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.