Killer Tips for Catching Pike with Dead Baits

Dead baits under a float provide an easy meal for early-spring northern pike.

Killer Tips for Catching Pike with Dead Baits

Shutterstock image

Anglers think of northern pike as swift, vicious predators capable of quick bursts of speed used to engulf hapless prey.

But pike aren’t above a free lunch either. Northern pike are opportunistic and will actively scavenge for winter-killed panfish and fish stressed by spawning. Dead baits placed in a pike’s path are seen as an easy meal.

Northern pike have often been referred to as “water wolves” in a nod to their land-bound counter parts. Wolves are known for their pack mentality and their ability to take down large ungulates, but they are not above taking advantage of road-killed or winter-killed animals either.

Pike aren’t much different. They’ll utilize carrion when it’s available, taking advantage of the gift of protein intake versus an output of calories to secure live prey.


Food is harder to come by during late winter and at ice-out. Predators have taken their toll, and baitfish numbers have dwindled because of natural attrition and winterkill. It just makes sense that stressed, less-active pike would take advantage of a readily available, easily obtainable food source.


Northerns aren’t opposed to eating just about any dead bait, but soft-rayed, oily fish can spread a scent trail that attracts pike from a distance. Most fish have a highly developed sense of smell, and pike are no exception.

Fish with high oil contents like smelt, herring, alewives, whitefish, menominee, chubs and suckers can attract hungry pike from a distance. Oily dead baits are right in a pike’s wheelhouse when they can come across a scent trail, slowly mosey along while following the scent and then not have to catch it once they find it. Generally, 8- to 12-inch baits are best. You’ll get fewer bites with larger baits, but the biggest pike prefer big baits.

You have to do a little planning to secure many of these dead bait species. There are times during the year when alewives stressed by spawning can be found floating around. I know of grocery stores and bait shops that sell frozen smelt. Suckers are the most readily available dead bait that can be used for pike. You can buy them live when there’s a good supply or catch your own in the spring. Simply dry them off with a paper towel and then wrap them individually in wax paper to keep them from sticking together when frozen. Let them thaw about halfway before using them. Any that you don’t use can be refrozen.

Pike tend to move shallow under last ice and just after ice-out. Melting ice and incoming runoff make the shallows more hospitable and provide the best hunting grounds. Pike will also use shallow, dark-bottomed marshy areas to spawn shortly after ice-out. Shallow bays off the main lake are always a draw. Pike will migrate upstream under frozen rivers or just after they break open and will seek out shallow coves and bays that will have an abundance of suckers and creek chubs. Quick-strike rigs are the way to go with dead baits. You can buy commercially made rigs like Northland Tackle’s Predator Rigs. The Predator Rigs come in single and double wire and fluorocarbon leaders with alluring Baitfish Image Attractor Blades. You can also fashion your own from seven-strand wire using sleeves and swivels and either 2/0 or 3/0 treble hooks or circle hooks. Single hooks make it easier to release fish.


Try to make sure the bait hangs horizontally by putting one hook just behind the dorsal and one just ahead of the tail. Another option is to put one in the dorsal and one under the bait’s chin.

Slammer-type tip-ups work best on the ice when using dead baits, and either spinning or baitcasting reels with a bait runner feature excel in open water when fishing dead baits on the bottom or under a float.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

MLF Pros: What

MLF Pros: What's Your Go-To Lure?

When all else fails, here's what these pros tie on.

Lure Lock Options Includes LED Light Boxes & More

Lure Lock Options Includes LED Light Boxes & More

Pro angler Jonathan VanDam showcases new offerings at ICAST 2019, including the ultra-thin, big bait boxes, LED-lighted boxes and backpack-able gear lockers. With Game & Fish Editorial Director Adam Heggenstaller at ICAST 2019 in Orlando.

New Spinning Reel for Finesse Fishermen

New Spinning Reel for Finesse Fishermen

As Pure Fishing's Andrew Upshaw explains, reel making giant Abu Garcia has done it again at ICAST 2019 with a new spinning reel geared towards finesse fishermen.

New Abu Garcia Baitcasting Reels

New Abu Garcia Baitcasting Reels

In the booth of one of fishing's all-time great reel makers, Outdoor Sportsman Group writer Lynn Burkhead and Andrew Wheeler of Pure Fishing discuss one of the brand new baitcasting reels from Abu Garcia being released at ICAST 2019.

Trending Articles

While wildly popular amongst anglers around the world, the IGFA World Record book shows the biggest pike come from Europe. Records

Top 10 Biggest Pike World Records of All Time

Jack Vitek - August 19, 2015

While wildly popular amongst anglers around the world, the IGFA World Record book shows the...

When it comes to fishing baits, you won't find a more unusual variety than the strange brews of smelly ingredients often used to catch catfish. Catfish

How To Make Your Own Catfish Dough Bait

Keith Sutton - August 04, 2015

When it comes to fishing baits, you won't find a more unusual variety than the strange brews...

From Monksville Reservoir to Union Lake, plus five other picks, here's where you'll find the Garden State's hottest bass fishing. Destinations

7 Best Bets for New Jersey Bass

J.B. Kasper - October 04, 2010

From Monksville Reservoir to Union Lake, plus five other picks, here's where you'll find the...

As most catfish anglers know, blue cats, channel cats and flatheads will eat darn near anything that fits in their mouths. Catfish

5 Ways To Catch Catfish on Lures

Keith Sutton - September 16, 2015

As most catfish anglers know, blue cats, channel cats and flatheads will eat darn near...

See More Trending Articles

More Other Freshwater

Understanding shad is key to finding them, no matter which river you're fishing. Other Freshwater

American Shad! Facts About 'Poor Man's Tarpon'

David Paul Williams

Understanding shad is key to finding them, no matter which river you're fishing.

New electronics can help you find and ice more fish. Here's a CRASH course on how to use them to your advantage. Other Freshwater

Ice Fishing: The Skinny on Hardwater Software

Dr. Jason Halfen

New electronics can help you find and ice more fish. Here's a CRASH course on how to use them...

Freshwater drum are considered roughfish by some anglers, but these relatives of redfish are fun to catch and delicious. Fish

Keep Those Drum and Cook Them

Keith Sutton

Freshwater drum are considered roughfish by some anglers, but these relatives of redfish are...

It's the fourth state fishing record of the year in the Show Me State. Other Freshwater

Bow Angler Sets Missouri White Sucker Record

Game & Fish Digital Staff - March 17, 2020

It's the fourth state fishing record of the year in the Show Me State.

See More Other Freshwater

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.