Jason Wright, Ultimate Outdoor Adventures TV
It’s no secret! Early ice is prime-time fishing for northern pike and while more and more anglers today prepare for the season by painting decoys and sharpening spears, there are still plenty of savvy traditional ice anglers that have a different plan. The traditional “hook and line” for these lurking predators beneath the ice is still preferred by many. If you’re after a good old-fashioned line stretching, targeting pike during early/safe ice oftentimes equals hot action. Great action and nice fish, all around, it’s the perfect time of year when you are looking for something to do after your big buck has been tagged. This is oftentimes a great time to introduce non-fishermen/women as well as kids to the sport since the weather can be a bit more tolerable during the early season versus the latter part of the ice fishing season. Once a solid and safe sheet of ice covers the surface this is the best opportunity to search for both numbers of pike and quite possibly a true toothy monster. Big pike are vulnerable this time of year since they are still feeding heavily and can be easier to target on your favorite frozen lake while on foot before winter storms dump snow making moving from one location to the next difficult.
Choosing the right lake is just as important as choosing the best fishing locations on the lake or spot on the spot. The first key to finding larger pike during early ice will be the presence of baitfish that inhabit the shallow water during late fall and briefly during early ice. Most of our lakes in the Dakotas are stuffed with perch, panfish and other baitfish which pike find quite tasty; therefore, find the food and the pike won’t be far away. In most instances it’s simple, find the food and you’ll find the fish. Planning your trip oftentimes begins in the fall, before the ice forms, or think back to your fall fishing outings and jot down the lakes and locations where good numbers of pike were caught. Some of the best pike locations are discovered while fishing for fall walleyes or other fish but are quickly forgotten while standing atop a layer of frozen water. Use what you already know to make a decision as to where the pike will be during early ice; start there and then make your moves based on what you find. A little research goes a long way and will help you narrow down your choices. One of the quickest ways to locate new lakes and/or to find out more about a particular lake is to check in with the Game and Fish Department. Inquire about stocking efforts, species population and they will always do their best to provide up to date information and send anglers in the right direction. In today’s world of social media everyone seems to be reporting about what is happening in the outdoors so find those that you can trust and send them a private message which might lead not only to a great fishing location but a possible fishing partner.
Once you locate a lake or two to target, learn as much about the lake as you can by talking to others that have fished it and study contour maps so you know where to begin drilling holes. Diehard anglers often check a particular lake out prior to freeze up by walking the shoreline locating possible starting locations that are also easily accessed by foot or possibly ATV which is quite common during first ice.
You’ll want to schedule your early trips for the shallower, early freeze up lakes and save the deeper, clear water lakes for your later trips. By getting the schedule arranged correctly, you can extend this early pike season to a month of good fishing or maybe even more.
Now that you’ve laid some groundwork, getting ready to fish is the fun/easy part. A few tip ups, a jigging rod or two and for early ice, I’d recommend a hand auger, remember those? A good hand auger with sharp blades will cut through early ice like butter and is actually much quicker and lighter than toting around your gas auger. These are perfect because it’s important to keep the weight of your equipment down so you’ll be ready to move often and get set up quickly. Another handy or in my case a must-have item for early ice is a pair of ice-cleats that can be strapped onto your boots. You can cover ground much more quickly with a good grip plus it can help prevent a great trip from going bad.
A very popular method to target early ice pike, which some refer to as “ice trolling,” is an extremely aggressive search and destroy presentation and will keep several anglers busy all day long. Using the main drop off – the edge where a shallow flat meets deeper main lake water – as your starting point, drill your first hole and set up tip-up number one. For tip-up fishing, I like to use an egg sinker as the weight. Slip it on to the line and tie on a medium size barrel swivel. From the barrel swivel, attach a two to three foot piece of heavy, clear 100% fluorocarbon line to act as a leader such as Berlkey Vanish Leader Material. The clear 20 to 25 pound test fluorocarbon helps make your presentation more natural while protecting against most bite off problems. In North Dakota we are pretty much restricted to minnows whereas in other states there are other livebait option; therefore, find the largest minnows you can and use a single hook or treble large enough to allow the minnow to swim.
In states where you can get your hands on larger shiner minnows these can really lure big pike your direction during early ice.
I set the tip-up so that the minnow is about a foot off the bottom, but experiment with different depths to find out if high riding fish are present and biting.
Once you have the first tip-up set in place, locate another spot along this drop off, drill another hole and spend a few minutes with your jigging rod using a large jigging spoon of your choice; I have had good success with Jigging Rapalas, but pike are curious so most any aggressively jigged spoon will work. I like to tip most of the jigs with a minnow head or in some cases a whole minnow hooked through the mouth.
After ten minutes or so in this location, put away the jigging rod and use this hole to set up tip up number two, but try a frozen smelt and/or a large frozen herring. Once you’ve got number two in place, go back and retrieve the first tip up and locate another spot along the drop off, drill a hole, try the jigging rod first, then after another ten minutes or so, replace it with the first tip up. As you work your way along the drop off, you’ll constantly be locating new structure and new fish. Repeat this leapfrog approach as often as necessary to stay in the action. Obviously, the more anglers you have fishing, the more tips ups you’ll set and the more action you’ll find. On small lakes with good structure, it’s even possible to fish all the way around to where you started. Remember to keep moving, most of the time the best action comes right away. Occasionally you’ll get repeated strikes from the same hole, but more often you’ll find that moving frequently is your best bet. If I stick a fish with my jigging rod I will set up a tip-up and drill a new hole to start jigging again. It seems that I seldom get bit quickly again from the same hole; the location might be good, but I am looking for action.
This is a perfect approach for ice anglers who like the idea of a fast-paced winter fishing trip; bring along the kids and go out of your way to keep the set up simple. Once the kids get the hang of retrieving and re-setting tip-ups you will be amazed at how much fun they will have especially on an active day. This method of “ice trolling” will work equally as well while walleye fishing too – just lighten up your tackle. This method of searching for and icing early pike can become quite contagious and even addicting once you learn to understand more about the lake(s) you are fishing.
Good luck this season during your early ice outings – the hard water is coming soon to a lake near you!