Ice fishing for northern pike can be a real challenge, trust me, I have been there myself. Over the years, I have tried out different methods with varying degrees of success. But one way of catching pike has become my absolute favorite.
So, what is the absolutely best way to ice fish fort northern pike? It is fishing with live or dead bait with 2 treble hooks and a wire leader, using a combination of a tip up and a medium to heavy ice fishing rod, where the tip up merely functions as a bite indicator. This gives you both the best bait presentation and perfect control over the fight.
This method is not only extremely effective and fun, it also allows you to catch the biggest of northern pike without any difficulty. Read this article if you want to find out how exactly to implement this ice fishing method.
Ice Fishing with Bait Fish Will Catch You More Pike
Most ice fishing is done using lures and spinning rods. Yes, this method is a fairly active and promising one, as you can cover a large area and will eventually locate the fish. But consider how many holes you might have to drill with your auger, before you get your first bite.
The conditions during winter can be extremely harsh and the more holes you are drilling, the lower your energy level is getting. I don’t know how many thousands of calories I have burned myself drilling countless holes, chasing a bite, and many times, not getting any during an entire day on the ice.
Then, I decided to switch my gear and implemented a totally new way of ice fishing, using live and dead bait fish. This technique not only saved me a lot of energy on each fishing trip, it also drastically increased the number of northern pike I was catching.
The secret lies in the pike’s activity and migratory patterns during winter. This fish actually moves around quite a lot, even in cold water, which stands in contrast to the common belief that most fish practically freeze up or become rather static in very cold water.
In fact, I have caught pike in one area of a lake, and only a few days later, I caught the exact same fish in a completely different part of that lake, which was several kilometers away!
This fact means two very important things to winter fishermen:
- No matter how many holes you drill during the day, you might still miss the pike each and every time, because they too keep moving around.
- If you want to attract pike that are located around the area you are fishing in, you will have to use attractive baits that will bring the fish to your rod, not the other way around. Bait fish, and especially live ones (if they are legal where you are fishing) are the perfect bait to attract northern pike in winter. But even dead bait fish are exquisite choices for winter pike; it’s all about the visual effect and the smell of the bait.
If you manage to make that mind switch, you are already on your way to pike success. Fish are the most natural bait you can present to pike, and especially in winter, this can make all the difference!
By the way, if you are unsure about U.S. regulations concerning fishing with live bait, check out this article I wrote: Is Fishing With Live Bait Illegal? (A State-By-State Guide)
Do not shy away from this slightly more passive way of fishing, as you will attract much more pike to your spot by using live or dead bait fish. Not only do they smell deliciously, they are also easy prey for slow winter pike. Do not forget that they try to preserve as much energy as possible as well.
Another great advantage of this ice fishing method is that you can spread out several rods all over the area you are fishing in. Personally, I like to fish with 4 rods, as this further improves your chances of catching, without the risk of sacrificing control.
More than 4 lines in the water can be difficult to manage, if you are starting to get more than one bite at once. Also, you would have to move around too many rods and drill too many new holes (once again: don’t forget to maintain a good energy level).
Now that we have covered the great benefits of this ice fishing technique, let’s move on to the actual set up.
Gear Tips for Ice Fishing with Rod and Bait Fish
A common ice spinning rod will not do the job here! Imagine fighting a 20 lbs pike through a very small hole in the ice with a light spinning rod, it just won’t work.
Instead, try using medium to heavy trout ice rods, they both have a really nice action and manage to control even the strongest of pikes. But do not go for rods that are all too stiff, as you only have a limited amount of space in that ice hole. The rod will have to manage to take some of the pike’s head shakes and escapes by itself, so it’ll have to have some softness to it!
A good medium size baitrunner is the reel of choice here. Baitrunner reels are perfect for live bait fishing, as you can simply disengage the gearing and let the fish run freely after it has taken the bait. This is especially crucial for fishing in very cold water, as the fish are more sensitive and do not like to feel any weight or resistance.
So, given the fact that your rod is rather short and does not weigh that much, a reel size of 2500 would be an optimal pick.
You can safely use both monofilament, braided or ice fishing lines, as long as you know how to ice fish the right way. The ice hole’s edges can be rather sharp and abrasion can be a serious issue. But do not fear, there is a simple trick that easily avoids any problems with abrasion.
Simply stick the rod tip into the fishing hole and fight off those crazy escapes with the rod tip beneath the ice. This way, they fish can move into any possible direction without your fishing line going over that sharp edge all the time.
Personally, I prefer ice fishing with monofilament and always use a line strength of at least 15 -18 lbs. If you are using braid, use a line strength of at least 25 lbs.
Leader and Hook
There is a huge variety of pike leaders and treble hooks out there. Simple and qualitative materials are usually the best choice, and they do not have to cost all that much!
You should use wire leaders over thicker fluorocarbon ones, as wire leaders give you a 100% security that the pike will not bite through it. Fluorocarbon leaders are fine in normal conditions, when the fish are more active, you get more bites and you can quickly switch leaders. For ice fishing though, go for the absolutely safest choice, which will always be wire.
Treble hooks should be a size 6 or 4, as well as very robust and sharp. They both have to penetrate the bait fish and anchor themselves well into the hard pike’s mouth.
Bonus Gear Tip: Fishing Chair
Spending an entire day on the ice can very very tiring, fish or no fish. Make sure you bring a light weight and comfortable fishing chair with you, in order to relax and/or sunbathe between bites.
How to Ice Fish for Pike with Rod and Bait Fish?
