January 23, 2019
There’s something special about ice fishing for giant pike—spotting a tip-up flag as it springs from the release, seeing the spool spinning wildly. You snub the line, feel the fish, and set the hook. Then there’s the moment when you see the fish’s great green snout as it’s pulled up through the hole and then its tooth-filled head the size of a crocodile comes into sight. You slip your hand behind its gill plate, slide the fish onto the ice, and time stands still.
The most important consideration for catching giant winter pike is fishing at the best locations. The most productive spots change depending on the type of lake and when during the Coldwater Period that you’re fishing. What doesn’t change, however, are the best ways to find them, which often starts before you put the boat to bed in the fall.
Autumn is not only a marvelous time to target trophy pike, it’s the perfect occasion to pinpoint prime winter locations, especially on Shield-type waters at first ice. In the fall, pike feed heavily to gain nourishment to aid in the egg maturation process (remember pike spawn so early in the spring that ice often still covers the lake) and carry them through the upcoming frozen-water period.
Fall is also a period of consolidation, when big pike move away from deep weededges where they spent the summer and gather around what I call bus stops. I find these stops by noting the location of the best summer weedlines and then the nearest primary main-lake points that break into deep water. Even better if there’s a large ledge or feeding flat in the 10- to 20-foot depth range associated with the point.
You find these bus stops swarming with pike that are following yellow perch, white suckers, and walleyes that are transitioning to their deep-water fall and winter locations. Even better still, big pike are lying in wait to intercept the hordes of ciscoes, whitefish, and lake trout that are moving shallow to spawn.
Mark bus stops carefully on your GPS chartplotter that you use in winter. I keep a hand-held unit in the boat for this purpose, using it to revisit marked spots when ice arrives.
Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese
“Pike win the calorie lotto and thrive,” says biologist and Fort Qu’Appelle Saskatchewan Fish Hatchery Manager Jeff Matity. “At first ice, the biggest pike are feeding on ciscoes and whitefish that are spawning on main-lake points. It’s the easiest high-protein, soft-finned fish of the year to feed on. The rafts of ciscoes, from fingerling size to as big as two pounds, provide the caloric content to turn lean, summer heat-stressed pike into rotund tankers. What’s special about ciscoes is that one pound of their flesh has the same caloric content as a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. It’s astounding how Mother Nature super-sizes her most valuable predators in preparation for winter.”
According to Matity, as soon as the pike/cisco connection is over, pike do one of two things at first ice: either follow their prey out into open water and hunt for them in a suspended environment, or return to prime structures and cover where they can use weedlines and breaklines.
“This is where I target pike after ciscoes spawn,” he says. “A weedline is a high-percentage area to set tip-ups. My best spot is a narrow weedbed that stops at 8 feet before breaking sharply into 20 feet. The fast break and adjacent clean bottom allow pike to patrol the edge, so no matter where you set up along the one-mile stretch, big fish eventually come calling.”
Bait Up or Bait Down
Jeff Matity has some advice on whether you should hang deadbaits horizontally or vertically. Both methods can be productive, but he says you need to consider the location and winter sub-season. At first ice, when ciscoes are spawning and again in midwinter when they’re stealing burbot eggs, pike are used to hunting and seeing their prey in a horizontal swimming-like position, he says. At last ice, on the other hand, a nose-down attitude resembles a winterkilled fish and thus, a deadbait presented vertically outfishes one presented horizontally on most days. Where you can fish multiple holes, it pays to experiment.
Run-And-Gun Sweet Spots
Few anglers get to spend as much time in pike paradise as Bryan Bogdan, owner of Wekusko Falls Lodge in northern Manitoba, one of the few resorts that remains open in the winter catering to ice anglers.
“Early ice pike on Shield-type lakes can be difficult for anglers to locate consistently,” Bogdan says, who notes that ciscoes and whitefish are dispersing back out into the main-lake basin after spawning. “I start looking at the first deep water adjacent to where whitefish and ciscoes spawn, especially inflowing and outflowing rivers. They hold the biggest concentrations of pike. I typically set up in 10 feet and then, depending on the action, move out to 20 feet on secondary shelves.”
After he explores river mouths on his run-and-gun reconnaissance missions, he checks the area fronting large beds of deep weeds. He says some pike are always on a yellow perch/walleye diet. Finally, he terminates his search setting up on submerged rockpiles.
“You won’t find many fish on sunken islands, but the ones you do are quality fish,” he says. “These giants come up and feed on the humps as soon as ice forms.”
Be (Selectively) Quiet
Bryan Bogdan has spent more time than most studying how big pike lock in on a deadbait hanging down from a tip-up. And he has watched them frantically scoot away when someone inadvertently made noise while walking on the ice. He says if you think a big pike only remembers the last 15 seconds, rethink your strategy. Knowing this to be true, we’ve turned many a slow day around by riding a snowmobile or ATV through our setup. It gets the fish moving and then, they often spot the hanging deadbaits.
