December 11, 2017
What better excuse for a road trip than the chance to chase giant pike. North America is blessed with a bounty of fine pike waters, and winter is an excellent time to sample some of these fisheries. Buckle-up and leave the driving to us.
Madison Chain, WI
The Madison Chain, consisting of five distinct lakes, is one of Wisconsin's best managed pike fisheries. Each basin offers different options. Lakes Monona and Mendota are big pike powerhouses. They have every type of structure, from shallow weedflats to deep cabbage, rock reefs, extended points, and fast breaks into deep basins. Plus, with a one-fish, 40-inch minimum-length limit on Mendota, big fish abound.
Here I connect with Kevin Yeska, a University of Wisconsin alumnus and Madison resident, who pursues trophy pike on the Madison Chain. He focuses on transition areas between vegetated bays and main-lake structure. His advice is to find healthy deep cabbage beds adjacent to rockpiles and ledges. Pike use these areas as corridors while moving between shallow flats and the basin, especially early and late in the season.
Yeska says it's critical to beat the sunrise and have gear set up by first light. "It's easy to sacrifice some sleep for early-morning trophy pike. That's when I tend to get my biggest bites. Since we're permitted three lines per angler, I invite my college buddies along to supplement our spread. Then we can cover expansive flats and edges with a combination of large golden shiners suspended under Automatic Fishermans and lures like a #7 Jigging Rap or PK Flutterfish jigged actively. I favor the 13 Fishing 31-inch MH Wicked Ice combo for pike fishing for its power and balance. Spooled with 20-pound-test Sufix 832 braid and a 30-inch leader of 25-pound fluorocarbon, baits can be aggressively ripped six or seven times, then paused 5 to 10 seconds. Pike charge out of the thick vegetation to attack these lures, while others can be coaxed out with the livebait suspended under the Automatic Fishermans."
Lake Onalaska, Mississippi River, La Crosse, WI
A 2½-hour drive west from Madison and I join Jason Drewa on his home waters of Lake Onalaska on Pool 7 of the Mississippi River. This expansive and vegetated embayment has everything needed to grow numbers of quality pike and proves it each winter.
Drewa explains that most pike fishing occurs on the flats off the main river channel in 4 to 7 feet of water. "The key is finding scattered vegetation, woodcover, or springs that concentrate pike," he says. "Most anglers use shiners under tip-ups on these flats, but by switching to 4- to 5-inch live bluegills as bait, smaller pike can be filtered out in favor of lunkers. And as the ice stabilizes in midwinter, it pays to push off the flats and concentrate on channel edges and dredge holes at the lower end of the pool. "Pike here suspend over 20 to 30 feet of water — sometimes just 5 feet below the ice. These areas are not heavily fished, as few anglers pay attention to these suspended fish. That allows me to target pike with jigging spoons tipped with a shiner tail and worked on a medium-light power JT Gold Digger rod. This is a light-tackle pike fishing nirvana." Most fish run in the upper-20 to lower-30-inch range, but numbers are good and monster fish topping 25 pounds grow old in these dark waters.
Green Bay, WI
Leaving La Crosse, the productive pike waters of Minnesota are just a bridge crossing away, but I'm compelled to make a slight detour and traverse the state for a shot at a giant pike from the waters of Green Bay. Pike numbers are far from their historic high on Green Bay, but over the last several years Guide Bret Alexander has been catching giants from 42 to 48 inches.
Alexander suggests at early ice to concentrate on weedy bays that hold forage in the form of perch, lake shiners, and suckers. As the season progresses, rocky points and the first shoreline break, where rock transitions to sand, serve as high traffic lanes for big Lake Michigan pike. In the ultra-clear waters of Door County, use big deadbaits like smelt and lively golden shiners set below Frabill Big Foot tip-ups. Set baits high in the water column, where they can be seen easily from a distance. While numbers may be limited, top-end size of these Lake Michigan pike is something to behold. You also have a chance at trophy brown trout topping 20 pounds that frequent these same areas. And hot whitefish action and trophy walleyes can be had a short distance away if you need a fish fix.
