How to Target Ice Out Pike

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Presented by Mercury

Let me tell you something about myself. I’m the kind of guy who pretty much hates putting the boat away in the late fall to early winter (2021 was December BTW) and highly anticipates pulling the beast out of storage come spring. That said, I did partake in four ice fishing sessions in 22’. They were indeed lots of fun but to me, it’s just a bit of a band-aid until the open water hits.

For most anglers, that first outing with the boat, motor and trailer (or the back of a pickup truck) is usually somewhere around opening Walleye. For the harder core anglers, panfish like Crappie and Yellow Perch draw their share of crowds to the water. And for others, it’s literally “days” after the ice leaves the water… no matter the species. Now you’re talkin’ my language.

If you look back into our archives you will see I wrote a short article about my fishing buddy Mike Burriss getting in on some “early/late” pike fishing in FMZ 20 that was posted back in 2020. I say early and late simply because it was early in the year (end of March) but it was late in the legal Pike fishing season (closes end of March each year… see footnote below).

Some of you may remember when zone 20’s Walleye season closed at the end of March which was the same as the Pike season currently does. A while back the MNRF deemed it necessary to shorten the zone’s Walleye season and cut the month of March completely out. It was sad for us cold weather, open water guys because we looked forward to it every season. 

At least they still kept the Pike season open.

Since Mikey B sent me his pictures of those early season Pike, I was intrigued.

I did get out last year (2021) but we had boat issues and only caught a couple of Pike.

Fast forward to this year and once the boat was launched and running nicely, it was game on.

THE CONDITIONS

I decided on the last Saturday of March since quite frankly, the water was still frozen over a week before! I gave my buddy Sean Gleeson an invite and he jumped at it.

The first launch of the year is always a fingers-crossed kind of event. Even though we as anglers are pretty sure that things will go well (since we’ve done our prep work like tune-ups, boat fixes etc.), there’s always that element of doubt. 

All went well.

The first thing I always look at during this time of year is the water temperature. The Garmin doesn’t lie so it’s a good indicator of the mind frame that you will ultimately be in. It started out at around 37.5℉ and we eventually found 39 late in the day. Never hit 40!

By the way, Pike spawn at somewhere around 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit so that means they are still in pre-spawn… I like that!

The high for the day’s air temperature was forecast at around 6℃ (which is appx 43℉, notice how confused I am with imperial and metric/water and air… old school, new school, dazed and bruised…)

Lake Ontario half covered in ice
As much of a seasonal monster as Lake Ontario can be, it can also be a gorgeous sight for an angler’s eyes, especially on the first trip of the year.

They were calling for cloudy skies all day.

The wind was calm upon arrival but it picked up throughout the day.

Rain and or snow were projected for most of the day (and they were right). Not the conditions for the lovers of summer fishing nor for the warm, living-room and couch people in late March.

WHAT TO USE

I had 6 rods set up and ready to go with spoons, spinners, crankbaits as well as a Bulldawg for something bigger, but the two baits I was hoping to get bit on were a small soft plastic swimbait as well as a suspending hard jerkbait.

a Megastrike Fat Shad swimbait
Swimbait like a Megastrike Fat Shad is a great search bait for lethargic Pike. Since we were after a few fish for the table along with a big one or two, a 4-5” swimbait is a great starting point. A jighead or a swimbait-specific hook are both effective here.

Sean was raring to fire out his new collection of spoons but too, was ready with a bunch of other offerings. That is the beauty of using wire or fluorocarbon leaders with snaps; lure changes become so much easier.

A variety of fishing spoons
Here is a great selection of spoons for Northern Pike any time of year. The 5 of Diamonds, the red & white Daredevil, the Little Cleo and the Williams Wobbler. Of course, there are plenty more, but these will get you started.

HOW IT WENT

As we started out fishing (we really had no idea as to the right location, it was kind of a guessing game) I said to Sean, “buddy, make sure you watch behind your spoon for followers… that could tell us lots”. He said, “I’m already on it”!

About half an hour into the fishing Sean said, “Oie… just had a nice one follow but spooked from the boat. And not long later he saw another. We stuck to that vicinity and worked it hard.

I picked up the first Pike of the day on a swimbait… just what the doctor ordered.

Pete Bowman holding a Lake Ontario Northern Pike
What a great way to start the open water season. None of our fish were of gigantic proportions like the north-country members of the same family, but they were certainly big enough to take some lasting images of.

After a couple more followers on Sean’s spoon, my on-the-water thinking gears started to mesh. The reason we needed to watch for followers was two-fold.

First and foremost, if we see fish, we know their location. Sean and his spoon clearly had that part of the equation figured out. But secondly and just as important, if they are following but not hitting, a change is absolutely necessary. 

