Ice Fishing for Northern Pike, Tips to Succeed

Ice Fishing for Northern Pike

The subject of this article will be ice fishing for northern pike. Northern pike are one of the most popular freshwater species pursued by ice fishermen for several reasons. One, they grow very large and are one of the heaviest fish that can be taken through the ice. Two, they are a true coldwater species. This means that they remain active under the ice. Finally, they are much more aggressive than many other species that anglers catch through the ice.

Northern pike can be taken by anglers ice fishing with both artificial lures and live and frozen bait. Since pike generally prefer a larger meal, bigger baits such as jigs, spoons, and jigging plugs are the best choice for anglers who prefer to fish with artificial lures. These are generally worked more aggressively than when fishing for other species such as walleye. Pike are usually more active and comfortable in the cold water.

Anglers who would like to read more about ice fishing can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “A Complete Guide to Ice Fishing” by clicking on the title link.

Live and frozen minnows work very well for pike as well. These include but are not limited to suckers, shiners, and where legal panfish. Experienced anglers will often freeze their leftover live minnows and use as bait on the next trip. During very cold water when pike tend to slow down a bit, frozen baits can often be more productive as the pike does not have to chase them down.

ice fishing for northern pike

Ice fishing for northern pike; tackle and equipment

Many anglers ice fishing for northern pike do so with the rod and reel. Those that do need to beef the tackle up a bit as these fish grow quite large. Most anglers opt for 20 pound braided line when fishing in shelters. Many opt for 8 pound to 10 pound monofilament line when fishing in exposed weather as the line is just easier to manage.

Anglers can read more about ice fishing tackle and gear in the link to that article.

A leader of some sort is usually used. It can be either steel or fluorocarbon, depending on angler preference and conditions. Most anglers have gone away from steel leaders when fishing with lures as they have found that this results in more strikes. Some lures will be lost, but the trade-off is usually worth it. Anglers fishing tip ups with live or frozen bait will often stick with a wire leader.

Anglers can shop Amazon for  ice fishing rod and reel combos

pike fishing

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Many anglers ice fishing for northern pike use tip ups. In fact, more northern pike are landed by anglers using tip ups than all other species combined. Larger live and dead baits are usually the most productive baits for catching pike. This makes it a natural to use tip ups when pursuing them.

ice fishing for northern pike

Locating northern pike under the ice

Once located, northern pike are not all that difficult to get to bite in most instances. This is especially true early and late in the season when they are quite aggressive. The key to anglers ice fishing for northern pike having success is locating fish. This may sound obvious. However, understanding their migrations and movements is more important with pike than some other species.

ice fishing gear

Pike will be found very shallow early in the ice fishing season. As soon as there is enough safe ice to fish, anglers can find them in shallow water. Large weedy coves are excellent spots to try. It cannot be stressed enough however, that anglers need to put safety first and not venture out into ice that is too thin!

Forage species will still be present in shallow water early in the ice fishing season. This is the reason that northern pike will still be found there. Pike will feed on bluegill and other panfish, suckers, shiners, and other small fish. This bite will last until the water gets too cold and the bait fish move off into deeper water.

Weed edges where shallow grass beds drop off into deeper water are prime spots early in the ice fishing season. The same spots that produce northern pike for anglers fishing the open water just before the freeze should produce once the ice thickens up as well

Mid winter northern pike tactics

Many anglers ice fishing for northern pike choose to stop fishing for them mid winter when the bite slows down. However, persistent anglers will often find that this is when the largest fish are to be caught. It is more difficult to locate them and anglers must move around in search of northern pike.

Structure and depth changes are the key to locating large northern pike in midwinter. Main river channels and sloping points with significant drop-offs are prime spots. This is especially true if some type of cover such as boulders or fallen timber is present.

ice fish finder

Click to shop Amazon for an ice fishing fish finder

Deep holes are another prime spot for anglers ice fishing for northern pike. Deep holes will concentrate insect larvae. This will attract minnows which of course in turn will bring in the game fish species. Deep holes that have adjacent cover such as boulders and fallen timber are most certainly prime spots to ice fish for northern pike in the middle of winter.

While pike found in shallow water will often be caught in the middle of the water column, pike in deeper water are more likely to hug the bottom. The primary reason for this is that the structure is located there. Seldom will anglers find weed beds in water this deep. Therefore, pike will be relating to structure on the bottom.

Strategies for drilling holes

Successful anglers ice fishing for northern pike generally have a strategy in mind before heading out to the lake. Many do their homework on the lake before it freezes and use a quality GPS unit to mark likely ice fishing spots. Modern apps and websites can also provide anglers a wealth of knowledge and information.

ice fishing

The best approach is usually to drill holes in a grid or zigzag pattern, concentrating on depth changes and submerged cover such as weed beds, rock piles, and submerged timber. Once a productive depth is found, pike will normally be found in a similar depth throughout the lake. Anglers can then concentrate on that depth to maximize their results.

