Bottom of the fourth, no score. Tip-up on the mound with Petrowske on first. Check that. He’s on his way to second. Through knee-deep snow. He dropped something. This could take a while.
Jonny Petrowske rounds the bases. He always does. It’s not baseball, but diamonds, bases, and strikes are involved. He systematically covers expansive flats and structure when ice fishing pike, attracting pike with visual and audio aids (lures) to a strategically placed tip-up in the middle of a diamond.
Petrowske’s a northern Minnesota guide who spends a lot of time on Upper Red Lake, Lake of the Woods, and other sprawling waters where pike inhabit flats the size of Rhode Island. The vertical variance on these flats might be a couple feet in a thousand yards. With little structure and limited cover to hold fish, pike roam in search of baitfish that are doing the same thing. To consistently put clients on fish, he turns them into nomads.
The diamond is a pattern of five holes—four “bases” and a “mound.” Petrowske plants his tip-up on the mound (center hole) and jigs his way around the bases with flashy, rattling baits to draw pike in. The range of attraction depends on conditions, the activity level of the fish, and the lure. When pike don’t have to ride elevators to different depths, temperatures, and pressures, they can be drawn from surprising distances. After years of trial and error, Petrowske developed theories about spacing and decibels based on environmental conditions. The diamond pattern for drilling holes to extend the range of coverage and attraction, playing on the sensory perceptions of pike, was the result.
“I cover a huge area under the ice, utilizing rattles and sound as an attractant,” Petrowske says. “Pike pick up indicators produced by a struggling baitfish from unknown distances. Each sense has its own limitations—vision, the scent of blood, the lateral line, and sound. I can only imagine what range a rattling bait has for making long-distance calls, but sound is, unquestionably, the medium that travels farthest.” How much noise falls into the category of attraction, and at what point does it begin to cause avoidance? Conditions play a role in determining that, as Petrowske suggests later.
“Diamond patterns produce all season long,” he says. “But they really excel at first ice—and again late in the season when pike are staging during prespawn. Pike are running and gunning hard at first ice and the pattern calls them from farther out. During spring you need to go to them as they stack up in packs or groups. Miss the group and you miss the action. I think they’re conserving energy or just waiting for that magic moment to run up swollen creeks and rivers. By late season eggs are ready, fat stores are built up, and feeding isn’t a desperate need. It’s just another thing they do while waiting for the ice to go out and for the romance to begin.”
Petrowske’s diamonds are 60 yards across on flats and 30 to 40 yards across on structure with three added holes to extend the diamond slightly—one beyond each point in the direction he’s moving. As we’ve said, a tip-up is placed in the center of the diamond and he moves around it, from hole to hole, with lures designed to call pike in.
“I believe a diamond grid works better in cloudy water,” he offers. “In clear water pike won’t investigate as intensely at close range. They look at everything from a distance and don’t need to move around the diamond to hunt. They can pull up, look, and leave. Depth doesn’t matter, as sound and distance is still sound and distance.
“Everything’s a compromise,” he says. “I want to cover as much depth change as possible on slow-breaking waters like Upper Red Lake. On lakes with a more complex makeup I want to cover the top, slope, and base of the structure I’m working. I want every hole to be on an edge or transition if possible. Pike on the prowl follow edges tightly, looking for easy, unaware targets. If the spread is too big you can miss pike on structure. The diamond unlocks the pattern pike are following by giving you the depth and types of edges they’re keying on. Once I feel I have a pattern, I move along that element, depth, or edge. The diamond has done its job and we have a pattern to track.”
Working the Diamond
The ability of flash, rattle, vibration, and scent to attract pike is beyond question. But which is most important? Which sense should we key on?
“I used spoons, airplane jigs, tubes, and several other tricks to trigger pike for years without being able to really answer those questions,” Petrowske says. “So I searched for the Leatherman of pike lures—something that provided everything in one package. I think I’ve found it in the Lindy Darter. It has swimming action, flutter, flash, and a rattle, all while providing realistic representations and profiles of the forage pike are targeting.”
Initially, he works the Darter aggressively, pumping out big sound and vibration. Then he slows it down for a few minutes, giving the bait a wounded look, “Twitches and erratic movements often entice pike that come in to investigate,” he says. “With no action after a couple minutes, I’m on to the next hole and, in the words of Spinal Tap, I ‘turn the volume to 11, because it’s louder.’ I run through this process of ups and downs for several minutes per hole or about 30 minutes per diamond.
“After a cold front, when the bite slows, I turn up the speed and move faster. Fewer fish are active so I cover more ice to find them. When conditions are good I hope to lure multiple active fish to the diamond.”
The largest Lindy Darters and #5 Salmo Chubby Darters can be worked aggressively like vertical crankbaits, or with subtle action like tubes. They can be forced to drop slowly, or they can be “dumped” and allowed to fall in their swimming fashion to cover more water. The Chubby Darter circles out to 6 feet from vertical at some depths, covering a circle 12 feet in diameter, pushing more flash and vibration out farther from the hole. It has no rattles, making it more of a clear-water choice for less aggressive pike.
Another good choice is an actual sinking crankbait like the PK Ridgeline. It sinks horizontally and rests on the belly treble. When ripped it can swim 6 to 8 feet to the side. A 20-inch pump of the rod makes it slide 3 feet off from vertical in depths over 12 feet. The #3 PK is 3.5 inches and the #5 is 6 inches long. Beef the hooks up. When a pike comes in on this bait, use a pause and twitch to make the bait turn side-to-side as it slides away from the hole. The triggering possibilities are almost endless and deadly. It also has a unique rattle that pike seem to like.
