By Kyle Wood
When ice hits the waters most anglers jump at the chance to get out after their favorite species of fish. For many anglers panfish are usually the perennial favorite. Then there are those who like fish that get big and often can carry an attitude. Walleye and northern pike make up these toothy fish that anglers seek out her in Iowa.
Often times northern and walleyes are caught by anglers on a set line with live bait or on accident on small panfish gear. This helps to add to the thought toothy critters are too finicky to catch through the ice. But for the anglers that do chase these crafty fish with a rod and reel know the excitement that comes with it. This article will break down both pike and walleye to better understand how and where to catch them on artificial baits.
Northerns, like most fish, will follow predictable patterns throughout the ice season. From ice up until a few weeks of ice on a body of water oxygen levels remain high and consistent throughout the water column. During this time pike will cruise shallow among the green vegetation where most of the bait will be found.
Weed flats and rock piles are common hangouts during this period for gators. Most of these locations can be found in around 10ft or less. Do not be afraid to go as shallow as 3ft if there is a good inside weed line.
Also any sort of shallow logs, trees or wood can be great spots to target pike waiting for an easy meal. Large numbers of various sizes of northerns can be found cruising these shallow spots. Large expansive flats with quick access to deep water can be great places to start your search.
As winter progresses oxygen levels in the shallows will decrease forcing northerns and bait to deeper water. The first major drop off from shallow water will be a major congregation area for pike moving toward oxygen rich water. Depending on the lake this can be a drop of only a few feet to a drop of 20 ft.
Focusing on subtle transitions like sand to mud, sand to rock, weed type changes or any combination of these are often enough to hold bait moving out of shallow water. Deeper weed lines and inside turns along the weed line setup easy ambush points for northerns. This is the period when activity can slow down dramatically so attention to detail on where to setup is crucial. Pike will not cover as much water as they would early or late ice, so setting up in their territory is vital.
Offshore structure such as rock piles or humps can be other great options to locate pike. Spots like these will often hold a variety of fish species that northerns will prey on. They will typically cruise the surrounding deep water when inactive then move up to shallower water of the structure to feed.
Late ice brings some of the best fishing of the year for all species. This is due to the return of oxygen to shallow water and allows weed growth to slowly begin. When this occurs fish begin to move back shallow in preparation of the spawn.
Pike will feed heavily during this time to help pack weight on. The same areas you may have found fish during the early ice period can be great this time of year as well. Creek arms or areas with any sort of current flow coming into them are places pike will stage by until the water reaches spawning temperature. With their level of activity increasing it allows anglers to cover more water to search for active pike.
When choosing tackle to battle these toothy guys there are many factors to consider. The line, rod, reel and lure are all crucial for success. Even taking in to account fishing in a house or not is important.
First thing is the kind of rod to use. There are dozens of options on the market today making it tough to decide what to use. For a general rule of thumb I prefer nothing less than a 28” rod. Longer rods allow you to better control the fish when fighting it. A 28” to 32” rod is a great choice when fishing out of a portable or permanent house. If a house is not an option or if you like to hole hop a 42” rod is perfect for standing up and jigging. Medium to medium-heavy rods are the perfect action depending on the size of pike you plan to encounter.
Line for these greasy fish is also dependent of the conditions you are facing. Braided line is an excellent choice for an all around line due to its zero stretch and maximum strength. If you fish mostly outside fused braided line is a great option because it will not absorb water as easily and will not freeze up as fast.
10# to 12# braid is about right for most situations. If that just is not your thing, 12 to 15# mono or fluorocarbon are about right for most pike adventures.
When choosing a leader remember to keep in mind you want something that will not take away from the action of the bait. Regular steel leaders will often kill the action of the lure and will result in fewer strikes. Fluorocarbon leaders in the 20 to 25# test range are great due to their strength and invisibility. You can often see better results with fluorocarbon leaders, though you may need to retie more often.
Another great choice that has become very popular is tie-able titanium leaders. Titanium allows anglers to keep the flexibility to maximize lure action with the strength to not have to worry about fish breaking you off. Leaders like this can be directly tied to your lures and often outlast the life of your lure.
With so many choices on the market for lures it can be tough to decide what to use. Horizontal and vertical style baits both work great in certain situations. For active gators, trap style baits like the Northland Rippin Shad, Lindy Darter and Salmo Chubby Darters work magic. These loud, erratic lures are great for calling fish in from a distance and triggering reaction strikes. Bright colors like chartreuse and pink are good for low light conditions, while metallic colors are better for sunny days.
