Iowa Gators Through the Ice

By Nick Johnson

I remember the first time I actually targeted pike through the ice using standard ice fishing gear. I had caught pike before but it was always a “bonus” while jigging for walleyes or the occasional take on a crappie minnow. It was about this time of year and I had recently purchased a perch colored Northland Rippin Shad for just the occasion. I was situated on the top of a weedy flat in about eight feet of water and there were a lot of bluegills and perch in the vicinity.

Upon dropping down I could see the Rippin Shad swim as it sank in the clear water. On the flasher I stopped it about a foot from the bottom and jigged it up a couple feet and let it settle again. These baits give off tremendous vibration and I could actually hear the rattles in the bait when I jigged it up. I did this a few times and a mark appeared very rapidly at the bait on one of the upward motions. This mark quickly disappeared and when I jigged the bait up again the mark appeared only this time my rod tip about touched the water.

I set the hook and felt a good weight for a split second followed by line burning off my reel. I had to smile because I knew exactly what this fish was. A pike, or gator as I like to call them had crushed the hard bait and I was now in a violent tug-of-war with this fish. After a few long runs and gentle coaxing on light line I had the pike’s head in the hole. It wasn’t a beast by any standards but one heck of a fight and darn tasty after it was filleted and battered up.

There is something about pike fishing, especially through the ice that is terribly exciting to me. They can be a challenging fish to target in Iowa because many of our lakes do not support large populations of them like the lakes up north. Still, there are bodies of water in the state where an angler can legitimately fish for them and reap success when the right conditions fall into place. Many winter pike anglers are accustomed to tip-up fishing which is a great way to catch pike while targeting other species with rod and reel. I love to tip-up fish but I also like the challenge of dropping down terminal tackle and testing the ice gear to its limit when one strikes.

Certain ingredients such as location, forage, tackle and patience all fall into play when going after the water wolf on ice. Obviously you have to fish where pike are found which takes just a little homework or simply knowing they exist in a particular system. It pays to know what they are feeding on and where this food is located. Lastly, pike are powerful fish and dainty ice noodles with thin line meant for bluegill are going to seem like you are throwing rocks at a grizzly, especially if the pike is large and extra angry. Let’s dive into these factors and help build a foundation for a winter pike fishing adventure.

Tackle
Let’s start this off making sure we have the necessary axe to carry into battle. Rod selection doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy but you will want to make sure you have at least a medium action ice rod that can handle the power of a fish weighing 5-10 pounds or more. I like to use a 28-30 inch rod in medium to heavy action. This will ensure you have the backbone to cushion strong runs and big head shakes while giving enough umph to bring a heavy fish to the hole.

For reels make sure you have something with a smooth drag. The reel doesn’t have to be oversized or anything but the drag is critical as these fish will and do make super fast runs when hooked. A smooth drag helps to resist line breakage and play the fish out in seamless fashion. The rod and reel I use for most of my pike jigging is a White Out rod and reel combo by 13 Fishing. There are many manufacturers out there however that make standup outfits for just this occasion.

The line gets a little more technical for me and I am a huge proponent of using fluorocarbon leaders coupled with braid for both pike and walleyes. The minimal stretch aspect of both these lines offers sharp jigging and solid hook sets, not to mention the fluoro leader is nearly invisible and helps encourage more strikes in clear water. In this case I like to go with either a 10lb Suffix or Power Pro ice braid and couple that with a 10lb Suffix fluorocarbon leader. You can use a swivel to attach the two or simply tie them together. I recommend researching knots for this however, because fluoro tends to slip if the wrong knot is used. Run about 3-4 feet of leader and you are good to go.

When it comes to lure selection I generally try to find baits that imitate a natural baitfish. Brands like Northland Rippin Shad, Rapala Jigging Rap, Rapala Rippin Rap and Salmo Chubby Darter are all solid options in the larger sizes for pike. Sebile also makes some solid jigging hard baits. Pike like bright colors but also prefer more natural dull colors at times. If you know their primary forage in a system then start there and work around that. In Iowa, perch, bluegill, shiners and suckers are all pretty solid bets.

Don’t be afraid to jig these aggressively at times either. That abrupt flash, pause and downward flutter of an injured fish is a dinner bell to a hungry gator. I generally like to start my presentation a foot or two off the bottom and jig sharply in one or two foot sweeps followed by letting the bait fall and pause for a few seconds. Often times the flash will call them in and the pause will entice the strike. This is where a flasher comes in handy to watch for approaching marks and gauging lure depth.

Location and Forage
There are a few bodies of water where an angler can legitimately target pike in Iowa that boast solid populations of the species. West Okoboji, Spirit Lake and the Mississippi backwaters are three classic examples. Many lakes have pike but their numbers are somewhat low and targeting them is a gamble. Other lakes like Silver Lake, Trumbull and North Twin have good pike as well and a patient angler may luck into one if the time is right. Areas like these with lower densities are where throwing out a tip-up while jigging with another rod can be a big benefit.

In terms of locating pike it pays to know where the forage is, particularly if there is weed growth present. In clear lakes like West Okoboji, finding weed growth is generally not too hard but finding good schools of forage can be a little more challenging in any body of water. I like to look at a lake map and find areas where a flat lies adjacent to a drop off. This can be good practice even for anglers targeting panfish. Depths of 8-15 feet are usually a good bet for pike but sometimes in locations like the Mississippi backwaters, depths of 3-6 feet will be about as deep as you find so anglers must adjust their fishing accordingly.

Don’t be afraid to drill a lot of holes and move around. Pike will roam during the winter and they generally cruise a lot more than they do in the open water season. The morning period is typically when they are feeding most heavily so be out on the ice at sun up to capitalize on this. Find the forage and depth breaks, weeds if present and the pike shouldn’t be too far away.

We are lucky in Iowa to have pike as an ice fishing option. For those living in the southern part of the state this may mean some travel time but nonetheless they are an incredibly fun species to ice fish for. Whether you tip-up fish or wish to target them with traditional tackle, pike make for an exciting bonus to the ice fishing season. Good luck on the ice!