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Dead-Bait Tactics for Hardwater Pike
written by Justin Hoffman

When hitting the frozen bodies of water in search of winter pike, dead baiting tends to be the most successful method.
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Hardwater Pike

Dead baiting for pike can really bring out the excitement once winter sets in.

Snow-covered landscapes and frozen bodies of water have a deliberate way of changing a pike anglers' methods and routines. Gone are the oversized spinnerbaits, cranks and spoons — the familiar tools of warm weather fishing — and out come the tip-ups and quick-strike rigs. Match these up with a variety of dead baits, and you'll be well on your way to a season full of cold days and red-hot northern pike.

Intricacies of Bait

Dead bait is the preferred tool when chasing winter pike. They represent a large, stationary profile to a hungry fish, triggering instinctive strikes from these freshwater predators. They also provides the perfect scent and taste attributes to attract fish, leaving a magnetic trail washing in the water and arousing their senses. Add to that how easy they are to handle, store and rig, and you've got yourself a definite winner. (Besides, what's better than Mother Nature when it comes to catching fish?)

For choosing dead bait, a number of criteria should be considered. Smelt, herring, sardine and sucker all make excellent choices, and can be purchased either fresh or frozen from most grocery stores. (Please check local regulations before using.) Suckers can also be caught from local streams or rivers and put directly in the freezer until needed.

Choose bait between 6 and 10 inches in length, as this seems to be the preferred size for pike, especially during the winter months. I prefer my baits to be slightly frozen when hitting the ice, as it allows for easier rigging and manipulation of the bait.

The Rig

A quick-strike rig provides the perfect presentation when using dead bait. It allows for a single hook to be placed through the lips, while a treble hook is lightly skewered on the upper backside, toward the tail end.

When a pike swims with a bait, turning it around to swallow after a short run, the hooks will usually find a secure place at the front of the mouth on the ensuing hookset. A No. 1 single hook coupled with a No. 4 treble works well in most situations.

Quick strike rigs can be purchased from tackle retailers or designed by oneself. It can actually make for a rewarding hobby leading up to the season, and is inexpensive to get into.

Tip-Up Choice

In order to present dead bait, a high quality tip-up is needed. Regardless of the style you choose — reliance on Dacron or tip-up line — a 30- to 50-pound test strength is your best bet. I prefer a black colored line, as it is easier to see against the snow and ice, especially when handlining fish.

Smooth drags are also imperative when chasing pike, due to the length of runs and the speed that they can achieve. Make sure that it can run freely, with no hesitation at all.

Hardwater Pike

Dead bait on a quick-strike rig is the preferred tool when chasing winter pike.

I rely on three types of tip-ups when heading out on the ice for pike. Which one I use is dependent on weather conditions and my perceived activity of the fish. If temperatures are very cold, and the risk of holes freezing is severe, a thermal tip-up gets the nod. This style will insulate your hole, alleviating any freezing issues, with the spool hidden under the water. If temperatures are warm and fish are aggressive, a classic tip-up would be my choice. And lastly, if there is a slight breeze and the fish have taken on lockjaw, a windlass tip-up provides the necessary and attractive action to trigger those strikes.

Whichever tip up design you choose, make sure the spool is filled to capacity, especially if deeper water is part of your game plan.

Setting Up Shop

Northern pike turn on come winter, with the first ice period often bringing your best chance for steady action. Typical location spots often depend on the body of water but include shallow and deep weedlines, rivermouths, breaklines and flats. Pike will target these areas in one of two ways — in a patrolling, active feeding mode or sulking near bottom while waiting for prey to stumble by.

Pike are typically more aggressive when the sun is shining, and mid-morning to late afternoon will usually see them in their hungriest disposition.

Cover a variety of areas with your tip-ups when beginning the day, from water as shallow as 5 feet upwards of 30 feet (if applicable). What you are searching for are active fish, and once found, they will give you an idea of the precise areas to target. First and last ice will find fish taking up shop in the shallow stuff, especially adjacent to any green weeds that are still kicking about. Mid-winter will see a shift to deeper water, and it may be necessary to punch numerous holes at varying depths in order to connect.

Bait placement can also be paramount to your success. I prefer to suspend dead bait just off bottom, perhaps one to 2 feet at most. I find the majority of fish (especially when dealing with skinny water) cruise "belly to the bottom," giving bait presented in this manner the best chance for being seen. Using marine electronics, such as depth-finder or underwater viewers, can make the positioning of bait a breeze.

Before I place a dead bait rig in the hole, I always make a few slashes in the skin of the fish with a knife. This helps in releasing juices, and adds to the attraction factor of the bait itself. Although dead bait can last a long time under the water, rigging up fresh bait periodically throughout the day has often brought quick results.

Dead baiting for pike can really bring out the excitement once winter sets in. It is a simple technique that can provide ample enjoyment, with that chance for a true trophy fish always only a flag pop away.

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