February 20, 2020
By David Harrison
There are places in the Ice Belt where pike take center stage, where vehicles of anglers seeking quality fishing for toothy gators fill up parking lots at access sites. Yet, at many waters they often play second fiddle to other popular species like bass, walleye, and crappies. If not managed for quality fishing, pike become a bycatch—fun to catch but not targeted by most anglers in the area. And there are times in the ice season, notably midwinter, when they can be notoriously difficult to catch.
For anglers in search of toothy predators, muskies often overshadow pike, moving progressive pike management to the back burner. Muskie anglers travel to predator-rich lakes and buy plenty of tackle, pushing biologists and tackle companies to focus on growing more and larger muskies. Peak fishing for pike might only cover a short portion of the ice season and thus they receive less focus. This leaves pockets of areas where progressive pike management and innovation occurs. Outside traditional pike states, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, Nebraska and Colorado biologists are among those intensively managing for pike fishing opportunities.
Progressive Pike Management
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission takes pike management seriously. The larger predators drive park visits, fishing licenses, tourism, and days on the ice. “The first few years of a reservoir in Nebraska have been shown to be a great time to introduce and manage pike,” says longtime Nebraska biologist Daryl Bauer. “The fish do well for about seven years and then we reassess the situation.” The explosion of panfish in a new, fertile reservoir keeps pike busy while they also help control carp populations.
The Sandhills area in northern Nebraska is near the southern boundary of the natural range of pike. In the southern part of the state, if newly introduced pike overpopulate a lake, it’s sometimes possible to allow the population to naturally decline, due to low natural recruitment, warm water, and other population pitfalls. Plus, most of Nebraska waters are relatively small compared to sprawling natural lakes up north.
One of the newer lakes for pike in Nebraska is Lake Wanahoo. It received pike stocking in 2010 and has a catch-and-release regulation. This 637-acre reservoir between Lincoln and Omaha opened to the public in 2012, and has been a focus of the Nebraska Game and Parks. A second lake in the area also is benefiting from pike research. Flanagan Reservoir, near Omaha, opened in 2018 and will receive pike stocking and management.
Wanahoo’s flooded trees provide cover for pike and the shallow inlet areas are prime spawning grounds. After eight years of tagging, the population estimate on pike has become tighter. Biologist Jordan Katt explains: “There are between 2,743 and 3,243 pike in Wanahoo. This might be the most accurate population estimate we’ve done in Nebraska. Through netting and tagging, we’ve tracked the population to manage it and understand the effects of catch-and-release on pike fisheries, and the effects of pike on panfish growth in new reservoirs.” Pike abundance at Wanahoo is near the goal of five pike per acre.
Pike abundance estimates have climbed and dropped over the years as high flow events pushed pike downriver and drought years prevented netting at critical times of the year. The work needed to assess the population takes time and resources. Katt says that the tagging and netting work has been driven by local interest. “Our pike studies now include more volunteers who help biologists haul nets,” he says.
Considering Wanahoo’s 637 acres is filled with about 3,000 pike is enticing to me as an angler, especially when 45 percent of those fish are now older than the 5- to 7-years generally needed to grow them to the 40-inch range there. Submerged trees around the main channel cover about 250 acres. While some fish are on flats, the trees hold more active fish. Researching online, I found little information on pike fishing at Wanahoo. This past January was warm so I had to wait until February to drive a couple of hours north to fish there.
Farther north, even in a pike-rich water, early February can be one of the most difficult times to catch pike. Midwinter cold, lower oxygen levels, and panfish holding deeper can make fishing challenging. Fish hole up in thickets and vegetation waiting for preyfish to meander through. Less pike movement can make tip-up fishing less effective at this time. By March, warming water and increased prespawn movements gather pike in predictable spots, which leads to better success.
At Wanahoo, February doldrums aren’t an issue. The lake’s plentiful panfish make it worthwhile to drill holes and jig for panfish near the trees adjacent to the channel, while the state’s liberal tip-up regulations allow you to set four additional lines for pike. Even if the bite window is narrow, you can expect a crappie dinner and a trophy pike photo by sundown.
