The awakening occurred about a dozen years ago. My guided crew on Devils Lake, North Dakota, wanted to wrestle with big pike. We drilled holes on a prime spot, from deep to shallow. The last hole was so shallow the snow on top of the ice was littered with mud and debris from drilling into the lake bottom. If I'd been pushing harder, the auger would have become a post-hole digger.
I measured the depth of the hole, looked at the line, and figured there were 8 inches of water under the ice. What the heck? I folded the flag under the "T" of the HT Polar and made the set. Within 15 minutes, heavy black Dacron line was slicing through rotten cattails as a pike thrashed through water so shallow I'm not sure it could even turn around. As the day continued, the water in the hole stayed the color of chocolate milk—but the fish kept coming. By day's end that hole had produced most of our fish.
For several years thereafter, I used this pattern successfully again and again, almost always during mid to late season. I'm not saying the shallowest holes always produced the most fish, but they certainly became a constant part of my game plan. I wondered: Is this just a Devils Lake thing, with our Dakota slough sharks rummaging through the shallows for dead fish or perhaps digging out hibernating leopard frogs? Talking with other top-notch pike anglers across the Midwest, I learned that this crawl-space pattern is a solid option for pike on many top fisheries.
Jeff Andersen, Brainerd, Minnesota, guides in central and northern Minnesota, especially working the waters near Leech Lake on behalf of clients staying at The Chase on the Lake hotel. He also spends a lot of time several hours north on Lake of the Woods, one of the world's great pike factories. He sees the shallow pattern there, along the shoreline from near Warroad to Buffalo Point, and in Buffalo Bay, just to the north in Manitoba, especially near the Reed River.
"Most anglers set up at the edge of the main shallow drop into deeper water, typically from 4 feet into about 11 feet," he says. "The 4- to 6-foot drop is a key edge; but we also cut shallower. With 40 inches of ice over 4 feet of water, the fish often are left with less than a foot of water to move through. Yet each year we take 25-pound fish from this kind of water."
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has seen this shallow pattern in action for over 30 years. "The Four Mile Bay portion of Lake of the Woods just north of Baudette is another classic area for ultra shallow fishing," he says. "Away from the river channel, pike roam flats in water so thin the ice reaches all the way to the bottom in some areas. Even a bit of a dip in this terrain often draws fish. I like at least 2 feet of water below the bottom of the ice, but, yes, I've taken big fish from less water than that.
"The same pattern plays on many lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, almost always during late ice, and most commonly on bodies of water with shallow basins and a lot of shallow water; or on big deep lakes with big shallow bays, typically with a small stream entering the back of the bay. Then again, some of the shallow ponds and sloughs in the Dakotas have pike in this pattern most of the season. Tobin Lake, Saskatchewan, also comes to mind as a place where giant pike are caught super shallow at times. Add portions of backwaters connected to Mississippi river pools. Such shallow activity surprises some anglers, but it's a common pattern on many lakes and reservoirs."
What isn't so predictable and can make finding these shallow fish difficult is that there's no overriding type of bottom terrain associated with it. On Lake of the Woods the fish usually push into shallows with silt and sand, sometimes gravel. Sometimes there's weedgrowth, but often there isn't. Occasionally, as is the case on Devils Lake, there's fallen or standing timber. The main connection probably is a relationship to areas near where pike might eventually spawn.
Anderson agrees that the phenomenon seems to be associated with late ice and spawning spots. "The fish are in a foot or two of water under the bottom of the ice, on sandflats and shallow gravel bars, staging to enter feeder creeks or move into shallow vegetated bays, just after ice out. They may not always be feeding aggressively but they are feeding," he says. "And I think most of what they're eating is fish that have died during winter—or maybe during fall and winter."
My guess is that the cold crash during fall takes a toll on panfish and open-water roamers like ciscoes. Some dead baitfish get pushed by wind currents into shallower water and along shorelines. Some of these fish are frozen into the ice and stay preserved until the ice begins to thaw at last ice.
Stange: "Water temperatures in the 30°F range preserve dead fish all winter. In the early days of In-Fisherman, when we were researching the connection between cold water and big pike, and I used scuba gear to deposit dead baitfish below the thermocline in a lake. The baitfish were in a screened box staked to the bottom. The point was to show that baitfish that die and float into the cold water below the thermocline would be preserved so that pike could easily find and feed on them once the thermocline broke down later in the season.
"The temperature below the thermocline was in the low- to mid-40°F range by the end of summer. By that time, even after three months, the dead fish were in just about the same shape as the day I killed them and staked them out. So dead baitfish that end up shallow during fall or winter probably just rest there, waiting to be eaten by pike when they start moving shallow in late winter."
When pike push shallow they meet an obvious edge where the bottom of the ice meets the bottom of the lake. Where I fish on Devils Lake lipped shorelines sometimes serve as a prime shallow edge once the ice begins to recede. The ice recedes near shore first, changing the profile of the bottom of the ice, offering a bit more room under the ice close to shore. The melt also stains the water and probably makes fish feel more comfortable roaming shallow.
Shallow saddles across the mouths of shallow bays can be another top spot on Devils Lake. The bays form as the water rises, leaving the old shoreline as the saddle between the main lake and the new bay. Many of these saddles have lots of dead rushes and timber cover, which helps draw and hold pike. The bays usually are about 5 feet deep with the saddles being shallower.
