February 11, 2021
By Dr. Jason Halfen
Northern pike are the primary predators of the ice belt. Indeed, they are one of the few "warmwater" species that are just as catchable beneath the ice as they are in open water, and for good reason: Pike eat their way through the winter to replace body mass lost in the stressful summer heat, and to develop their reproductive tissues that will be exercised as the ice erodes. Winter is truly the best time to get your hands on a supersized northern.
Many pike anglers sing a fairly monotone tune when it comes to presentation, focusing on shallow weeds, tip-ups and live bait. Their reliance on this pattern is understandable since it works very well for fish in the sub-10-pound class. With relatively high levels of flag-flying action, that keeps anglers of all ages engaged and excited.
MAKE THE MOVE
When you're ready to begin targeting consistently larger pike, however, the transition can often be as simple as moving away from the shallow weeds and slipping into the nearby deeper basin, especially soft-bottomed flats in the 20- to 30-foot range that are adjacent to steep breaklines. These are prime hunting grounds for hardwater pike, especially during the mid-winter period when ice thickness is measured in feet rather than inches.
What makes these areas so attractive to big pike in winter? They combine a productive feeding zone (the breakline) with slightly warmer water on the flat that facilitates digestion. Let's begin with the eating part of this equation. Pike are sight feeders, using stealth to quietly approach their prey, followed by a quick ambush to capture it. Steep breaklines provide a shaded portion of the water column that very effectively conceals pike while allowing them to monitor prey items at and above their depth.
Once that meal is onboard, it needs to be digested and converted into metabolic resources. Remember that 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. That the water is warm near the bottom is a simple fact of chemistry and physics—water reaches its maximum density at 39 to 40 degrees, causing it to sink and displace colder water. This attraction to warm water to speed digestion parallels what we observe in the post-spawn behavior of pike and 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 to convert the frozen surface to Swiss cheese, 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 investigate water that is far from the hole.
A very efficient, effective way to reduce your survey time is to use the Humminbird MEGA 360 Imaging system, which you can use to quickly sweep the flats and adjacent breaklines in an all-encompassing, 360-degree manner. MEGA 360 Imaging provides ultra-high resolution, picture-like images that reveal the definitive locations of both structure and fish, and it can easily track pike movements.
I use the MEGA 360 Imaging Universal Mount, which features the rotating 360 Imaging transducer at the end of a 4-foot-long pole, making it easy for me to use the device through the winter as the ice cap thickens. I interface the 360 Imaging device to a Humminbird HELIX 10 Mega SI+ G3N unit, with both the HELIX and 360 Imaging powered by Dakota Lithium 12V, 10 Ah batteries for lightweight, long-lasting power.
TWEAKS FOR TROPHIES
Big winter pike feed with regularity. In doing so, they seek to minimize both the distance traveled and 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 that bigger holes are necessary for bigger pike. The torque of the Jiffy E6 Lightning auger will easily turn a 10-inch spiral, and its battery capacity—enough to cut at least 60 holes through two feet of ice—is perfect for a day of 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. This is not the time for bargain-bin plastic tackle. I use Frabill classic wood tip-ups—tough as nails and equipped with all-metal spools. 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. Old-school black Dacron has been adorning tip-up spools for years. Keep in mind that this line tends to absorb a lot of water and deteriorates with use. In recent years I have embraced 30-pound-test Sufix Performance Tip Up Ice Braid, a robust, low-stretch alternative that also changes color—from white to black—every 5 feet, which takes the guesswork out of bait placement. A high-quality swivel separates the main line from 24 inches of 30- or 40-pound-test Seaguar Gold Label 100% fluorocarbon leader. Remember that pike are visual predators, and the near invisibility of fluorocarbon beneath the surface reduces the chance that a line-shy water wolf will refuse my offering. Fluorocarbon’s enhanced abrasion resistance also stands up to pike teeth and the sharp edges of the ice hole better than monofilament.
Finally, pay attention to your bait and terminal tackle. We’re not lip-hooking a shiner with a Kahle hook for these big pike. Rather, we’re 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. These are attractive, easy-to-catch meals, and big dead baits appeal to outsized pike.
Hook that dead bait with a quick-strike harness, the kind used by musky anglers presenting live suckers in the fall. Fisheries science demonstrates conclusively that single hooks kill deeply hooked fish; quick-strike harnesses make it possible to drive the hooks home as soon as the flag flies, without waiting for the fish to swallow the bait (and hook) and seal its fate. Big pike are too valuable to kill with a single hook.
SIMPLE SETUP, BIG RESULTS
I suspend my dead baits anywhere from just beneath the ice to half-way down the water column over these mid-depth flats; when fishing closer to the sharp breaklines, I tend to fish higher in the water column rather than lower. Dead-bait fishing frequently does not require the same high-precision bait placement needed when tip-up fishing for walleyes. Frequently, I just use my wingspan—plus or minus six feet—as my target depth beneath the ice; no depth bombs or sonar-assisted bait placement is needed.
Mid-winter pike fishing is as simple as presenting the right baits in the right spots in front of the right fish. Do your hardwater pike homework on the front end, and you’ll soon be hoisting your biggest pike of the year onto the ice.