I've fished many pike waters across the Ice Belt in the U.S, and in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. Most anglers understand that deadbait can be highly effective for pike in many — perhaps most — environments. Generally, though, when possible, my preference is to fish live baitfish for pike early during the season, switching to deadbait as the doldrums set in during mid-season and late season into last ice. An exception might be if I can get truly fresh ciscoes or smelt. Those are difficult for pike to resist any time of year. Even then, though, lively baitfish swimming among your deadbaits is likely to bring more action overall during early season.
Pike do well in cold water, and they're usually active at first ice in the same areas they were marauding just before ice up. This usually lasts for about a month, but depends on factors we've discussed in other articles. Fishing pressure plays a role. Big pike don't tolerate being walked over or being driven over for long. A fish caught here and there soon alerts the pack, too. Pike also move when the forage leaves. Generally, shallow fish move deeper as the ice season progresses. Deeper fish often stay deep until last ice. Pike roam open water at times, suspending near schools of baitfish or along significant drop-off edges in the main lake where schools of baitfish routinely pass by.
Weededges in big bays can be good spots. So can weededges along prominent points and inside turns on mainlake shoals, including sunken islands. Rocky shoals also usually host fish along deeper drop-off edges, as do saddle areas between prominent shoals. Lots of fish are shallow, in from about 6 to 15 feet of water, but prominent patterns also prevail deeper, especially along deeper rock areas and at times on deep flats next to shoals with weeds and/or rock.
The livebait connection makes sense early because pike are looking for activity. Later, as winter settles in earnest, pike settle in and slow down. By late ice, although their activity level is increasing, it isn't anything like it was at first ice. Later in the season, a lively baitfish often is too much for pike, whereas deadbait, which of course usually isn't moving much at all, is just right.
Another factor for anglers is just what will fish tolerate in terms of terminal tackle and rigging. Some things in this regard are counterintuitive for many anglers, but make scientific sense when one researches the vision capabilities of our target fish. When I fish in waters with pike, whether I'm fishing for them or another fish species, I almost always rig terminally with American Fishing Wire Surflon Micro Supreme tieable wire when fishing in open water — 13-, 20-, or 26-pound breakstrengths, depending on the species and the situation. A short section of wire is the final juncture between fluorocarbon leader and lure.
Most of the predatory fish we fish for don't scrutinize fine details well, especially when lures are moving, so the wire rarely factors into the catching — and I don't spend time losing lures to pike that would otherwise cut me off. Often, too, when I'm fishing for other species, a 22-pound pike or 25-pound muskie happens along and I'm able to land those fish. Those sort-of serendipitous moments can put a gold star on one's day. I've fished this way to do many of our TV segments for almost two decades.
It's a different story under ice cover when we fish horizontally and "hang" something if front of fish that have plenty of time to decide whether to bite. The large predators still don't see fine details in our presentations, but they are more able to judge the viability of what's in front of them.
As I've said, at early-ice ice pike often want to see some activity in a baitfish. Lighter rigging facilitates that. Experience suggests heavier rigging is less of a problem later in the season. Pike seem more willing to tolerate wire leaders, even heavier wire leaders and heavier fluorocarbon rigging. My experience at that time is in rigging with light wire, as opposed to fluorocarbon; so I can't bring actual experience to bear. But I'd be surprised if anglers didn't catch more fish by rigging with lighter fluorocarbon to present their deadbaits during mid-season and at late ice. In waters with both lake trout and pike, you'll also probably catch many more incidental lake trout.
It was the early-ice equation, trying to present baitfish as well as possible, that got me tinkering with fluorocarbon leaders instead of wire. Fluorocarbon is more abrasion resistant than monofilament and braids, so it has a better chance in contact with razor pike teeth. Most scientific sources also consider it much less visible to fish than monofilament and, especially, braid under water. So, at least two independent factors suggested the potential for success with fluorocarbon in the right break strength and diameter.
