Cold Water Pike 

 By Tim Shamess

Esox luscious. The Northern pike. The water wolf. Whatever the name, the attitude is the same; MEAN!

The cold and ice only seem to add to the pike's cranky personality; it dares you to try and yank it through a hole and pull it out of its turf. In the winter, pike are active and not as finicky as other species of fish; they will readily hit your bait and will fight like a bear when hooked. When it comes to ice fishing for pike, you don't have the advantage of using a boat to search the lake for the pike's favourite hiding spot, you need to go looking for them.

This is where topographic maps are handy. With a map you can check for any rocky points, rock piles, weed beds and shallow areas. Pay particular attention to any of  these areas with access to deeper water. Look for any river or stream inlets where pike might be able to find the forage they need to feed on over the winter months.

Ron R with a nice Northern
Ron R. with a Nice Northern

"The edges of weedbeds or any rocky points or rock piles are the places to look for winter pike, says long time pike angler, Craig Ruggles. "You don't want to be right in the thick of a weedbed."
As the water begins to cool, pike will begin to feed on whatever they can, and will continue to feed frantically until after the freeze up. As long as there is a healthy population of baitfish, the pike will have the food supply they need to get through the  winter months.

Early ice season pike can be found in shallow, weedy bays. The nice, lush weed beds of summer will be dying off and will have dropped to lower levels and thickness, but will still have pike cruising in the area. When you are out in your boat, enjoying the summer sun and fishing season, make a note of where you find thick weed beds. If the water is clear, a peek down your ice fishing hole may let you see if there are any weeds down below. Cabbage weeds, Milfoil and Coontail all provide the necessary cover for pike to forage for prey. Similarly, the smaller fish they feed on will be trying to hide from the foraging pike in the same weeds. Remember, pike feed by ambushing their prey, they need the cover of weed beds or structure to hide in.

"A common mistake many pike anglers make is to assume the weed beds will have died off completely in the winter," says tournament angler Kevin Laframboise. "There still may beenough weeds to give the pike the cover they need."

Early winter pike fishing is much like early spring, the pike will be in the shallows. A river or stream inlet into a weedy bay is my favourite starting point when searching out big Northerns. The river or stream inlet will have abundant plant life and bait fish for the pike to prey upon. If there is some flowing water, the area around the inlet should have a high level of oxygen; just the thing fish and plants need at this tough time of year. Try and keep the minimum water depth you fish around eight to 10 feet, any less and you are probably wasting your time.

By mid-winter, big pike will usually move to deeper water and will be less active; the weeds will not be as thick or may be virtually non-existent. A better place to look for big pike is along deep rocky points, or rock piles. However, do not rule out the weedy  bays just yet, if there is access to deeper water, larger pike may still hang around in these bays. I will still give the weedy bays a quick check, just in case. The access to deep water is the key, big female pike think ahead to the spring spawning season when they will need a shallow spawn area with access to a deep hiding spot. At this time of year I will set lines in deeper water, 20 to 30 feet of water, usually using a big smelt or minnow set a foot or two off of bottom.

It is not uncommon for the weedy bays to have a good population of smaller pike. When I took my youngest daughter ice fishing, I had visions of a bored 10- year- old wanting to go home and never wanting to ice fish again. Fortunately, a nice bay provided a steady stream of "hammer handles", just the thing to keep a kid excited and happy. As the winter continues on, oxygen levels tend to drop in many lakes and waterways. This is the time to head for deeper water. Pike activity will slow and they  tend to congregate together more, if you find one, you will probably find several. On Lake Manitouwabing, my partner and I had three pike on the ice in the first hour, the activity slowed right down for two or three hours and then picked up again.

Most of the areas I fish, each angler is allowed two lines in the water; check your regulations before you head out. With that in mind, I will set one line with a treble hook and a large minnow, sucker, or dead smelt. With a jigging set-up, I will use a large jigging spoon in another hole, my favourite set-up is to use a large William's Whitefish with a smelt or sucker tail attached to the treble hook. When the activity slows, I will try the William's Whitefish in several holes for short periods of time, to try and find where the pike are hiding.

Often I will rig a jigging set-up with small jig head, and a maggot or mealworm and I will try for smaller fish that a pike would be feeding on. Perch, crappie, rock bass or cisco are all fair game to a feeding pike. If you find a good population of these "feeder" fish, the big pike will not be far away.

Late in the season, as your thoughts are starting to turn to getting the boat ready for spring pike, the big female Northern pike will be starting to feed voraciously again, in anticipation of the spring spawning season. The females will start to hang around those deep holes close to the shallow, weedy bays you scouted out earlier in the season. Just before the ice break up, I head right into the shallow bays, especially if there is a deep hole or stream inlet nearby. Be sure the ice is safe at this time before you venture out onto the ice.

A little patience, a little leg work and being able to anticipate where the pike will be holding will often provide an exciting days fishing on the ice. The cold weather will barely be noticed as the excitement of testing your skills against the cranky cold season pike keeps you hoping.

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