Weeding Out Prodigious Pike
In the prairie lakes that Midwest ice-fishing specialist Jason Mitchell calls home, you can’t go wrong at first ice drilling holes around green vegetation. What might surprise you, however, is Mitchell’s take on brown weeds. “I often find pike relating to weeds that are brown and down,” he says. “Even in good conditions, most of the weeds are yellow or brown, with only a few green clumps remaining. So long as there is good oxygen and water circulation, we catch a lot of pike around dead weeds.”
Sean Landsman substantiated Mitchell’s observations in his ground-breaking Project Noble Beast, which tracked huge muskies in the Ottawa River right up until ice formation. Landsman discovered that the fish not only remained faithful to weededges, but it didn’t matter if the vegetation was green and vibrant or brown and down. “Weeds provide good ambush cover,” Landsman says. “As long as there are preyfish using the area, you find predators.”
Mitchell often locates his best spots after detecting vegetation that is frozen into the ice. And more important than its color or vibrancy, he wants to know how the fish are relating to it. “The critical thing about pike relating to weeds is the need to determine whether the fish are roaming through the area or living in it,” he says. “Often they seem to run in packs and when they do, I set tip-ups like a fence, to intercept them as they move from spot to spot. Often they follow the higher clumps of vegetation or the weeds hanging down from the bottom of the ice.”
While vegetation can produce consistent pike action throughout winter, Mitchell and Bogdan also suggest staying mobile, checking hard-bottom main-lake structures like underwater points and rockpiles, especially during the midwinter doldrums.
“Big main-lake structures with boulders and walleyes typically produce big pike for us every winter,” Mitchell says. “I’ve caught big fish by hanging deadbaits halfway down over structure topping out in 15 to 25 feet of water. Maybe suspended baits leave a better scent trail for pike to follow.
In midwinter, regardless of location, Bryan Bogdan says you’re missing out on the biggest pike in the lake if you don’t fish at night. The key combination is a clear evening and a full moon. According to Bogdan, it’s when the giants gorge.
“On Missouri River reservoirs like Fort Peck and Sakakawea, we typically find fish on secondary points and inside turns near old creek channels. Areas with sand and gravel hold the most fish and I think it’s because they have more flooded terrestrial vegetation.”
Like Mitchell, Bogdan spends plenty of time camped out over hard-bottomed main-lake structures during midwinter, noting that primary and secondary shelves in the 12- and 20-foot range provide ideal feeding platforms. He zeros in on narrow bays. “I love fishing mouths of shallow, finger-like bays, where you can intercept fish moving in or out,” he says.
“Schools of bait start seeking oxygen-rich water at the mouth, so food is concentrated. Pike move up out of the deep water and feed, often for only a few minutes, before moving back out. It can be the best pike fishing of the year and there’s little angling pressure.”
In February and March, Matity sets his sights on shallow, sand- and gravel bars where burbot (a.k.a. ling and eelpout) are spawning. “Big pike never miss a meal in winter,” he says. “Mother Nature intervenes with one more feeding opportunity to help pike complete their egg development and enter the spawning season in top condition. The event is the month-long burbot spawning season when they invade shallow main-lake shoals.
“When you put down an underwater camera on one of these spawning shoals, it looks like a moonscape,” he says. “You won’t see a single shiner, crayfish, or perch. But the burbot aren’t alone. Look up and you see ciscoes hiding right under the ice. They scoot down and steal burbot eggs whenever one of the sentries lets his guard down.
“Pike are the only fish burbot can’t intimidate. Pike roam through the spawning areas several times a day and feed on the burbot, suckers, or ciscoes. This is the best time and location to catch the biggest pike in the system. And it happens long before pike make their prespawn movements, when they’re the most accessible and vulnerable to anglers.”
Shallow Prespawn Prizes
“For me, it’s all about the prespawn,” Bogdan says, noting that he looks for shallow bays with feeder creeks at that time. “It can take some drilling because you can have a lot of stagnant water in the back ends, but the fish are there. I like to start with more tip-ups on the deeper side, putting only a couple of tip-ups shallower. If I don’t catch anything, I keep moving the shallow tip-ups shallower until I connect with fish.”
He never hesitates setting tip-ups right in vegetation, spooling his reels with line stout enough to pull up and haul in weeds along with his fish. He also says that pike cruising these shallow grassy flats take less time deciding to eat your bait and strike more forcefully.
Mitchell, on the other hand, takes the concept of moving shallow to an extreme. “It’s amazing how shallow pike get,” he says. “There‘s barely enough water for the fish to fit between the bottom and the ice. The hardest part is getting your bait to hang where it isn’t laying in the mud or hanging so high that it’s in the hole. This ‘crawl space’ pattern gets good when the weather is warm enough to melt the snow and the runoff that is entering the lake changes the water color. When the water gets dark, watch out.”
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer, Kenora, Ontario, has been contributing to In-Fisherman publications on ice-fishing topics for more than two decades.