The Best Tips On How To Catch Northern Pike When Ice Fishing

by Julie | Last Updated:   April 11th, 2022
The Best Tips On How To Catch Northern Pike When Ice Fishing


Ice fishing is an incredible sport. It is unique and a totally different style of fishing than most people would be used to. Not only are the weather conditions far harsher considering you can only do this in the winter, but it takes more patience and different gear. Despite that, there are many anglers that love it once the early ice comes because it means the start of their season.

There are several different fish species that ice fishermen like to target. Though, you can really end up catching almost anything. To name a few of these target species there are Yellow Perch and Walleye which are excellent for eating and their flavor is at its peak when they’re caught through the ice. Then there are the different species of trout like Rainbow, Brown, and Lake Trout.

However, the one fish that can strike even a seasoned angler with a rush of excitement and adrenaline is the Northern Pike. Ice fishing season is, believe it or not, one of the best times to target big pike. They’ve fattened up to make it through the winter season, so they will be much bigger and thicker than they are in the warmer months. If you’re searching for your trophy northern pike, then ice fishing for it could be your best bet!

For all those experienced and new pike anglers, we are here to give you the best tips to catch more and bigger pike through the ice.

The Fundamentals To Catching Northern Pike

If you plan on targeting big pike through the ice or otherwise, then you should learn the fundamentals. Knowing the habitats, feeding behavior, and what baits to use when fishing for pike can make all the difference of whether or not you are successful. Especially when ice fishing because it is not as easy to move spots when you’re on hard water.

Northern Pike Feeding Behavior: Vision and Aggression

Northern Pike is an incredibly aggressive predator that preys on a large variety of other species, not all of which are other fish, and they are even known to prey on other pikes as well. The body of a pike is shaped like a torpedo, they are long and slim, perfectly designed for speed. They will lie in wait for their prey whether it be baitfish, small mammals, or even waterfowl, and once within striking distance, they use their speed and dagger-like teeth to incapacitate their prey.

Most anglers that are familiar with pike know how common it is to have one give chase and hit or bump your lure or bait multiple times. When pike hunt, they slash their prey with their teeth which actually possess an anticoagulant property that prevents the blood from clotting. This means they don’t need to latch onto their prey, but if they slash them with their teeth they’ll begin to bleed out and can’t escape.

This is why you want to exercise caution when you hold pike! You don’t want your hands anywhere near that mouth filled with dagger-like teeth!

The common technique when you feel a pike do this with your lure is to then immediately slow down your reeling and twitch your lure like it is an injured baitfish, and the pike will usually circle back to then take the bait and that’s when you hook them.

They have large eyes positioned forward on their head that lets them easily spot what is above them. They can easily spot movement and they are highly sensitive to baits that produce a flashing action. Utilizing their lateral line, they also seem to favor baits like spinnerbaits or buzzbaits that produce a throbbing or bubbling action as well.

Pike Hunt the Edges

The next thing to know is the kind of habitat they prefer to hunt in, and the areas they can typically be found. Even when the water has iced over, they can still be found around these habitats and kinds of structures. Just like the title of this section indicates: pike love the edges.

This means that some of the best places to find and catch them are on the edges of different habitats. If there is an area with a lot of weed beds then, you should fish the edges of them because Northern pike will often prowl there waiting for baitfish to swim out from the protection of weeds, or for a squirrel or mouse to swim across trying to get to shore.

They’ll also be found along the edges of rock piles, and shallow water drop-offs. Areas with sandy bottoms or carpeting of underwater grass are also excellent places to find pike. They are cool water fish and can be found at mid-level depths.

When and Where to Find Northern Pike Under the Ice

Early season you can find Northern pike in many of the similar areas as you would during the warmer months of summer. This may be surprising, but Northern pike are a hardy fish and shallow water and weed edges during early ice can be major hot spots. You just have to be familiar with the topography of the body of water you plan to fish so that you can locate these areas. Don’t be afraid to fish shallow early on because you may be surprised!

During late ice, the weed beds they may have occupied earlier on may not be so productive anymore as the weeds have died off and leech oxygen from the water. At this point, you’ll have more luck locating pike around drop-offs and rock piles, where they have likely followed the oxygenated cold water along with their prey species baitfish.

Strategies For Drilling Holes When Ice Fishing

Now that we have gone over the basics of Northern Pike and where you can find them through the ice or otherwise, the next step is to drill your holes for your jigging rods and tip-up set up. Northern pike is found in most lakes and rivers so you shouldn’t have to go far to find your ideal ice fishing spot.

If you’re targeting big pike, then you are going to want to set yourself up accordingly. How do you do this?