If the pike won’t commit to trap baits, vertical lures like spoons are the way to go. Northland’s Buckshot and Macho Minnow spoons are my favorite. Tipping these spoons with a minnow head adds just enough to entice those weary pike to bite. Generally I will follow the same color rules as with the trap style lures. Jigging the spoon followed with a brief pause then slowly bouncing your rod tip is a good cadence to start with. Always pay attention to what the fish reacts to and stick to that.
One last option that works great for active fish but can trigger lethargic fish as well is a plastic tube. Rigged on a tube jig head this makes a deadly combination. White is my top pick for colors but often times bright flashy colors out produce it. Start jigging the tube by popping it up and pausing. If the northers will not hit that drop the tube to the bottom and shake it leaving it on bottom. A lot of times this can trigger gators to pick that tube off the bottom.
Just as with the pike or any other species of fish walleyes will follow different movements throughout the ice period. During early ice eyes can generally be found cruising shallow rock piles or weed flats. Places like this will often have a steep break adjacent to it but the walleye will generally stay on the shallow side from 4 to 12ft. Spots that hold eyes late in the fall or early in the spring are good starting points to look on early ice.
As winter moves on so do the walleyes. If you found the fish early you can generally follow them to the first break line. Offshore flats and rocks become key this time of year. Mud to rock or sand transitions are great because perch and other forage for eyes will hang out in these areas. Depending on the body of water the deepest parts of the lake that have structure like humps, points, or bottom transitions will be great holding areas for walleye.
Late ice is the time to find walleyes beginning to move back to shallower water. You may still find fish near deeper structure but they may hang on the shallowest part of the spot. Hard bottom shallow flats near deep water are prime locations. This is especially true if there are any sources of current located near these flats. Walleyes will get on these spots and gorge themselves to prepare for the spawn.
When chasing hard water eyes medium action rods are ideal. I like a 28 to 32” rod for jigging artificial lures. Depending on the rod you can get away with a medium light rod but I find that too light of a rod doesn’t allow you to control your lure as well. Match the rod with a small to medium sized reel with a good drag and you are set.
As far as line goes 4# to 6# mono is the common choice. Braided lines in the 6# to 8# range are my top pick. Braid allows for great feel even on light biting eyes, and with zero stretch you get great hook ups even in deep water. Rig this setup with a small barrel swivel and attach a 6# fluorocarbon leader about two feet to three feet in length to maximize your bites.
Just as with pike there are different lure choices to match the mood of walleyes. The first thing I will do when I fish a given spot is drop down a “search” bait. This is a bait that will draw the attention of anything in the area. Rapala Jigging Shad Raps and Northland Rippin Shads, generally the smaller sizes, are great lures to cover water to locate eyes. Usually I will not tip these with a minnow head initially until I figure out the attitude they have that day. With baits like these you will be able to quickly discover if anyone is home in a hurry. A few big rod sweeps up followed by a brief pause is more than enough to trigger strikes.
Most walleyes will come in to look at aggressive baits but will not commit. For eyes like this nothing beats a spoon tipped with a minnow head. Buckshot and Macho Minnow spoons in the 1/16 to 1/8oz size are great choices. Flutter style spoons like Custom Jig and Spin’s Slender Spoon or Northlands Moxie Minnow are also walleye producers. Water clarity and light penetration play into color selections but usually gold, silver, green, firetiger and orange are top picks on any given day. Fishing spoons in a subtle jigging motion by barely bouncing your rod tip often triggers finicky fish to bite. Bouncing the spoon off the bottom then slowly lifting the spoon up the water column when you get a fish to look at it is another deadly tactic. If the bite is really tough sometimes removing the minnow head and putting on a waxworm or spike will get the job done.
When it comes to ice fishing nothing is more fun or exciting than battling northern pike or walleyes on rod and reel. Mix in the fact you are enticing them with artificial lures and it makes it that much sweeter. Though they are two different fish there are similar movements and lure selections that you can apply to either. Whether you are fishing for a good time or a good meal artificial lures can be some of the most productive fishing methods for gators and eyes. If you have never tried these tactics you owe it yourself to hit the ice, give it a try and have a blast!