For southern folk blessed with plenty of sun for much of the year, there’s a slight touch of madness attached to ice fishing.
The practice is clearly rooted in necessity. Back in the day, a lot of northerners relied on regular aquatic meals for survival.
This necessity continued throughout the freezing months, so methods for extracting fish from the ice-covered waterways have been honed – probably over millennia.
Things are different now, and we actually brave these insanely cold conditions for fun.
We load up with expensive kit, brave the blizzards, and punch the ice for northern pike of all sizes.
Pike love a winter feed. They’re hungry and chasing bait schools with considerable determination.
This is why winter is the perfect time for chasing the prize pike. And this is why countless Americans hit the ice in ridiculous numbers every year.
Let’s revisit some Northern Pike ice fishing tips and tricks. We’ll address kit, locations, tactics, baits, and some other winter pike principles.
Ice Fishing For Northern Pike – Equipment and Tackle
This topic can be very difficult, and one could write a pretty substantial book, perhaps in several volumes, to cover everything there is to know.
Effectively, you can carry everything you need in the smallest of backpacks.
And then there’s the other extreme, where you’ve filled a large pickup truck, and still not got everything you want to take with you.
To make things a little easier, we’ll go from the perspective of a few good hours on the ice in good weather.
Even still, there’s still plenty of anglers who’ll go for the pickup option.
Let’s look at fitting everything we need in an extra-large backpack, with rod and reel, plus a battery-powered modest size auger, that can be carried on a sled.
First, however, we’ll start with safety.
Extreme weather, waterproof and windproof clothing is essential. Boots should be completely waterproof, and able to accept cleats.
Temperatures will drop below freezing, and the weather can be unpredictable.
On a large open lake, you have no shelter from the wind, rain, and snow. And just because you began fishing in the sun, doesn’t mean you’ll pack up under warm, sunny skies.
You must prepare for the worst.
It’s essential to take a change of clothes. Should you get wet, fall in slushy ice, or god forbid, fall through the ice, a change of clothes can save your life.
Take the critical stuff out on the ice with you, such as gloves and socks, hats, etc, and keep heavy jackets and spare boots in the car.
Remember, layers are best, and thermal underwear should be moisture-wicking, so preparation doesn’t become an issue.
The last word is sunglasses. Don’t forget them. Fishing on a bright sunny day on the ice without sunglasses is very uncomfortable.
There’s no need to reiterate the dangers of ice fishing in any detail. Extreme weather is deadly, and one should always prepare for the worst.
A compass is small, easy to use, and can help you find the shoreline in a whiteout. You should carry a headlamp at all times.
Even if you’re fishing during the daylight hours, extreme weather can make things very dark, or, you may find yourself fishing longer than expected, encountering the dark before you hit the shoreline.
A headlamp can also make you visible to others, should the worst happen, and people are looking for you.
Of course, you’ll have your phone, which is the best emergency tool. However, there may be no reception where you’re fishing, and in the case of a wet phone, it may not work.
If fishing remote areas, it is a good idea to carry a personal EPERB device. It’s no load to carry, fits in your pocket, and alerts rescuers should the worst happen.
Remember, an average of 5 people die per year ice fishing in the US. Many of these deaths could have been prevented with the right preparation.
Ice picks are essential. Even a couple of screwdrivers will do the job. Connect them to a lanyard and put them in your pocket and never take them out.
Ice picks will allow you to get a grip on the ice and pull yourself out of the water should you break through the ice.
Hand Augers might be hard work, but there’s a lot to like about their reliability, their weight, compactness, and affordable price tag.
Dialing down through 6 inches of ice can be back-busting work, however, so the next best option is battery power.
Again, they’re relatively light and compact, but the good ones also cost plenty.
Fuel-driven augers are robust and penetrate thick ice with ease. There’s a significant trade-off, however, as they’re heavy, and require fuel to be carried.
Look for augers with blades that deliver a nice clean cut through the ice. And remember to sharpen your augers blades regularly.
Sleds are brilliant, as they allow you to take more gear without it being a pain to lug around. With some being able to carry 90 pounds or more, you can take a lot of gear a long way.
Choose a sled that’s stable, has high sides, and glides across the ice easily.
Durability is also critical. For the long treks, a harness can take a lot of the hard work out of hauling long distances.
There’s no doubt that a fish finder or a flasher can take a lot of the guesswork out of finding fish. These days, you even have anglers dropping cameras down, to see what’s happening beneath the ice.
I’m a little bit old school. I love the mysteries of fishing and I also enjoy the sense of accomplishment using my fish behavior knowledge to locate fish.
In my books, a fish finder isn’t essential equipment. But there’s no denying their effectiveness for identifying fish-holding structure and the fish as well.
Another option is to use an ice fishing flasher. Here are a few good ice fishing flashers, should you wish to invest.