Well, you’re going to need to drill some ice holes, and big ones at that. While 5-inch holes are ideal for most other fish species and small fish like crappie and perch, this won’t do for trophy pike. You’re going to want an 8-inch hole that should be wide enough to even pull a 25 pounder through.

You don’t want to drill too small of a hole and then find yourself in the predicament that some other anglers have found themselves in: having a big pike on the line and they can’t even fit its head through the hole. So, they have to scurry to try and cut it or chip it bigger without losing the fish.

Next, you should have them set in and around areas of structure like we went over before. With tip-ups you can cover more ground and at varying depths, so you can find the sweet spot that the pike will be at. You’ll usually see ice anglers setting them up in a half or full circle, or a line.

Remember to use a topography map to help you, or if you have one of the special ice fishing fish finders that allow you to actually see and map the structure under the ice, can help!

Ice Fishing For Northern Pike; Tackle and Equipment

When it comes to catching pike, you want to make sure that you’re prepared. You’re going to need a strong line, hooks, the right jigging rod, and the right kind of bait to attract pike. We will provide a list below of the gear you will need to tackle those larger pikes.

  1. Tip-ups: If you prefer to use tip-ups then pretty much any kind that you find will do just fine for pike fishing. The only thing you’ll have to do is make sure they have strong enough lines and hooks on them.
  2. Jigging rods: Jigging is a little different, and you’re going to want a strong pole to target big pike with. An ideal ice fishing jigging rod for this should be between 28 and 36inches and have medium to heavy action. You want it to be sturdy, but still have some flex in the rod tip, and some sensitivity so you’ll know right away when a fish bites.
  3. Ice auger: This should go without saying, but you’ll need a way to cut your ice hole. When using an auger make sure that it will make an ice hole that is 8 inches or more so a larger pike can be easily pulled through.
  4. Line: Fluorocarbon line is a popular choice for ice fishing, but it isn’t the only choice. You can choose whichever line you prefer, but you should keep in mind the kind of water you will be fishing. If it is a shallower, dirtier lake then you could get away with a braided line. If it is deeper and clearer, then fluorocarbon or mono line is best. Either way, if you’re targeting big pike, then you’re going to want to have at least 20-pound test and up.
  5. Leader: Pike fishing often comes with the frustration of losing hooks, bait, and lures because their razor-sharp teeth easily cut the line. If you don’t have the hooked just right to prevent this from happening, then you’re in for a lot of aggravation. This is where leaders come in. They offer much more strength than your regular line, and steel leaders especially won’t be cut from the pike’s teeth. Using a good snap swivel at the end of the leader as well can be a huge help and convenience when changing lures or hooks.
  6. Hooks: Whether you are using treble hooks or single hooks, you’ll want to have size 6 for your bait. This is the ideal size hook for ice fishing pike.
  7. Bait: Live baitfish, dead bait, or lures are all good to use for northern pike. However, you want to attract pike by triggering their predatory instincts.
    1. Live bait can be a great option because the small fish will send out struggling signals, and if a pike is close by it will be drawn in by this obviously struggling bait that would make for an easy meal.
    2. Dead bait doesn’t give off the same signals, but the scent and blood in the water are likely to attract more fish other than just pike.
    3. Lures are the common choice for jigging and offer some diversity. There are jigging raps that have the motion of swimming in figure eight, spoons that flash and mimic minnows, and there are spinners that will flash and throb and you can even add a live bait to the hook for some extra flare.

What Depth Should You Ice Fish For Northern Pike?

Pike can be found at almost any depth, but it is surprisingly common to find them in shallow water, even just a few feet beneath the surface. So, when you’re ice fishing for pike being in a range of 15 to 20 feet is ideal. You’ll likely find a sweet spot in the water column within those depths where pike will be preying on a school of fish from below. Early ice will be the best time to go shallower than that though when the pike may be targeting slow-moving panfish that are still lingering there in the shallows.

Remember to run these depths around areas of structure whether it’s the edges of weed beds, drop-offs, rock piles, or humps. That will provide you with the best luck at catching your trophy pike through the ice.

Ice Fishing Techniques For Northern Pike

There are two different fishing techniques you can execute when targeting pike through the ice. They are fishing with tip-ups or fishing with a jigging rod set up. Though many anglers will use a combination of both of these techniques.

Now, let’s go into further detail so you can decide which one you’d be more interested to try, if not both.

