Hunting Hardwater Wolves
Hunting Hardwater Wolves
By Noel Vick with On Ice Tour
On Ice Tour and Chip Leer
They lurk beneath the surface of a frozen lake. Cruising a well-defined weedline with reckless abandon, seeking out prey, exploding like a freight train.
This is Esox Lucious, a fish with a hefty appetite and bad attitude. Northern pike are the kings of the underwater domain, posing a challenge to anyone or anything that dares to enter it. This is their world. Those of us who invade it can only hope to be prepared. Big pike seem to welcome the opportunity of going toe-to-toe with even seasoned ice anglers.
There are several keys to consistently pulling big hardwater pike. While finding a spot with small pike is relatively easy, big pike follow a different drummer. They are a unique animal, possessing a mean streak, shoulders, and brute strength matched by few others. It’s those 15 and 20-pounders we covet, and they live in very specific quarters.
Selecting the right body of water is job one. The right combination of lake characteristics usually guarantees numbers of big northern pike, not just the occasional giant.
Fertility is key. Fisheries rich with weed growth and the right forage base are rookeries for big pike. A healthy population of ciscoes, perch, tullibee, whitefish, shiners, and even trout provide the proper base for growing chunky northern pike. Thick beds of cabbage, coontail, or milfoil provide ideal ambush points for these scrappy critters. Even during the winter months, when most greenery lies down, big pike still relate to weeded zones. It’s their natural setting, a comfort zone of sorts.
Outlets are another piece of the puzzle. If big females don’t have a place to propagate in the spring and spawn, you won’t find a stable population of trophy-caliber pike.
The consummate big pike lake often carries all the aforementioned qualities. Skip one, and you might be wasting your time. These bodies of water usually come with a well-deserved reputation for producing numbers of big northern pike. Isolate these lakes and you’ve won half the battle.
With the right type of fishery in your back pocket, it’s time to go to work…
Finding the right weeds is paramount. During the winter months, look for shallow weeds, ones sprouting in less than 15 feet but still adjacent to deepwater. Offshore depths often harbor schools of suspended tullibee, whitefish or other high calorie forage. Pike will sneak out of their shallow, vegetated surroundings for a quick meal, and then return to their vegetated safe haven.
Defined weedlines along breaks are ideal, so are weed covered flats and sunken islands that sit higher than surrounding waters. Be careful not to stray too far off the edges, because pike like the security of cover and tend to stay close to home.
Take time to find the outside weededge and don’t overlook the inside edge either, especially if pike seemingly disappear during the day. Pockets inside the main weed flat can also be lethal. If depth varies across the flat, work the deeper holes. One or two foot depth variations on a shallow weed flat can make a huge difference.
Weedy bays also tend to hold big pike, but don’t waste your time in those slop-covered bays that you shot ducks over during the fall. Rather, look for bays sporting established milfoil or cabbage beds in at least 5 to 8-feet of water.
Tracking down huge pike requires speed and efficiency, so approach these areas with a “got to hit them now” attitude. And travel well-equipped. Uncovering weededges and pockets can be done quickly with the aid of a handheld sonar unit like StrikeMaster’s PolarVision, which shoots directly through the ice.
Once you find these areas, drill a few holes, and with an underwater camera, look for the richest greens and tallest weededges. Aqua Vu’s new Smart-Vu underwater viewing system makes this process much easier by using compass characters to tell you what direction the camera is facing.
Pike are aggressive by nature so it shouldn’t take long to determine if big fish are present. Don’t waste a lot of time in one area – start hunting. ON ICE TOUR searches often involve several people, but even with a small group, we blast tons of holes. The drilling process is sped up dramatically with StrikeMaster’s new Lazer Mag Ultra. Spread the holes out; fish as many lines as you can mind, and the law affords.
The best presentational approach strikes with a one, two punch. Fire both barrels – a setline and a heavy jigging rod and reel combination. The Finicky Fish Factory – an enclosed, heated, jigging unit – is ideal for setline purposes. Strategically place the black boxes throughout the targeted range. Rig each with a large sucker minnow or dead smelt. Don’t be shy about minnow size either; bigger is usually better.
With the Finicky’s in place, it’s time to get nasty with a jigging stick. A stout baitcast style rod with a full-featured reel is of the utmost importance. Consider Berkley’s 36-inch Lightning Rod with an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur model 4600C3 spooled with 20-lb test Fireline.
We’re just guests in their world, and unwanted guests at that. But even fish with an attitude can be tamed. And don’t be a bucket-sitter with the jigging rod. Jump from hole to hole. Give it a little effort; your work will be rewarded.
Lure choice? Mix it up and have everyone fish different baits. Put one guy on a bucktail jig; another with a spoon with rattles; someone else using a winged swimming jig. I’ll start with Northland’s Airplane while Tommy works a System’s Flyer. Dress your pike jigs with three to five inch sucker minnows. When the fish show preference, switch the rest of the group to that lure until the action slows, and then mix it up again.
ON ICE TOUR pros frequently use three to five slow, large, and dramatic lift and fall sequences. This allows the gliding jig to descend in a semi-circle, often producing explosive strikes. Pause for a few a few seconds and do it again. Hold on tight, though, because pike can embarrass you.
An ice rod absorbing the fight with no other anglers in sight… Others have no idea what they’re missing. Should we tell them? I don’t think so. Some of the greatest thrills in life, such as battling monster northern pike through the ice, can’t be explained, instead, need to be experienced.