February 23, 2022
Because pike are fast-growing, fierce-looking, hard-fighting predators that can grow to King Kong proportions, they are highly prized by anglers across the Ice Belt. And because they are circumpolar in distribution, being found across much of Scandinavia, Europe, Asia, and North America, they have been pursued, studied, and marveled about since the Middle Ages.
Fortunately, modern-day fishery science isn’t influenced by myths and legends. So, before you pack the tip-ups into your suitcase and book a trip to Germany, let’s look at what we really know about optimizing our time on the ice for pike. Because it is as fascinating as the fairy tales.
As renowned esocid specialist Dr. John Casselman has taught us for years, water temperature, dissolved oxygen content, and quantity of light streaming through the ice play critical roles in our success. They strongly affect pike behavior, and coalesce in ways that will surprise you.
Satiated for Long Periods
“In winter feeding, as determined from controlled laboratory studies, large adult pike consume only about one small minnow a week,” says Casselman, who until retirement was the Senior Scientist in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Aquatic Research and Development Section. “I gave the fish a set number of minnows, refreshed every week, at controlled water temperatures ranging between 2°C and 4°C (35°F to 40°F). They could have consumed more if they had preferred, but they ate only one small minnow every week, on average. At these low temperatures, pike are quite inactive. I don’t think they use much energy while feeding so I would suggest that if they’re taking larger fish, it is partly because these items are inactive and pose no predation challenges. If I had given them larger fish, they probably would have fed less frequently, not only because of the energy required in capture, but simply because they were satiated for a longer period of time.”
Now, read that paragraph again because it is so profound. The pike that Casselman fed in his controlled experiment had an unlimited supply of easy-to-catch food in a small confined area and yet, they only ate an average of one small minnow a week. Because the water was frigid, just like in the winter, it slowed their metabolic rate to a crawl. Now, imagine how many pike likely swim between our tip-ups throughout the areas that we ice fish, seeing our baits and lures and turning up their noses.
The other thing to consider is what Casselman refers to as the “predation challenge.” It’s what typically happens when a pike spots our bait or lure and quickly resolves whether or not, from an energy expenditure point of view, it’s worth pursuing. And remember, in the winter, it’s not likely that the fish is famished, or even hungry. In his words, it’s likely satiated, satisfied, full. So, what are the odds that in the frigid water within which we find it stalking, a pike will run down the relatively small (in the scheme of things) lure that you are rapidly jigging, burning up more calories in the chase than it will ultimately gain in the meal?
The good news is that Casselman’s research appears to confirm what many winter pike specialists have suspected for years—that a quick-strike-rigged deadbait suspended motionless beneath a tip-up typically attracts and triggers more pike than an artificial lure being moved slowly. Ironically, even more than if the same bait’s alive. We have become so enamored with the ancient, mystical, big bad water wolf character that we sometimes forget how the animal actually behaves.
Big Bait, Big Fish—Not So Fast
Which brings me to the key comment by Casselman that caused me to think: Might we be using deadbaits that are too big? If the large pike that he fed in the research lab ate only one small minnow a week, despite being offered unlimited meals, and if the fish are typically satiated in the cold water of winter, might a smaller dead sucker or ciscoe suspended beneath a tip-up appeal more to the fish?
In the 1980s and 90s, I experienced the hands-down best ice fishing for pike in the 44- to 48-inch range, in my home waters of Northwest Ontario, using rainbow smelt for bait. We enjoyed many stellar days landing four to six or more pike between 17 and 27 pounds. But then smelt (even dead and frozen) became banned as bait and we switched to freshly thawed suckers, ciscoes (tulibees), whitefish, and saltwater herring. We caught the two biggest behemoths (50- and 52-inchers) with the latter big baits, but our daily catch of pike plummeted.
At the time, I chalked up the decline to a surging interest in winter pike fishing and a corresponding increase in harvest. But listening to Casselman now has me rethinking the scenario. Is it possible that the sleek, streamlined, and much smaller smelt functioned in the same way as the small minnows that he fed his captive predators? Suckers, ciscoes, whitefish, and herring are typically bigger, girthier, and heavier, and I am thinking now, perhaps less preferred.
