How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Pike On Ice

Few sportfish are more unpredictable than pike. While small ones have a reputation for hitting just about anything, lunkers are as selective as a wine connoisseur buying a Bordeaux. Pike 25 pounds (1.35 kg) or better are the most difficult freshwater fish to catch, except in winter. That thin film of ice gives log-sized pike a sense of security. They lose much of their primitive caution and are overcome with a feline-like curiosity. And we all know what happened to the curious cat.

When searching for trophy winter pike, look for the deepest water in the lake; spawning bays and weedy back-bays adjacent to that deep water; and bars, reefs, saddles, and/or underwater points near both deep water and spawning bays. It sounds simple enough on paper, but usually takes serious moving and hole drilling to locate fish. Pick a half-dozen spots on a lake chart and then give them all a rattle during the course of the day. If you don't like moving, hope you hit the right spot on the first try. It does happen.

Pike are active all winter, but key periods are first and last ice. Understanding basic pike movements makes the winter game a little easier to figure out. In late fall, pike move from deep to shallow water and feed on cisco, perch, and other forage hanging around reefs and weedbeds. As ice forms, pike stay shallow for two or three weeks. The tops of large feeding flats, shoreline-connected reefs, and underwater points are good bets to hit. Whatever green weeds are left in these areas deserve special attention, as pike remain close to vegetation as long as it holds baitfish and provides protection. They'll hit all day, but on clear lakes there's a noticeable dusk and dawn bite at first ice.

As winter drags on, pike move deeper. You usually don't have to go far fromwhere you were catching fish at first ice, but expect them to spend much of the time on the bottom of dropoffs. Setting lines in 17- to 30-foot (5to 9 m) or more depths is common in late January and February, especially in clear lakes. By this time, most weeds are gone, and pike cruise rocks and sand.

As February melds into March, large pike are as vulnerable as they'll ever be. At last ice, big females are chowing down before heading into back-bays to spawn. Some of the largest pike I've seen iced are taken at this time of year.

If allowed only one late-winter spot to fish, it would be at the mouth ofa spawning bay, preferably one with a point near deep water. Pike stage at bay mouths and patrol the edge of the dropoff. The largest fish set up at the tips of adjacent points.

Two years back in early March, buddy Gene Balec and I set still-lines off the tip of a point that dropped into a 25-foot (7.6 m) basin. It was a warm winter day - one that held the promise of spring - and I suspected the pike would be going. We pulled a couple of fish early, small ones of 6 pounds (2.7 kg) or so, but as is often the case, the big one took its time to hit. At high noon, I saw Balec's rod go down. He grabbed it and quickly fed out line. When he set the hook, there was absolutely no give, as if he'd hung bottom. It took nearly 10 minutes to get the monster to the bottom of the ice, and when I looked down the hole, I saw the head was not going to come through without help. I went elbow deep into the icy water, got a hold on the outside of the jaw, and lifted 25 pounds (11.35 kg) of pike onto the ice. After a few quick pics, Balec slid her back to preserve the gene pool. Awesome.

Rigs for winter pike are basic. For larger baits, especially frozen herring or live suckers, I recommend a quick-strikerig. Much debate has raged over what's a legal quick-strike rig in this province and what isn't, so I recommend a simple setup that won't raise questions. Tie a No. 2 treble hook onto the end of a 16-inch 30-pound-test single-strand steel leader and put a single Siwash hook about three inches up from it. That's four hook points, the maximum the law allows on anything that's not a "lure." You can use a haywire twist to attach the swivel and hooks, but I recommend investing in crimping sleeves to keep everything solid. With this rig, you can strike early on pike. It also makes releasing large fish easier.

Most winter pike anglers use set-lines to fish a sucker or a dead bait a technique that's stood the test of time. Commercial tip-ups are dependable still-lines that fly flags when fish take the bait. A standard tip-up has a reel in the water, and you carefully lift it out as a pike takes line. Other types have above-water reels and wind-activated arms that impart a subtle jigging action to the bait. I've found this appeals to pike. Load tip-up reels with 20- to 30-pound black Dacron line; it's the easiest stuff to handle and see on snow when playing a large pike. Add a foot-long 30-pound-test steel leader with a well-made snap. A selection of split-shot and 1/8- to 1-ounce rubber-core sinkers rounds out your set-line needs.

Take a jigging rod, too. Jigging is an excellent way to attract pike and is also a lot of fun. The strike of a big pike on a jigging rod is unforgettable. You can move around with it to a number of holes and look for active fish while your tip-up sets the trap for larger, more fickle pike. A pike jigging rod should be about three feet long, made of fibreglass or graphite, and have at least three rod guides. Most medium-action factory ice rods workwell. The reel should be on the large side, and I recommend nothing less than a limp 12-pound-test line to handle big fish. I've had good success tipping a 1/2-ounce jig with a large minnow and aggressively jigging it on feeding flats. Jigging spoons, with or without a minnow, can also be effective.
Winter pike-bait choice is relatively simple. At first ice, a live suckeror large shiner is best, as pike are active then and more likely to grab a lively offering. As winter wears on and fish slow down, dead bait such as herring, Portuguese sardines, or smelt (where legal) are the ticket. At last ice, I use large live suckers, large frozen herring, and oversized minnows. Pike activity dictates which bait they prefer, so have a selection.

These basic techniques, used with strong equipment over high productivity water, will reward patient anglers with big winter pike. And let me tell you, jerking the snapper of a 20-pounder (9 kg) will really help flush outyour frozen pipes.

A- This is the top spot from first ice to just before last ice. At first ice, pike will be shallow on the point and hanging around the last weedgrowth. As winter wears on, they'll be deeper, from 15 to 30 feet (4.6 to 9m) on this spot. As last ice approaches, pike will move toward Area B.

B- This is a good bet just before last ice, when pike are staging for spawning. Some pike will be on the inside turn. The best fish will suspend just off the drop, at the same depth as the shallow portion of the bay. They'll move back and forth into the shallows at C.

C- This is a last ice hotspot, and large fish can be caught here just prior to break-up. Water could be shallow, but pike are active. Fishing this shallow is a waiting game. The bay can also be good at first ice. The creekmouth is a good bet, especially if there is a deep hole.

Gord Ellis
Fishing Editor
Gord Ellis is fishing editor of Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine, and also the outdoor columnist for the Thunder Bay Chronicle/Times News and a radio commentator.


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