In some of the larger reservoirs I've fished in recent years, I look for creek runoff in the back of bays or creek arms. Any structural elements like points or inside turns can hold fish in these areas. Again these areas often have stained water.
With such shallow water and marginal room below the ice, jigging usually doesn't work well, so bait rigging is the way to go. Deadbait on quick-strike rigging set below tip-ups works best. Many articles have been written on this over the years, so we stick with a review of fundamental rigging and bait set-up here.
Quick-strike rigging came to North America when Doug Stange and In-Fisherman European correspondent and Dutch angler Jan Eggers, adapted tackle and tactics used to fish for pike in England and other parts of Europe to the types of fishing taking place here.
Stange: "The basic rigging consists of two small (#6 or #4) treble hooks rigged in tandem about 3 inches apart on light stranded wire, typically testing 13, 18, or (most typically) 27 pounds. One tine of the upper treble is placed in the root of the dorsal portion of the tail of the baitfish, with the lower treble inserted near the bait's dorsal fin."
At this point the baitfish is either fished on the bottom or suspend vertically, with the head of the baitfish hanging down. Stange: "That the bait isn't hanging horizontally (like a lively swimming baitfish) seems counterintuitive to a lot of North American anglers. The point is deadbait doesn't naturally 'hang horizontally.' It doesn't hang vertically either, but normally lies on the bottom where it lands or gets moved by current. So it's whichever set that works most efficiently that counts. Clear advantages exist to setting baits so they hang vertically.
"By hanging the bait head down, pike are most likely to swing the bait head first into their mouth when they inhale it. The wire and upper hook act as a pivot point freeing the head to move forward first. Not only does this allow the bait to move more easily into the mouth, it puts hooks in perfect position away from the gills and near the outer part of the mouth, allowing fish to get hooked yet not get injured. The hooking position I've described doesn't cover the baitfish's head, because you want that swinging freely. Of course, baits don't always need a head. I often remove the head on very large baits."
As a pike takes, the tip-up flag trips. The angler rushes to the tip-up, gently but quickly removes it from the hole, grabs the line, and when it comes tight, immediately starts to hand over hand the fish in. There's no waiting for the fish to take the bait deeper; the hooks are already in position. There's also no reason to attempt a hookset. With just a bit of pressure, the small, exposed hooks pop free into pike flesh. Setting too hard tears hooks free.
Stange makes the case for setting baits to hang head down, but several commercial quick-strike rigs are made to hang baits horizontally. Andersen runs Bigtooth Tackle, which offers such quick-strike rigging, tied with heavy wire or with heavy fluorocarbon. Northland Tackle also offers the Predator Rig, tied with medium wire. Meanwhile, HT Enterprises, offers Quick-Strike rigging with lighter wire constructed to hang baits vertically.
Fluorocarbon Versus Wire
Stange says that on waters without a lot of fishing pressure that 27-pound stranded wire is the way to go—plenty thin enough to be barely visible, yet almost unbreakable if you take it easy. But he says there can be a big difference in how pike respond to terminal rigs on water that get a lot of pressure.
"The last six years on pressured waters I've switched to quick-strike rigs tied on 25-pound fluorocarbon," he says. "Twenty-five pounds is just right. Go lighter and chances increase for bite-offs; but I suspect one could get away with 15 and especially 20 at times. On the other hand, 25-pound fluoro is starting to get thick enough and stiff enough that it bothers bait presentation at times. Run your fingers down the fluoro after caught fish to check for serious nicks. With the 25 pound I've yet to get cut off, but I have to retie at times. Last year I fished only with 20-pound and didn't cut off."
A variety of baits are attractive to pike. Naturally oily baitfish such as ciscoes and smelt work well, as do saltwater baitfish like herring. I often order herring from dealers on Puget Sound. Andersen orders herring from a friend on the East Coast. Herring and baits like mackerel are at times available in fish markets. Stange also has caught a lot of pike on bait suckers and big shiners. And, in a pinch, I've caught pike with cheap hotdogs on Devils Lake. The wienies put off a lot of oil into the water.
When there are 3 or 4 feet of water under the ice, I usually set baits half way down in what's left of the water column, but I've also tempted a lot of fish by hanging baits just under the ice. Andersen and Stange like the half-column set in this situation, although Stange also goes with baits right on bottom or just above the bottom at times. With less than about two feet of water in the crawl space, Stange sets most baits right on the bottom, while Andersen and myself usually set baits right under the ice. Andersen and I resolve, however, given Stange's advice, to try more bottom sets this coming year.
Noise and light management require consideration when fish are so shallow. At times it pays to leave slush in the hole or to use hole covers to cut light penetration down holes. When the ice is dark or opaque, light streaming down a hole once the sun get up higher can make fish wary. Likewise, it's not a good idea to stand next to a hole and make a lot of movement with your feet shuffling on the ice. We also make the charge to grab the line as softly as possible in many situations, especially once the ice surface has cleared late in the season. At the other extreme, when there is a lull during midday, I often take an ATV or vehicle and drive around on areas adjacent to our sets in order to get fish moving.
Ultra-shallow fish in thin water under thick ice are just one of many patterns playing in pike land. But it's a consistent pattern on many waters, and, often, one of the most productive.
*Devils Lake Guide, Ice Fishing Promoter, and television host Jason Mitchell has designed his own line of rods marketed by Clam Corporation. He can be reached at fishdevilslake.net. Jeff Andersen is at jeffandersenfishing.com.