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Skinny water, porky pike
By JOHN KOLINSKI
Northern pike have a knack for getting an angler’s attention.
Sometimes, they stop your heart by rising unexpectedly from the depths
audacious attack. Sometimes, they test your heart by looking you right
in the eye before sliding back into the shadows.
Sometimes, they break your heart when their sheer size and strength
too much to handle on rod and reel.
These tempestuous torpedos can get your attention through the ice,
especially late in the season when they congregate in shallow sloughs
backwaters off main river channels to gorge themselves before the spawn.
Most of our Midwestern river systems harbor strong populations of pike
more trophy potential than a lot of anglers realize. Those paddle-sized
predators haunt the deeper recesses of the main channels and backwaters
year-round, but only a few are caught.
Late February and early March draws them into areas where they are
accessible, abundant, and cooperative.
Pike typically spawn when the water temperature begins to climb past
40-degree mark. They are random spawners that scatter their eggs over
decaying aquatic vegetation in shallow water with little or no current.
More importantly, these pike move into those shallow sloughs and backwater
ponds (two to five feet deep) before the ice breaks up, and they feed
as they prepare for the spawning ritual. They’re easy to catch, if
easy to land.
If your timing is right, the action can be steady for some of the biggest
pike in the system.
The males tend to move into these areas first. If you’re catching them,
assured the bigger females aren’t far behind.
One thing to remember when pursuing these fish is that conditions are
the same from year to year, or even from day to day, in a river system.
Changes in water levels affect the areas these pike will haunt. Last
hot slough may not be the place to fish this year. Access from the
channel is a key characteristic. While pike and the fish they like
(suckers, chubs, shiners, etc.) don’t need much water depth to get
sloughs, they don’t want to risk being trapped.
The good news is that it usually doesn’t take long to determine whether
slough or backwater is holding pike. These areas are typically small
to be sampled quickly, and the fish are usually aggressive enough to
know if they’re present.
The quality of the ice is another important consideration. What was
day may not be so safe a day or two later if the river suddenly rises
Tip-ups are the most effective tools for catching these giants. Spread
many as you can around an area depending on the regulations in your
Make sure to place them at least 30-40 feet apart. It will help you
area thoroughly, but it will also help avoid the problems that can
a 15-pound pike realizes it’s hooked.
High-quality, heavyweight line and wire leaders are a must. Without
benefit of a fishing rod to help wear down the fish, your line needs
strong enough to allow you to do battle hand-to-hand with the confidence
try and turn a big fish when necessary. And when you are fishing in
water, most of the fight will be carried out just beneath the ice,
means your line will be subject to all kinds of abuse from sharp and
A combination that has worked well for me starts with a backing of
Fireline followed by 20 feet of 30-pound test Berkley Trilene
XL, which offers the stretch (and the margin for error) needed to handle
ornery and unpredictable pike. Leaders should be at least nine inches
length and no less than 30-pound test.
Dead chubs, suckers and smelt are my top choices for bait. Chubs and
are natural to most of our river systems. Smelt aren’t quite as common,
I’ve found that pike like them just the same no matter where they live.
One advantage of dead bait is that it won’t bury itself in the vegetation
it makes an easy target for pike still slowed by the chill of icy water.
Think big, too. Small bait seems to catch small fish while an 8-inch
(or even larger where available) puts the real trophies on the ice.
One thing I try to avoid is allowing the fish to swallow the bait.
hooksets are dangerous to a pike’s health, and it’s especially important
release as many of the big females as possible. Seldom are they more
susceptible to anglers than during this brief late-ice period when
congregated and looking for an easy meal. You may even choose to keep
location of your best sloughs to yourself because a handful of hungry
can do some serious damage to the overall resource in a matter of days.
Unless you are fishing for a wall-hanger, the 5- or 6-pound males offer
better eating, anyway, and one or two of those will go a long way on
Quick-strike rigs with extremely sharp hooks will help prevent deep
I set mine up with two hooks -- a No. 4 VMC Barbarian treble at the
end of the wire
leader with a 5/0 VMC cone cut hook about four to five inches up the
leader. Bury the treble just behind the gill plate with the other hook
the dorsal fin. This should keep your bait in a somewhat horizontal
which makes it more natural-looking and appealing to the pike.
When the flag on a tip-up is tripped, don’t wait long to set the hook.
rather miss a fish than kill one unnecessarily by allowing it to swallow
bait. The quick-strike rig gives you an excellent chance for a hookset
anytime a pike has your bait in its mouth.
In general, I’ve found that by the time I get to a tip-up that’s been
tripped, it’s usually time to set the hook. Pick up the line and retrieve
slack, gradually tightening it. When you feel any weight or resistence,
firm yank should hook you up, especially if you use razor-sharp, premium
hooks like those manufactured by VMC. If you let the fish go any longer
30 seconds or so, you take the risk of it swallowing the bait.
Wrestling big pike through a hole in the ice is a challenge. It pays
holes in the 12-inch range or larger and wear a waterproof gripper
help handle the fish. Even at that, get ready for some breathtaking
Pike do have a way of getting an angler’s attention.
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