Tips for Catching Northern Pike in Winter

Found in Michigan’s inland lakes and the coastal lips of our Great Lakes bays, Northern Pike are an exciting species to target in the arctic stillness of February.

The Esox lucius. Even the scientific name has a ring of insidiousness. Aggressive, lithe, deadly—a predator. More commonly referred to as Northern Pike, these svelte aggressors are one species whose temperament does not diminish with dropping mercury and the groan of hardening ice. Taken through a variety of means ranging from tip-ups, jigging and even the Melvillian hucking of a spear, Northern Pike are an exciting and challenging target for midwinter ice fishing.

Perhaps the most popular method of capture is the tip-up. Relatively inexpensive and intuitive, the tip-up relies on live bait connected by mono (or braided line) to a drag-free spool that tips off the flag when line is pulled out. (Hence the term: tip-up.) This is also one of the most effective ways to cover a broad swath of water as each angler may legally have three lines/tip-ups out at a time.

The type of live bait often depends on the lake and personal preference with blue shiners, goldens and sucker minnows being the most popular. Run the treble hook just behind the dorsal fin or through the nose and drop it into the hole about 3–4 feet under the ice. Target weed beds and canals in 6–15 feet of water to entice patrolling pike. Once a flag goes off, wait for the spool to stop spinning, gently remove the tip-up from the hole, and pull the line by hand until you feel tension. Give a firm hook set and then haul in the toothy behemoth by hand.

Active anglers can also try their hand at jigging with sucker minnows. Similar to jigging for panfish, this method utilizes heavier tackle, with medium action rods measuring around 28 inches or longer spooled with 6–8 pound monofilament. Utilize bait hooks such as the Gamakatsu size 6 to hook sucker minnows and let them sink below the ice. Give the rod sharp jerks and then pause to animate the minnow. If and when a wolfish pike chomps down on your offering, rather than hitting with an instant hook set, open the bail to allow the fish to better consume the bait. After taking some line, close the bail, reel up the slack, set the hook and the fight is on!

Pike fishing through the ice is also a terrific communal activity. After setting lines, stake out a central location, cook hotdogs on a camp stove, imbibe in some cold beverages and patiently await the excitement of watching a tip-up flag go off. Take turns hand-lining these svelte predators until like a mirage their menacing mandibles appear in the hole. Slip a hand under the gill plate or snag with a gaff hook if it’s a real leviathan. Keep fingers away from the mouth beset with razor teeth and have a pair of pliers handy to remove hooks and bait. Northern Pikes must be over 24 inches with a daily possession limit of two. However, some lakes allow up to five of any size with only one topping 24 inches or more. Read up at michigan.gov/dnr.

Andrew VanDrie writes from Traverse City. [email protected]


Northern Michigan Fishing