In his country classic “Cloudy Days,” Waylon Jennings lamented: Cloudy days, don’t the sun ever shine anymore. Stormy weather, will you always be around. When I’m down I can’t stand cloudy days.
Hailing from sunny Texas, I’m betting that the Highwayman never ice-fished for pike, because if he did, he would have reversed the lyrics and pined for the gray days that he loathed.
“There are interesting observations about the activity of male versus female pike,” Casselman says. “Regardless of the gear—angling or netting—the catch of female pike is significantly greater in summer and winter. I published a paper on it in the 1970s, and it certainly holds up. You catch three to four times more pike on cloudy days than you will on bright, sunny days.”
Did he just say that we will catch three to four times more big pike on cloudy days than days when the sun shines? Yep, but as I look back over some of our best winter pike expeditions, several caught on camera as we filmed In-Fisherman television, I’m confused, because the conditions were bright. So I quizzed him for an explanation.
“From angling studies conducted during the open-water period,” says Casselman (who was awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor by the American Fisheries Society, for his lifetime achievement in science), “we know that pike feed more actively on cloudy, overcast days than on bright, sunny days. On days when light intensity is high, they feed more actively during evening and to a lesser extent during morning twilight, and when light intensity is low.”
I’m fascinated by his comments because, looking back, every giant fish I‘ve landed on an otherwise bright sunny day, without exception, has taken the bait after 4 o’clock in the afternoon, as he suggests. And of the many behemoths that I’ve landed at high noon, every one of them, without exception, popped the tip-up flag on a cloudy day.
“The intensity of illumination in the laboratory that causes pike to be most active (300 to 700 lux) is more similar to the illumination just under the ice at midday in January (400 to 800 lux) than it is to summer midday intensities,” Casselman says.
Fussy about weeds
So, pike are picky about the amount and size of the food they eat, the temperature of the water in which they swim, and the intensity of light streaming into their surroundings—what are other critical factors ice anglers should consider?
“Pike are fussy about the density of aquatic vegetation,” Casselman says. “I put together a graph on pike density and percent vegetative cover. Some interesting research has been done in Holland on this matter, where they were studying pike as predators to control abundant prey populations. If vegetation was too dense, pike were unable to control a burgeoning prey base. We know that pike predation involves an edge effect, normally preying at edges of weedbeds.”
Based on the netting research that Casselman conducted in several lakes in northeastern Ontario, the density of weedgrowth not only affected the overall size of the pike population, in other words the total number of fish, it also affected their ultimate size. In a nutshell, all else being equal, you’re more likely to ice trophy pike in a lake with open water and tapering vegetative edges than in one where the weedgrowth is as dense as an Amazon forest.
European Lakes in North America
British, Dutch, and German anglers often catch gargantuan pike, the likes of which we never see on this side of the Atlantic. The reason appears to be related to the quality of forage and the density of pike populations.
“Large pike in the British Isles grow at a rate of two to three pounds per year for 8 to 10 years after approximately age three, when they begin to feed on large, soft-rayed prey such as common bream,” Casselman says. “Similar increases have been observed in North American pike that are feeding on large lake whitefish. Density of pike populations is also involved, because it inversely affects growth and ultimate size.”
Once again, several points to ponder, but the essential message is something that has fascinated me since my earliest days of ice fishing for pike. My favorite lakes for trophies are those shunned by anglers because they’re considered to be “fished out” or “too tough.” But in reality they have been “fished down,” not “fished out.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that angling pressure has reduced pike density so that the surviving pike have an abundant supply of ideal soft-rayed forage.
These same lakes feature deep water, minimal vegetation, and huge populations of whitefish and ciscoes (tulibees). They are, in effect, European lakes in North America. And if you fish them at the prime time in late winter and early spring, under ideal early morning, late afternoon, and overcast conditions, with deadbaits set on quick-strike rigs suspended under tip-ups, you’ve stacked the odds in your favor for landing a trophy pike fit for an emperor.
*Gord Pyzer is a longtime In-Fisherman Field Editor, former Ontario resource manager, and a member of freshwater fishing halls of fame in both Canada in the US. He is a regular contributor to Ice Fishing Guide.