Productive Winter Pike Strategies
Story and photos by Tom Gruenwald
Geographically, there may be more widespread species, but globally, I can’t think of one more commonly associated with ice fishing—or at least, more romanticized. Pike have been hauntingly illustrated in children’s literature, fearsomely referred to as water wolves, even gruesomely portrayed as monster fish with alligator-like jaws willing to attack swimmers.
While often embellished, many such characterizations hold grounds based in fact. Yet strip away the lore, and you’re simply left with efficient, highly opportunistic predators poised to contort their elongated, muscular torsos into powerful, surging attacks with blinding speed.
Don’t get me wrong: Finding and subsequently getting pike to bite can still be challenging at times, but by understanding their habitats, preferred forage and behavior, ice anglers can formulate select strategies and tip the balance for consistent success in their favor.
GENERAL WINTER LOCATION PATTERNS
Pike feeding activity peaks during two prime periods: Early ice, when they forage throughout easily identifiable, relatively shallow vegetated bays and flats; and again during the late season, when giant, ravished females congregate near spawning grounds, looking to nourish their bodies with the energy required to complete their pending ordeal.
Aggressive feeding typically begins prior to freeze-up and continues for several weeks thereafter. Shallow, weedy bays, particularly those offering relatively dense stands of healthy, broad-leaved plants such as cabbage, comprise prime early-season feeding locations. Variations in the height or density of this vegetation—particularly when lining depth breaks or bottom content transitions—create outstanding feeding lanes, as do associated slots, channels, pockets or depressions surrounded by similar cover.
In waters where vegetation is sparse—conditions often encountered when fishing current-swept reservoirs and flowages—don’t overlook another productive form of cover: Wood. Pike will hold within flooded timber, stumps, sunken logs, fallen trees and brush where their long bodies are easily concealed among trunks and branches as they await unwary prey.
Where available, wood may also become increasingly important as winter draws on, when thickening ice and increasing snow cover block sunlight, causing vegetation to brown, even die. This combination of reduced photosynthesis and decaying materials results in falling oxygen concentrations. While pike are exceptionally tolerant to a wide range of oxygen levels, some forage species are not, reducing feeding opportunities within shallow, vegetated soft-bottom bays and flats.
For this reason, mid-season pike may also migrate from shallow-water haunts and begin relating to deeper, hard bottom main lake features like sand bars, rocky points, reefs, humps and adjoining breaks. Falling oxygen concentrations and scattered forage can result in pike spreading throughout wider regions or suspending over deep water, but mid-winter should not be written off as unproductive.
In moderate or deep lakes, mid-season pike may actually concentrate in select areas—among remnant patches of healthy green vegetation or wood lining the deeper edges of productive early-season bays, flats and mid-lake structures, for example, especially where soft-bottom flats meet hard-bottom structures or basins. Such locations often support diverse varieties of forage, and you can bet active pike won’t be far away.
Just remember, in some waters, mid-season pike will continue gathering in shallower areas where combinations of wood, remnants of healthy green vegetation, suitable oxygen counts and forage remain, so don’t completely discount these areas if pike aren’t appearing within deeper, alternative locations.
By late winter, opportunity heats up again as pre-spawn pike migrate toward and gather near classic spawning bays. Often, they’ll stage just outside these areas, along the outer edges of mid-depth breaks lining shoreline points and bars stretching between the shallow spawning grounds and more environmentally stable deep-water basins adjoining them.
There’s more to consider when deciphering consistently productive winter pike location patterns. Lake type and characteristics, for instance, have a profound effect on pike and heavily influence effective strategies. Deep, cold, clear, predominately hard-bottomed waters may not support as many pike, but if not heavily pressured, are more likely to produce older, bigger individuals. In contrast, shallower, darker, soft-bottom lakes often maintain greater numbers of smaller sized fish.
This becomes an important consideration when planning your trip, as you must select appropriate waters, depending whether your goal is lots of action or a trophy. Should your goal fall somewhere in-between, compromise by targeting moderately deep, slightly fertile lakes—especially those featuring high protein or fat, soft-finned forage such as smelt, ciscoes or whitefish capable of producing exemplary growth rates.
Another factor to recognize is the most productive locations often vary based on the age of the fish. Younger pike typically prefer the security of thick, shallow water cover, but as pike grow, they have a tendency to spend increasingly more time deep. So if you’re introducing someone to the sport and want action—provided of course, the conditions are right in terms of the preferred kinds and concentrations of available cover, oxygen and forage—you may want to fish smaller, more fertile waters supporting larger numbers of smaller sized fish, and focus your efforts within shallow, weedy flats.
If you’re selectively targeting trophies, however, you might be better off choosing a larger, deeper, more structurally diverse lake and spending more time working along the edges of deeper main lake structures.
