Quick action often prevails in shallow weedy bays at first ice, so much so that chasing flags on the flats is almost a rite of passage to start the ice season. Great fun. And this can be a recipe for bigger fish in some environments, although opportunities often pass quickly because of fishing pressure. A better prescription for first-ice toads is to target deeper water.
On the trout-dominated reservoirs of Colorado, guide Nathan Zelinsky spends 300-plus days fishing each year, including a quarter of those on the ice. He rarely ventures into the shallows until late ice when pike transition there during prespawn. Bait and stable water conditions are the reason for the deep bite.
"Thousands of juvenile rainbow trout and smallmouth bass mill along rock walls and rock ledges," he says. "Pike suspend around the bait and usually don't relate to the bottom. I catch fish 15 to 20 feet down near walls that go from 0 to 30 feet or deeper. One spot I fish is an underwater cliff dropping into 85 feet. In these areas, neutral pike usually drift 8 to 10 feet below baitfish, while more active cruising fish are just below them."
Zelinsky's go-to lures are tubes from 4 to 8 inches long, with the 4-inch Berkley Havoc Smash Tube a favorite, because its flatter body and fatter tentacles make it fall slowly. He prefers a medium-heavy jigging rod about 36 inches long, coupled with a Pflueger Arbor spinning reel loaded with 10-pound Berkley Trilene fluorocarbon line. The Arbor has a large-diameter spool, which reduces line coil. Jighead weight varies from 3/8 to 1 ounce and is dependent on the fishing depth and the size of the tube. He wants the tube to hang as horizontally as possible so he pushes the jighead in only about two-thirds of the way, then tips the hook with 1-inch strip of sucker belly meat.
"If pike seem active, I use a lighter head to get more movement from the tube," he says. "If they seem lethargic, I use a heavier jig so it stays pegged at a given depth. Typically, I hop the jig a foot or so and then go into rhythmic bounces of 1 to 2 inches. Watch your electronics or look down the hole to detect approaching fish. Some pike rush in and eat the jig, while others line up like a bird dog on point before biting."
These same jigging techniques work in any clear-water setting where visibility is good and pike cruise the tops or edges of quick-breaking rock points, sunken islands, saddle areas, and shoreline bluffs. Canadian Shield lakes come quickly to mind, but most natural lakes and reservoirs with ciscos and shad as forage present similar opportunities. Another way to look at this is that most classic deep-water spots that hold trophy fish in late fall continue to hold pike at early ice.
Zelinsky also uses livebait, with a wrinkle. "We can't use live fish above 7,000 feet in Colorado," he says, "but we can use waterdogs. At times, large minnows can be so active that they intimidate pike. The slower-moving amphibians swim seductively and also offer a larger profile that can be seen from a distance.
"I like 'dogs in the 8-inch range and fish them on a quick-strike rig consisting of two #6 VMC trebles rigged in tandem on a 3- to 4-inch section of 80-pound single-strand wire. Our water is extremely clear, so I tie my mainline directly to the first treble hook without wire leader. The top hook is in the tail and the end hook is just up a bit farther down the back. I sit in a blacked-out Clam shelter and watch pike 15 to 20 feet down. It's an exciting way to fish — and it also allows a hook-set immediately after a pike flares its gills and sucks the bait in."
Patterns relating to other baitfish can also develop. Zelinsky: "A few years ago we had a huge kokanee salmon spawn, and there was an abundance of 8-inch salmon in our reservoirs. The kokanee schools would suspend 45 to 55 feet down over channels from 70 to 110 feet deep. We used 7-inch Tora Tubes weighted with 1- or 1.5-ounce Owner Ultra Saltwater Bullet jigheads to match the prey." Big tubes also are used on Flaming Gorge, on the Utah-Wyoming border, where kokanees also are a key prey.
Another Deep Connection
I use Lake Michigan as one example among many of where pike patterns often play in deep water. On this giant water, prey move a lot and ice pike move with them. Deep-water spots include points at the mouth of bays, rock humps in deep bays and outside of bays, and other main-lake rocky drop-offs and transition areas. With three lines per angler legal in Wisconsin, Capt. Paul Delaney uses this allocation to spread bait sets to intercept pike on the move. "I want to put clients on memorable fish," he says. "Double-digit brown trout and walleyes share these waters with pike and are frequent bonus fish.
"Granted, some monster pike are present in the weedy bays of Green Bay," he continues, "but those fish get pounded at first ice. I start the season fishing bluffs and rocky points at the mouths of bays, then shift to deep contour lines outside the bays, usually in the 15- to 25-foot zone. Any weedgrowth ends and large boulders transition into rubble and then into featureless sand bottom that runs for miles. It's the transition zones that attract baitfish and big pike."
