Run. Slow down. Walk the last 10 yards, eyes focused on the spindle atop the shaft. Spinning? No. The tip-up is lifted carefully, placed gently, line brought in slowly. Pressure. Stand up and pull. It pulls back, hooks on the homemade quick-strike rig worrying home. Another pike circles us under 5 inches of clear, smooth ice. Everybody runs over to watch the show as a bulging package of green muscle flashes past under our feet.
Every day spent scanning the expanse of gray for sudden orange punctuation marks to appear is a learning experience. Even when the flags never pop, we often see pike with our cameras, telling us something's wrong. Too much flash? Too little? Sometimes the bait is too lively, sometimes not lively enough. Not high enough off bottom, or not dead enough on bottom. Sometimes too big, sometimes too small.
When pike come racing past the bait to crush a fish-shaped camera, somebody needs to run back to town to hunt for bigger suckers. (Call it: Heads or tails?) Meanwhile, pull out a big hair jig and tip it with one of those smaller baits. Or clip on a big rattlebait and start rippin'. (Unless you called tails and it was heads. Grab us some coffee, too.)
But other observations can be even more important. Like understanding how pike behave in different environments in the "micro seasons" of early, mid-, and late winter, leading to better tip-up and lure-fishing strategies.
Some big lakes are like magnified small ones. The entire eastern half of Minnesota's Red Lake is made up of gradually tapering flats with very little area deeper than 15 feet. Guide Jonny Petrowske (Outdoors With Jonny P) points out that pike in lakes like that have to move farther after each micro season under the ice to change their forage base than pike in big, deep, structurally complex lakes. Pike anglers with early-season success are left scratching their heads.
"At first ice, Red Lake pike stage off the first break in 4 to 6 feet of water," Petrowske says. "Those fish are super aggressive, feeding on smaller baitfish. Don't put your fingers in the water. That lasts until the ice is about 8 inches thick. By the first of January you find them mixing with walleyes out in 8 to 10 feet and they become structurally related for a short time — the only time of the year you see pike oriented to structure like rock outcroppings, humps, or anything that makes a bump more than a foot high in the basin. They hold off the edges. Shiners bounce back and forth on those rock edges and little humps where they find insects along with 2- to 3-inch perch. Baitfish find insects and crayfish on these things. A small, isolated circle of rock no more than a foot high can produce some giant pike during mid winter."
That pattern lasts until the lights go out. "If you get 2 feet of ice, heavy snow, or both, pike go nomadic everywhere out over the deep mud," he says. "'Deep' is relative. On Red it's 15 feet. That's what the baitfish want, and without much cover they only feel safe at night. It's a dark and dreary world down there. By February pike are packed up. We always find at least 2 or 3 in a pod feeding nocturnally. They feed during the day, too — but the nocturnal feeding gets started. They hunt together through prespawn. They seem to be in packs. They don't move shallow like they do on Lake of the Woods. Those pike in Red are out deep doing circles almost until ice-out."
Each of those patterns on Red Lake are miles apart. Early ice strategy: Spread tip-ups along that key breakline in a sine pattern. Midwinter, look for subtle structure and ring it with "traps." By late winter, Petrowske's diamond pattern comes into play. To cover water, each tip-up is placed in the center of a diamond pattern — 4 holes 60 yards apart with one hole in the center, like the pitcher's mound on a baseball field. Petrowske and clients walk around each diamond, attracting pike to the tip-ups with noisy rattling lures like the Lindy Darter. "A diamond grid works best in cloudy water," Petrowske says. "The loud, deep, clunk-clunk rattles in a Darter can pull pike in from hundreds of feet away. Sometimes pike hit the Darter, sometimes they get drawn off by the suckers and pop goes the flag."
Structurally diverse lakes, he notes, have a different forage base and pike can find variety with shorter movements. "You don't see as much movement between first ice and late winter in those structurally diverse lakes," he says. "Pike may hunt weededges or rock edges, but deep, open-water patterns are close by, off a sharp break. Big, deep lakes have more patterns, but less movement between those patterns until the rivers start to thaw and flow. In Red Lake, pike have to move miles between patterns, while in Vermilion they might move only 100 yards to change their food source until the scent of rising rivers draws them to spawning habitat."
Petrowske and crew set tip-ups just off the edge of shallow structure while the rest are set out over the main basin. "I put some out there as far I'd want to run," he laughs. "Young guys should go out even farther. It's a percentage game. My two tip-ups are 250 yards apart and I'm stationed halfway between. The shallow one is adjacent to the sharpest break over 20 to 25 feet of water. There I put a lively bait 10 feet down over 20 to 25 feet — far enough out to engage pike cruising either the foot of the break or the top edge. I split the differences. Clients often say it's too far away. I say, 'You'd go 15 feet for a hamburger, right?' Pike see, feel, or hear a bait that close and check it out."
Deep tip-ups are positioned much the same way. "If it's 30 feet deep, I suspend baits 15 feet down," he says. "I think on those big structure lakes, pike are cruising, hunting in-and-out shallow to deep, 8 to 10 times a day. Ciscoes and whitefish spawn in fall on rockpiles closer to shore. At first ice, pike have been feeding on those fish and stay on the rockpiles. On Leech Lake, we fish in 20 feet of water within 50 feet of a rockpile at first ice. Pike always stage out where they could run baitfish into those rocks, like a pack of timber wolves. They create chaos then take advantage of the panic and loss of direction. Pike are built for chaos. They've got teeth, big eyes, and they move fast."