Upper Red Lake, MN
Back on the road, it's a long drive to northern Minnesota, bypassing many good pike producers to get to a true gem at Upper Red Lake. Better known for its booming walleye fishery and past crappie glory, Upper Red produces enough trophy pike during winter to rival some of the best Canadian waters. To keep this pike fishery healthy, the Minnesota DNR has implemented a slot size whereby all pike from 26 to 44 inches must be released. Jonny Petrowske, a fourth generation guide on Upper Red, reported that his customers catch pike over 40 inches on an every-other-day basis. In addition to these trophies, quality fish in the 30- to 36-inch range are plentiful. Upper Red Lake is unusual as it has a consistent night bite for big pike. It's common for Petrowske's sleeper cabin rental customers to be awoken after midnight to a rattle reel being terrorized by giant pike.
Petrowske offers advice for anglers seeking to score big with pike on the relatively featureless, 50,000-plus-acre Upper Red Lake. "Since the lake is pretty much a big sand bowl with minimal structure, even a 6-inch rock ridge can hold fish. If you're near pike at first ice and aggressively work a lure, you will get bit. I work lures like the Lindy Darter, Rapala Rippin' Rap, and Heddon Sonar so aggressively that they hit the bottom of the ice, then fall back down."
Once Upper Red gets a foot of ice or a solid snow cover, pike move into the 8- to 10-foot depth range and concentrate along any squiggly line you find on a contour map. They're not as aggressive then and are susceptible to the breathing action of a marabou-dressed jig like a 3/8-ounce Fuzzy Grub or Yakima Bait Maxi Jig. Live sucker minnows also come into play during this period. Livebait outshines deadbait on Upper Red.
Lake of the Woods, MN/ON
Departing Upper Red, Lake of the Woods beckons, but the decision becomes which portion of this massive fishery to focus on. The southwest corner of the lake, consisting of Zippel Bay and Buffalo Bay, is renowned for big pike at first ice and doesn't require a border crossing. Then there's the Whitefish Bay portion of eastern Lake of the Woods where In-Fisherman Editor in Chief Doug Stange and Field Editor Gord Pyzer regularly film ice fishing segments and tangle with more than their fair share of gators. During mid-season, the best spots for big pike are long rocky points at the mouth of large bays. Large white tubes and hair jigs, as well as aggressively worked spoons, turn the trick on these unpressured pike.
Winnipeg River, MB
Across the border in Manitoba, Guide Matt Cornell advises that the Winnipeg River harbors its share of giant pike ranging into the high 40-inch class for those equipped to contend with deep water and strong currents. During early and mid-season, anglers should focus on secondary structure in depths of 12 to 20 feet where the majority of baitfish concentrate. As March approaches, focus efforts around steep breaks adjacent to shallow spawning areas. "Steep break areas provide ambush spots for feeding pike," Cordell says, "as well as travel corridors into the shallows, since they're sheltered from the heavy current of the main river.
"Toward the end of March, move a portion of your spread into the extreme shallows (2 to 5 feet below the ice) as big fish move up in preparation for the spawn. I rig tip-ups with heavy Dacron line, coupled with a fluorocarbon terminal setup like Clam's Bigtooth Zero Rig, which boasts a tremendous hook-up ratio. Large tulibees, suckers, and mooneye up to 10 or 11 inches are often what it takes to entice the biggest pike." Anglers not familiar with this waterway should seek assistance from locals familiar with the ice conditions, since current can make on-ice travel precarious, even in the depths of winter.
Tobin Lake, SK
Renowned equally for monster walleyes and pike, Saskatchewan's Tobin Lake is Sean and Adam Konrad's first choice for pursuing trophy pike. That's quite a testimonial as the Konrad brothers are passionate about pursuing the very largest specimens of various fish species, and they boast two IFGA all-tackle records and nine line-class records. With no livebait permitted, barbless hooks mandatory, and a protected slot from 29.5 to 44.5 inches, Saskatchewan is serious about maintaining Tobin's extraordinary pike population.
