By Bob Dostie
With the first step out the door, it hits you - that crisp cold winter air almost stings when you breath it. You hear the snow squeak under your feet and feel the chill in your bare hands. Others say you are crazy, and they don't know why you do it. Come to think of it, you are not too sure yourself. It's hard to explain why you feel the way you do. I don't think I have ever met anyone who can write a description of why they love ice fishing. Maybe we have spent a little too much time out in the cold, or maybe others have not spent enough. Regardless of the reason, it's something you just do.
We all have a fish of choice. Some like to jig for panfish, some are walleye masters, and some are on the hunt for the elusive salmonoid. I like to fish for everything, but my favorite fish is the Northern Pike. There is something about those toothy critters, that get me excited as a little kid at Christmas. There are many different setups that folks use, but in this article, I'll tell you about mine. I hope it helps you be a more successful fisherman/woman.
Lets start with the hole. I like an 8 inch (or larger) auger for pike fishing. Most pike will fit through a 6 inch hole, but you need to plan on a little shrinkage in the hole due to icing. It's also easier to turn a pikes head up a larger hole.
For tip-ups I would suggest a good quality one. I've seen pike pull cheap ones right through a hole. I like Heritage Lakers, but Polar types work well too as long is there is not a large amount of blowing snow.
I rig my tip-ups with 100 yards of heavy Dacron line. I use 36#-45# line on mine. The large line makes it easier to handle on the ice. On the end of my main line I add a barrel swivel. The swivel will keep your line from getting twisted from the swimming bait. To the swivel I tie my leader. For pike I have used heavy mono, heavy fluorocarbon, and steel. This year I'm going to be using one of the super thin knot-able wire leader materials. This should be a good combination of strength and low visibility. Not that pike are usually line shy, but I fish in an area where there are walleye and bass, so I like to keep my leaders as invisible as possible. I use a 3' leader, so if I need to re-tie a hook or cut it back for any reason I can still use the same leader material.
For hooks I use a #2 Mustad Treble hook (3551) with one point removed. **Please check your regulations to see what hooks are legal to use** I do this to make the fish easier to release, and increase the survival rate. To my leader I'll add a small split shot sinker, just large enough to keep my bait from swimming out of the area I want it to be.
Pike prefer soft non-spiny rayed fish. Suckers, chubs, shad, and smelt are all good choices. Some folks use super big bait, suckers 12" or larger are not uncommon. However, I think it's a waste of money. In general, I don't use anything over 7". That is large enough to keep perch from bothering it, but small enough to keep it from setting off your traps.
Where to Fish
I tend to fish in the same locations I would on open water. Points, drop-offs with weed beds close are always a good bet. I tend to avoid the large flats until spring, when fish start moving up to breed. I generally fish in 3 feet to 12-15 feet of water for pike. I have the best luck on the shallow end of that scale. Mostly because it's closer to the weed beds and baitfish. I fish my baits about 12" off the bottom unless I'm in very shallow water weedy water and then I'll put them closer to the ice, so the bait does not get caught in the weeds. Using a sounder, I'll check the water depth and mark my line where I want it to be on the spool with a very small bobber. HT markets some as line markers that cost about $1 for 6. This allows you to see if a fish has taken you line without setting off the tip-up, or after checking you bait you can easily put it back where you want it without sounding the hole again.
Once you are setup it's a waiting game. I try and check my bait at least once an hour. If the bait is dead, don't worry about it. Pike will eat dead bat too. Sometimes it's their first choice.
So a fish took your bait, now what? Do you set the hook? Well, that is a difficult question. If you use a stinger hook (2 hook system with one hook in the front of the bait and one in the back), then sure, go for it. If not I suggest waiting for the fish to stop, give it 15 seconds or so, and then set the hook. Pike tend to grab the bait just about anywhere. They don't always take it head first. Most of the time, they strike and take the bait off a little distance, and then turn it head first to swallow it. So, waiting with the single hook setup allows the pike to get the hook in it mouth. I never set the hook on a running pike. It's a real good way to find a weak point in your tackle. If the fish is moving slowly, then that's ok. If the fish has stopped, slowly pull in some line until you feel the fish and then give the line a quick little snap to set the hook. No big arm swing bass fisherman hook set is needed.
Now that the fish is hooked, don't just horse it to the hole. Gently pull in line, if the fish wants to run, just let the line slip through your fingers with a little bit of tension. When the fish stops repeat the process. You have spent all that time trying to catch this fish, why not enjoy the fight? Besides, it's still very possible to straighten a hook trying to force a fish in.
As a last note I am asking you to let as many big pike go as possible. If you would like to keep some to eat, then please keep some smaller ones. It is very important to the health of the fishery to have those big females go off to bread in the spring.
Good luck and tight lines!
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