Pike Ice Fishing With Tip Ups (Detailed Guide)

PUBLISHED 31 MAY 2021

by Bill Laney

Tip up fishing regularly produces more trophy northern pike during winter than any other ice fishing tactic, and pike are traditionally the most popular species caught with tip ups during ice fishing season. 

Here we’ll cover the basics of how to ice fish for pike with tip ups, as well as our best tips and tactics to catch more pike with this highly effective ice fishing method. 

How to rig a tip up for pike

First let’s talk about how to set up pike tip ups. Assuming that you already know the basics of tip up fishing (if you don’t, take a quick look at our ultimate guide on tip up fishing), the main questions we need to address are: what line and leader should you use, and what rig works best for targeting pike with tip ups?

Now let’s look at each of these topics in more detail.

Best tip up line for Pike

The best tip up line for Pike is 30 to 50 lb test Dacron braided line. Dacron is generally an ideal choice for tip up fishing, since it has more stretch than regular braid. This improves its coiling behavior, and allows line to be released from a tip up spool without resistance when a pike grabs your bait.

For regular sized pike (up to 15 pounds or so), 30 lb test Dacron is plenty strong, but if you’re expecting to hook some monsters north of 30 pounds, it’s better to go with 50 or 60 lb test Dacron.

Keep in mind that pike put up a hard fight, and when you’re fishing with tip ups, the line will chafe against the bottom edge of your ice fishing hole whenever a strong fish pulls on it. This is different from fishing with a rod and reel, where you can dip the tip of the rod into the ice hole to prevent line chafing. Also, in order to avoid the line cutting your hands, it’s best to wear gloves while fighting a big pike.

Tip up leaders for pike

Most anglers use metal leaders when targeting pike with tip ups, because the dense rows of sharp teeth in a pike mouth can easily end up cutting your fishing line if you’re using fluorocarbon or monofilament. By using a metal leader, you can prevent losing quality fish due to line breakage. 

In my experience, a tieable wire leader is best for this purpose, as it allows you to tie your own metal leaders, and choose custom hook sizes and spacing. Also, most store-bought metal leaders tend to have huge snap swivels at their end, making them highly conspicuous in the water. 

Tieable wire leaders are usually made of single strand titanium, which behaves almost like a monofilament line in terms of its stretch and coiling behavior, and this makes it easy to tie a hook or swivel onto it. It’s best to prepare a bunch of DIY metal leaders before you go out on the ice.

Metal vs fluorocarbon leader for pike tip ups

If you’re fishing in clear water (or if the local pike population regularly gets hammered with lots of fishing pressure), it’s likely that using a metal leader will produce fewer bites because it spooks the fish. In that case you can replace the metal leader with a 50 to 80 lb test fluorocarbon leader.

Fluorocarbon is generally more abrasion resistant than monofilament, and therefore has a good chance of surviving contact with sharp pike teeth. And while a fluorocarbon leader isn’t 100% safe from being cut by pike teeth, you should be able to land most of the fish you hook, and you will probably get a lot more bites, since fluorocarbon has low visibility underwater.

If you do decide to go with a fluorocarbon leader, remember to run your finger along the leader after every pike you catch, and check for small cuts, notches and rough patches. If you find any of these, swap out the rig with a fresh one, to avoid losing your next fish.

Quick strike rig for pike tip ups

The best rig to use for pike tip up fishing is a quick strike rig, which consists of two hooks spaced about 3 to 5 inches apart on a leader. One of the hooks is attached to the head of the bait fish, and the other one is attached either to the tail or the dorsal fin. Traditionally, quick strike rigs were made with a metal leader, but recently many anglers are tying their quick strike rigs with fluorocarbon.

The original quick strike setup consisted of two treble hooks, but some anglers prefer to use a single hook as the back hook (the one that is attached to the tail or dorsal fin). This is because pike usually swallow their prey head first, and as a result they are almost always hooked only by the front hook. And when you try to pull a pike through an ice hole, the back hook of the quick strike rig can get caught on the bottom edge of the ice hole, causing you to lose the fish.

A big advantage of the quick strike rig is that it allows you to hook a dead bait fish in such a way that it lies horizontal in the water, which pike seem to find much more attractive than a bait fish hanging vertically in the water.

How deep do you set tip ups for pike?

The best all around depth to set your tip ups for pike is in the middle of the water column, halfway between the bottom and the surface. For example, in 20 feet deep water, set the depth of your tip up to 10 feet.

While this is a good rule of thumb to get you started, you should also try to test a range of different depths with your tip ups, in order to find the ideal depth on a given day. The best way to do this is by dividing the water column into 3 layers (bottom, middle, and shallow), and targeting each layer with a couple of tip ups.

Unlike walleye (which stay close to the bottom most of the time), pike are known to hunt throughout the entire water column, and you can catch them at almost any depth. On some days, you’ll catch pike just 2 feet below the ice, while on other days you’ll find them sticking closer to the bottom.

See also: ice fishing for pike (complete guide)

Once you start getting several bites at a similar depth, change all your tip ups to that depth. And when the bite dies down, start testing different depths once again. Pike also like to pick up dead bait fish from the bottom, so it’s always worth setting up several tip ups with the bait lying directly on the bottom.

Finally, you can also use a sonar and/or underwater camera to determine the depth at which pike are holding on a given day.

Best bait for pike ice fishing with tip ups

The best bait to use with tip ups for pike are live or dead bait fish between 3 and 7 inches long. The most commonly used species are suckers, shiners and minnows as live bait, and ciscoes, smelt, mackerel or herring as dead bait.

Pike are scavengers, and especially during the cold season they like to eat dead fish. You can exploit this behavior by setting up your tip ups with a variety of different dead bait fish, to determine which one works best for you. If possible, try to get freshly caught oily fish species (such as mackerel or herring), as they produce a scent that’s often irresistible for pike.

Tip up tactics for pike

The great thing about tip up fishing for pike is that you can use it to cover a large area, as well as testing different depths and baits, and this allows you to zero in on the most effective tactics.

The key factor for success with tip up fishing for pike is finding the right locations. The most important thing here is to stay mobile until you find the fish, and to use every tool that can help you with this: lake contour maps, GPS, flashers, and underwater cameras. And last but not least, you can also ask at a local tackle shop where the best spots are. If you don’t get any bites at first, that often means you need to move to a different location.

A great strategy to find pike is by locating their prey. For example if you find mud flats with weed growth, these are likely to attract schools of bluegill, yellow perch and minnows. And if you locate large concentrations of bait fish, you can be certain that pike are likely to be nearby. 

Always make sure to actually check for the presence of baitfish. The best way to do this is with a camera, such as a Marcum or AquaVu underwater camera. This will show you unequivocally if there are bait fish around, but you’ll also be able to spot if there are any pike in the area, which gives you absolute certainty before you set up your tip ups.

When targeting weed flats, it’s usually best not to set up your tip ups right on top of the weeds, as your bait will be hidden inside the vegetation. Instead try to find the edge zone of the weed flat facing deeper water, and place your tip ups along that edge. Often this outer edge of the weed flat is a drop-off contour line, and this can be an ideal location to find big pike.

When you place your tip ups along a drop off, try to use a zig-zag pattern, with some tip ups positioned right on top of the drop off, and some to either side of it. When you notice that specific spots produce more bites, drill more holes in similar locations, and reposition your tip ups to those holes to maximize effectiveness.

Also keep in mind that pike move to different locations during late ice. These are usually flats located close to their spawning grounds in shallow bays and creek inlets.

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