Prime strategies might also change somewhat based on the forage present. In many waters within the Lower 48, where yellow perch comprise the primary forage source, shallow, weedy or hard-bottomed flats, points, bars and related drop offs—classic perch locations—will likely coincide with locations where you’ll find pike. In Alaska, this could mean juvenile salmon or a number of other local baitfish, which tend to rear in shallow waters. Should the primary forage base be a deep, open water pelagic species such as ciscoes, you’ll more likely find pike suspended over deep water, associated with their prey.
Still, be aware of variations. Should a range of forage fish be available in your target waters, factions of the pike population may split, following both patterns simultaneously to varying degrees. Productive winter patterns may vary somewhat within select environments for other reasons as well. In reservoirs or flowages with fluctuating water levels, deep points and humps near the original river channel, especially those featuring stumps or standing timber, become prime targets—and if these waters are aged, man-made cover such as old roadbeds, building foundations or fish cribs may also play increasingly important roles when dialing in consistent patterns.
No surprise here, but weather has an effect on things, too.
Although pike in various environments may react differently, in general, periods of relatively stable, slightly overcast weather seem most productive. Try avoiding bright, frigid, post-cold conditions, but if you must fish during such times, it’s best to concentrate your efforts during late afternoon within somewhat deeper, darker colored waters.
When facing challenging conditions, the debate continues when it comes to appropriate presentation adjustments—some stalwarts will say fish smaller baits more slowly and closer to cover, while others staunchly support the opposite side of the argument, claiming hanging the largest baits you can find beneath tip-ups and aggressively working the largest, noisiest, flashiest of lures best provoke the most consistent reaction strikes.
Given various situations, I’ve found both strategies effective, so for best results, remain open-minded and experiment!
THE QUEST BEGINS
After you’ve determined and researched your target lake, considered the prevailing conditions and matched your established game plan to the situation at hand, you must plan your presentation strategies.
Start by obtaining a detailed paper lake map, or download an electronic one using modern resources such as Navionics or Apps for Anglers to begin searching out the best structures and features right down to the finest detail—then list each prime location in order of importance. Note all the corresponding GPS coordinates, and using the best form of transport for traveling between them, begin your attack.
Once in a desired area, decipher the best positions by using a combination of quality sonar and an underwater camera to locate specific forms and combinations of bottom content, cover, forage—and of course, confirm the presence of pike.
Today’s most advanced sonar units, such as the new Vexilar FLX-28, will help make this task easier. In addition to providing numerous advantages tailored specifically for ice-fishing applications, including a convenient carry case, user-friendly display with real-time response and zoom features that allow you to focus on specific depth ranges, the FLX-28 offers auto depth range setting, a FIVE color palette option as opposed to the standard three—allowing you to determine fish movements and responses better than ever—an easy-to-read digital depth readout, low power option for fishing shallow weeds, and an amazingly quiet, brushless data transfer signal.
For specific details sonar can’t reveal, utilize an underwater camera. You can go with traditional units such as the popular Fish Scout, or try something such as Vexilar’s new Fish Phone, an underwater camera that connects to your smartphone and uses Wi-Fi technology to turn your smartphone into a fully functional underwater camera monitor. Use such technologies to gather information…then take good notes to begin effectively piecing together patterns!
As for equipment, start with a premium-quality power auger, like the Polar Fire. I prefer the 10-inch model, simply because larger diameter holes not only better accommodate larger bodied pike, but help keep holes open wider in even the coldest conditions. Follow this up with a heavy-duty, larger diameter metal ice skimmer, preferably a model featuring a deep cup riveted to the handle for efficiency and durability—and, if using live bait, a thick walled, insulated large-capacity bait container with an appropriately sized aerator.
If you’re fishing an elongated break, large structure, wide bay or expansive flat, a great way to effectively cover water is setting a spread of tip-ups strategically throughout the area. Be sure to drill your holes in prime locations: Deep turns and irregularities along the outside weed line, the edges of slots and pockets within the vegetation or wood, and the edges of adjoining rock piles.
When it comes to tip-ups, a variety of premium, high-performance models are available to choose from. One of my favorites is HT’s famous Polar. Guaranteed against freeze-up and offering multiple premium features, you can be confident they’ll serve you well.
Given extreme temperatures, blowing snow or other challenging conditions, HT’s Polar Therm provides another option. This model offers the same freeze-proof mechanism as the original Polar, but incorporates a hole cover frame to keep your holes clear…and no discussion of pike-appropriate tip-ups would be complete without mentioning the Arctic Bay Polar. Again, this model features the same internal mechanism as the original Polar, but the guts are mounted on a high profile, hardwood frame, making it highly visible in even the deepest snow.
