Jigging is a hands-on active and visual way to use lures to catch one of the most aggressive fish under ice. Most of the fishing transpires in shallow water, where sight fishing is an integral part of the game. You work a lure to attract pike below your hole, then work the lure to get them to bite. A jiggle here, a dart there, a slight of hand left-right, and then a little rod-nod to boot.
This isn't just a fun way to fish, but an efficient and effective system. Catches can be impressive. While pike on most bodies of water run 3 to 5 pounds, what you see and catch is mostly a reflection of the pike population in the body of water you're fishing. This isn't just a system for smaller fish.
The idea is to get winter pike so worked up that they'll hit a darting bait when they wouldn't otherwise think of taking a livebait or a deadbait. Also, though, the opposite is true, particularly as the season slides toward the dead of winter when pike hold in deeper water. At times, they won't respond to an active lure but will take a livebait or deadbait.
The Right Lakes, Rivers, & Reservoirs
Look for a body of water with a good pike population, or a portion of a body of water with a good pike population. If you don't have big numbers of pike in waters near you, work with what you have.
To work the system, the water should be clear enough to see the fish in relation to your lure. The best flats (or bars) usually have a variety of bottom conditions, with weedgrowth an important part of the equation. The largest flats usually attract the most pike and require more time to probe. Small bars produce comparatively fewer fish, but don't take long to probe. Often, though, when lots of people are working large bars, small bars often produce better action.
Pike are characterized as ambush predators, but that's rarely the case. They hunt with intent. A group of pike move onto a bar and make it a home area until the food gives out. They aren't schooled, but smaller pike seem to work the same general areas at the same time. Bigger pike aren't pack fish, although several big pike may be working a big bar.
When pike become active, they roam an area, becoming familiar with it. They quickly recognize prime spots where baitfish tend to gather. So they swim slowly along a weededge, then hold for a while in a particular weed pocket or weed point. They'll move up on a flat, too, looking to roust baitfish. Or they might swim through heavy weedgrowth and then station for a moment in a weed pocket or along an interior edge.
First-ice and throughout the early portion of the ice season is prime time; midseason less so; late season so-so until just before ice-out when pike become active again. Fishing peaks in the morning, often beginning just after daybreak, which is the opposite of what most anglers think. We usually equate warmer afternoons with increased activity, although water temperature doesn't change under ice.
Good fishing usually lasts into early afternoon and then tapers, probably because most pike have fed by then. During midseason, the best fishing occurs during midday. During late season, it slips back to a morning-into-early-to-midafternoon bite.
A portable ice shack's necessary unless you're working with a sonar unit in conjunction with an underwater camera like the Nature Vision Aqua-Vu. Even the camera, though, works better inside a shack. The camera and sonar combo allow you to work into deeper water where you wouldn't otherwise be able to see pike down the hole.
Using the camera is more time consuming than fishing shallow enough to see fish down the hole. My preferred method is to work with a portable shack that can be pulled along quickly from hole to hole. More-permanent shacks don't allow for the mobility necessary to make the system work to the tune of lots of fish. A darkened shack interior allows you to see down the hole, which enables you to work your lure to entice a pike to come in.
The system requires a jigging rod, a reel with a smooth drag, and monofilament line testing around 12 pounds, or fused superline testing 14 or 20 pounds. A light-wire leader produces more pike, because light thin wire is less visible than thicker monofilament. I use 12-pound stranded wire (not nylon-coated wire) from Sevenstrand. If you prefer to go a little heavier, use 18-pound Sevenstrand. VMC and South Bend offer pretied light-wire leaders.
A jigging rod measuring around 30 inches works well in shacks. Berkley, South Bend, H.T. Enterprises, Bad Dog, and Thorne Brothers offer jigging rods. Reeks like the Daiwa 700 and Shimano Sustain 1000 (smooth drags) couple well with the rod. I use 14-pound-test superline.
Move, Attract, Trigger
Swimming lures that hang horizontal have been the key for me, but there's room to experiment here, more than anywhere else within this system. My most productive lure has been the Nils Master Jigging Shad, which presents a deep-bodied baitfish profile in a small bait. The #9 Jigging Rapala is another good bait.
I cut enough holes to require a power auger, even at first-ice. I also carry a spud bar. The bigger the hole the better, because you can't make decisions about what you should and shouldn't do unless you can see the kind of response you're getting. Bigger holes allow for seeing to the side, where pike often hold when they don't like what they see.
If you sit for 10 minutes in a spot and don't have pike coming in periodically, move. Over a bar with heavy weedgrowth, you may need to move only 25 feet to get into pike. Along an edge where pike can see a good distance, cut holes farther apart.
Jigging remains a matter of balancing attracting with trigging. First you need to attract pike, then trigger them to bite, and usually the attracting maneuver isn't anything like the triggering sequence. Generally, attracting maneuvers need to be bigger and bolder—aggressive jigging. Once pike come in, generally slow down and make your offering look alive. Add a dart here, a jiggle there, and don't forget those twitches and a shake-pause. This is some of the most exciting fishing on ice.