Choosing the best pike waters to fish

Anglers ice fishing for northern pike have a choice to make when choosing a lake. Some lakes are better when it comes to numbers and action, while others are known for producing trophy northern pike. Ideally, there is a lake that offers both. However, this is usually not the case. Experience, DNR reports, and information from local bait shops and anglers are great sources of information.

Northern pike are the ultimate ambush predator. This is one reason why weed beds are so productive. The northern pike’s camouflage allows them to easily blend in to submerged vegetation. However, this habit continues in deeper water as well. Seldom will northern pike be found in open water. They will almost always relate to some type of structure, be it a channel edge, drop off, deep weed bed, or submerged rock pile.

Steeply sloping points are natural spots for anglers ice fishing for northern pike. Anglers can cover several different steps and drop-offs with a minimal amount of holes. This obviously saves time and makes for more efficient fishing.

Ice fishing for northern pike; techniques

The two basic techniques that anglers use when ice fishing for northern pike are jigging with spoons and plugs and using tip ups. Tip ups give anglers the advantage of fishing multiple holes at one time. However, most areas do have laws limiting the number of tip ups per angler. Also, there can be limitations as to how far they are spaced apart. Many anglers still prefer to catch northern pike on a conventional ice fishing rod and an artificial lure.

Jigging for pike

Jigs, spoons, and plugs will all produce northern pike through the ice. As mentioned earlier, northern pike do prefer a larger meal. Therefore, baits in the 3 inch to 4 inch range generally work best. These are usually worked more aggressively as pike are quite active even in the cold water.

The best set up for using artificial lures for pike is a medium ice fishing spinning rod with 10 pound monofilament or fluorocarbon line or 20 pound braided line. In both cases a snap swivel is tied to the end of the line. Anglers using braided line will need a 3 feet piece of 20 pound fluorocarbon leader. A steel leader may also be used.

Once set up and ready to go, the angler drops the lure to the desired depth and begins jigging it sharply in 1 foot increments. This is done multiple times at a certain depth. Then, the lure is dropped another foot or so and the process repeated all the way to the bottom. Often times, especially in deep water, allowing the lure to sit on the bottom for a few moments before jigging again will draw strike. Pike will often watch the lure as it sits there motionless.

Many anglers also tip their artificial lures with a head, tail, or strip of dead bait. This can work very well when fish are less active. Jigs, spoons, and plugs can all be tipped with a piece of bait.

Best lures when ice fishing for northern pike

The list of top lures for anglers ice fishing for northern pike include jigs, spoons, and plugs. The Rapala Jigging Rap is the go to lure for anglers ice fishing with plugs. This legendary lure has been around a long time and still catches plenty of fish. Other productive plugs include the Chubby Darter and Live Target Golden Shiner.

Spoons are very effective lures for anglers ice fishing for northern pike. They are heavy which means they will get down in deep water quickly. Spoons also put off a lot of flash and vibration. Top spoons include the Kastmaster, Flutter Spoon, and Swedish Pimple, though there are plenty of other productive spoons out there as well. Anglers should choose spoons and plugs that resemble local forage. Yellow perch patterns are a good choice in many applications.

Many anglers ice fishing associate jigs with panfish and walleye. However, jigs will certainly produce northern pike as well. Anglers should go with larger sizes that are around 3 inches to 4 inches long. Top jigs include the Marmooska Jig and Bro Bug Jig.

Using tip ups for northern pike

A 4 inch to six-inch sucker on a treble hooks fished on a tip up rig has probably produced more northern pike than all other methods combined. It is simple, yet extremely effective. Pike are active and like larger, live baits. Tip ups allow anglers to fish multiple holes at one time, increasing their chances of success.

Anglers should have their tip ups rigged with a good coated line that is freeze resistant. This is most often quite heavy line. The line then goes through a 1/2 ounce sliding egg sinker, followed by a good snap swivel. The swivel stops the sinker and allows for easy leader changes. A 3 foot long 20 pound fluorocarbon leader and a #2/0 to #5/0 hook completes the rig. Anglers can use a wire leader, however it is a bit more cumbersome.

Live bait fish are most often used under tip ups. Suckers, fathead minnows, and shiners are the most common. However, local bait shops that cater to ice fishermen will offer other baits as well. Dead and frozen baits will certainly produce northern pike, too. Dead and cut baits can be productive when fish are bit lethargic and seemingly unwilling to chase down a larger, lively bait. Frozen herring and even mackerel are good dead baits for pike as well.

Combine tip ups and jigging for pike fishing success

One excellent strategy is to use both tip ups and artificial lures at once. Anglers will place a tip up rig with a lively minnow set a few feet off the bottom in a likely spot. If legal, another tip up or even several can be set. Then, anglers can proceed to use jigging rods at other holes to help locate pike.

Tip ups can be a great option for anglers with families and for novice ice fishermen. Kids can for around and play and then when they fly goes off the race is on to see who gets to the hole first! Also, more people usually means more tip ups that anglers are allowed to fish at one time.

In conclusion, this article on ice fishing for northern pike will help anglers catch more of these fantastic game fish!


Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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