With these simple baits, lures and tactics, you can catch hardwater pike anytime and anywhere
It’s possible to catch big pike through the ice by accident, but the angler who pays attention to the details is the one who consistently hooks into big fish.
One of the best ways to attract and catch big pike is to set up a series of tip-ups—sometimes called a trapline—over prime structure. I usually go wintertime pike fishing with three other people; since it’s legal for each of us to run two lines, we can have eight holes in our trapline. (Be sure to chek your local regs beforehand.)
When it comes to tip-ups (below), always abide by the adage that you get what you pay for. The punishment a big fish can inflict on your gear often creates breaking points, so invest in quality gear. The last thing you want is to have a line spool stop turning or actually get pulled off a tip-up. The better units don’t freeze up, and even if you get ice covering the surface of your hole, the tip-up will still perform and let you catch and land fish.
There are several different tip-up styles, so choose the one that best suits the conditions where you’ll be fishing. There are those with a longer signal flag shaft designed to pop up and be visible in several feet of snow, for example. Some models cover and insulate the hole to prevent it from freezing over, while others catch the wind to jig your bait. And for anglers who want to make their outing as relaxing as possible, there are even get tip-ups with alarms that sound when a fish takes your bait.
As for line, Dacron or special tip-up lines are easy to handle with gloves, and they don’t freeze up or tend to tangle—huge benefits when fighting fish on a handline. Just make sure to fill the spool, as big fish in deep water can quickly peel all the line off a tip-up.
The quick-strike rig
As long as treblehooks are allowed on the lake I’m fishing, I use quick-strike rigs on all my tip-ups. A quick-strike rig (below) is built on a steel leader with a treblehook fastened to one end and a barrel swivel on the other end that attaches to the main line. A second treblehook slides up and down the leader. When rigging bait, insert the fixed treblehook into the top of its head and attach the sliding treble just behind the dorsal fin. This way, the bait will sit horizontally and look more natural.
Quick-strike rigs work so well because of the way pike feed. A big northern will grab its prey in the centre of its body and run it through the water to disorient or drown it. That’s why you see the tip-up spool spinning quickly when you get an initial hit—it’s the fish running away with its meal. The pike then stops and swallows the bait head-first so that it slides easily into its gullet.
Since there are hooks in both the middle of the bait and its head, you can hookset as soon as there’s a strike. The pike will either have the dorsal hook in its mouth when running or it will have the front hook in its mouth when it stops running and swallows the bait. The only time you need to be cautious is when the fish stops running and starts turning the bait in its mouth. If you try to set the hook at this point, you could pull the bait away, so always feel for tension on the line before setting the hook.
In my experience, the most difficult part of consistently catching big winter pike is finding big enough bait—northerns weighing 15 to 30 pounds will eat fish that are up to a third of their own size. It’s nothing for a big pike to gulp down a three-pound walleye, whitefish, burbot or even another pike. There’s a variety of big baits available, and different provinces have different regulations on what can be used.
My favourites, where legal, are big herring and sardines that I usually purchase at a grocery store or fish market (below). Tackle shops typically only have smaller baits under seven inches, but the food-grade herring and sardines from grocery stores can be as long as 14 inches. Those make for a high-profile, full-meal deal for any big pike looking to fill its belly with a single feeding. Large northerns are extremely efficient at burning the minimum number of calories for the maximum gain. After all, why eat a dozen small fish when you can eat just one big one? When you look at it from the pike’s perspective, it only makes sense to use monster baits.
The best way to prepare big baits is to take them out of the freezer the night before you head out fishing, place them in a metal pan and put it over a floor vent cover. That way, the furnace will warm the baits, and by the time you hit the road in the morning, they’ll be dripping with natural oils. To help keep the flesh firm for holding hooks, I also put coarse salt in the bottom of the thawing pan and cover the fish with salt in the morning. The salt will even keep the baits in prime condition for several days if you’re planning an overnight adventure.
Along with tip-ups and quick-strike rigs, you can also catch big pike by jigging lures with a rod and reel. Jigging can also help draw fish to your trapline. Swimming jigs, ball jigs, spoons (below) and rattling crankbaits are all great options. And while the colour, flash and vibration all help to attract fish, I also always attach bait—unless it kills the action of the lure—to trigger the fish’s olfactory system.
Short fast-action rods work well for big fish, and quality spinning, level- wind or baitcasting reels are a must. In water less than 15 feet deep, I use 10- to 12-pound-test monofilament, which provides enough stretch and strength for fighting northerns. For deeper water, however, I prefer the sensitivity and superior strength of 20- to 30-pound-test braid. Whatever line you use, just be sure your reel has a good drag system.
Alberta contributor Brad Fenson will share his ice-fishing expertise at the March 12 Edmonton Boat and Sportsmen’s Show.