Big game hunting on the ice is what chasing big pike is all about, and while the big waters up north are my favorite places to go, I’ve found some nice locations closer to home in the Twin Cities.
Pike live in almost all icy winter waters of the Twin Cities. Esox Lucius retains its aggressive streak throughout the hardwater season, but finding larger pike takes a calculated approach.
The first component to being a successful trophy pike angler, even before targeting the best locations in any given lake, is getting on a lake with a decent pike population.
Searching the DNR Lake Finder is definitely crucial to finding lakes with big pike potential. I like to look at the “length of select species sampled – all gear combined” table of the fisheries lake survey and see what DNR assessments reveal. The more pike numbers in the 25- to 29-inch column the better. If the lake has any showing up in the 30-plus range then add it to your “must-fish” list.
Pay attention to the date of the last assessment. A lake with a hefty population of pike in the 25- to 29-inch range last assessed in 2014 might be worth a look, even without any showing up in the 30-plus range.
To be clear, any pike over 40 inches is a true trophy, and those are tough to come by even on the best Minnesota pike lakes. In the Twin Cities metro, a pike over 30 inches falls into trophy status in my book. Keep those high-quality pike fisheries going by releasing what you catch and saving the smaller hammer-handles for their meat.
Once you pick a lake with pike potential, determine the locations most likely to hold concentrations of baitfish. These often include, but aren’t limited to, weedlines, rock piles, transition zones, shoreline points, and gravel bars near creek mouths.
Weedlines are terrific from that first hole you drill in the ice until the snow cover gets so thick the sunlight no longer penetrates below. While green weeds can exist well into the dead of winter, they’re usually a diamond in the rough by late January.
My son and I fished a northwest metro lake right after Christmas and found plenty of green weeds all along a large flat. The ice was mostly free of snow; however, and with the latest dump of snow that scenario might begin to change.
The outside weed edge is a sure-fire place to set-up but drill a few holes over the top of the weeds and a few off the weed edge several feet. Also consider drilling holes along the inside edge of the weeds if it’s not a massive weed flat. Pike will roam across the entire area. It might seem crazy to drop a tip-up in four feet of water, but that can often be the most productive action so it’s worth being called crazy.
When dead-sticking or setting tip-ups, err on the side of dropping a bait too shallow than too deep. Pike will hit lures a foot or two below the surface of the ice even when they are cruising near the bottom.
Rock piles, transition zones and shoreline points are each listed separately but often aren’t found separately in most lakes. They tend to be found nearby each other and when you find a spot with all three, mark it on the GPS and keep your mouth shut.
These locations are especially potent during mid-ice and late-ice fishing expeditions. As the green weeds fade and baitfish seek shelter further out, they rely on these edges for protection from toothy predators like pike. Pike and baitfish can still be found up shallow, but the aggressive biters slide out to the depths. One of the best places to fish is that area where the bottom content turns from muck to sand.
Rattling jig spoons, plain jigs tipped with a soft-plastic minnow or grub, hair jigs, marabou jigs, and ice-fishing crankbaits are all solid choices for pike in all these locations. Just remember to use a strong braid or even a leader at the end of the line to prevent being bit-off.
My favorite big pike bait is a big chunky sucker minnow, giant shiner, or whatever you can find in the frozen fish section that is big and oily (but not smoked). Hooked behind the head and in the tail with a quick-strike rig is very effective. An added bonus is that with a giant minnow (at least 6 inches or larger), the smaller pike tend to avoid it.
On my tip-ups, I like to use masonry line. It’s strong, durable and won’t slice into your hands when that pike makes an epic run halfway to the hole. Masonry line is also much cheaper than braided line and is easier to pull off the spool when it freezes up.
My last bit of advice: Please do not consider your fishing trip a failure if you go home empty-handed. Chasing trophy pike is tough, and those big fish are in short supply. It might take a few trips to have some success but when it does, the payoff is sweet.