“Intensity isn’t as important as sound type,” Petrowske says. “Little tin or BB rattles that can be loud don’t always cut it. The deep, low-end, clunk-clunk rattles in the bigger Darters can pull a pike from at least 200 feet. I know this because a buddy and I were fishing about 50 yards apart running cameras and he reported seeing an old friend—an old one-eyed jack that would linger but never strike. We saw him many times over the course of the season. Talking on the radio, my friend said he had ‘old one eye’ below his hole. I ripped my Darter and 40 seconds later, there he was. We started playing around and realized we could draw this curious pike back-and-forth to holes 200 feet apart with rattling lures.”
When it’s time to move on, Petrowske already has three new holes “capping” the top of the diamond like a chevron. He simply lifts the tip-up and takes it to the top of the original diamond—tip-up station two. “Keep the move short so the bait doesn’t freeze or die,” he says. “This keeps the drilling segments short and sweet, keeps things organized, and gives those curious specimens that won’t bite a chance to follow along, which they often do.”
Strikes, Hits, Homers
Hey Petrowske, tell us what you really think. “Pike are the creepy, stalking, serial killers of the freshwater world. They stalk prey, using sight, sound, both, or even smell. They investigate everything as a possible meal. Some days they’re angry and want to kill anything moving just because it’s moving. The aggressive days are when they come in and smack the Lindy Darter as soon as they see it. They’re in the mood to kill. Some days they get lazy or picky and want an easy meal and won’t chase. That’s when they fall for the struggling sucker on a leash. Those are the McDonald’s value-meal days. Drive up and stare at the entire menu before going for the big fat greasy meal all prepared and ready to eat with little effort.”
Petrowske’s toothy theorems are based on observations of the third kind. “Underwater cameras changed my perspective,” he says. “Hours of watching pike behavior with my MarCum showed how long pike stare baits down before striking or moving on. With the diamond, active pike can be called in by the rattle and flash of a Darter from a far piece.”
Pike don’t always swing away. Sometimes they wait for the right pitch. “Some pike don’t respond to rattle and flash,” he says. “But they linger and watch. When they begin to leave I can turn them around with erratic jigging and start another stare-down session. Many times I give up on a fish that won’t strike, watch it fade into the abyss and the flag pops within minutes. Three years ago I had a pike missing a pectoral fin come racing in to investigate a spoon, stare at it, and swim off. The flag trips and, sure enough, it was a 38-incher with one pec. That’s how an underwater camera convinces you the program works.”
The act of jigging a swimming lure for big animals like pike demands a few special considerations. Petrowske uses a slower action rod. His favorite is a 32-inch medium-power Thorne Brothers Walleye Sweetheart fitted with baitcaster seats. “The softer tip allows me to stay with a wild fish, keeping slack out of the line much better, and it’s better for working a Darter or any swimming lure because the lift is less severe,” he says. “You want backbone yet a soft tip that favors the attributes of swimming cranks, then absorbs the quick actions of a pike trying to shake free. Pike give you some surprisingly fast head fakes, where a stiff rod creates slack and costs you a trophy. I insist on big eyelets to help prevent freeze up and Thorne Brothers custom builds rods to fill that order.”
Baitcasters balance best with the fish and the rugged northern ice-scape. “A 5000 series Abu or Calcutta CTE 200 won’t coil line,” he says. “The drag systems and gear ratios are right to take on a 20- to 30-pound pike during the harshest winter days. Baitcasters hold up to the rugged travel conditions of big hard-water deserts and are built to be banged around. Spinning reels tend to be more delicate.”
He uses 12- to 17-pound mono. Anything heavier inhibits lure action. Braids excel for creating lure action, but can turn into a frozen mess. The lure is clipped to a leader that can be tied on the ice in minutes with tieable titanium or steel lines from Terminator, American Fishing Wire, Aquateko, and others—in 20- to 30-pound strengths. Each product suggests and diagrams simple knots on the packaging.
“My tip-ups are wood and iron,” Petrowske says. “America was built with wood and iron for good reason. Plastic tip-ups may or may not take the abuse of constantly moving and the harsh travel conditions on big water, but I like big spools with bigger suckers on old-school tip-ups.
“I use single 7/0 octopus or Eagle Claw Kahle hooks with big baits when I want a lively action,” he says. “To avoid gut-hooking, I’m careful about hook placement, how the hook lays after it’s placed in the bait, and I set immediately upon reaching the tip-up. I never gut-hook pike, but those concerned about it should check out Bigtooth Tackle Fluoro Carbon HD Rigs and Natural Rigs. Those are the quick-strike rigs I use when pike waltz in and drill suckers on sight.”
Some of us tie our own quick-strike rigs with smaller (size #6 to size #2) trebles and tieable 20- to 30-pound wires like Cortland Toothy Critter, American Fishing Wire Surfstrand, and others, making it easier to match the distance between hooks to the baits we’re using. In Minnesota, we have to remember to add a bead and a small spinner blade above each hook to be legal.
You can’t go wrong with the classic 30-pound nylon-coated, braided tip-up line, according to Petrowske. But he also uses regular 30-pound braided Dacron. In dirty water he ties directly to wire leaders. In clear water, he ties in 10 feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon between the Dacron and the wire.”
Fourth set of holes, man on third. Rattles away. Strike one. We have a flag and Petrowske runs to the mound. He wheels, he sets, and it’s a long, fat slimer heading for the fences. It’s going, going . . .