How To Ice Fish For Pike (Complete Guide)
UPDATED 18 MAY 2023
by Robert Ceran
Northern pike are among the most popular fish caught during ice fishing season, and every winter thousands of ice anglers target these aggressive predators through the ice.
Since pike are coldwater fish, they remain active during the cold season and actively feed during the whole winter, in order to build strength for their spawning season in spring.
Because of this, they are an ideal species to target during the hard water season.
In this guide we’ll go over the most important aspects of pike ice fishing. We’ll cover how to find pike under the ice, as well as the best setup, strategies, and baits to catch them through the ice.
Pike ice fishing rod and reel setup
If you’re planning to catch northern pike through the ice with a rod and reel, it’s important to choose a sufficiently strong setup to handle big pike that fight hard after being hooked.
Here is a list of the components you need for an ice fishing rod and reel setup for pike:
- Rod: 36 inch medium or heavy power ice rod
- Reel: 2000 size spinning reel
- Main line: 20 lb test braid
- Leader: 2 foot wire leader (or 60 lb test fluorocarbon)
- Hook size: #6 (either treble or single)
When it comes to northern pike ice fishing, you shouldn’t make the mistake of using a rod and reel combination that’s too light, as they are among the biggest species caught through the ice, and put up a hard fight even in cold water.
On top of that, they also have a mouth full of razor sharp teeth that can easily cut a thin fishing line, which is why you need to use a suitable leader.
Traditionally, pike anglers almost always used a metal leader, since this can’t be cut by pike teeth, and thus helps to avoid losing fish.
However, a wire leader comes with the disadvantage of being more visible to the fish, and many anglers nowadays prefer to use a 50 to 80 lb test fluorocarbon leader, which can produce more bites.
Check out our section below about rigging for more details on the best leader setup to use.
Where to find pike ice fishing
Just like any other type of ice fishing, the first hurdle you need to master in order to catch northern pike through the ice is finding them.
And just like other species, the ideal locations to find pike are different during early, mid, and late winter.
During early ice, you’ll find northern pike in similar locations where they were feeding during the fall.
These are often relatively shallow weed flats, or underwater structures that are adjacent to weed flats (such as shore points, drop offs, or river channels).
You can catch northern pike right in the middle of the weeds, but in most cases you’ll get better results if you target the edge zones and structures adjacent to the weeds.
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll catch bigger pike outside of the weed beds, and smaller ones inside them.
During mid winter, pike retreat to deeper water and tend to hold close to reefs, humps, and hills in deeper lake basins.
The best way to find them at this time is by looking for schools of baitfish. If you find the prey, you’ll find the pike.
Finally, during late ice, pike start moving towards their spawning grounds located in shallow, weedy coves and bays, and you can find them close to these locations, often staging in slightly deeper water.
They feed very actively at this time, in order to build up their strength for the spawn, and this is a great opportunity to catch trophy size fish.
In general, if you don’t get any bites (or see any other evidence of pike activity) during the first hour or two of fishing, it’s best to move to a different location.
Using a lake contour map to find pike ice fishing
Nowadays it’s possible to get a highly detailed lake map for most lakes in North America, and you can use this to your advantage to find ideal underwater structures to target, especially when used in combination with GPS.
Look for reefs, drop off zones between weed flats and deeper water, as well as underwater humps or hills. And if you find northern pike, make sure to create a waypoint on your map for future reference.
Finding pike ice fishing with sonar and underwater cameras
If you have an ice fishing fish finder, that will also help you to find promising structures and concentrations of baitfish, and you’ll even be able to spot pike directly on your display.
The best strategy is to start with a lake map, and then to scout out specific locations with your sonar. You want to see at least a decent amount of small fish before you commit to fishing in a particular spot.
An even better tool to use for this is an underwater camera for fishing, which is perfect for ice fishing, since you can lower it straight down into your ice hole, and then rotate it 360 degrees to see if you spot any northerns in the area.
What depth should you ice fish for pike?
If you’re fishing in shallow water under 20 feet deep, the best all around depth to target is in the middle of the water column, right between the bottom and the surface.
Since the eyes of pike are positioned on top of their heads, they tend to look upwards in the water column, and a bait presentation in mid-water will attract pike both from the bottom and the middle layer of the water column.
