January 05, 2018
Back in the late 1970s and '80s, I was so smitten with pike that I pursued the big toothy critters with abandon throughout the winter months. That drive laid a foundation in my understanding of pike and taught me lessons that I've been able to refine to this day.
It helped, too, that I was able to bounce my on-the-ice observations off some of the greatest minds in the science community. Four decades later, we're landing more and bigger pike than ever before.
LESSON 1: An Ounce of Biology Beats a Pound of Tackle
One-hundred-mph snow-machines, high-tech sonar units, ultra-smooth ice augers, lightning fast tip-ups, and the finest deadbaits money can buy help you catch more and bigger pike. But you need to employ them in areas where big pike prowl during various parts of the season, and that requires an understanding of the biology of pike, as well as the habits of its prey.
In the In-Fisherman formula for fishing success (S) = F (Fish) + L (Location) + P (Presentation), presentation is only a third of the equation. Understanding the biology, or nature, of the fish helps decipher their habits, and ultimately location, and finally the best presentations for the situation. We learn more about what drives the habits of pike every time we observe them on the water and study the science surrounding them. But there's a lot more to learn about pike under the ice.
Dr. John Casselman, a former colleague and former Senior Research Scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources says, "Pike in winter are poorly understood. We know less about what they do then than any other time of year. But the more we learn about them, the more fascinating they become. What pike do in winter is much more impressive than what they do in summer."
LESSON 2: Take Their Temperature
According to Casselman, winter pike-fishing success is influenced by the temperature of the water, the amount of dissolved oxygen it holds, and the amount of light streaming through it. This surprises many anglers who gaze out over a frozen surface and see nothing but a void of cold, dark water. It's anything but that.
You won't find water temperatures in winter that approach optimal temperatures for pike, but you do find water temperatures that can vary considerably. That's why I typically target Canadian Shield-type lakes at first ice, as soon as I can safely get out on them, and fish around moderately deep (20- to 30-foot) rock structures that most anglers would associate with winter walleyes, yellow perch, whitefish, and tulibees.
I was originally targeting these other species when I discovered this early-season pike pattern. I reckoned the big toothy critters were eating the other species, and still believe that to be the case. But things fell into place when I lowered an underwater camera equipped with a temperature sensor. It read 40°F close to the bottom and near freezing (32.9°F) just under the ice and in the shallows. That's a big difference to a cold-blooded animal that regulates its body temperature and activity level by swimming into warmer or cooler water.
It also helped explain why the late-winter ice period can be spectacular. Find a creek, stream, or river flowing into a shallow, weedy, bay or cove in late March and early April and you discover amazingly tepid water and prodigious pike. The inflow is the hot water tap filling up the bathtub and the pike are your toes searching for the warmth.
LESSON 3: A Eureka Moment
Take two otherwise similar lakes and the one with the clearest water is the winter pike winner almost every time. Ditto, if you ice-fish a large waterbody like Rainy Lake or Lake of the Woods. The clear-water sections typically excel.
I'll never forget connecting these dots and then listening to Casselman explain how he could regulate the activity level of pike in the laboratory with the twist of the dimmer switch controlling the lights. When he set the level between 300 and 700 lux, pike immediately became active.
He could cause the pike to rise up from the bottom and become immediate visual predators, in a Pavlov's dog type of response, the instant he adjusted light level. He could just as quickly put the fish to sleep by darkening the room.
I have a favorite pike lake I fish during the open-water season that's tannic-stained. For years, it's fascinated me in winter, especially since the day I spotted my tip-up flag fly and ran out to grab it. A pike was pulling out line so quickly and with such incredible force, the entire tip-up was bouncing up and down in the hole.
When I felt the line streaming out between my fingers, it was as though I'd hooked a train. I've landed pike in the 52- to 54-inch (30- to 32-pound class), but this fish was much bigger. When I tightened up on the line to set the hooks, they popped out.
Looking back on that day on the stained-water lake, and the relatively few others when I was successful there, I realized the sun was always shining brightly and there was never a time when deep snow blanketed the thick ice. It was a eureka moment as far as how light levels affect pike activity.
