Dick Pinney's Guidelines: Ice fishing for northern pike
Ice fishingg for northern pike has been growing exponentially in many of the New England states. Actually, Maine's northern pike fishing, both open water and ice fishing, has been playing catch-up, as only in the last few years because of illegal introductions has there been much opportunity. But because of pike's propensity to quickly take advantage of being the largest predatory fish in a body of water, their populations have soared.
At first, because of their impact on certain cold water species, especially Maine's very much revered landlocked Atlantic salmon, there was a lot of hatred for these big fish. But when the reality set in that northern pike were in Maine to stay, some of the more flexible anglers set out to diminish the pike population and have been having a great time doing it while the population is doing anything but diminishing.
Pike spawn in the late winter/early spring. Their spawning takes place in shallow, often weedy coves and slow running river pools. So this is an ideal time of year to really concentrate on these fish.
In mid-state Maine, Sabattus Lake and the big lakes in the Belgrade region provide plenty of opportunity to catch not only big pike but also some incredibly large white perch, fish big enough to take the four- to five-inch shiner you're using for pike bait.
Big live bait seems to be the best way to guarantee success with pike, but a lot of anglers are now finding that smaller baits or chunks of dead bait fished right on bottom will get you plenty of pike action. And it doesn't seem to make a big difference what kind of dead bait is being used, that is a legal bait. Some pike fishermen have found that whole or chunk dead saltwater mackerel fished right on bottom can provide all the pike action you'd want. It's not legal to use a gamefish and several other freshwater fish for bait, but an occasional pike stomach-content will reveal trout and salmon are being eaten by pike. In one instance a six-pound brown trout was eaten whole by a pike.
Lakes are not the only place that will produce pike.
Some of Maine's largest rivers that are connected with lakes that hold pike are also good bets to fish. But you need to think safety first and not get out on the ice of rivers with fast flows. You need to fish the backwater coves with little or no current. Maine's Androscoggin River is loaded with northerns, as is the Connecticut River where it forms a boundary between New Hampshire and Vermont. Although New Hampshire owns the water right to the Vermont side of the river, regulations allow both Vermont and New Hampshire licensed anglers to fish these waters. One of the top pike lakes in the Connecticut River is the Moore Dam Reservoir near Littleton. Beware that fast stretches below dams on this river are not advisable to ice fish and are very dangerous.
Very few pike/ice anglers use any other gear besides tip-ups. The reason being is that most of the ice fishing is done in shallow water where jigging with a rod and lure just isn't effective. A well-made tip-up is almost universally used. By well-made we also include tip-ups that have been maintained in good shape. A lot of pike anglers have switched to using the newer, super braid types of line connected to a stout, two to four feet length of tough mono or fluoro line. We'd recommend no lighter than 20 pound test for the leader if fluoro and 30 pound test for mono, as the mono is more easily cut by the pikes very sharp teeth. Wire leaders will not get cut but will cut your success as pike are not the smartest fish but are smart enough to avoid wire leaders.
A short shank number 1/0 hook is a good place to start with hook selection. We don't like the use of coated or stainless steel when fishing freshwater as they will never rust out of a released fish's mouth. And cutting the leader and leaving the hook in the fish's mouth is probably the most effective and humane way of releasing an ice-caught fish of any species. It can be done without dragging the fish out of the hole for it to beat itself up on the ice.
Do not sell pike short for good eating. It's not that hard to learn an easy fillet method.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.