To me, when it comes to the hard water season, northern pike are my favorite target for a lot of reasons. First, they are bigger fish that have teeth. And they pull hard and move fast. And another real neat thing to me, is that they are generally pretty easy to target on waters with a decent population. Good action can usually be found, and the best part of all-for someone who’s never been too keen on rising early, is that midday hours are generally best. You normally don’t need to start early or stay late into the dark.
If you really want to be most effective in targeting pike (or realistically any species for that matter), the first move is to make some phone calls and line up friends to go along. And that’s the neat thing about ice. A boat limits those who can all go along. It’s pretty much unlimited on the ice. Round up some folks, because the more holes or sets you are allowed to use, the quicker you should be able to pattern pike.
It’s really all about numbers of folks and mobility. On a chosen body of water, break down the structural options available that you’ll want to check for pike. Where weeds are available, especially early and late ice, they are definitely a factor, while rocks, deeper bars and open water should be checked too. Break down the options and based on number of lines that are legal, dedicate a few lines to each option, always leaning heaviest toward weeds for starters.
A quality power auger is really a must for this as well, because we want LOTS of holes! I love the new Jiffy Stealth 2 horsepower with a nine-inch auger. It’s light enough to walk long distances and just keep drilling-and do it fast. In general, I’ll drill about four times the holes in a zone as I’m allowed tip-ups for. I drill shallow holes, edge holes and deeper holes. There are several reasons for this. One being that a pattern may show (i.e. fish are on the edge or in general deeper or shallower on a structure), and I want to be able to move my tip-ups to match the pattern on that structure without having to locate the auger and drill more holes. This is especially important when active fish are there on the feed.
Also, there are times when one structure-type or zone is getting the majority of the action. In that case, I’ll be moving some of my sets from other structures over to the hot zone. And again, I don’t want to be wasting time and make noise drilling more holes. Anyone who has ice fished with me knows I generally start my day by taking off with the auger and not stopping for about 45 minutes.
It’s a team effort. Other anglers should follow behind the driller and put sets out, taking care to check depths and cover different ranges, leaving extra holes in each range in each area. This way structures are most effectively covered and things are in a state of readiness when patterns show themselves.
For sets on tip-ups, I like to break it down between live and dead baits. Most folks know about live baits, but there are still many who are unaware of the effectiveness of dead baits when fishing pike. As a general rule, live baits tend to be more effective in early ice conditions and things will gradually lean more towards dead bait as the season progresses. The dead stuff is often best on late ice. Every water body has different tendencies though, so both should always be tried. As a side note, for trophy seekers, in my experience the dead bait seems to more consistently take the bigger fish.
I like 4 to 6 inch shiners for live bait and smelt or cisco for dead baits. I use Sevenstrand or TyGer leader material in 15 to 30 pound test. The TyGer is easiest to work with as it ties like line. I run a strong single treble on the live baits (hooked in the middle of the back) and a quickstrike rig incorporating two trebles for dead baits (one in the back and one right behind the head).
I can’t stress this enough for the good of the fisheries: strive for near immediate hooksets! Pike in general waste no time swallowing. If there’s one big problem I regularly see with ice angling for pike is the fact that many folks still seem to wait, often on purpose, before setting the hook. If this is standard procedure, at least half of the pike will be gullet or stomach hooked. These are dead pike. Period. I strongly encourage only selective harvest with pike, generally targeting smaller to mid-size fish or wherever a size structure seems to be stacked in a particular fishery. Often though, I go for fun and just practice total catch and release.
The best hooking percentages, and the safest, come by getting to the tip-up as soon as a flag is noted and set the hook immediately with the fish moving away. Not only does waiting often result in swallowed hooks, it often too, results in fish dropping the bait or tearing off after line winds through a bunch of structure. Spread out, stay near the sets and get to them right away. Besides getting the gear out there, ATV’s really help with this.
I prefer Frabill’s round Pro Thermal Tip-Ups for pike. They’re just plain more efficient and easier to use, but they also cover the hole, preventing any unnatural light penetration. This can be very important for pike, especially for very shallow sets. But another thing I’ve noticed when pike fishing, is that even in deeper water, I often find that setting the bait high is most effective for pike. These fish see and feed up. I always try sets just below the ice, even in open water. And sometimes this proves to be most effective. Especially on bright days, the unnatural light may prevent strikes.
I prefer using all tip-ups for starters, but I do enjoy jigging for pike. I’m fairly impatient though (I realize this seems odd for someone who fishes for muskies, but it’s true), so I like to wait until the scattered tip-ups tell me where the majority of fish activity is going on before I start jigging. Larger sonars like the Zip lure can be very effective and are really fun. They generally hammer them. A standard jig head tipped with a minnow works too.
In a nutshell then, it’s all about numbers of folks, so there can be numerous sets, with plenty of holes and extras for taking advantage of patterns. And they bite well during the warmest part of the day. It’s great fun with a good group of friends.