The only deep water at Wanahoo is the channel and a couple of pits dug during construction, so fishing tends to be best near these areas. Tree cover and shoreline vegetation also are important locational elements. Other good spots are where a flat, ridge, point, or other feature intersects with the channel. Basically, if a pike had spent the day holding in cover and moved locations by swimming the open channel, where would it exit on its way?
Tip-ups create traps at these routes. The exit points I found at Wanahoo were generally 5 to 50 feet wide and having four or five baits set near these areas intercepted moving pike. Another option is to scan areas like these for activity using live sonar such as the Garmin Panoptix Ice Bundle.
The water around many of the trees at Wanahoo is tannic stained, creating a different sort of “cover” for larger pike. It also may make scent more important beyond sight aspects of pike feeding. The pike caught the weekend I fished there all came on cutbait and hot dogs soaked in minnow water or other concoctions. For bite-off protection, I used 18-pound Knot-2-Kinky titanium tieable wire and an AquaTeko InvisaSwivel to connect to 12-pound-test Berkley Vanish Transition Crimson Flourocarbon line. The line turns red above water, which makes it easy to see against the ice. I store extra rigs in a Lindy Rigger Extreme and carry a small tackle tray with weights, swivels, hooks, and connectors.
When fishing a new lake during a traditionally slow bite, any details on active fish come in handy. Walking 100 yards to congratulate a fellow angler on a nice catch is as much for reconnaissance as it is social interaction. By mid-afternoon on the first day, two fish had been landed—one at 10 a.m. and the other at 2 p.m. These times didn’t coincide with solunar times or any other potential peak. As the anglers from the morning left the lake there were just two of us fishing as the sun was an hour from setting for a late afternoon flurry. Each of us landed a pike in the last few minutes daylight.
Even five pike per acre aren’t enough to create fantastic fishing in early February, but local knowledge and a basic understanding of pike movement helped improve success. I‘d be lying if the numbers of fish didn’t affect my thinking that day. “Where are all of the pike?” I thought, figuring how 3,000 pike would spread out in the submerged forest. Knowing the bite would be tough, confidence came from knowing my bait was fresh, my locations were sound, and there were plenty of other anglers in the area in case I missed the spot-on-the-spot.
Bauer notes: “If we removed the catch-and-release limit, I think the population would be severely cut in a few weeks.” I ran into this situation in another state. A well-known lake had a population estimate of about 2,000 pike over the lake’s 3,400 acres. Only a handful of those acres was prime pike habitat so again, the lake had generally good fishing. It also had an annual pike tournament where 500-plus fish were weighed (few were released) in one day. Progressive management means not only understanding pike populations but balancing harvest, socioeconomic factors, and increasing use of the resource.
The Nebraska Sandhills lie off the beaten path but are well-publicized and famous for good reason. Slight depressions and potholes situated between prehistoric dunes make these shallow natural lakes more productive fisheries in the winter when the cold reduces shoreline vegetation growth that limits boating in the summer. If Wanahoo is new, man-made, and stocked, these lakes are ancient and natural. The balance between pike and panfish has existed longer than the study of biology.
A tilt in biology has managers working to return the natural balance. Carp abundance has exceeded the pike’s predatory capacity, leaving ice fishermen with lower catch rates. The recently renovated Pelican Lake in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge contained more than 300 pounds of carp per acre with an average of 10 pounds per fish. This level pushed out almost all of the other species from the lake. Other renovated lakes have done well when managed with enough pike to keep carp in check. The list for the next few years includes renovation of Dewey, Hackberry, Clear, McKeel (closed to fishing), and Willow lakes, so keep this in mind when visiting. Only Dewey, Clear, and Willow lakes will be managed for pike in the future.
