Rigged and ready for exploration and wilderness running on snow machines, we had forged our way into a remote portion of the Winnipeg River, Manitoba. Anticipation ran high as we set day camp over one portion of a large sunken island connected by a deep saddle to weedy shoreline habitat. The island and saddle lay in a major bay just off the main river.
By sunset that first day, we had slid six fish over 20 pounds onto the ice, then photographed and released them. Later that winter, exploring several huge shallow bays connected to a deep clear lake trout lake near Atikokan, Ontario, we managed a pair of 25s, along with many smaller fish.
The biggest fish of that winter of 1986, that winter of exploration, came from another Manitoba lake at late-ice. Toad Smith, displaying his famous gap-toothed grin, held the 28-pound fish as I shot photos that would later grace In-Fisherman magazine articles outlining strategies for catching pike. The shot's also on the video cover of Ice Fishing Secrets II.
Fish of that quality remain in many Canadian lakes, fish that are more available during winter than during the open-water season. That, however, is another story. Reality persists for most of us. The logistics of wilderness travel are too difficult, the lakes too far away, the time too short. The real story is the pike fishing that goes wanting in the backyards of most anglers who live in ice country.
Of course, the pike in our backyards won't run so large. But consistent action from fish that in most waters run from 3 up to about 10 pounds is tough to beat in the real world of most ice anglers. Twenty flags (tip-up flags) in a half day of fishing isn't unusual. Play the game right, too, and in several weekends of angling, you'll likely bust an impressive fish or two. As is the case on remote Canadian waters, the bigger pike that still swim in waters close to home often are more available through the ice than on open water.
Several points lend perspective here. First, in most areas, pike just aren't being targeted during winter. In reservoir creek arms in the Dakotas; reservoirs in Montana, Idaho, and Colorado; the Iowa Great Lakes; hundreds of Minnesota lakes; many backwaters off the Mississippi River; some natural lakes and reservoirs in Michigan and New York; and in bays of the Great Lakes, panfish and often walleyes are being fished for, but not so often pike.
Secondly, in areas where anglers do set up for pike, most of them plant a shack in a bay at first-ice, and that's where they fish for the rest of the season. But fishing demands mobility. Granted, tip-ups key fishing for pike. But tip-ups don't have to be used as totally stationary products. That is, in most situations, they shouldn't be set in the same spots for more than a few hours.
A good day on the ice for me is a full day on the ice. An hour before sunrise I'm set up over a walleye spot. On most natural lakes, the walleye bite slows by 8:30 a.m. By then, folks are napping in their shacks or pulling off the ice to get breakfast. Some of them will be setting out tip-ups near their shacks, which usually are set over walleye territory.
Often, a lake is alive with people, and yet, most of the key pike spots remain untouched. The next six hours before the evening walleye bite begins can offer hot fishing, when approached correctly.
A Mobile System
The basis of a mobile approach for pike is understanding that pike are lazy prowlers that hesitate to move far from the general areas they set up in. Even when their forage runs low in good habitat areas, pike hesitate to move and instead are inclined to wait for food to move back into the area.
Typical habitat areas in lakes include weededges in bays, particularly points and pockets (inside turns) in the edge; main-lake flats or bars with weedgrowth (again, particularly points and pockets in the growth on the flats); and occasionally, rocky points, especially points (or the edges thereof) that are part of a sunken island near classic shallow weedy habitat.
In river backwaters, probe along weededges; try the edges of the deepest holes (troughs) in the backwater; and try just away from where current runs adjacent to the opening of the backwater. In reservoirs, try flats and channel cuts in the back end of creek arms; then work your way out of the creek arm, checking each point along the way, finishing on points that protrude into the main portion of the reservoir.
Wherever pike station, they almost always go on the prowl for extended periods each day. They don't move far, and they don't move fast. They search, poking along the edge and then into a pocket—lollygagging here and there. Often, they end up riding at the same level as their forage. In backwaters where deadbait lies on the bottom and panfish ride the bottom, pike ride the bottom, too.
In most natural lakes, pike on shallow flats begin the day riding in the lower fifth of the water column, gradually rising to about mid-column as the day progresses. Most pike in deeper water beyond the drop-off hold close to bottom. I have, for example, caught lots of pike along the deep edges of rock and gravel bars in 25 to 45 feet of water—all within a foot or two of bottom.
