The secret to tracking northern pike as their habits change from January to March
To find and catch trophy northern pike, you must adjust your tactics as the ice season progresses
One of the best times to target big pike is as soon as it’s safe to go out on the ice. Early in the winter, there will still be a lot going on under the new ice to attract them. If you can find the spawning areas for whitefish, for example, you’ll find big pike. The hundreds, if not thousands, of whitefish make for easy hunting for big predator pike. Plus, the stress of the spawn leads to some mortality, so pike will come to clean up the dead whitefish that have settled on the lake bottom.
Depending on the lake, whitefish spawn any time from late November to early January. I fish three lakes with different spawning times, letting me to target big northerns for well over a month. Whitefish spawn in shallow areas with sand and gravel, usually on an east shoreline or a mid-lake hump. On one of my lakes, for example, my fishing buddies and I target a hump approximately a kilometre offshore. Using big herring as bait, we set up a tip-up trapline from the bottom edge of the hump, up the slope and onto the whitefish spawning area.
This is the toughest time of year to catch any fish through the ice, let alone a trophy pike. That said, it’s still possible—you just need to find their preferred depth, highly oxygenated water and a food source. The presence of perch and ciscoes is a good indicator that the water has a high level of oxygen; in mid-winter, it’s not uncommon to find them in deepwater.
One of my favourite lakes has good concentrations of perch and some ciscoes in 20 to 30 feet of water. We normally fish for perch with a rod and reel and set out a tip-up for any big pike that are living and hunting in the area. Northerns find it hard to see in the deep, dark water under the ice, so make sure the baits are as visible as possible. Pike will lurk along the bottom, keeping an eye on a large area ahead of and above them, so set your bait at least a metre off the bottom—right in their line of sight. And by setting it off the bottom, the bait will also be easier to see against the brighter background of the surface.
Pike are sluggish at this time of year and often take bait in the afternoon or later in the day, likely because that’s when their prey is on the move and easier to find. Indeed, perch are most active when there’s more light penetrating the ice. They shut down after dark, however, making them hard for pike to find in the deep water.
Pike start moving a lot in late winter, targeting different food sources in both deep and shallow water. Rocky bottoms and drop-offs can be productive, and large flats with feeding whitefish, perch or suckers are always a good bet. Some burbot spawn in late February and into March, and pike will certainly go after them as well.
If you’re fishing in areas that don’t have closures at the end of March, you can often find pike congregating near their preferred spawning areas. Look for shallow bays and flowing water, areas where pike spawn right after ice-out. With the sun still riding low on the southern horizon, north shorelines receive much more sunlight in the spring, so the ice there tends to break up first. The same goes for areas with flowing water. As a result, both are prime locations for targeting late-winter leviathans.
Alberta contributor Brad Fenson will share his ice-fishing expertise at the March 12 Edmonton Boat and Sportsmen’s Show.