Fishing in the renovated lakes rebounded. “There have always been regulations protecting big pike,” says local guide Tyler Brown. “The current daily bag of three fish with only one over 36 inches protects the population structure. Previous regulations that only allowed keeping fish under 28 inches insured that the largest fish stayed in the lake. When combined with limited bluegill harvest (5 out of 15 panfish in total, for most lakes), the fishery is famous for producing sizable panfish in addition to plentiful pike.”
Tyler targets pike along reedlines. “Due to regulations, I use tip-ups with frozen bait,” he says. “Pike travel the reed edges looking for panfish, and setting tip-ups in a W-shaped pattern along the reedlines contacts more fish.” He uses HT Polar Extreme tip-ups and likes their taller flag that can be seen from a distance. He rigs with 75-pound Dacron line, wire leader, and one treble hook to prevent pike from breaking off or catching an exposed hook in the reeds.
This is another situation where monitoring a travel lane with high-tech sonar including side-imaging or live-scanning gives anglers information on fish activity. Shallow 3- to 6-foot depths in these dishpan lakes reduces the effectiveness of 2-D sonar, and darker water makes camera use and sight-fishing difficult. Experienced guides agree that without using high-tech sonar in these waters, however, two hours of fishing with well-presented baits can help determine fish location and activity.
Colorado Light-Line Pike
In order to protect the Colorado’s native baitfish species from pike predation, the state has had a no-limit policy on pike for over a decade. During this time, there have been rumors of declines in pike populations, causing slower fishing, but Nathan Zelinsky still catches pike in the spring and fall. The only thing that slowed was the number of guided trips each winter, not the number of innovations he’s developed for fishing the area.
Zelinsky started guiding in Minnesota and then brought that knowledge to Colorado over 15 years ago. “I started with traditional pike rigging on my tip-ups and have slowly adjusted rigging over time,” he says. “A leader on the end of the Dacron was the first step, for preventing bite-offs, then I consistently shortened leaders. I’m now down to 12-pound fluorocarbon or mono and only about four inches of black, vinyl-coated leader. Anything heavier slows the bite.”
The latest breakthrough came two years ago during a hot afternoon bite. “I had half of my tip-ups with bronze wire and the other half with black vinyl-coated wire,” he says. “Only the black vinyl had bites that day.” He started tying leaders and developed two rigs for use with fresh-killed suckers. “I wanted a rig that presented baits naturally on the bottom of the lake and another when baits were suspended. For suspended pike, I downsized the treble hooks to #6 and connected them to a swivel with short pieces of wire.” For this “T-bone” rig, the wires lay parallel and close to the bait and the leader ties directly to the swivel, making suspended rigs look natural, while the wire blends in with the presentation.
For bottom presentations, he rigs with a longer piece of black vinyl-coated wire—about 6 inches to a single hook. “I’m nervous about the position of the bait and hook in a pike’s cavernous mouth,” he says. “Baits on the bottom have the advantage of mud covering some of the wire leading from the bait.” He also hooks the deadbait with two prongs of the treble in the belly or near the dorsal fin, which blends the hook with the profile of the sucker.
“Pike were moving through in groups larger than I expected,” Zelinsky says. “Possibly even 5 to 10 large fish in a pack.” He started each day with a spread of baits to figure out movement patterns, but once a single flag was tripped he set as many tip-ups into that area as possible, with some only a few feet apart in a V formation. In this lake, groups of pike moved through once every hour or so and each group produced multiple strikes. This is another situation where live-scan sonar would help decipher movements and habits of the fish.
Anglers who work to develop a better understanding of the terrain and fish behavior in the waters they fish, and refine presentation details, achieve better success. The newest electronics further help paint a picture of pike behavior. As science and management of pike moved forward, and ice fishing technology advances, so does our understanding of tactics for catching more and bigger pike.
David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, is a regular contributor to the In-Fisherman Ice Fishing Guide. Guide contacts: Tyler Brown, toothandwhiskerguideservice.com, 402/875-0524; Nathan Zelinsky, tightlineoutdoors.com, 720/775-7770.