Ontario Ice Fishing

Dead-Bait Tactics for Hardwater Pike
By Justin Hoffman

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Snow-covered landscapes and frozen bodies of water have a deliberate way of changing a pike anglers' methods and routines. Gone are the oversized spinnerbaits, cranks and spoons - the familiar tools of warm weather fishing - and out come the tip ups and quick strike rigs. Match these up with a variety of dead baits, and you'll be well on your way to a season full of cold days and red-hot northern pike.

The Intricacies of Bait
Dead bait is the preferred tool when chasing winter pike. They represent a large, stationary profile to a hungry fish, triggering instinctive strikes from these freshwater predators. They also provides the perfect scent and taste attributes to attract fish, leaving a magnetic trail washing in the water and arousing their senses. Add to that how easy they are to handle, store and rig, and you've got yourself a definite winner. (Besides, what's better than Mother Nature when it comes to catching fish?)

For choosing dead bait, a number of criteria should be considered. Smelt, herring, sardine and sucker all make excellent choices (please check local regulations before using), and can be purchased either fresh or frozen from most grocery stores. Suckers can also be caught from local streams or rivers, and put directly in the freezer until needed.

Choose bait between six and nine-inches in length, as this seems to be the preferred size for pike, especially during the winter months. I prefer my baits to be slightly frozen when hitting the ice, as it allows for easier rigging and manipulation of the bait.

The Rig
A quick strike rig provides the perfect presentation when using dead bait. It allows for a single hook to be placed through the lips, while a treble hook is lightly skewered on the upper back side, toward the tail end. (see photo)

When a pike swims with a bait, turning it around to swallow after a short run, the hooks will usually find a secure place at the front of the mouth on the ensuing hookset. A No. 1 single hook coupled with a No. 4 treble works well in most situations.

Quick strike rigs can be purchased from tackle retailers, or designed by oneself. It can actually make for a rewarding hobby leading up to the season, and is inexpensive to get into.

Tip Up Choice
In order to present dead bait, a high quality tip up is needed. Regardless of the style you choose, reliance on Dacron or tip up line, in 30 to 50-pound test strength is your best bet. I prefer a black coloured line, as it is easier to see against the snow and ice, especially when handlining fish in.

Smooth drags are also imperative when chasing pike, due to the length of runs and the speed that they can achieve. Make sure that it can run freely, with no hesitation at all.

I rely on three models of tip ups when heading out on the ice for pike - The Original Polar Tip-Up, the Polar Therm Tip-Up and the Windlass Tip-Up, all manufactured by HT Enterprises. Which I use is dependent on weather conditions, and my perceived activity of the fish. If temperatures are very cold, and the risk of holes freezing is severe, the Polar Therm gets the nod. This style will insulate your hole, alleviating any freezing issues, with the spool hidden under the water. If temperatures are warm and fish are aggressive, the Original Polar would be my choice. And lastly, if there is a slight breeze and the fish have taken on lockjaw, the Windlass provides the necessary and attractive action to trigger those strikes.

The trip mechanisms are smooth on these units, and can be adjusted for varying degrees of release, making them ideal choices when dealing with weighty dead bait.  Whichever tip up design you choose, make sure the spool is filled to capacity, especially if deeper water is part of your gameplan.

Setting Up Shop
Northern pike turn on come winter, with the first ice period often bringing your best chance for steady action. Typical locational spots often depend on the body of water, but include shallow and deep weedlines, rivermouths, breaklines and flats. Pike will target these areas in one of two ways - in a patrolling, active feeding mode, or sulking near bottom while waiting for prey to stumble by.

Pike are typically more aggressive when the sun is shining, and mid-morning to late afternoon will usually see them in their hungriest disposition. Cover a variety of areas with your tip ups when beginning the day, from water as shallow as five-feet upwards of 30-feet (if applicable). What you are searching for are active fish, and once found, they will give you an idea of the precise areas to target.

Bait placement can also be paramount to your success. I prefer to suspend dead bait just off bottom, perhaps one to two feet at most. I find the majority of fish (especially when dealing with skinny water) cruise "belly to the bottom," giving bait presented in this manner the best chance for being seen. Using electronics, such as a Vexilar, can make the positioning of bait a breeze.

Before I place a dead bait rig in the hole, I always make a few slashes in the skin of the fish with a knife. This helps in releasing juices, and adds to the attraction factor of the bait itself. Although dead bait can last a long time under the water, rigging up fresh bait periodically throughout the day has often brought quick results.

Dead baiting for pike can really bring out the excitement once winter sets in. It is a simple technique that can provide ample enjoyment, with that chance for a true trophy fish always only a flag pop away.

Photos by Justin Hoffman