Pike often use the same areas in bigger lakes until days begin to lengthen and the ice-bound creeks and rivers begin to thaw and swell. "In Lake of the Woods, water starts to flow in March, and the drive, desire, and direction to go spawn moves pike back to those shallow bays and flats adjacent to river mouths and creeks," he says.
In bigger lakes with more pelagic baitfish, a suspended, baited hair jig presented with a stout ice rod set in a rod holder or (where legal) an Automatic Fisherman near your observation station is an option. When big decoy minnows are scarce in bait stores, a smaller, lively perch (where legal) or sucker brings the hair to life. Baited with belly strips from deadbaits or scented plastics, displaced water caused by a circling predator also makes the hair undulate, triggering strikes more often than actually jigging the lure.
Hair jigs like Northland's Bionic Bucktail, SPRO Bucktail Jigs, and Jensen Jigs bunny strips can be amazingly effective. Especially in clear water, these jigs need to be placed up high — from right under the ice to about halfway down, depending on depth. Over depths of 50 feet or more we seldom place them more than 20 feet down because pike don't seem to cruise or be as active down much deeper — or if they are, they rise 10 feet or more for a hamburger. Or the silhouette of a big, wiggling hair jig.
On small lakes, early in winter, we commonly see big pike with cameras or visually around weededges and shallow wood like fallen trees and brushpiles in 6 to 12 feet of water. Tip-ups placed there produce best, with baits suspended 5 to 6 feet down in 8- to 12-foot depths being the most typical array. Most tip-ups are placed 10 feet off the cover, but one is placed in a 3- to 4-foot clearing or pocket and another is set well off the sharpest break over deeper water. The bait, usually the biggest sucker in our cooler, are suspended halfway down — typically 10 feet under the ice in 20-foot depths.
When pike are shallow right after ice-up, they seem to come off the flat at that depth and cruise, suspended — hunting the entirety of a territory used for feeding, like big solitary cats. Crappies are out there, too — often close to the break — and pelagic baitfish, if present, might be anywhere over the main basin. But the focus, early, tends to be on the abundance of shallower panfish on weedlines, wood, and rocks.
On big flats we set tip-ups shallow to deep, but 80 percent of them are placed along deep weededges or adjacent to woodcover. Where flats are bordered by steep breaks, setting baits near bottom seldom produces as well as setting them at the depth of the adjacent flat. When covering deeper water, we always look for the sharpest break into depths of about 20 feet or so, and we suspend livebaits about 10 feet down over that depth. It always seems better to have baits — even deadbaits — dangling over their heads from early to mid-season.
Live suckers and panfish (where legal) catch more pike early in the season. As winter progresses, deadbaits become increasingly effective — though not necessarily better than live minnows. Oily, scent-laden deadbaits like large ciscoes and smelt have the potential to significantly out-fish livebaits at times. We've seen it happen, but in states like Michigan, where it's legal to use panfish for bait, the best tip-up action often results from hooking up freshly-caught perch or sunfish on tailor-made quick-strike rigs with #6 to #4 trebles.
As winter progresses to mid-season, tip-ups placed out deeper — over 25 to 40 feet of water — begin to excel. Oddly, if we don't see the flag right away, pike often take the bait all the way back to shallow wood or weeds before we can set the hook — but they haven't swallowed it yet. Why do they strike deep and drag the meal shallow? Digestion? Maybe they prefer a little privacy, using cover for walls.
By late winter, pike in some small lakes often become lethargic until after the season ends in February in Minnesota. But in lakes with rivers running through them, we often see packs of toothy critters hunting together, pushing schools of perch around the lake during late winter. After the pike season closes, bite-offs and epic battles pitting perch rods against speedy green cylinders of slime and muscle begin to occur with greater frequency. In clear lakes, we often see big pike cruise past under the hole when chasing panfish near ice-out — demonstrating how important panfish are as forage for pike in small lakes.
Todd Colish, Deputy Fisheries Bureau Director for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, is also a pike angler who has placed a tip-up or two everywhere from Green Bay to many small inland lakes all around the Midwest. "Regardless lake size, you have foundational habitat and forage requirements," Colish says. "In Michigan you can use panfish for bait under a tip-up. It's a great way to fish and I've always thought that was a good regulation that limits introduction of exotics. Nothing wrong with using perch or bluegills as long as you don't exceed the bag limit. Those species often represent the main forage of pike in smaller lakes."
Colish and Petrowske make some similar observations on the movements of big-water pike. "In Michigan's small lakes, I concentrate on those remaining green weeds," Colish says. "There's not as much diverse habitat. Big lakes have more open-water options and deep structural habitats. On Torch Lake, which is huge, I place tip-ups between 10 and 20 feet all winter and the best fishing lasts throughout the season. Pike seem to move less. On smaller lakes, the activity levels can taper off by late season where oxygen depletion occurs. Pike get lethargic."
In Ontario and the Dakotas, where the ice season doesn't end until the ice is gone, small-lake pike fishing gets red hot again during March, when pike gather near the mouths of creeks, sloughs, and wetlands where they spawn shortly after ice-out. Oxygen levels rise as the ice begins to pull away from shore and creeks flood with snowmelt. Pike become highly active again.
Early ice. Dragging shelters laden with heavy buckets full of big sucker decoys out by foot. Drilling in the gray light before sunrise. Setting traps according to seasonal preferences of the big heavies. Sitting, backs to the wind. Thermos of coffee. Waiting for punctuation marks to appear.