LESSON 4: The Dead Sea
Living in Northwest Ontario amidst pike-rich waters, you may be surprised that one of my favorite winter fisheries is a moderate-size lake with crystal-clear water that receives heavy fishing pressure during the open-water season. Most locals refer to it as the "Dead Sea." I like that moniker because it dissuades winter claim jumpers.
What I've learned from the Dead Sea is that while these lakes may be "fished down," they're never "fished out." More importantly, pike are survivors, especially big ones. While heavy fishing pressure during open water often removes a significant amount of biomass, it tends to be focused on small to moderate-size fish. The survivors have less competition for an expanding forage base, so they grow big quickly. I'm not saying ice fishing there is easy, because it's not. But, if you don't draw attention to yourself and hit the Dead Seas under ideal conditions — first ice, last ice, during mid-week, ideal weather conditions — and set up around the best locations, you can enjoy pike fishing that rivals the best fly-in experiences.
LESSON 5: Get Out Of The Weeds
The two biggest mistakes pike anglers make are assuming pike are always in vegetation and forgetting that seasonal patterns evolve. Case in point: Late fall is a period of consolidation when pike move away from deep weededges they've been frequenting throughout the summer and set up around main-lake shoals and points that break into deep water. If there's an associated ledge or feeding flat in the 10- to 20-foot depth range, so much the better.
This migration typically has nothing to do with decaying vegetation or a decline in oxygen. Instead, it's related to pike following prey — white suckers, yellow perch, and walleyes — to their late-fall and winter haunts. In late fall, big pike set up to intercept and ambush hordes of tulibees and whitefish that are shifting toward shallow rock shoals to spawn.
You may have experienced the almost non-stop big-fish action in late fall that rockpiles can produce, so why not start the ice-fishing season around these same structures? Why go back to shallow weedy bays after enjoying such good action? The transition between the fall period of consolidation and first ice is a natural ebb and flow. A process that often continues well after ice covers the lake. It's the reason why, as I mentioned earlier, deep, main-lake rock structures are typically the best locations to start fishing when safe travel is guaranteed.
LESSON 6: Get Chummy With Pike
If British angler Nigel Williams learns that someone has spotted a big pike, he says he'll catch it. Known as the Bounty Hunter for his relentless pursuit of individual fish, he's landed 165 pike over 20 pounds, 21 over 30 pounds, and two that topped 40.
He says two ingredients have contributed to his success. The first is an almost exclusive reliance on big live- and deadbaits presented on quick-strike rigs. He's caught only two pike over 30 pounds on lures. The second secret is pre-baiting your fishing locations. "Few fish respond better than pike to pre-baiting tactics," Williams says. "I can get them to eat hot dogs." According to Williams, the key to correctly chumming a location is doling out small chunks of food — suckers and tulibees are the ideal candidates across the ice belt — in a small steady stream over several days rather than one larger effort.
He says big pike are so "programmable" that you have to match your chumming to coincide with your fishing time. "A mistake many pike anglers make is they pre-bait a spot in the afternoon for several days, on their way home from work," he says. "Then, they arrive on Saturday morning to fish it but pike aren't there yet. When you fish a spot at the same time you pre-baited it, you'll find the pike waiting for you."
Word of caution: Check regulations where you fish to determine if chumming or pre-baiting is legal. In Minnesota for example, it's illegal. Check before you chum.
Lesson 7: Follow the Slush
There's nothing I hate more than wading through knee-deep slush. But, if you fish shallow, weedy pike lakes, especially lakes those prone to winterkill, slush can be a godsend.
Casselman confirmed the "slush pattern" many years ago and it's saved the day for me many times. But it depends on what caused the slush. The weight of deep snow pushing down on the ice often cracks it, causing water to stream up through the fractures and mix with the snow on the surface. But this kind of slush doesn't cut it.
What's needed are midwinter thaws, especially accompanied by rain. Standing water on the surface eventually finds a crack in the ice through which to drain, or it honeycombs the ice and filters down into the lake, giving pike a blast of oxygen in an otherwise depleted environment.
If you don't think pike can find it, consider that Casselman once placed a 200-foot-long test net in a shallow lake and caught over 300 pike crammed into a small area along the northeast shoreline that was receiving the bulk of the mid-winter sun. So many pike were in the net that virtually every mesh contained a fish. We have so many more winter pike lessons to learn.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer lives in Kenora, Ontario, and is a former Ontario resource manager.