Tip Ups

Tip-ups are a baited hand line that anchors over your drilled ice holes, and when a fish bites there is a flag that will fling up to let you know there’s a fish on. This technique is great for using live baits because they’re stationary. They are designed to just be set up and left there while you continue setting up more or warm up inside your shanty. They don’t require you to do any kind of handling until you see the flag is up and then you go reel it in. The live baits will do all the work for you as well on these to help attract pike and other species that may be around.

Tip-ups are very effective and can be used easily for big fish like northern pike. You can use them anywhere from the shallows on early ice to deeper water in mid-winter. One of the best things about using them is that you can set up multiple so you can cover more water and you can find the sweet spot in the water column at the right depth. You can adjust all your tip-ups to match that depth once you find it.

Fighting a larger fish like a northern pike on a hand line like a tip-up is an incredible experience that will surely hook most anglers that try it!

Jigging

Ice anglers that use tip-ups often use jigging rods as well, but not all those that use jigging poles use tip-ups. It is another great way to catch northern pike especially when you’re targeting them in a specific area. Though you’ll want to make sure you have the right rig when using this technique to catch big fish like pike.

A 28 to 36-inch jigging pole[ that is medium to heavy action is ideal for handling those big fish and can make reeling in smaller pike and other species a breeze. You may be more limited in your range and coverage when jigging, but if you get on a school, it can be the best way to catch fish. It will be faster and is most like what many anglers will be used to, just using a rod and reel. Though on a much smaller set up which adds a new sense of excitement and enjoyment if you’re fighting a large pike on it.

Being able to utilize lures and actively be fishing through the ice is just a great technique in general that can attract pike and other fish as well. If you want more big fish, then remember the bigger the bait the bigger the fish, so when you’re jigging for northern pike using large lures can make a difference! Once the ice thickens get out there and give it a try!

If you want to catch even more northern pike then combining these two techniques will surely help you to catch more fish and find that big pike you’re waiting for.

Choosing The Best Pike Waters To Fish

Northern pike can be found in a wide range of waters from slow-moving streams and rivers (which make them a fun catch when fly fishing), shallow waters with weed beds, big natural lakes, reservoirs, and just clear, rocky, cooler waters. They ambush prey by sight so waters that give them places like weed beds and weed edges allow them to lie in wait, and the clearer water ensures they can target their prey.

They are cool water fish that will move between depths going from very shallow areas to deep water. So, if you want to go ice fishing for big pike, finding waterways with these attributes and the structures necessary for a pike will bring you the most luck.

Final Thoughts & Takeaways

Ice fishing is an incredible sport that will get you out and about during the winter, and it will keep avid anglers out of that fishing lull that can strike at this time of year. Instead of counting the days until spring and summer to go fishing again, get out on the ice and catch some fish!

Northern pike anglers especially should give it a try because catching huge pike through the ice is a well-known thing. This is the time when you just might be able to get that trophy pike you’ve been looking for. At this time they will have some of their most vibrant colors, and be the thickest and fattest that you may have ever seen them. So much so that they won’t even fit through an average ice hole, so make sure you drill one big enough!

Frequently Asked Questions

How deep do you ice fish for pike?

You can find the sweet spot in the water column that the pike will usually hang out at in between the 15 to 20-foot range. During early ice, they may be found shallower than that. When fishing at these depths also make sure you are around structures that the pike prefers because that will be your best way to find them. Using a topo map or fish finder can help you with this.

If you aren’t sure of the best depth to start at, then you can use your tip-ups to find out. You can set them all at a different range from 12 to 15 to 20 feet and see which ones will start to give you the most action and catch fish so you’ll know the ideal depth.

What bait do you use for pike ice fishing?

You can use a range of lures for when you are jigging. Just use large lures because that is what the big pike will prefer. Things like spoons, spinners, jigging raps, and more will help to attract more pike. Using live bait is also common and a great way to catch more fish too. You can buy bait at your local bait shop and while you’re there you as about how the ice fishing has been, and what other anglers have been having the most luck with. Live bait is always good because not much can beat the real thing and that could be what it takes to bring in the big one.

Where do big pike hang out in winter?

Surprisingly, much in the same places that they would normally be in during the warmer months. Pike are ambush predators so they prefer areas of structure, especially edges. In the early season, you can find them around weed edges and weed beds before they completely die off and leech more oxygen from the water. However, you can find them on the edges of drop-offs, humps, rock piles, pilings, sunken trees, or islands.

I was fishing before I could walk and it's been a family tradition for centuries. Fishing is my life, or at least as long as I can remember. In the Lake Champlain International Fathers Day Fishing Derby, not only have I won first place twice but also third place! Also, in addition to majoring in Wilderness Recreation Leadership, I also happen to be a licensed camping, hiking, and hunting guide for NY.