Catching any fish through the ice is fun and a bit of a trip. Catching a huge northern pike through the ice is a serious thrill and something every angler should get to do at least once. There’s nothing like fighting one under the frozen surface, only to see that primitive, predator head fill up the hole and emerge from the icy depths. It’s what gets anglers out onto the frozen lakes. Gear up, folks—the hard water season is here.
Logic dictates that when a lake freezes, the fish move deep to stay with the oxygen. This can be the case, but never underestimate pike. If you know a lake’s topography, look in those same spots you’d look for them during the summer months. Points, drops, and, yes, the shallow water, can be hot spots for big northerns. It helps to know what’s going on under the ice, too. The Vexilar FLX-28 Ultrapack Case with Proview can not only tell you the depth and structure under the hole, but also the location of fish. You can even watch your bait drop right on the fish.
Weeds, although now dead or dying for the season, will still hold fish, too. Under early ice, weed beds can be hotspots. Late in the season, they can deplete the oxygen levels as they decay. Keep an eye on barometric pressure too. Under the ice, it tends to make a bigger difference. When you’re fishing shallow, light and traffic on the ice also make a difference. Fish early and quietly for pike when the depth is small.
Tipping the scales
The best way to start a pike trip is to drill and set lots of lines. That’s one of the reasons it’s a great idea to get some buddies to go with you. Here in Michigan, we’re allowed three lines each. Get a few guys together and that’s a good spread to tie into a toothy fish. The best way to go is with tip-ups, like Frabill Arctic Fire Tip-Ups. The Frabill resists freezing, which is a major issue with some tip-ups.
For bait, try a mixture of big lively minnows and dead ones. And by dead, I mean dead. A buddy, who was bringing the bait, forgot the minnow bucket in his heated garage for a week. We were running late, so we thought, we’d give it a try, and fished with the very dead and stinky minnows. We never got around to jigging with rods. We spent the whole day chasing flags. Stinky, easy meals can really draw big pike in. You’re still going to want a leader, like a Beaver Dam Liquid Steel Tip-Up Leader.
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Realism and flash can help draw lethargic fish to your hole. Try using a Clam Oudoors Pro Tackle Zero Wire Rig to rig the bait. It creates a very natural presentation, especially important if the pike has time to sit and study the bait—a pretty common occurrence under the ice. You can get a little extra color and flash from using a Lakco Tipup Leader. Again, anything that gives you that little extra edge to attract the attention of the predator. When the water temperature is low, the fish doesn’t want to use any more energy than it has to when it comes to feeding. Give them a reason to come to your bait.
Getting jiggy with it
While tip-ups are great, and effective, there’s a lot to be said for going after a pike with a rod and reel. Jigging for a northern can be extremely rewarding. For serious pike, and I mean the really big ones, you’re going to want something like a 36-inch or longer St. Croix Premier Ice Rod to have the backbone for a big fight through an eight-inch hole. Top it with something like a 13 Fishing Teardrop Ice Fishing Reel. Another option would be to go with a Berkley Lightning Rod Spinning Ice Fishing Rod Combo. Try jigging spoons, or bigger jib baits. If you can top them with a live bait, all the better. Create the flash and scent to draw the fish in.
A key thing is to not spook the fish, especially on sunny days. Flourocarbon line like Seaguar INVIZX Fluorocarbon Fishing Line resists abrasion, which is pretty important when you think about it. It’s also pretty much invisible under the water, which is a good thing. It also makes for outstanding leaders in the higher poundage range. Don’t forget to use something like a Berkley Lip Grip Tool to get the fish safely out of the water for a few pictures and then a safe release, or a puncture-free trip to the frying pan. Pike under the ice make for great table fare.
When to go
Is the ice safe to walk on? Yes? Then go! Early ice can have some of the hottest fishing of the season, but there is the risk of weak ice. Call me a wimp, but I don’t like to bust through the ice into freezing cold water. Make sure the ice is safe before you go and use caution!
I’ve had luck hitting pike at the mid-depths early in the season. Mid-season seems to be the time when I find the deeper water pike. And that shallow season? Late ice. I have a theory that the pike are starting to scout out spawning grounds before the lakes thaw. Regardless of the time of year, if there’s ice, there’s a reason to go fish. And since you’re going, you might as well go after pike—one of the most exciting fish you can catch under the ice.
This article was produced in cooperation with Cabela’s.
Image by Petritap on the Wikimedia Commons