The tip-up spool was slowly turning. It would move three or four inches and stop, only to start slowly moving again moments later.
The pike was in no big rush to go anywhere. He had the big sucker minnow clamped between his toothy jaws, and would have to stop in order to turn the sucker around to swallow it head-first.
Eventually the line stopped. Nothing happened for several minutes, and we wondered if the pike had stripped the sucker off the wee treble hook. Then the line started to move again, and the tip-up and line was moved out of the hole, laid aside on the ice and out of the way, and when the braided Dacron line came tight in my hands, I gave it a hard jerk.
The northern responded in typical fashion, and raced off on a short run, slowed down and I began bringing the line in hand-over-hand, laying it on the ice so it wouldn’t tangle on the next run. The fish was two-thirds of the way back to the ice hole when it switched directions, and raced off on another 20-yard under-the-ice run.
Two hard runs against tension was sapping the pike’s stamina in the cold water, and the next time the fish came to the hole, I positioned his head directly under the ice hole and brought him up and out with a mighty splash.
Jig a Swedish Pimple with rod & reel while watching the tip-up.
The pike, at 11 pounds, was all green with those beige kidney-shaped spots along the side, and it was a handsome fish. It was my third, and largest, pike of the day. The other two weighed nine and 10 pounds. We kept hoping for one of the magical 20-pounders that once were common, but it wasn’t to happen on this day.
There are all kinds of new tip-ups on the ice but my old standby — the wooden variety — still works well enough for me. I’ve used them for more than 50 years, and all I have to do is put new line on the spool every two years.
I’ve seen some of the finest winter tip-up pike fishing available over the years. My method, which is described below, works well for me and should work for you.
I use 30-pound braided Dacron line on the spool and run one end of the line through a big white button, tie the Dacron to a husky black barrel swivel, and add an 18-inch length of 20-pound clear monofilament from the swivel to the hook.
A heavy 2-ounce sinker is attached to the hook, and the line is slowly pulled through the two buttonholes, and when the weight touches bottom, the button is slid down the line until it reaches the water. Up that rig comes, the weight is removed, and I favor a No. 12 treble hook. One point is buried deep into the tissue behind the sucker’s dorsal fin, but not so deep as to hit the spine.
A Rubbercor sinker is attached to the leader 12 inches above the bait, and it is slowly lowered toward bottom. I stop the downward plunge of the bait, put the button and two coils of line back on the spool, set the tip up into the ice hole with the side opposite the flag facing into the wind. This helps prevent those aggravating false alarms called wind bites.
The sucker is now swimming 9-12 inches off bottom. I favor setting tip-ups along the outside edge of a weedbed where pike often cruise, and the area off a river mouth can be good because pike gather here before going upstream to spawn in the early spring. The fish often swim near bottom, but because of the positioning of their eyes, I like my bait up off bottom a little so it is easily visible.
I often throw ice slush into the ice hole to prevent a bright beam of sunlight going down into the hole on a sunny day. All of my holes are augered at one time so there is less noise while fishing, and I often auger two or three extra holes so the bait can be moved if it’s deemed necessary.
Walk, don’t run, to a tip-up.
“Flag Up!” is the tip-up fisherman’s cry when the orange or red flag pops up as a pike grabs the bait. I know people who thunder across the ice, making far too much noise, but I walk to the tip-up as quietly as possible. There is usually plenty of time, and study the twirling spool.
Waiting is the most important part of tip-up fishing. Try to set the hook early, before the pike turns and swallows the sucker, and you usually donate the sucker to the fish and never hook him. Wait for the spool to stop unwinding line, and then wait some more until the spool starts turning again.
Set the hook hard, and there are two ways to land the fish. One method, if fishing with a partner, is to walk backward away from the hole while holding the line. The fish will come partway, stop and start swimming away. Walk back toward the hole, and make the fish earn every inch of line it takes out. Allow your partner to land the fish.
Three anglers gather around a tip-up (right).
The other method is to hover over the hole. This is more of a give-and-take method. Lay the line on the ice so it doesn’t get tangled up in your feet. Braided Dacron is pretty tough, and seldom will the line break from being on the ice.
Either way, once the pike is under the ice hole, bring it slowly to the bottom of the hole, and bring it straight up and out onto the ice with one smooth upward pull on the line.
Some of my best pike fishing near Traverse City where I live is on Boardman Lake, Manistee Lake at Manistee, Portage Lake at Onekama, and Skegemog Lake northeast of Acme. The latter lake also produces the occasional trophy Great Lakes muskellunge.
Ice-fishing fun reaches its peak when a big northern pike powers away from the ice hole. The first two runs will give the angler an indication of its size, and a husky pike weighing 10 pounds or more is a prize catch on any winter day.