Now that you know what gear to use, let’s take a look at how you should fish with it, in order to catch northern pike on the ice.
Insider tip: Always drill big enough holes!
First of, you must drill your holes, which should be at least 8-10 inches. You do not want to end up hooking a fat giant, only to realize that you will not get it through the ice! I learned that the hard way myself, when I caught my first 20 pounder as a teenager.
When you have your holes ready, place your tip ups next to them. These will be completely “naked”, meaning that they will not have any fishing line or hooks, they merely serve as a rod holder and bite indicator.
Now it’s time to get fishing! Lower your line with your bait fish into the hole. As the fishing line will be directly above the bait fish, you will want to place the first treble hook in the fish’s back and the second one either at the root of the pectoral fin or in the mouth. This will give you the absolutely best bait presentation and the fish can move around rather freely.
Also, make sure you hook the fish not too deep and not too shallow! If the hooks are embedded too deeply into the fish, it will fatigue easily and possibly die. If it however is hooked too shallowly, it might unhook itself and swim off. Both cases can result in a “dead” fishing hole, until you check the rod.
When the fish is lowered, either make a loose loop in your line or use a rubber band around it, in order to hang your line onto the tip up (like you would do with the tip up ice fishing line). Then, simply place the rod next to the hole and lay it onto the empty tip up’s reel.
You now have a slightly elevated rod that points towards your fishing hole with a perfect bite indicator. The tip up will move up and down a little, due to the bait fish’s movements. That’s totally fine. When the line is released from the tip up and and it shoots up, it’s time to get running; you have a bite!
Insider tip: Use fishing bells for better indication!
Sometimes, the tip up indication is not enough; the bright snow or sunlight can make it hard to see, it is too far away to spot visually, or you simply doze off while waiting. Placing a pair of fishing bells onto the tip up will easily prevent that! Now, you have both a visual and an audio bite alarm!
What’s the Best Bait for Ice Fishing for Northern Pike?
If you are in Europe, the number one live bait fish to use for winter pike is definitely the roach. Roach have enough power and energy to be able to swim around lively for hours, without swimming off too far and taking line off your reel. They are also one of the pike’s most common prey.
If you are living in North America, the best live bait fish for northern pike would be shiners. Shiners come in all sizes and shapes and they are usually easy to come by as well. They too fit ice fishing for pike perfectly, as they too are quite resilient and much preferred by northern pike.
Insider tip: Check online for private bait fish sellers
No matter where you live and what kind of bait fish is available in your region, you can either try to catch them yourself in a river, lake or creek, or you simply buy them in a local fishing store or from a private seller. Check online platforms or forums, as there are usually many folks who store live bait at home and sell them for a decent price.
A good live bait size for ice fishing is anything between 3 and 6 inches. Too small fish will die off easily and won’t manage to have 2 trebles attached to them for long. Too big bait fish will simply cause you a lot of trouble and running, as they will take a lot of line off your reel and set off the bite indicator.
When it comes to dead bait, the absolutely best fish to use for winter pike are mackerel. This fish have a very strong scent to them and are super rich in protein. Take a mackerel and cut it in half, then use both ends as bait on your ice rod. I can tell you that it won’t take long before a hungry winter pike finds that mackerel sandwich!
How Often Should You Switch Locations When Ice Fishing?
As you are using several rods, you have the advantage of being able to cover a large area, even though you are fishing statically.
I have found that a good rule of thumb is to move one rod every 1-2 hours, if there is no action going on. This way, you are not completely abandoning you chosen area on the ice, but rather, you are expanding it!
Often, you will experience getting bites on one or two of your rods. You have simply picked the right spots for these right from the start, while your other rods are placed in areas with no fish around (at the moment). When that happens, try to move the “dead” rods closer to the “action” rods, as there can be more pike around those hot spots.
On the other hand, try to avoid covering many different areas on one day! You might be fishing in a bay area close to the shore and want to try out an area in deeper waters somewhere in the middle of the lake. Or you might be thinking of fishing the opposite shore line instead. Don’t do it! This will only fatigue you.
And besides, starting over in an entirely new area of a venue takes a lot of time. Keep to your chosen spot and focus on discovering it fully. Try out that remote fishing spot next time you are heading out instead!
How Deep Should You Ice Fish for Northern Pike?
Of course, this depends entirely on the actual depth of your chosen fishing spot. But generally, the shallower the water, the higher up the pikes are biting, and consequently, the deeper the water, the closer to the bottom the pike will be found.
When fishing in shallow bays or shore areas, try placing your bait fish fairly closely to the ice sheet. Due to the reduced space in such areas, this will improve bait visibility and movement.
If you re fishing in deeper waters, always try fishing close to the bottom first. But do not remain there, if the bites don’t come. Here, it can be all about experimenting with the entire range of depth. Depending on the conditions, pike can be found at any depth beneath the ice.
On some days, they can be close to the surface, while on others, they bite in middle water, somewhere between 10 to 20 feet down. And sometimes, they will be found only a few inches from the bottom.
Here, another advantage of using several rods makes itself apparent, as they allow you to test a wide range of different depths and then adjust your rods accordingly. Just do not be afraid to test different depths, always!
Related Pike Articles
If you want to learn more about the northern pike, you should also check out these articles:
- Northern Pike (Complete Species Guide With Pictures)
- Pike vs Musky (How to Tell Them Apart)
- Northern Pike Teeth Facts (With Pictures)
All images courtesy of Mattias Epperlein and Simon Kjaeldgaard-Greising
Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions regarding this fishing method, or ice fishing for northern pike in general.