If you want to pull big pike through the ice, use big baits and cut holes that you know the fish will fit through. Most ice-anglers serious about catching big pike use spuds to cut ice-holes that they know will accommodate a trophy-sized fish. If you use an auger, make sure it cuts at least an 8-inch hole.
Believe me, a 6-inch hole in the ice is not big enough. My brother Bruce and ice-fishing partner Dean Mallos found that out the hard way one winter. Their tip-up lines were baited with live suckers when a northern that exceeded 20 pounds took the bait. Bruce hooked and played the fish by hand with no problem, but when he tried to pull it through the hole, he panicked when he realized the fish was too big!
Fortunately, the two had a gaff with them and Bruce was able to securely gaff the fish and hold it under the ice while Dean feverishly enlarged the hole so the pike would fit through. The 44-inch northern tipped the scales at 22 pounds! They've been cutting bigger holes before they start fishing ever since.
I learned the value of using big baits for big winter pike many years ago during my first ice-fishing trip for northerns with friend Rich Kortum and his son Steve. We were fishing with dead baits that day, suspending them under tip-ups on Mustad Pike Hooks so they looked lifelike. All of the lines but one were baited with smelt. The lone exception had a bloater chub on it that was about a foot long.
When the flag attached to that line went off as light was fading for the day, we were confident a big pike was probably responsible, and that proved to be the case. A 16-pounder had grabbed that big bait and, after a longer than normal struggle, Rich managed to pull it onto the ice.
Based on those two examples, it should be crystal clear that big pike under the ice will take either live or dead bait. Which to use depends on availability and personal preference. If you have access to both types of bait, it can be an advantage to use both and let the pike tell you which they prefer. Their preferences can change from day to day.
In terms of live bait, I usually rely on either suckers or golden shiners when targeting northern pike under the ice. I tend to favor shiners when fishing waters where either pike or walleyes can be hooked. If I'm concentrating on northerns, I normally go with suckers, buying the largest I can find at the local bait shop.
Size 4, 6 or 8 treble hooks work fine when fishing live bait, hooking the shiner or sucker through the meat below the dorsal fin with one of the treble's hooks. Some ice-fishermen prefer "quick strike" rigs for live bait, which incorporate two treble hooks on a wire leader. When two trebles are used, one can be hooked under the baitfish's dorsal fin and the other near the tail. An option is to put the front hook near the head.
Wire leaders are recommended with single treble hooks to ice-fish for northern pike with live bait. That's to prevent the sharp teeth of these toothy predator fish from cutting the line. Heavy monofilament leaders in the 20- to 30-pound-test range can be substituted for wire leaders with good results.
Based on a comparison of monofilament and wire leaders, I've hooked more fish on mono than wire, but an occasional pike still manages to cut the heavy mono, getting away.
The movement of live baitfish can work to the advantage of ice-fishermen when it comes to hooking pike. I like to clamp a split shot or two on the line when using live bait to keep them as deep as possible.
Dead Bait Options
Mustad makes a U-shaped pike hook specifically designed for ice-fishing dead bait that I really like. The reason I like it is I've caught many a winter northern with them. They come in a variety of sizes to match the size of dead bait you are using, but I prefer the larger 10 and 12 sizes because they are suited for the biggest bait.
These pike hooks can be used with any type of dead bait that northerns prefer such as smelt, suckers, shiners, chubs, alewives, herring and yellow perch. You aren't likely to find perch at bait shops, but I know at least one angler who catches perch on hook and line that he freezes and saves as pike bait. (Check regulations before you try this!) Other anglers secure supplies of smelt and alewives themselves that they use as pike bait.
There are a number of advantages to using Mustad Pike Hooks with dead bait to ice-fish for northerns. You don't have to carry bait buckets full of water with you to make sure bait stays alive. Due to the shape of these hooks, you don't normally have to worry about hooking sublegal fish too deeply and injuring them. Northerns of any size are easy to unhook once they are on the ice.
Before hooking a baitfish with the Mustad Hooks, I hold the hook next to the fish to determine where to insert it so the point of the hook ends up at the head or just behind the head. I then insert the hook point downward at the appropriate place near the tail and into the body cavity then forward to the head. The long, straight portion of the hook keeps bait looking lifelike in the water.
Once a dead bait is hooked, I lower it into the water to see if the fish rests horizontally. If it's close, the bait is ready to attract a pike. If the head goes up or down too much, I often use a small nail as ballast that I put either in the mouth or vent of the baitfish to balance it in the water.
When using Mustad Hooks it's important to only set the hook on a fish when it's running with the bait. Due to the design of the hook, it's critical to keep the line tight when bringing in a pike. If any slack develops in the line, the hook can easily pull out. Also due to the design of Mustad Hooks, wire leaders are not necessary.
I usually fish live or dead baitfish about a foot from the bottom. A clamp-on weight is used to test the depth before lowering the bait. A small rubber band can be added to the line to mark the right depth when resetting the line during the course of the day.
I've had my best success on winter pike along structure such as the edges of weedbeds or dropoffs. Most action is in water between 5 and 10 feet deep. When using dead baits, if there's little to no action, I often lift the bait a foot or two and then let it settle back toward the bottom to make it look alive. That movement can be enough to generate a strike.