Pike have a keen sense of what's happening in their habitat area. They monitor the movements of baitfish. Catch panfish from a weedy flat and you soon attract the attention of pike. Experience also shows that pike are much more scent sensitive than science texts suggest. Water apparently carries the persistent aura or aroma of the area, and pike monitor changes in this aura, easily detecting baitfish that move into their habitat area, every bit as well as any fox scents prey upwind. Pike also easily detect fear or injury pheromones (chemicals) given off by injured and excited baitfish.
Pike, I'm a tryin' to tell ya, rule their habitat roost, and baitfish dropped into appropriate areas in this roost usually won't be there long without getting a response. In small habitats, I give pike an hour to respond. In larger areas, they get two hours. If fish are biting, we stay until the action dies. Then we gather our tip-ups and make a major move to another area.
Well, of course, I know that at times it takes longer for pike to respond. And, of course, I know that sometimes pike become programmed to feed during certain periods of the day. Morning, for example, is almost always more productive than late afternoon. Indeed, in more than 25 years of fishing, I can't recall more than a time or two when it paid to continue fishing into the sunset period. That's walleye time.
This approach isn't the answer for every situation. It's playing one key set of percentages. This is one highly efficient and effective way—one workable system—to banging a bunch of pike quickly in waters where most pike spots aren't being fished effectively.
And when, after searching various lake areas quickly, I'm confident that certain areas hold large pike that may take more time to trigger, occasionally I return and set camp for the day. Such an approach, however, almost never produces the pure action offered by running and gunning for pike on the prowl.
A Social Affair
This approach requires people power. In Minnesota, for example, each angler is allowed two tip-ups. Exploring large habitat areas adequately and quickly takes several anglers, but more than two truck loads become difficult to coordinate. It's fun, though, to have one group, of say three, concentrate on rocky spots while another group fishes weedy habitat. It's one of the best ways to determine what most of the fish are doing, and it's a good way to bang a big fish.
On a typical spot, set several tip-ups in various areas that pike will prowl—along the deep edge of points or in pockets in a weededge; in open pockets on the weed flat, particularly pockets near the deep edge. On rocky areas, set tip-ups on the rock flat near the drop, along the crest of the main drop-off, and at the base of the drop-off.
As good as deadbait can be for pike, this is one time I prefer fishing exclusively with livebait, which I believe more likely attracts pike in short order—not big baits, but lively 6-inch shiners or chubs. On a good day, three anglers might easily go through 6 dozen baits below stationary tip-ups on quick-strike rigging.
Later in the season, particularly at late-ice, I slow down, targeting prime spots with bigger deadbaits. That's another situation, though, another story, although it's not so much different from the one told here. Even then, however, it's rare to spend an entire day camped on one spot if the spot isn't producing a good fish from time to time.
Good as walleyes, perch, bluegills, and crappies are, freshly filleted and cooked in so many ways, pike are my favorite winter fish for the table. Once you've filleted a fish and removed the Y-bones, the meat is as firm textured and tasty as even the finest saltwater fish. It remains a great abiding freedom to still be able to catch fish for our own meals.
The Jigging Option
Tip-up sets remain the heart of any system for pike. Jigging, though, also accounts for pike. After many years of experimenting, Doug Stange suggests that the best bait is a deadbait like a 6-, 7-, or 8-inch sucker fished on a quick-strike rig. Hook the lead treble hook near the dorsal fin of the deadbait, the trail hook near the tail, so the bait sinks head first and hangs vertically at rest. Many anglers believe a deadbait has to be positioned so it hangs horizontally, but Stange has never found that to be true.
Stange uses a sturdy rod and at least 14-pound-test line to present the bait. He drops it into position just above bottom, then lifts the bait two feet and lets it flutter back. The lift-fall is the attracting maneuver, the one to two minute hold that follows the lift-fall is the triggering maneuver. In shallower water, probe the central portion of the water column, too. Pike often take on the first drop or just after the first lift-fall in a new hole. Fish a hole for five minutes or so and move on. When a fish takes, drop your rod tip toward the fish as it moves away, then set. No waiting for pike to swallow the bait.