February 13, 2023
Sitting on beach chairs, my friend and I stared out through mirrored, polarized sunglasses as the sunshine warmed our faces and the morning. We were the only ones around for miles. It was college spring break, and while most everyone we knew had traveled south for boozy debauchery, we went north to the Minnesota-Canada border. Our goal was to fish the final days of the rapidly deteriorating, spindly and snow-free ice.
A line of tip-ups out in front of us kept us busy most of the day. "Flag up," one of us would announce, and we'd rise and trot excitedly over to a hole, alternating opportunities to land fish. The northern pike were bellicose and beastly. I don't think we caught a fish under 30 inches, and we taped a handful over 40.
Days like that are a pike angler's dream. The weeks of late February, March and early April, as the ice is leaving and open-water season beckons, are some of the best days of the year to catch giant, trophy northern pike.
THE SHALLOW SURGE
By late ice, the biological clock is ticking for northern pike. Spurred on by lengthening days, the changing photo period triggers hormonal releases that finalize egg development in females and ramp up milt production in males. Pike cruise midwinter haunts, spending time both deep and shallow, but eventually the call to spawn pushes them to predictable locations in shallower waters.
Standing submerged weedlines in shallow bays and edges of expansive vegetated flats are concentrating locations as pike stage for the spawn. Look for northern pike in water as shallow as a couple feet to as deep as 15 feet. Thick aquatic plants like large-leaved pondweeds, milfoil and coontail—usually brown by this late in the winter—still function as cover for pike to prowl in search of prey. They can also serve as a suitable substrate on which pike lay their sticky eggs. In general, pike love transitional areas that end shallow but abut deep water.
If you can find an inlet on a lake or reservoir, you can set up near one of the best features for big pike. Moving water draws northerns; some pike will even move to upstream wetland habitat to spawn. The rushing water also means food, as baitfish ride the incoming tide of melt water.
A SWEET SMORGASBORD
The menu for big pike this time of year is simple: whatever is most abundant and easiest to catch. Cold temperatures and the entire non-growing season are hard on all fish, and some succumb to natural mortality if they can’t eat enough to run the machinery of their metabolism. As the ice thaws, dead fish—some locked in icy tombs—are released. Northern pike get big by being energetically efficient, and they seldom turn down a free, lifeless meal unlocked by late-season melting.
The northern pike is one of the first fish to spawn each year, but yellow perch, white suckers and redhorse suckers aren’t far behind them. Perch prefer vegetation, wood snags or anything onto which they can attach their long, ribbonlike masses of sticky eggs in shallow-water areas. Sucker species are drawn to moving water—either in-stream or in gravely inlet mouths—where they can lay and fertilize eggs.
This timing is perfect for northern pike. As they begin staging in shallow water adjacent to their spawning grounds, their prey is doing the exact same thing. The convergence means a prey buffet for the pike and some of the best fishing of the year for anglers as the ice season nears its close.
For ease of covering an area, it's hard to beat blanketing a probable spot with setlines, either tip-ups or tip-downs. Some tip-ups allow you to set a rod into the device and then feed line off the rod’s reel spool. This lets you see the flag go up, walk over, set the hook and catch the fish on a rod rather than handlining in a large, thrashing pike. Some tip-ups, like Jaw Jackers or Automatic Fishermen, use the rod as a spring and set the hook automatically on the bite.
It's time to put your dead suckers to use. Bring out frozen ciscoes, smelt (where legal) or suckers, and don't be afraid to use the big ones. Pike can eat prey that are a third or even half their body size, but most commonly take offerings about a quarter of their size.
When prepping baits for the deep freeze, use vacuum-sealed bags. You won’t catch fish if your bait smells and looks funky, and you want fresh-smelling baits that aren’t freezer-burned. If you don't have a freezer filled with bait, hit up the local bait shop for spearing decoy-sized suckers and ask for any dead ones they’re going to throw out. Some bait shops give away dead suckers for free.
