Standing there coffee in hand, jig stick in the other, distracted by a distant deer walking across the ice, my pocket was picked, the rod about to go down the hole. Moment frozen in time, coffee sacrificed to the wind, I hit the ice like I was diving for a line-shot ground ball, found the handle, and just held on. Still pretty quick for an old boy, I told myself, although "pay attention, stupid" also came to mind.
Along with lake trout and whitefish, ice fishing pike can be one of the most aggressive fish under ice, so it's natural to jig for them in some situations. It's my favorite way to catch them, although I try to let conditions dictate what kind of approach to take on any given day. I've caught pike over 20 pounds jigging for them, but most of my giant fish — all those surpassing 25 pounds — have fallen for deadbait on quick-strike rigging below a tip-up.
So, in a sense, it's a slow-down game versus a rip-roaring run-and-gun approach; or, at times, the two approaches can be used together. That was the situation last season as Field Editor Gord Pyzer and In-Fisherman Contributor Jeff Matity and I spent a day filming for Ice Fishing Guide TV. Matity volunteered to be in charge of tip-ups, so on each new spot, as I cut holes and Gord followed with the sonar, he was busy rigging.
Once we identified key areas he set a deadbait below an HT Polar tip-up. We set 4 deadbaits strategically on top of structural elements — typically rocky points or rocky sunken islands. With two legal lines remaining, Gord and I set to work jigging the edges in water from 20 down to 40 feet. By day's end, we had jigged up one fish that went 20 pounds and caught one about 16 on a tip-up — along with enough smaller fish to keep things interesting and provide a fine meal that evening.
I love fishing like that, but sometimes it just doesn't work, especially when the target's giant pike. Compare the previous modified run-and-gun approach with how we fish on a spot that has become a traditional producer of big fish. It's one of Pyzer's most cherished and secret spots, where each time we go there we all have to swear on a stack of In-Fisherman Ice Fishing Guides that we will not, even should our eyes be about to be gouged out with a red-hot iron poker, reveal said location. It's somewhere in North America.
We usually go there with four of us, set out 8 tip-ups on just about exactly the same spots each time, and settle in to pass the time. We build a fire. We cook brats. We watch the eagles. The other three talk hockey. We tend the tip-ups. And usually not sooner, but much later, it happens. Last season it was one of the biggest pike ever on In-Fisherman television, a pigmightus pikecus probably just a little over 30 pounds.
I've jigged on that spot over and over again over the years and never a bite. A lot of the big-fish spots are like that. Apparently the fish are conditioned to eating deadbait, not tiny dancing dandies.
Classic jigging spots usually are on waters with plenty of pike. Weed spots can be good, especially at first and last ice, so long as you have definitive spots to fish — obvious weededges on bars in large bays or on bars in the main lake near deep water. Pike use rock a lot, too. Look for rock points at the mouth of large bays or creek arms in reservoirs. And check main-lake points and portions of sunken islands with rock flats and drop-offs into deep water.
Most weededge spots are in less than 15 feet of water, while productive rock spots can be as shallow as 8 to 10 feet, but more typically are 20 to 50 feet. Saddles between sunken islands can be productive and are overlooked by most anglers.
Pike eat spoons but they much prefer horizontal swimming lures like the classic Jigging Rapala. We've been using Northland Puppet Minnows with great success for the last two seasons on TV. And it's tough to beat a Salmo Chubby Darter, although they're light so it's a little more difficult to fish them in deeper water.
These lures also are the best option anytime you're doing the multispecies thing and pike are a big part of the equation. During a typical day on many portions of Lake of the Woods, for example, we catch walleyes, smallmouths, perch, and pike — sometimes whitefish and lake trout. Fish spoons in that scenario and your pike catch goes way down.
I run 10-pound mono line although 10-pound fused line like Sufix Fuse and Berkley FireLine works too. Wire leaders can be made from 27-pound Sevenstrand — 12 to 18 inches long with a snap on one end and a small swivel on the other. For rigging on the ice, should one of the leaders get curled after catching a fish, I use American Fishing Wire's 13- or 20-pound Micro Supreme. It's easy to tie up, using either a 3-wrap uni-knot or a 3-wrap Trilene knot.