The multispecies equation also pushed me to toy with light fluorocarbon leaders. Many times at first ice I fish for pike and walleyes in the same areas, instead of just pike or just walleyes. If I target only walleyes I usually use 8-pound fluorocarbon leader. If the target is both species, I may go with my main fluorocarbon choice for pike, which these days is 20-pound fluorocarbon, but more often I compromise and fish 12-pound.
Targeting only pike at first ice I started my fluorocarbon experiment fishing with 30-pound for several years, before dropping to 25-pound for another year and, finally, after not getting bit off, I switched eight years ago to 20-pound. Twenty-pound is thin enough to allow baitfish to be active and attractive to pike. And it apparently protects well against bite-offs. I've lost exact count, but I've landed well over 100 pike on 20-pound without getting cut off. One of those fish has surpassed 20 pounds, there's been one at 18, a few at 14 or so, and a bunch more in double-digits.
I wouldn't suggest that kind of success for you and, indeed, my results give me pause. I started the experiment thinking I'd be trading an occasional bite-off for catching more fish overall. I was thinking a bite-off rate of 1 in 10 to 15 hookups would be acceptable if my catch rate improved right along with the occasional bite-off. I would never have bet that I could catch 25 fish without a bite off, much less 100. I don't think I could duplicate my results. I keep wondering when fate and statistical reason will slide more toward a different reality. Admittedly, there must be at least a little luck involved in not getting cut off by any of those fish. But I also think that how I play pike has a bearing on drastically reducing the likelihood of getting cut off.
We are products of where we've been and how we've lived and, in this case, fished. Part of the reason I have been successful fishing with 20-pound fluorocarbon probably is because I learned early how to deal with pike on light wire.
Playing Them Right
"Light is right" has long been part of my rigging scheme for pike, from the beginning of the ice revolution when we were first writing about using light wire and small treble hooks (typically #6s) rigged in tandem 2 to 4 inches apart, in the fashion of the best European pike anglers.
This began in the early 1980s, as Dutch angler Jan Eggers and I experimented with tandem-hook rigs on a March trip to the Whiteshell area of Manitoba. The final tally, which included fish over 20 pounds, was 44 fish caught on 44 runs without missing a fish — and without having a fish that wasn't possible to release. We called it quick-strike rigging.
The standard "light" wire of the day was 27-pound Sevenstrand, which is thin enough to work well much of the time, including today. We fished a bit lighter, using 18-pound Sevenstrand. Later, I also used 13-pound at times, but it didn't seem to catch better than the 18-pound — and the 13 was so thin it curled on every fish catch and needed constant retying. The 27-pound is the lightest option available from Sevenstrand today.
To be successful with light-wire rigging do not set the hook when fishing with small tandem treble hooks or a small single treble hook. Simply come tight on the line and start hand-over-handing the fish in. Nylon tip-up line doesn't stretch much, small hooks quickly break free from the bait, and just as quickly find purchase inside a pike's mouth. The right rigging in practiced hands almost never misses a fish.
Once you're hooked up, take it easy. There's usually no hurry. Keep a firm grip on the line but don't pull too hard — no horsing. Two or three runs and pike tire. Anytime a fish takes off, keep a firm grip as line slides through your fingers, but don't try to turn the fish right then and there. Heavy pressure often just gets a pike to thrash and swing its head back and forth, often with its mouth open. That encourages broken wire (or cut fluorocarbon).
Eventually, it's a matter of positioning the fish's head at the hole. If it's a big fish and the hooks have slid into the corner of the fish's mouth, there might be as much as 8 inches of snout forward of that pivot point. If the fish's head is wedged at a right angle to the ice right below the hole, ease up a bit. Let the pike move off a little. Pull firmly but gently again and get the snout to slide into the hole. That's also how you deal pike on light fluorocarbon leaders to keep from getting bit off.
Granted, there are times to consider going heavier and pulling harder — even horsing fish — when cover like heavy weedgrowth or timber is a factor. Sometimes pressure on fish also is required when pike are in shallow water where the ice reaches almost to the bottom and there is a 2-foot crawl space below the ice where pike can wedge themselves after they scoot away from below the hole.
