Shallow Water Northern Pike Ice Fishing

Singling out shallow water Northern pike

When Old Man Winter funnels the cold air down from the Canadian provinces, the lakes freeze pretty hard in the northern latitudes. During a typical February, ice thickness is measured in feet. The cold air and thick lake ice don’t deter many people from venturing outdoors. An ice fisherman usually shares a frozen lake with other enthusiasts. When you target shallow water pike under the ice, you can expect some curious glances from those other fishermen.

As my longtime ice fishing partner and I took turns drilling holes through the thick ice with our non-motorized ice augur, we started getting curious glances from the other anglers. I’m sure our location was getting as much notice as our choice of drills. We poked holes through the ice about 20 feet from the shoreline, which might have seemed strange to the onlookers. But there was a method to our madness. In fact, there was no madness to our tactic. We followed a set strategy to successfully connect with our intended target, northern pike.

Shallow water northern pike ice fishing–ambush the ambushers

Northern pike in our area are at the top of the food chain. They have evolved into prefect predators that hunt from ambush locations. Favored ambush points are the edges of underwater vegetation and near submerged fallen trees in the shallow depths along shorelines. Northern pike become motionless as they tuck themselves into the vegetation or alongside a submerged tree, waiting for prey to come within striking range.

When the calendar flips a page to February, multiple northern pike move into the shallow water to congregate for the upcoming spring spawn. A number of pike will be present in depths of 3 to 6 feet. A hard freeze can create ice a couple of feet or more thick. In shallow water, ice thickness can mean just a foot of water between the ice and the lake bottom. Rest assured, this doesn’t deter northern pike from inhabiting it.

You need patience for pike

Shallow water pike are spooky, which is why we opt to use a traditional ice auger. Even the non-motorized ice auger isn’t totally silent, though. A good tactic is to drill all the holes you will use, then enjoy a hot beverage and wait a half hour before dropping lines. This allows nearby northern pike to calm down.

Movement on the ice can spook these shallow water pike, too. If there is no snow cover and the ice is clear, pike can easily see the angler’s movement. With clear ice, keep a distance from the drilled holes. A distinct advantage to ice fishing shallow is you can watch the tip ups from shore. It’s often a bit warmer there, especially if trees block the wind. When a flag flips on a tip-up, resist the urge to madly dash for the ice hole. Remember that the northern pike is directly below that hole in the ice, so approach stealthily.

A tip-up on the ice for indicating fish activity.
When fishing for shallow water pike, tip ups like this can raise red flags and show you right where the fish are!

It’s awful cold on the ice. Dress for success!

Spacing for the shallows

Drill multiple ice holes in prime locations about 30 feet apart. Knowing that the northern pike are close to vegetation clumps and underwater timber, I like to drill these holes about 6 to 8 feet away from these ambush positions.

Jigging this shallow is challenging to say the least, so tip-ups with live baitfish rule. To intrigue the pike, our choice bait is a shiner that is at least 4- to 6-inches long. If the bait shops have larger baitfish, don’t hesitate to try them. Big northern pike don’t have any problem grabbing a baitfish that’s a foot long. Hook the baitfish just below the top dorsal fin to give it some freedom of movement. I’ve had good success with hooks in the size 4 and size 6 range. These smaller hooks allow the baitfish more natural movement in the water, and still provide good hooksets on the pike. Treble or octopus hooks are equally good.

High-test for toothy terrors

Big northern pike have big sharp teeth. So, you must rig to prevent line cuts. For the main running line, 50-pound-test braided line works great. This heavy line stays intact as it rubs up against the sharp edges of the hole. I attach a 3-foot section of leader material to the braid. If the water clarity is low, a multi-strand wire leader works. Anything over 30-pound-test wire can withstand the pike’s razor-sharp teeth. For ultra-clear water conditions, use fluorocarbon, which nearly disappears underwater. It’s considerably tougher than regular monofilament. Thirty- to 40-pound-test does well. For added insurance, double the fluorocarbon between the hook and running line.

A small loop knot in the running line is the best way to attach double lengths of fluorocarbon. Attach the dual fluorocarbon leader sections to the loop with an improved cinch knot. The loop knot in the running line also provides an easy tie-in point for the wire leader material. Instead of a loop knot, you can tie a barrel swivel between the running line and either leader material.

Diagram of a fishing rig, showing two 36-inch lengths of fluorocarbon line used as a leader to help prevent line break-offs while fishing for shallow water pike.
Shallow water pike come equipped with lots of big, gnarly teeth. Use a double fluorocarbon leader, like this one, to double your chances of holding on to your catch!

Hookset hints

Northern pike usually stay in place after they hit the bait. After holding the baitfish inside their mouths, they slowly swim away and turn the baitfish before swallowing. Wait for the pike to stop swimming, count 10 seconds, and carefully tighten the line to make sure the pike is still there. If you feel weight, give a forceful tug to drive the hook home. Be prepared for an explosive run when the northern pike feels the hook!

After you bring a northern pike through the ice hole, carefully inspect the leader material and running line for any nicks or cuts. Retie the rig with new material if any line looks questionable. Don’t risk losing a big northern pike because of compromised fishing line.

Get on the ice, and connect with northern pike in the shallow water. These water wolves lurk there, waiting to latch onto your bait.