An ice scoop should be considered essential kit. On cold days, it won’t take long for your ice holes to freeze over.
The best way to keep your ice hole from freezing over is to scoop out the ice collecting in the hole.
It’s a bit of a pain, but it has to be done. Using your hand is not a good option.
Other useful Kit
Of course, a snowmobile, a 4WD, ice shelter, a heater, and a host of creature comforts to mitigate the freeze, are all good kit options.
Not all anglers have access to these expensive items, however, and they can be very expensive indeed.
In my opinion, a shed load of expensive tech can diminish the mystique, and living off the land/survival, man versus nature, aspects of fishing.
Sometimes, a few tip-ups, a thermos of coffee, and your wits can deliver a more satisfying catch.
See Also: Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques
Rods and Reels
However, when compared to regular summer gear, I’m yet to see any significant benefit.
I like a spinning reel, 2000, up to 4000 for big northern pike, and a 5-foot medium action rod.
There is a little drawback when using a 5-foot rod in a small ice hole. It can be a little bit unwieldy.
However, once you’ve sorted out how to set your rod, and fight a fish, you’ll appreciate the extra leverage a standard rod provides.
Baitcasters are also an excellent option. It just takes a little bit of practice to get the feel of thumbing whilst wearing a thick glove. A mid-size (300) baitcaster is perfect.
It’s good for a smaller class of fish yet allows you to target big northern pike without the fear of being underpowered.
If I’m hedging my bets and looking for a great all-around rig, I’d go for a rod of 4 feet, with a top-quality 3000 size spin reel.
Balancing the rig might be a little tough, but balance plays more of a role when casting, and you won’t be casting down a hole.
Spooling up can be done with ice-specific fishing lines. There are quite a few available but as you might imagine, they’re generally more expensive.
A mono with high abrasion resistance is generally a reasonable option. It’s inexpensive and allows you to spool up from your summer stock.
However, I find fluoro is ideally suited to ice fishing as fluoro sinks and has outstanding abrasion resistance. It’s also invisible.
There’s no water absorption, so you won’t have big issues with your line freezing.
As is always the case, you should always fish as light as you dare, particularly if your fishing lures such as jigs and spoons.
If you’re fishing lures, you may want to consider ice-specific braids. Again, they’re pretty pricey, but you will generate superior lure action, and more secure hook-ups using braid.
What is the Best Bait for Ice Fishing Pike?
If you want a bigger class of northern pike, live baits are a must. If you don’t have access to live baits, fresh dead baits are also ideal.
Pike are predators, opportunists, and scavengers. In other words, if it’s remotely edible, they’ll have a go at it.
Live or fresh is the big tip, however, with an emphasis on live. The best way to find out what the local pike are eating is to ask at the local tackle shop.
It’s more than likely they’ll have live and dead baits for sale.
Live or dead minnows or shad are an excellent option. However, if they’re not available don’t fret.
Any oily baitfish will work nicely.
Again, get some local knowledge here. The best baits for ice fishing pike are always going to be bait endemic to the local area.
Pike will take a wide selection of lures in the winter. However, when fishing the ice, you’re limited to fishing lures that can generate peak action being worked up and down, I.E. vertical fishing.
Larger spoons are old school, proven, and deadly in the right hands. They flutter as they drop, and flutter as they’re retrieved.
Color is a rabbit hole I won’t go down; your guess is as good as mine.
The beauty of spoons is that their action can attract fish from quite a distance. Go for something reflective, so there’s plenty of visual stimuli, as well as sound.
Blades are ideal for vertical fishing, and the vibration they create on lift and drop is a powerful calling for all kinds of fish.
Again, the number of colors and designs is overwhelming, and I suggest you keep a variety of colors to add depth to your arsenal.
Larger darters are excellent for big pike. The action mimics an injured baitfish which is perfect for predatory pike.
For those who like to experiment, soft plastics on jig heads can work very nicely.
Profiles can be a case of matching the hatch or your gut feel. The bottom line is that they work jigged right through the water column.
Lipless cranks are proving awesome with monster pike, particularly in shallow water. The tip is to keep it moving.
See Also: Ice Fishing For Rainbow Trout
Rigging Up For Northern Pike
Rigging for pike depends on strategy and technique. If you’re using lures, live baits, or tip-ups, you’re going to rig differently.
Firstly, if you’re jigging lures, simply tie the lure to your leader with your preferred knot. This is perhaps the easiest rig.
Quick-strike rigs are super-popular for tip-ups, and while a little fussier to tie, it’s worth the extra effort.
It’s basically an upside-down Y, with two leaders underneath a swivel. Tie trebles on the end of each leader, and you can add a flasher to each leader if you like.
The size of your baits will determine the leader’s length, but don’t be scared to bait up with the biggest smelt, golden shiner, or minnow you can find.