That being said, you can catch pike at all depths in winter, and sometimes will get the best results just a couple of feet below the ice, and at other times you’ll catch more fish close to the bottom.
Which depth is best on any given day depends on where the pike are hunting their prey, and you’ll need to figure this out with testing and observation.
If you’re fishing in deeper water over 20 feet deep, it’s harder to choose the right depth, since pike are known to hunt in all layers of the water column.
Your best bet is to determine the depth at which baitfish schools are holding, and then to target the same depth to target those deepwater pike.
Ice fishing techniques for pike
The two best techniques to catch pike through the ice are:
- Tip up fishing
Tip ups are baited hand lines that are set up with a flag that pops up when you get a bite, and after setting them up you can observe from a distance while waiting for a bite.
Jigging, on the other hand, relies on actively fishing with an ice rod, and jigging lures up and down in the water column.
Both of these tactics come with their own pros and cons, and the best option is often to use both of them in parallel.
Tip up fishing for pike
There can be no doubt that ice fishing with tip ups is by far the most productive method to catch northern pike in winter.
Given the right conditions you can catch a dozen pike in a single day with tip ups.
The reason for this is that you can set up multiple lines to cover more water and thereby increase the odds of catching more fish.
So if you want to maximize your chances of catching pike, the best strategy is to set up a bunch of tip ups.
Some anglers even set up more than 10 tips, but you need to keep in mind that every state and every fishery has different rules on this.
So make sure to check your local rules first, to make sure you’re compliant with the law.
The best way to deploy tip ups is to identify promising underwater structure (such as a drop-off), and then to set up a series of tip ups along that structure, covering slightly different locations and depths.
This also allows you to experiment with different baits to see what works best on any particular day.
For more details on this topic, check out our complete guide on tip up fishing for pike.
Jigging for pike
While tip up fishing produces more fish on average than jigging, many anglers feel that catching a big northern pike is more fun on a rod and reel.
And indeed, northerns are among the strongest freshwater fighters, and there’s nothing quite like the thrill of feeling a 20+ pound pike pulling your rod tip down into the ice hole, while it peels off 15 yards of line from your reel.
Another thing that makes jigging for pike under the ice so much fun is being able to combine it with a flasher or an underwater camera, which allows you to see when a northern approaches your lure just before it bites.
Watching a big fish marking your lure is “video game fishing” at its best.
Pike grow bigger than most other fish species caught through the ice, and the bigger they get, the more they prefer to hunt larger prey.
This makes perfect sense, since they have to expend the same amount of energy to catch either a small or a large fish, but the large one provides more nutrition.
So if you want to target pike through the ice with jigging, it’s important to use large lures, such as 3 to 4 inch spoons, or the largest size jigging raps or slab raps that you can find.
The bigger the pike you want to target, the bigger your lure should be. For more details on choosing the right lures, check out our article on the best lures for pike ice fishing.
What is the best bait for pike ice fishing?
The best bait for pike ice fishing are baitfish, either live or dead.
While big lures jigged through the ice also produce plenty of bites, they are not as effective as baitfish.
If you can’t get live bait fish, keep in mind that pike are very happy to eat dead fish, especially in winter. And actually, dead bait can sometimes outperform live bait for pike ice fishing.
When it comes to live bait, the most commonly used species are suckers, shiners, and panfish (though the latter are not allowed as baitfish in all states).
These species can also be used as dead bait, but in addition experiment with oily fish as dead bait, as they produce a lot of scent in the water that attracts pikes.
Popular species of oily fish to use as dead bait include smelt, ciscoes, herring and tullibees.
If you use these species, try to make sure that they are fresh, and avoid ones that have been frozen.
Both their scent and their silvery colors are much more intense in fresh fish, making them much more effective at attracting northern pike.
As already mentioned, pike prefer large meals, and so you should use larger baitfish to catch them than you would for other species (such as walleye).
Don’t hesitate to put a 10 inch sucker on the hook, and if you use frozen dead bait, you can go even bigger than that.
Remember the old angling proverb: the bigger the bait, the bigger the pike.
How to attract pike while ice fishing
The best way to attract pike under the ice is by actively jigging big, flashy lures in the middle of the water column.
Great lure types to use for this tactic are big metal spoons that wobble erratically when you lower them in the water column, and thus reflect flashes of light in all directions.