Fishing large deadbaits under tip-ups in 5 to 10 feet of water is the norm across the previously flooded farmlands and forests of what's now Tobin Lake. Konrad suggests three approaches for success. First, arrive on the ice early and be set with holes drilled before sunrise, since shallow pike are noise-shy and the bite usually starts within an hour of sunrise. Second, use heavy gear to steer fish over 40 inches away from sunken logs. Third, use 10- to 12-inch oily deadbaits such as ciscoes and mackerel. Position one bait, suspended nose down, 1 to 2 feet above bottom and let the other bait rest on the bottom. Determine how pike are feeding and change up accordingly. Keep your bait thawed and ready to go on a quick-strike rig and be ready for a shot at the biggest pike of your life.
Devil's Lake, ND
In North Dakota, the timing is perfect to sample the booming pike fishery on Devil's Lake. If Tobin is a patience game, waiting and watching for one of two lines to get sprung, Devil's Lake is the land of plenty. Here, most anglers bypass pike in search of jumbo perch and walleyes. Guide Jason Feldner offers a full-service operation and is aware of how good Devil's Lake has become for pike. Feldner explains, "There's an abundance of 3- to 6-pound pike and numbers of fish from 33 to 45 inches, with an unofficial lake record of 52.5 inches caught last year.
"At early ice, we set four tip-ups per guy in a line at the outside edge of bays to cover the 4- to 8-foot break. Since fatheads are the only livebait permitted on the lake, we opt for large deadbaits — 9- to 12-inch smelt and 7- to 10-inch herring set 18 inches off the bottom. As winter progresses, we move deeper and focus on mid-lake humps and old roadbeds where jigging a large Lindy Darter proves effective. As March rolls around, big pike filter into the bays in ahead of the spawn and are also drawn to current edges during years with a lot of runoff. Deadbait on the bottom is the best option for big fish."
Spinney Mountain Reservoir, CO
Now it's time to head south to Colorado to meet Guide Nathan Zelinsky on Spinney Mountain Reservoir. Primarily known for giant rainbow trout, Spinney also grows huge pike, and Zelinsky knows how to target these 35- to 45-inchers.
While some pike patrol shallow weedflats in search of smaller fish that feed on freshwater shrimp, Zelinsky has discovered a unique and more consistent bite. He focuses on deep rock walls where thousands of young rainbows and smallmouth bass seek stable water conditions. "Pike cruise these walls looking for prey," he says. "I typically catch fish at first ice in 10 to 25 feet of water on walls that drop to 30 or even deeper. One wall dives to 85 feet. Typically resting pike hold 8 to 10 feet below preyfish. But when they go on the prowl, they're less than 5 feet below them." Since Colorado doesn't permit use of live minnows above 7,000 feet, Zelinsky focuses on jigging. He prefers 4- to 6-inch tube jigs or hair jigs with a 1/2-inch X 1.5-inch piece of sucker belly meat on the hook. With as much as 20 feet of visibility under the ice, sight-fishing for pike with jigging gear in a mountain setting offers a surreal experience.
Allegheny Reservoir (Kinzua) and High Point Lake, PA
Pushing east to Pennsylvania, we take the advice of Esox fanatic Luke Wholey and split time between Allegheny Reservoir and High Point Lake. The Allegheny is a big system dominated by rock points and steep shoreline drop-offs. The state record pike over 30 pounds was caught there a few years ago, but you might only get one good bite per day from these super-tanker river pike. To increase your odds, Wholey suggests using five lines per angler and running tip-ups right off the bank in 2 to 3 feet of water out to 30 feet.
After putting in your time on the Allegheny for a monster, High Point Lake in southern Pennsylvania offers a shallower setting where most pike are caught in vegetation in 6 to 12 feet of water. Here, most pike run 24 to 35 inches, with chance at a trophy fish.
Arriving home, it's been a wild ride. Gear is in tatters and tip-ups need respooling and cut fingers must heal. But the memories of monster pike help fuel the planning for the next big pike road trip.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Chicago, Illinois, is the most widely traveled angler we know and he's a fan of big toothy fish.