Put one treble just behind the head and the other between the dorsal fin and tail. Put only one hook of each treble into the fish.
Here are some great pictures to get you started.
Be aware that monster pike are aggressive and have teeth. A heavy leader is a great idea for these guys.
For those minimalist anglers, like me, the simple rigs are often the best.
A hook baited with a live shiner at the end of a leader, weighted with split shot, can work absolute wonders.
I like these rigs, not only because they’re effective, but because they’re easy to tie quickly in uncomfortable conditions.
There are many rigs you’ll see on the ice. Most anglers add their own ideas to tried and tested rigs.
For my money, it’s very hard to beat a live bait on a hook, tied to a leader.
Tip-Ups. How Do You Make An Ice Fishing Tip-Up?
There are 3 main types of tip-ups.
Traditional hardwood tip-ups are preferred by many owing to their endurance, simplicity, and reliability. They are a little more expensive than plastic options, however.
Pro Thermal tip-ups sit in your ice hole, and they are awesome for keeping your hole from icing over.
While effective at indicating a fish, they save a lot of time-consuming hole management.
The windlass tip-up was definitely designed by the lazy angler. Its primary purpose is to use the breeze to work your jig.
While effective, they can be useless with no breeze, or when the breeze becomes a wind or a gale.
There are rod holders which are often grouped in with tip-ups. But they’re not, they’re rod holders. Like any rod holder, you know the fish is on when the rod bends.
Of course, there’s the Homemade tip-up. Many anglers like to refine the basic principles and make their own.
You’ll need some tools, but it’s a fun project. Below are a couple of homemade options for you to try. Perhaps you can improve on these with your own design.
Here’s one you can make using sticks and twine. My favorite.
Where Do Pike Hang Out In The Winter
Pike follow the baitfish in winter, and you’ll find the baitfish in the shallows where there is cover to be found in the form of weed beds.
In other words, structure. By shallows we mean 5 to 15 feet of water.
The best way to find ideal weed beds is to do your research in the summer months.
Use your sounder to identify weed beds and lake bed structures. Mark depths and mark the location.
A good option is to head in close to shore when the water is particularly clear.
Being able to identify the weed flats and structure on the bottom provides the best insight into likely winter habitat.
The best locations for catching pike will have cabbage weed in an area where the lake bed slopes gently from 0 to 15 feet, followed by a drop-off.
Also Read: Tips for Ice Fishing Walleye
How to Target Northern Pike – Best Places and Strategy
The first step is as mentioned above. Fish the likely locations where there are weed beds, gentle slopes, drop-offs, and ambush territory.
The strategy from this point is to cover as much area as you can with several tip-ups, while dead sticking and jigging.
Five tip-ups are a reasonable number of holes to manage and will keep you busy if the bite is on. Place them evenly between 5 and 15 feet water depths. Use quick-strike rigs on your tip-ups.
With the dead stick set with a shiner or minnow, start jigging a flashy lure somewhere close to your dead stick.
There’s a good chance your jig will take a hit, but the game is to attract the Pike to the bait on your dead stick rig.
This is very active fishing, with plenty of holes to manage.
Thermal pro tip-ups are very useful when using this strategy, as you don’t have to worry so much about your ice holes freezing over.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Pike Go Deep In Winter?
Pike will follow their dinner. And dinner is often found in the shallows during winter.
However, come mid-winter, Pike can be found in deeper water.
If you were looking to target pike in hard water, the best locations are in the shallow areas.
What is the Best Time to fish for Northern Pike?
Northern Pike are available all year round. However, the monster pike heads into the shallower waters in winter, and they’re hungry.
Any time of the day is a great time to fish for pike, and it’s more the quality of the bait and presentations that make the difference.
Having said that, if you’re looking for the peak time to find a monster feeding, try a likely location just as the sun is starting to rise.
The Northern Pike Wrap-Up
Ice fishing for northern pike can be as simple or as complex and kit-heavy as you choose. Follow the core basics and you’ll no doubt get fish.
The most important aspect is to select likely locations. When you fish an area that holds fish, you are likely to succeed whatever your tactics.
Pike are big, aggressive, have big teeth, and aren’t particularly gentle with a bait.
If you’re hunting for a larger class of fish, and that’s pretty well all of us, make sure you never go underpowered.
If there was ever one critical tip, aside from getting the locations right, it’s the use of live baits.
All the tech, expensive kit, and fancy rigs in the world are no substitute for live baits or at least fresh dead baits.
A live minnow swimming on the end of a hook is all that’s needed to catch a northern pike of 20 pounds from the ice.
Find where they’re feeding and feed them what they’re eating. Everything else, apart from safety, is a secondary consideration.
Also Read: Best Walleye Ice Fishing Rod and Reel Combo