence, right near the hole,” Marty said. “Depending on the weather, prespawn pike patrol depths varying from 4 to more than 20 feet deep, and they’re not always cruising at any particular depth. If they’re swimming around 10 feet down and you set a bait 18 feet down, they probably won’t swim down for it.”
Be prepared to hunt shallow and deep in all directions from incoming flow—and be careful. At late ice everyone should carry ice picks and life preservers. Cut holes 10 to 15 feet apart to test ice thickness in all directions from the flow to ensure proper coverage of the area.
And don’t kill big fish, please. “Some people tend to be rough with pike, compared to trout,” Marty said. “Be careful with them. We use tight-fitting, waterproof sealskin gloves, which offer much better control, so we don’t drop fish on the ice. For trophy fish it should be catch-and-release only.” Smaller fish should also be carefully released, unless you’re going to eat them.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw lives in Brainerd, Minnesota.
Ice Fishing Pike Spots: Walk! (Don’t Run)
Late in the season, the snow may be gone, leaving glare ice. Most anglers (the smart ones, at least) wear creepers. Click, clack. Late in the season, pike might be in areas less than five feet deep. Do they care about noise and movement up above as they race off with a meal locked in their teeth?
“The reason pike often drop a bait is people running to the tip-up,” ice guide Jeff Andersen says. “When pike are in skinny water, they may drop baits because of noise and shadows moving overhead. Take your time, walk over, and you hook more fish.”
Walk softly and stay on the remaining patches of snow when possible. Walk on cracks and frozen snowmobile tracks. And, by all means—use quick-strike rigs and set hooks the moment the line is tight in your hand.
- Outsize pike lurk in the bays and grassy backwaters of the Yukon River and its tributaries. Chances for fish from 25 to 30 pounds or better are good in the cool, slow-moving waters. The Yukon has fantastic opportunities for fly-fishing. At Midnight Sun Trophy Pike Adventures, a houseboat with accommodations for six anglers serves as your wilderness base camp, with three guided “satellite” boats taking you into even more remote areas. They reported fish to 55 inches last year. Contact: Midnight Sun Trophy Pike Adventures, mstpa.com.