On a typical outing with three or more clients, Delaney sets a dozen or more lines. He uses a combination of jigging rods, tip-ups, and Automatic Fishermans. At the center of each fishing spot, several tip-ups are set in a cross pattern and baited with golden roaches or medium suckers 6 to 8 inches long. The tip-ups at the bottom of the cross are on the shallow end of structural elements. The center tip-ups are set on the breakline, and the final tip-ups are set beyond the drop-off where the bottom settles into a basin with a fairly uniform depth.
Each bait is set at a slightly different depth, from a few feet above bottom on the shallow portion of the spread, to midway up in the water for the tip-ups over the deepest water. "These pike are opportunistic," he says. "At times they chase gobies and perch within a foot of bottom; other times they chase schools of whitefish, tracking 3 to 5 feet above bottom. And they also stalk brown trout suspended just about anywhere in the water column, including just under the ice."
He uses Frabill's Big Foot tip-ups, which hold ample 30-pound Dacron mainline. His leader is 20-pound fluorocarbon and he uses a single #4 or #6 treble hook. The hook is inserted right at the dorsal fin and the bait is anchored with a lead shot 8 inches above the bait and of sufficient size to keep the bait at the intended depth.
Surrounding the central cluster of tip-ups, he sets portable Frabill Headquarter Hub shelters. These are jigging stations for sight-fishing. "No sense standing around waiting on a tip-up or Automatic Fisherman to pop," he says. "Active jigging not only produces a lot of fish, but also brings pike into the tip-ups. Meanwhile, if fish don't bite in a half hour, we're on the move.
"We can see baits 20 feet down in most locations. The first fish to come in usually are whitefish or shad. That gets folks in tune with what's happening below. When that first pike comes in on a lure, the adrenaline kicks in and their concentration level goes through the roof."
Favorite jigging lures include spoons like the VMC Tingler, which has a pie-shaped body (large at the head and narrow at the bottom or rear where the hook is) with reflective holographic, UV, and Ultra Glow finishes. At 3/16-ounce, the lure pulsates on the lift then cascades slowly and erratically on the fall to mimic a dying shad. To fish deeper, faster, and when lake currents kick up, switch to a heavier and more compact spoon like the Luhr Jensen Laxee. This snub-nosed, 3-inch spoon weighs 3/4 ounce and has a strong tail kick on the upstroke. Tip both spoons with a minnow head and work with colors in natural hues of gold, silver, blue, and pink.
To round out the line allotment, Delaney sets Automatic Fishermans on each end of his spread to expand the search area. The Automatic Fisherman is as effective as a tip-up, with the advantage of an instant hook-set that allows anglers to battle pike on a rod and reel. The rigging is the same as for a tip-up, with the fluorocarbon leader connected to the 10-pound monofilament mainline. The line from the reel goes through a trigger arm with the rod tip bent, loaded, and ready to set the hook when a pike takes. Set at the outside of tip-up sets, the Automatics often signal the start of a bite and the direction that pike are moving, from one side of the set to the other.
These are but two of many environments where big pike hold in deep water at early ice. When first ice arrives and most anglers rush to shallow, weedy bays for that parade of pike, anglers looking for bigger fish might better consider taking a walk off the deep end.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange, who introduced and helped popularize quick-strike rigging for pike 30 years ago, rarely uses that rig at first ice. "A single hook, as opposed to quick-strike rigging (tandem treble hooks), works well with livebait in the 6- to 8-inch range," he says. "I've also done extensive experiments with hooks over the years. Most anglers fall into one of two camps — some use an octopus-style hook; others use a small treble.
"You can do better than the standard octopus by switching to a wide-gap hook like the original Kahle design by Eagle Claw, the Lazer Sharp L141, which has a straight eye, or the L144, which has a snell eye. This design is a phenomenal performer. For baits of about 6 inches, when I'm fishing for pike and walleyes in the same area at the same time, I use a #6 hook. For baits as big as 8 inches, I switch to a #4. Insert the hook point just below the skin, with the point toward the bait's head, parallel to the dorsal fin. I use a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader.
"The best performing treble I've found is the Lazer Sharp L774, which is a 4X strong hook — as opposed to the 2X strong hooks that most anglers use. The 4X hooks are much stiffer than 2X hooks. The heavier, stiffer wire does a better job of hooking up because the hook points don't "roll" or bend at all on the hook-set. Here, I use a #6 hook for 6-inch baits and move up to a #4 for bigger baits. Insert the treble with one tine just under the skin at the dorsal fin."