For Northern Pike that are following, I do one of two things (order is dictated by conditions and location). 

One method is to start trolling. 

Another method is to start casting suspending jerkbaits.

Sean Gleeson holding a Lake Ontario Northern Pike
Pete’s buddy Sean Gleeson holds up a perfect ice-out Northern Pike. Take a look at Sean’s two fingers on his right hand… be careful of these critters!

As for the trolling, Pike have a much longer time to “eat” your bait since they will not end up at boatside while following during a cast. That slow, constantly moving lure often becomes too much for a fish to handle and they simply HAVE to hit it. Spoons, spinners, crankbaits, and minnowbaits work best for me.

When casting to fish that are only following but not committing, I throw suspending jerkbaits. The fast wiggling and darting action of the lure brings Pike in to investigate and the pause triggers their predatory instinct to pounce all over the bait. You cannot pause a spoon or a spinner the same way as you can with a suspending jerkbait as those lures will immediately start sinking out of the fish’s strike zone.

Once I changed over to a Yo-Zuri 3DB Jerkbait 110 (110mm or 4 ⅜” long) things started to rock and roll.

A Yo-Zuri Minnowbait
Suspending Jerkbaits like the Yo-Zuri 3DB 110 are a beast of a lure early in the year for a lot of species including Northern Pike.

I picked up a couple more fish before Sean finally relinquished his spoon-feeding and also went to a jerkbait.

An interesting note here. The Yo-Zuri minnowbait I was throwing that day retails in Canada for around $11.50 which is a great price for a high-quality, Japanese-made lure. The one that Sean was throwing retails for around 33 bucks (I’m not kidding)! Now although he was using a very good bait, is it worth that much money… and for PIKE???

Well just to give you a comparison, I did much better in numbers of fish than Sean, however, he caught the biggest fish of the day. The crazy part was though, towards the end of the day he said to me, “Yo Petey boy, look at my thirty-three buck special”. And the bill was completely gone.

We aren’t sure if it happened on a fish (the big tooth-filled mouth of a Pike can reign terror on man and machine) or if it happened while water-slapping straggly weeds off of the hooks… we just knew it happened… to his $33 lure! My Pike-pounder was still working like brand new and at about ⅓ the price of his… we had a good laugh at that one!

Throughout the day, we switched to a couple of new locations and the jerkbaits were the deal for the remainder of our outing. It truly was so much fun after a long winter.

Sean Gleeson with a Lake Ontario Northern Pike

All bundled up for a chilly and extremely successful outing!

CONCLUSION

I think the lesson here is to know your quarry. With so many Fish’n Canada shoots in northern Ontario as well as the rest of Canada, Ang and I have learned a thing or two about Pike. They certainly are one of the fiercest predators in our freshwaters; however, they do not always pounce on the first morsel they see.

By seeing “SO” many following Pike in my day, I’ve learned a thing or two as to how to try and convert them from the chase to the commitment. They don’t all do it but when it works out, it’s amazing, it’s exciting and it’s such a blast!

Good times, now let the rest of the ice-out season continue.

FOOTNOTE: A BIT OF INFO ON THE LAKE ONTARIO PIKE SEASON

Pete Bowman holding a Northern Pike with ice in the background

Some call this hardcore, Pete calls it “uniquely awesome”!

Lake Ontario is a gigantic body of water with pretty much every game fish species in it. This includes the Northern Pike. 

Care must be taken by Ontario anglers when it comes to open and closed seasons. Essentially, the lake proper falls into FMZ 20. In this zone, Pike season opens the first Saturday of May, goes right through the new year, and closes the last day of March (ice-out is typically in mid to late March) of the following year. 

E.G. – Pike fishing season opens May 7 of 2022 and closes March 31 of 2023 and then reopens May 6 in 2023. Essentially Pike season is only closed for April and a tiny bit of May each year in FMZ 20.

Anglers need to read the regulations carefully, however, because some harbours off of Lake Ontario are actually in FMZ 17. Zone 17 has an “all-year” open Pike season. That means that when the main lake’s season closes at the end of March, it remains open in some of the harbours. Anglers in the know can take advantage of this “extended” Pike season.

Here is a map for anglers to study as per Zone 17 & 20 (when in doubt, call the MNRF for clarification).

Pete Bowman

Pete, one of the most revered and popular anglers in the nation, has a tremendous love for the game… the fishing game. Pete’s vast knowledge of angling and ability to articulate it to audiences worldwide has endeared him to his fans who still see Pete as just “ONE OF THE BOYS”. Pete is also an accomplished and published outdoor writer and photographer as well as a sought-after speaker. In 2012 another of Pete’s ultimate fishing career highlights occurred when he was inducted into the Canadian Angler Hall Of Fame, something he never thought would happen. A Canadian fishing icon.

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