Fluorocarbon testing 20 pounds works as leader, too, but I don't use it unless I'm sight fishing in shallow water — another story. You can still get cut off using fluoro, especially if you go lighter than 20 pounds. Go any heavier and lure action suffers.
I don't tip lures when I fish for pike; indeed, the first thing I do to a Jigging Rap or a Puppet is remove the hanging treble hook. Pike are going to eat the entire lure; they're not going to nip at the treble. The treble only causes problems unhooking fish and increases tangling as you jig.
The standard jigging motion is a lift-fall-hold, with the lift being a good 2 to 3 feet. Often I do two or three lifts-falls in a row before letting the lure settle below the hole. Return the lure to the same level each time so pike can calculate how to position to eat the lure.
As the lure settles I hold for about 10 counts before just barely nodding the rod tip to make the thing quiver and look alive. Just before I do the next lift-fall I get more aggressive with the nodding, making the lure look like it's about to swim off.
The other maneuver that works well is to aggressively shake the lure — literally pound it up and down in place 10 to 15 times before stopping and holding the lure still. When you do this correctly the lure is snapping, rolling, and flashing in place, sending off heavy vibrations that stimulate the pike's long lateral line. Often this maneuver works as well as the lift-fall to call in and trigger fish.
Pike commonly suspend along weedlines in shallower water, so it pays to jig at different levels from mid-water column down to a foot off the bottom. In deeper water the fish usually are within a three feet of the bottom, except along steep drop-offs where they often suspend at a given level off the main portion of the drop. So if the break starts at 20 feet and finishes at 35, try fishing the 20-foot level, right at the break, but also over 30 feet of water just off the break. Visualize where the breakline is and try fishing within about 15 to 30 feet off the side of the break.
Keep moving from hole to hole. If you don't get bit within about 5 to 10 minutes, move. You need a lot of holes. You can always make another round, fishing each hole again, before you make a major move to another structural element in a different part of the lake.
Just like other predators under ice cover, pike sometimes approach a lure and then become reluctant to take. It's usually helpful at this point to raise the lure 8 inches or so, nodding the lure as you lift it, to see how the fish reacts. If you get them to move just a bit more at this point their attitude sometimes changes enough to get them to bite. I've moved pike up 2 to 3 feet in 8-inch increments many times before they eat.
The most critical moment in putting fish on the ice is at the hole. If a fish takes a lure deeply and the line is right in the corner of the mouth, enough snout sticks out beyond the pull point on the line so the fish often wedges under the ice hole. Let the fish move off a bit and try again. Once you get the head started and the body coming there's no way to go but up. It helps to have a 9- or 10-inch hole. A safety note here is to be careful looking down the hole as the fish is coming up should the hook pull free and come flying out of the hole. Sunglasses are a safety tool.
Small fish can be slid right up onto the ice. For big fish you need to make a timely grab as the head shakes back and forth, sliding your fingers just under the gill flap but not all the way into the gills. Some anglers like to carry fish-handling gloves for this.
Have catch-and-release tools handy, including a heavy-duty jaw spreader, a long-handled needle-nose pliers, a regular needle-nose, and a wire-cutting tool. When pike take a lure deeply and the gills are threatened, at times you can work through the gills, pulling the lure out through the gills and cutting either the line or the wire. Bleeding fish aren't necessarily dead fish so long as you get them back in the water quickly.
Pike are among the most impressive of all predatory fish. Big ones are at their prime under ice, beautifully marked and in super condition. Take a look at those eyes, looking down the snout like a rifle barrel. See how the lateral line starts on the face and runs distinctively down the side of the fish, those big black pores a sensory system for detecting low-frequency vibrations. Presentations have to look good and often times they have to feel good too.
Which brings us to the puzzle that pike pose, for sometimes vibrations — an active approach with lures — is an important part of catching them. Other times, it takes something quite literally hanging dead in the water to get them to go.