Generally, though, given my success in getting fish to bite on light fluorocarbon and not getting bit off, I err most often on the side of going ahead and fishing the lighter fluorocarbon, taking my chances around cover, especially weedgrowth. I've landed fish that buried in weeds by pulling hard on them after they bury. Once pike bury they can't shake their head, which is what tends to lead to bite-offs.
Hooks and Rigging
I use single hooks at times, especially when walleyes and pike are my target and I limit the size of the baitfish to 5 or 6 inches. But let's talk treble hooks given that this is an article about pike.
The best performing treble hook I've found is the Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp L774, which is a 4X-strong hook, as opposed to the 2X hooks most anglers use. The 4X hooks are much stiffer than 2X hooks, so they don't bend or roll out when you start hand-over-handing a fish in. The L774 also has tight gapping, which means that they dig in and pin tight to flesh. It's rare to have one pull free once it's set in. I occasionally tinker with the L934 treble, which is a 3X strong hook design available in red. I catch fish with red hooks, but I haven't seen instances where red far outperforms a regular bronze hook.
Quick-strike rigging with two tandem treble hooks spaced about 2 to 4 inches apart isn't necessary with livebait, unless the baits get to be longer than about 7 or 8 inches. For baits from 5 to 7 inches or so I use a single #6 treble with one tine inserted just under the skin right at the dorsal fin. If the baits are mostly 8 inches or so, I use a #4 treble — or at 8 inches I use tandem #6 treble hooks, with the lead (end-of-the-line) hook right at the dorsal fin and the trailing hook in the top of caudal peduncle, just in front of the tail. If you position hooks farther forward, thinking you're more likely to have the hooks farther in the fish's mouth when they take, that's just what you get, and fish too often get hooked in the gills or throat.
I treat a single treble as I do quick-strike rigging when it comes to getting to tip-ups as quickly as possible and starting to hand-over-hand fish in as soon as I get there. After each caught fish, run your fingers along the leader and retie if you detect nicks in the line.
With livebait you miss more fish than with deadbait. Pike don't always connect perfectly with a lively baitfish, especially smaller pike. Smaller pike often are the "spool runners." They're nervous and competitive when other small pike are around. And they're nervous about getting eaten when bigger pike are around. So they see a baitfish, dash in, take their best shot, and, if they connect with even a tail hold, they dash off — thus the whirling spiral — to get away from other fish. Bigger fish are more practiced at eating baitfish and aren't likely to miss. And, after striking, they usually aren't in a rush to move off. A slow steadily moving spool is a good sign.
Use 3/0 lead shot to anchor bait, typically one shot about 8 inches above a bait. You want baits to be lively, but not so lively they can easily avoid a pike. I always have a scissors on hand to trim a baitfish's tail to slow it down a bit, too. Shiners, suckers, and chubs all work depending on what's available and look liveliest in the bait tanks.
I'm not the only angler who has been using lighter fluorocarbon in some situations. TV host and Devils Lake, North Dakota Guide Jason Mitchell mentioned a trip to Snow Lake in northern Manitoba last season, fishing with Guide Brian Bogdan from Waukesko Falls Lodge, on Waukesko Lake, just east of Flin Flon. They used 20-pound fluorocarbon and a single treble hook to fish deadbaits.
Mitchell surmised that while there isn't much winter fishing pressure on lakes in that area, the big fish are old and many of them have been caught and released at some point in their lives. He also mentioned catching incidental lake trout and walleyes, which they likely would not have caught with heavier rigging. And they didn't lose a pike among more than two dozen caught during their two days of fishing.
I haven't done comparative testing of fluorocarbon lines from various companies. Much of my fishing has been with a Stren fluorocarbon with a "coral mist" tint that has been discontinued. I've also used Berkley Trilene 100% Fluoro Professional Grade.
Most fluorocarbon lines are clear. Interestingly, Berkley scientists mention that green-tinted fluorocarbon may be even less visible to fish in waters with a green tinge to it, which applies to many of the waters we fish. The Trilene 100% Fluoro Professional Grade is offered with green tint as well as in clear. It's something to tinker with this season.