Strike up a conversation about ice fishing for pike with a group of anglers, and chances are the talk will come around to tip-ups, dead bait, pre-spawn, and shallow water. There’s a good reason for this — these are all proven tactics for icing pike, especially late in the winter season. But what about the rest of the winter, when pike aren’t staging for the spawn in shallow water?
In my experience, pike spend most of the winter in the same areas and at the same depths as walleye. This became apparent to me when I experienced pike break-offs and catches while I was targeting walleye. Many of the biggest pike I’ve seen have been caught through the ice while targeting walleye. Last season alone, I was a party to a half dozen 40-inchplus pike that were landed on walleyejigging gear.
Just a few minor modifications are needed to catch big gators with tackle and tactics normally reserved for walleye. Here’s what works for me.
Geared for success
My goal, when using walleye strategy for ice gators, is to catch walleye and the pike that are schooling with them. To do so, my gear is hybridized to work for both species. Essentially, I use a walleye platform that’s beefed up to handle big toothies.
The most important modification is the addition of a fluorocarbon leader. Use 20-pound fluorocarbon on an 18-inch leader. I attach the fluorcarbon to the main line with a small in-line swivel, which prevents line twist and allows me to tie the leader directly to the baits. For main line, I use 10-pound mono. This combination isn’t so heavy that it distracts walleye, yet it stands up to big pike much better than a typical walleye set-up.
Quality reels are another key component. I learned the hard way that the small reels often sold on ice-combos lack the line capacity and drag system to handle big fish through the ice, so I use my summer walleye reels during the ice season. Spinning reels in the 1,000-size range do the job. I set the drag a little bit looser than normal — big pike are going to run, and this helps prevent break-offs. I’m not a backreeler either. I trust a properly set, quality-drag system to do its job.
The rods I use are rated for walleye. A medium-action rod in the 28- to 32-inch range works well, as it has more bend to help cushion the fight with pike. This is a major benefit when using lighter line.
The flash and movement of a jigged bait attracts the attention of pike when they move through the area you’re fishing.
My strategy for jigging is largely based around the use of a f lasher or other electronics. Marks on the screen let you know if you’re on fish. More importantly, they let you gauge the fish’s reactions to your bait and jigging technique.
Pike often show up on electronics as a mark that’s suspended somewhere in the water column, while walleye rise directly off bottom. When a mark appears on the screen halfway up, there’s a good chance it’s a pike.
As soon as I see this happen, I position my bait above the mark, with the goal of making the fish chase it. If the fish follows, I start reeling. Oftentimes a pike will chase and strike a moving bait because it resembles an escaping baitfish. If the fish doesn’t chase, I maintain my position and jig once or twice, then hold the bait motionless. If the fish disappears from my electronics, I quickly reel up and drop a different bait; I keep a selection of rods pre-rigged with different baits for this purpose.
Small baits, big fish
It’s not always necessary to use big baits to catch big pike, especially during the winter. Most of mine are in the 11⁄2- to 31⁄2-inch range. Any jigging bait that catches walleye through the ice will also catch pike. Over the years, however, a few have become favourites of mine, because they consistently come through.
Horizontal-jigging baits, such as the Rapala Jigging Rap, are top producers. They have a minnow- like profile that comes to life with a circular swimming motion when jigged. I prefer the largest size Rap (size 09, 31⁄2 inches, 7⁄8 ounces) and often tip the centre treble with a small minnow.
Spoons catch everything under the ice, including pike. I prefer jigging spoons, such as the Lindy Rattl’n Flyer Spoon or Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon. Each features an internal rattle for added noise and fishes faster than traditional flutter style spoons. When using these baits, I always tip them with a minnow and fish them with a series of sharp jigs, followed by a pause of several seconds.
Another style of bait that I’ve had lots of success with is the darter minnow imitating bait. This horizontaljigging bait has a more erratic action when jigged. I never tip this one with live bait, which means it’s an excellent option for hole hopping.
Pike aren’t known to be picky eaters, so don’t hesitate to experiment with different baits. I’m a firm believer that fishing in the right place and at the right depth is far more important than what bait is on your line.
Right time, right place
Pike can be found in the same areas as walleye for most of the winter season, starting at first ice and continuing until late in the season, when pike move shallow to stage for spawning.
They share winter habitat, as both species are feeding on the same baitfish. While adult pike will feed on juvenile walleye, it’s a common misconception that walleye make up a large percentage of pike’s diet. In fact, big pike and big walleye are on the same trophic level of the food chain.
On the lakes I fish, both species are keying in on pelagic baitfish, such as cisco and smelt, as well as various minnow species. It’s almost a certainty that if you find baitfish and walleye, you will find pike, too.
Look for structure in and around main-lake basins. All of my top spots have one thing in common: quick access to deep water. These are the same spots that produce walleye for me during the summer.
Humps and reefs are classic examples of where you will find baitfish, walleye, and pike. I mark these mid-lake structures on my portable GPS during the summer, then return to them on the ice.
Prominent points that extend into basins are another type of structure that hold fish throughout the winter. Using a map is an easy way to identify potential points. Not all points are created equally though. The only way to know which points are productive is to spend some quality time on the ice exploring.
Other areas easily found with a map are bottlenecks and funnels. These spots are characterized by a narrowing between two sections of deeper water. They serve as pinch points that act as natural travel corridors for baitfish and predator fish alike. They can range from small to quite large (hundreds of yards long), and can contain within them different types of structure, such as reefs or flats.
Regardless of the structure you’re fishing, it’s important to drill multiple holes in a grid pattern that covers different depths.
Consistent best depths for me have been 25 to 35 feet of water, but this will vary depending on the lake you’re fishing. Use your best summer walleye depths as a starting point.
A run-and-gun approach is best suited for finding big pike that roam amongst schools of walleye and baitfish. If I’m not marking or catching fish within 10 minutes, I will move to a different hole. It’s common to start fishing a new hole and get bit right away.
This winter, try using your walleye sense to locate trophy pike through the ice.