With suckers on the move to make their spring runs up creeks, you're matching the prey base. An active and agitated sucker creates plenty of movement and flash, which is just the ticket for attracting roaming northern pike.
Use a quick-strike rig in seven-strand wire for large northerns. For pressured fish, you can also use fluorocarbon. Either should have a high-test strength of over 20 pounds. Big pike have big teeth that will snap anything less.
Quick-strike rigs usually have small beads or blades as attractants, but the main features are a set of two large treble hooks, size No. 4 or No. 6. Place the rear hook near the tail and the front hook near the dorsal fin. This sets the baitfish up to level off in a head-down posture that makes it easy for a pike to come in, smash the bait as it desires it—headfirst—and swim off. You can also use quick-strike rigs that yoke the bait, keeping it horizontal and more naturally postured. The quick-strike rig is designed so that anglers set the hook into the corner of the fish’s mouth, reducing or eliminating the chance of deep-hooking and promoting catch-and-release of trophy pike.
Spread your setlines over as large of an area as you can easily monitor. Many anglers now deploy bite alarms made popular by European coarse fishermen. You can also use a Bluetooth-enabled alarm that links to your smartphone. Either allows you to extend your effective fishing area.
Deploy setlines at a range of depths. If you are on a drop-off, set some on the deep edge and some on the shallow edge. If you are on a flat with a uniform depth, run some baits just below the bottom of the ice and some just a foot or two off the bottom. Big pike are not afraid to go up for a bait, so I prefer setting my lines about halfway down the water column to start. A big live or dead sucker or frozen cisco has a large profile and makes a good silhouette against the brightly colored bottom of the ice on a sunny day.
Another great option to draw fish to the area and to really get your adrenaline going is to jig for big pike on late ice. Braided line, heavy-action rods and a big bait are the ticket. You’re looking for a reaction strike, but a byproduct of jigging is it attracts northern pike into your setup to potentially trip a nearby setline.
Northland Air-Plane jigs that dart back and forth through your ice hole; large, rattling jigging spoons that call in lunkers; and Jigging Rapalas, Salmo Darters and Clam Tikka Minnows with shiny finishes all are great choices.
Dart the baits around erratically as if injured, create the biggest commotion you can, then slow things down if you mark a fish or see one while sight-fishing. Tip those lures with fish heads or bodies to make them irresistible—so long as they don’t negatively impact the swimming action—and hold on tight for a fight you won’t soon forget.
After monster northerns? Try these fisheries that routinely produce big fish through the ice.
Late-season ice fishing for pike involves setting up in high-traffic areas likely to see big females coming in to feed ahead of the spawn. It’s no surprise that big water produces big northern pike. These fisheries put giants on the ice every year and offer tons of locations to catch huge gators.
- BADGER STATE BEAUTY: With a 40-inch-minimum size limit in place, Wisconsin's Lake Mendota cranks out some nearly 4-foot-long northerns each winter. Aided by a remarkable prey buffet including suckers, shiners and ciscoes, Mendota is the pike crown jewel on the Madison Chain of Lakes.
- DAKOTA DREAM DUO: Lake Sakakawea, a Missouri River impoundment in North Dakota, has some giant northerns, too. The lake’s ciscoes, suckers and goldeyes grow some huge pike. East of Sakakawea is Devils Lake. This continuously expanding lake is fantastic pike habitat, as northerns do well on flooded terrestrial habitat. With lots of bays, flats and flooded roadbeds, there is structure all over that attracts big pike.
- WOLVERINE WONDERS: Michigan ice anglers can find trophy pike in Little and Big Bays De Noc on Lake Michigan in late winter. There are also some giants in Lake St. Clair on the shores of Detroit.
- BORDERLAND BLISS: Minnesota's big pike fisheries on the Ontario and Manitoba borders have late-ice open seasons. Flag chasers on Lake of the Woods routinely haul in massive pike now. Good days see double-digit counts of fish, with many over 40 inches. Basswood Lake is where ice anglers go to swing for the fences. Minnesota’s state-record northern pike in both the kill and catch-and-release categories have come from Basswood.