This approach works very well to attract nearby pike, and calls them in to investigate your lure, and you can usually see this on your flasher or underwater camera.
However, in some cases they’ll just sit there, staring at your lure without committing to eating it.
If you notice that happening, quickly change your lure to a jigging swimbait (such as the Rappala jigging rap), and lower that down instead. In many cases, this is enough to trigger a strike.
Another great tactic is to combine active jigging with tip up fishing. To do this, set up several tip ups with live or dead bait, and then position yourself at an ice hole between your tip ups to attract pike with a bright, flashy spoon.
When they come in closer to investigate, they’ll also notice the bait on your tip ups, which increases the chances of catching more fish.
Best time of day to catch pike with ice fishing
The best time of day to catch pike under the ice is between early morning and early afternoon, with a peak around midday. Pike are visual hunters, and are most active when there is at least some light under the ice.
And especially if there is snow covering the ice, the waters underneath are going to be very dimly lit most of the time, so it’s best to make use of the brightest light conditions around midday.
In contrast to walleye (which have a higher feeding activity at night), pike hunt mostly during the hours of daylight. While you can sometimes catch them during the night, you’ll get the best results during the day.
How to target big pike through the ice
Ice fishing regularly produces trophy pike, which is why some anglers specialize in targeting big pike through the ice. The right way to do this can be broken down into two key steps: i) finding big pike, and ii) using the best strategy to catch them.
Where to find big pike ice fishing
The best locations to find big pike are big natural lakes like Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, and Devil’s Lake in North Dakota, as well as big reservoirs on the Missouri river.
These fisheries provide the right conditions for pike to live longer than 10 years, and to find suitable forage at all stages of their lifecycle. As a result, anglers regularly catch pike over 20 pounds in these fisheries.
The best tactics for big pike ice fishing
Tip up fishing has generated more trophy northern pike than all other ice fishing techniques combined.
It is by far the best technique for targeting big pike, since it allows you to set up multiple tip ups baited with extra large baitfish, and enables you to test a range of different depths.
When using tip ups, try to use baitfish that are at least 10 inches long, as this will produce bites from the bigger northerns, while avoiding the smaller ones under 6 pounds.
If you can’t (or don’t want to) use tip ups, you can also set up a deadstick rod with a big baitfish.
If you want to try this setup, make sure to use a baitrunner spinning reel, as a pike will often swim 10 to 15 yards after grabbing the bait, and a big pike can easily end up pulling your rod into the water if your reel doesn’t release line easily.
When targeting big pike, it’s usually best to fish in deeper water than you would for smaller pike, but choose locations that are next to shallower flats with lots of baitfish.
Two good examples of this are the channel of a tributary creek that flows into a shallow bay, or an underwater drop-off zone next to a weed flat.
In the interest of conservation, a good practice is to release all the big pike as quickly as possible, and only keep the smaller ones under 6 pounds if you plan to eat them.
Ice fishing pike rigs
The most important rig for pike ice fishing is the quick strike rig, which consists of a wire leader with two hooks that are about 3 to 5 inches apart. One of the hooks is attached to the head of a dead baitfish, while the second one is attached to the tail region.
This setup helps to position the baitfish horizontally in the water, which is very important when using dead bait.
Many years of experience have shown that northern pike don’t like to eat dead bait that’s positioned vertically in the water (probably because that looks unnatural to them).
While you can also use a quick strike rig for live baitfish, a better option is to use a wire leader with a single hook, and to hook the bait fish just underneath its dorsal fin.
This gives the bait more freedom of movement, which in turn helps to attract northern pike.
While both live bait and dead bait rigs for pike ice fishing were traditionally made with a metal leader (to avoid being cut by sharp pike teeth), many ice anglers nowadays prefer to use 50 to 80 lb test fluorocarbon instead, since this has much lower visibility underwater.
Fluorocarbon is also more supple, which gives your baitfish more freedom to move around.
But if you choose this option, just be aware that it doesn’t protect you 100% from getting your leader cut by pike teeth.
In many fisheries, northern pike are the largest game fish you can catch through the ice, making them among the most exciting species to target with ice fishing.
If you take up the pursuit of these aggressive and beautiful predators, you might find yourself just as hooked on pike ice fishing as I am.