Whichever model you choose, spool with premium 25- to 40-pound braided Dacron, and using a quality ball bearing swivel, attach a 20- to 30-pound braided wire leader. Complete your setup with a thin wire quick-strike rig. Double-hooked models featuring an adjustable front hook are normally sufficient, but when fishing larger baits, a fixed, triple-hook quick strike is even better.
Whether fishing live or dead bait, quick-strike rigs improve hooking percentages greatly. As the name implies, this system allows you to set the hook promptly, leading to less chance of hooks being swallowed, and when fishing dead baits, helps hold your presentation in the desired position.
Preferred hook size depends largely on the bait you’re presenting. For best results, hook points must always be exposed and never entirely fill the hook gap. Treble hooks should be a minimum of size 6, but 4 though 3/0 will perform better when using larger baits. If you go with single hooks, slightly larger, 1/0 – 4/0 siwash are good bets.
From here, add only as much weight as needed to hold your bait at the desired depth. When using live bait, position shot closer to reduce movement, or farther away to permit increased motion. Large, lively suckers or chubs are common and effectively used baits, but oily baitfish like dead smelt, ciscoes, whitefish or strips of similar cut bait are highly productive presentations as well, especially when pike aren’t as active.
Either way, cover water by placing your tip-ups in diverse locations and staggered at various depths, strategically rigging each with different types of baits, in a variety of sizes and positioning them at staggered depth levels. Try adding or splicing some special attractors into your rigs, too—small colored spoons, spinners, beads or bits of yarn in a spectrum of colors can help draw pike and make a difference.
Don’t overlook jigging for winter pike; after all, cutting a few extra holes so you can move around jigging while waiting for a flag is an effective way to attract fish and trigger response strikes!
I prefer relatively stiff, but slow-tipped medium-heavy jigging rods 36- to 60 inches long. Longer rods provide more hook-setting power, allow you to pickup slack line faster and provide increased leverage. A somewhat slow, limber tip helps keep your line tight and provides additional control when fighting hooked fish, while functioning as a shock absorber when pike make strong, unexpected runs. Just remember, you’ll need to compensate for softer tips by powering up more strongly on initial hook-sets.
Match your favorite rod with a spinning or baitcasting reel that appropriately balances the system, features a smooth retrieve, equally smooth, multi-setting drag to minimize line breakage, a gear ratio of at least 4.5:1-5.2:1 and adequate line capacity. Spool with 8- to 12-pound monofilament—or perhaps better yet, braid…just don’t forget to wrap a base of mono on the spool first to prevent the coils from slipping around the arbor.
When selecting lures, choose flashy, brightly-colored spoons, tight vibrating blade baits, gaudy lipless cranks, bulky tube jigs and noisy rattle baits, or simply try jigging dead baits on a quick-strike rig. Don’t be afraid to go big, but keep in mind there are times when you may do better with smaller baits, too.
Stick with more naturally-sized and colored lures when fishing clear water or concentrated fish; and work brighter, noisier ones when fishing darker colored waters or scattered, roaming or suspended fish. Increase your effectiveness with artificial lures by adding a minnow head—or better yet, a strip of cut belly meat or ripple tail pork rind or plastic to produce an enticing, lively wiggle.
You’ll have to experiment to determine the most productive jigging motions, but the idea is to emulate a dying or startled baitfish. This can best be accomplished by sweeping your rod sharply upward a foot or two, then dropping it back. In response, your lure will dart up with a burst of attention-gathering motion and flash before suddenly sinking vulnerably like a struggling, injured baitfish—a subsequent movement that often triggers vicious strikes.
Finally, don’t forget a hook sharpener, along with a mouth spreader and long-nose pliers to help with removing hooks from the pike’s powerful, bony jaws. Piece this all together, and you’ll have likely positioned yourself to experience your most successful winter pike season ever!
HT’s “POLAR THUNDER” tip-up is another model I’m anxious to fish this year. The large capacity 500-foot spool will help you manage your presentation when fishing even the deepest structures, yet leave plenty of reserve for active, hard-running pike.
Best of all, the combination of the height-adjustable tube mechanism and introduction of the industry’s first adjustable flag wire mechanism that tilts at the base, allows you to fine-tune trip tension by simply modifying the angle of the flag wire against the trip shaft. Raising the tube and tilting the flag back increases tension when using larger baits and/or fishing in strong winds; lowering the tube and tilting the flag assembly forward decreases trip tension when fishing fussy or lighter biting fish.
Tom Gruenwald is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the sport of ice fishing, and his expertise has been sought for presentations, seminars and contributions to various outdoor periodicals throughout the world. He now hosts his own TV show, Outdoors with Tom Gruenwald, the first program of its kind dedicated solely to ice fishing. Beginning October 6, 2013 you can watch his show on Sportsman Channel, Sundays at 9 a.m. EST, and Wild TV, Sundays at 9:30 a.m. CST.