Ontario Northern Pike FishingPike Fishing Tips and Lodges
Go on the Deadbait Diet for Trophy Pike!
Most people’s New Year’s Resolution is losing twenty pounds. Once the ice is safe and the season opens, I’m normally out on the big bays and shoals trying to gain twenty pounds. Twenty pound-plus pike, that is. Early January produces more pike over 42 inches for me than all other months of the year combined. And I catch the majority of them fishing deadbait under tip-ups. If I was forced to fish one technique at any one single time of the year for a magnum pike, I’d leave the long rods and tackle boxes in the shed and the boat on the trailer. I’d be out there getting my hands smelly in January fishing ‘stiffs.’
Early ice is an extension of the late – fall / freeze – up feeding period for pike (my second choice for a giant is late, late fall for this reason). Fish are still moving, and when you’re tip-up fishing, traveling fish are the biters. Pike move a lot under the ice, more than people realize. Tip-up fishing is a lot more predictable and productive in areas where different fish filter through during the day. This could be a mile-long breakline rimming the edge of a bay, or a small access point leading into or out of deep water to a feeding station. (Many fishermen refer to this type of spot as a funnel). Just like walleye, laker or perch fishing, be prepared to cut a lot of holes and remember that if the fish are traveling, so should you. Move around on a specific spot, or check different spots on the lake if you’re using at ATV on snowmachine. Know where you’re going and the ice conditions before hand. First-ice is when the majority of accidents occur, and they are 100% avoidable with care. When in doubt, don’t go.
From lake to lake, you’ll need good knowledge of what baitfish are legal for bait. Only a mile or two between water bodies can make a dramatic difference on what you can or can’t fish with! Smelt, perch and lake herring are all excellent for deadbaiting big pike, but they all have places where they can’t be used, by law. A call during business hours to the local MNR detachment is the most direct and fool-proof way to avoid having your day ruined.
When I can legally use them, lake herring (ciscoes) and smelts are my favorites for big pike. They’ll leave an oil slick in your hole when you drop them down. They’re a high-scent presentation, which I’ve always felt is crucial in the dark water under the ice and snow. Pike have excellent olfactory receptors. Deadbaits with that oily, fishy stink are deadly, and usually the magic ingredient for a trophy lake. Smelts and ciscoes soften up a lot once they’ve been soaked, but continue milking out a heavy scent trail. Suckers, chubs and perch have tougher skin, and seem to hold together better, but don’t match the scent content of the open-water baitfish. Whichever bait you’re using, bring a lot, and change it up every couple hours. Re-freeze leftover deadbait. Coarse salt adds additional scent and it also toughens the bait’s exterior. The trophy pike waters I fish also have lakers, and heavily salted tubes and twisters catch more trout than plain ones. It makes a difference.
If your baitshop sells suckers and chubs, try to get the owner to set them aside for you. June, July and August are the toughest months for dealers to keep minnows (especially the larger ones) alive, and you can load up for winter deadbaiting with ‘tank kills’ at this time. Spring runs of suckers happen in several urban ditches and creeks too. You can get a year’s worth of bait with a few worms and a spinning rod. While they’re moist, layer them with salt in air-tight plastic bags, and freeze. Eight per pack is ideal for a day’s fishing, and it doesn’t crowd them. Label each bag, ‘Eight Inch Chubs,’ or ‘Twelve Inch Suckers’ and take a variety when you fish. Some days, pike will only take smelts. Other days, suckers or chubs get bit. A preference emerges more often than not.
For baits less than eight inches, one hook will work. You can use a treble or a single hook. Circle hooks are getting popular with pike fishermen who deadbait under floats in the spring as a live-release option. Just be aware that they require a real sense of timing, and you can gut-hook a pike easily with one.
No matter what style of hook you use, make sure the bait hangs perfectly horizontal, and always err on the side of setting on the fish too early rather than too late. For the smaller chubs, smelts and suckers, I use 1/0 or 2/0 Eagle Claw trebles and hook pike in the corner of the mouth of the roof nine out of ten times, and I hit them on the run all the time. Steady pressure is all it takes to sink a circle hook, there is no hook-set whatsoever. A couple smooth, hand over hand pulls will sink a treble every time. There’s no better feeling in the world than locking down on a line that’s ripping out, only to feel a forklift on the other end.
The big baits are best fished on tandem-hooked rigs, normally with one hook set in the back, and the other near the head. Clear this up with the MNR also. Ontario has very specific laws that define ‘lures’ based on the number of hook points they have. You might need to add a small spinner blade or twister tail you your wire harness, making it a ‘lure’ to be in compliance. Neither will do anything but enhance your rig, so that’s a good thing. I routinely use suckers and ciscoes over one pound, and have not found a pike big enough to shy away from them. Baits from fifteen to twenty inches are true giant killers, and first-ice is the time to show them around under the ice. I’m lucky to have a couple of excellent, year-round ciscoe fisheries that allow me to stock up on bait with a light spinning rod while working on my tan. They’re great sport in themselves.
Pike over the twenty pound mark can be landed and released easily using a set of 3/0 treble hooks or a 3/0 treble and 5/0 egg hook combination. Eagle Claw and Gamagatsu make some excellent hooks. They’re stiff, but also very sharp. With tandem hook rigs and oversized deadbait, you still don’t need big, clumsy hooks and rigging. Rig your bait to breakaway when you hit the fish by knicking it as lightly as you can before sending it down the hole. Every season I’m amazed at how well this type of set-up hooks and hold pike in the mouth for a good release. Most of the time, one of the hooks will get the pike and the other will be flopping around freely. I make all my own rigs with ninety pound coated wire and shrink tubing. Be extra careful hand-landing big fish with tandem hook rigs.
Wind-activated tip-ups add a new dimension to deadbaiting, adding motion to an already natural-looking and smelling package. HT’s Windlass is the original, and still unbeatable after a lot of years on the market. I fish with heavy Dacron and braided line from 36 to 80 pound test, and do all sorts of things to the unit to maximize its effectiveness. I bend and cup the fin and add extra metal to it to catch more wind. I weight the arms offset the weight of heavy, semi-frozen baits. Other tip-up styles and rigging all work as well. The Windlass is at its best when the holes aren’t freezing up too bad and when there’s a good breeze to work with. Frozen meat floats. I weight small baits with a nail or piece of coathanger wire, inserted into the vent, lengthwise. A pegged egg sinker from ¼ to 1 ounce butted up against the leader’s swivel gives good balance, especially when setting a wind tip-up’s arm from above. Pre-soaking large baits in water or inside a baggie in your breast pocket will make them sink slowly and hang properly. I store my wire harnesses on a chunk of foam. Just wrap them around and seal them in a plastic bag. A big fish will normally kink the wire, so carrying a good selection is a good idea.
I rank pike over twenty pounds every bit as highly as I do muskies over fifty inches. In my opinion, trophy pike are rarer and tougher to catch. Deadbaiting is a top technique for these special trophies. Handle the fish carefully, and always set the hook sooner than later. Big pike won’t toy around with a bait. They’ll blast it, and peel out the line hard and fast. There’s no need to wait. The bigger the fish, the more catastrophic their strike and initial run away from the hole. And don’t think for a minute that deadbaiting is only for trophy pike. I’ve caught walleyes over eight pounds and some big lake trout on stiffs, under tip-ups. This is always a welcome surprise. Use stout tackle, get a picture and let that fish go back. It’s amazing how quickly you can gain and drop twenty pounds in the New Year when you’re deadbaiting.
By J.P. Bushey