Northern pike, apex predators of the Ice Belt, sustain high levels of activity during the long winter months. In fact, the largest pike are pulled through 10-inch holes in the ice more frequently than they are hoisted into boats by warmwater anglers. Advances in hardwater technology have made locating and catching these freshwater giants easier than ever before. Let’s examine a consistent, reliable pattern for big pike, and the high-tech advantages that will help you pull more of them topside.
Long, green and full of teeth, northern pike frequently represent a “transition target” favored by ice-anglers moving from abundant and willing panfish to heavier, less populous and more elusive species. Pike, especially larger ones, thrive in the cold waters of winter as they replace body mass lost in the stressful summer heat and develop reproductive tissues that will be exercised during the ice-out period.
Many pike anglers sing a fairly monotone presentation tune, focusing on shallow weeds, tip-ups and live bait. Their reliance on this pattern is understandable: quite simply, it works -— generally for fish in the sub-10-pound class.
When you’re ready to stop chasing hammer-handles for pickling and begin targeting the alpha wolves of the hardwater universe, the transition can often be as simple as moving away from the shallow weeds and slipping into the nearby deeper basin.
Why do pike collect here, and what are they doing? I’ve developed answers to those questions with the help of Aqua-Vu high-definition underwater cameras.
Spend any time patrolling these flats with your fishfinder and you’ll encounter big sonar returns, created by big pike, on or near the bottom. These fish are frequently so immobile that many sonar interpreters would misidentify them as logs, but timber they are not. My Aqua-Vu HD10i clearly demonstrates, time and time again, that these are big pike.
In my opinion, these are big fish with a neutral-to-negative disposition toward feeding because, again, in my opinion — they are digesting recent meals. Remember, fish are cold-blooded creatures, and the near-bottom areas of these mid-depth flats serve as a collection point for the warmest water around, accelerating pike metabolism and converting consumed prey into energy.
My supposition that these lethargic fish are digesting stems from two observations. First, the bellies of these water wolves are often bulging from recent digestive acquisitions, as revealed in Aqua-Vu’s high-definition video. Second, this behavior parallels what we observe in the post-spawn behavior of pike and closely related muskies, fish that lounge in dark-bottomed shallow bays in the early open-water season, allowing solar photons to warm the water and enhance their metabolic rates.
Expansive mid-depth flats can take some time to search. A labor-intensive approach is drilling dozens of holes and then investigating each with a combination of traditional down-looking sonar and underwater video, two techniques with limited abilities to monitor water that is far from the hole. A very efficient and effective way to reduce your survey time is to utilize the Garmin Panoptix Ice Fishing system, which provides traditional down-looking sonar as well as directional, lateral sonar with a range that extends up to 100 feet away from the hole.
With Panoptix, you can scan the flats with 360-degree flexibility, looking specifically for big sonar returns from beefy pike. Moreover, the real-time moving images produced by Panoptix provide an easy way to assess the mobility of the targets you locate, as fish that are actively milling around are more likely to seek a meal than are fish resting motionless, on or near the bottom.
Indeed, while big pike may not actively pursue meals while resting in the warmer, near-bottom waters of these mid-depth flats, they do feed with regularity. In doing so, they will seek to minimize the distance traveled, as well as the quantity of calories expended in the acquisition of their next meal.
I target these apex predators by offering them dead baits, suspended high in the water column, beneath tip-ups. All of your previous flag-chasing experience serves as the foundation for this dead-bait presentation; we just need a few refinements to enhance our success rate.
First, drill larger holes. Not every basin pike will fill a 10-inch-diameter hole, but I’ve lost enough brutes at the bottom of 8-inch holes to know bigger holes are necessary for giant pike. The torque of the ION X electric auger is more than enough to turn a 10-inch spiral, and its battery capacity — at least 80 holes through 20 inches of ice — is perfect for chasing pike. If you’re out for a long weekend, do yourself a favor and pack a fully charged spare battery, too.
Second, use a robust tip-up, not bargain-bin plastic tackle. I use Frabill classic wood tip-ups — they’re tough as nails and equipped with all-metal spools — when air temperatures are moderate and Frabill Pro-Thermal round tip-ups when it’s really cold.
Thermal tip-ups prevent the hole from re-freezing and ensure the spool smoothly delivers line in the frigid temperatures. It eliminates most of the resistance as a pike peels off line and sulks back toward the bottom. Frabill’s tip-up engineering, coupled with their Sub-Zero tip-up lubricant, helps ensure smooth delivery of line after the strike. Make a habit of cleaning and replacing the lube on your tip-ups every year, as emulsified lubricant quickly loses its positive attributes and locks up tight in cold weather.
Next, think about your line, both the braided main line and the leader.In recent years, I have embraced Sufix Performance metered tip-up line, a robust, low-stretch alternative thatchanges color from white to black every 5 feet, taking the guesswork out of bait placement.
A high-quality SPRO swivel separates the main line from 24 inches of 25-pound-test Seaguar AbrazX 100 percent fluorocarbon leader. Remember, pike are largely visual predators, and the near invisibility of fluorocarbon beneath the surface reduces the chances of a line-shy water wolf passing on your offering.
Fluorocarbon’s enhanced abrasion resistance stands up to pike teeth and the sharp edges of the ice hole better than monofilament. If I’m in the land of truly big pike, I’ll upgrade that leader to saltwater-grade Seaguar Blue Label in 30- or 40-pound test.
Finally, consider your bait and terminal tackle. We’re not lip-hooking a shiner with a Kahle hook for these big pike; rather, we’ll be using dead bait in the 8- to 12-inch (or longer) range. Some baitshops stock dead ciscoes or whitefish, which are excellent choices, but in their absence don’t hesitate to use a large sucker minnow.
Use a quick-strike harness, the kind used by muskie anglers fishing live suckers. Fisheries science demonstrates conclusively that single hooks kill deeply hooked fish; quick-strike harnesses allow you to drive hooks home as soon as the flag flies, without waiting for the fish to swallow the bait (and hook) and seal its fate.