By Steve Weisman
Mention ice fishing the Iowa Great Lakes, specifically West Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake, to anglers and their eyes light up as they envision chasing their favorite game fish. Yet, there is one prolific game fish that is often overlooked: the northern pike. Bays on both West Okoboji and Big Spirit hold excellent pike numbers. Mike Hawkins, Iowa DNR Biologist at the Spirit Lake Hatchery, says the northern pike is often overlooked and if targeted, the pike is usually a secondary target, often an afterthought. “The pike is really an untapped resource. Anglers just don’t seem to target northern pike. Numbers on Big Spirit are incredible right now. ” Hawkins estimates at least 10,000 adult pike (and probably more) are in Big Spirit.
Certainly, some anglers will fish for bluegills in the weeds and place a chub down a hole in case a pike might take the offering. There are only a few anglers who actually target these fish. One of those is fishing guide Kevan Paul, who runs Kevan Paul’s Guide Service. “As a guide, it’s my job to make sure that there is plenty of action. The bays on both West Okoboji and Big Spirit have plenty of weedbeds and weedlines, which mean they are host to lots of panfish. Where there are panfish, there are northern pike. This is the best of both worlds for anglers: the opportunity to catch quality panfish and quality pike.” Paul adds that the gin clear waters, especially on West Lake, allow his clients the chance to see what is going on beneath the ice. “It’s really something to be working to entice those big gills into biting, when all of a sudden a huge pike comes into the picture.” At this point, the game plan changes instantly. Let’s look at Paul’s plan for maximizing his clients’ success.
For Paul, success begins with a solid game plan, which can change as the winter season progresses. Early in the ice season, Paul likes Smith’s Bay (east side of West Okoboji and Miller’s Bay (west side of West Okoboji). “Good weedbeds that will hold bluegills are my target at early ice. During this time, we’ll set up as shallow as 3-4 feet and up to 10-12 feet of water. After drilling several holes, I will use my underwater camera (Vexilar Scout) to search for both bluegills and pike. In other words, we set up where the fish are.” Although these are Paul’s favorite bays, he is quick to acknowledge that Emerson Bay and North Bay are also good for pike action.
Mobility is another key to success. It’s pretty simple. If the fish don’t bite or if there are no fish, move. This does not mean moving to the other side of the lake. No, it means moving a little deeper or maybe further along the weedbed or weedline. Paul likes the fact that anglers can now pay for a license that allows the use of three lines. It simply increases the odds! If he has three clients in addition to himself, that means they can each fish one line for panfish and have eight other lines out for northern pike. “With this many lines, we’ve had days when we have caught 10-12 pike in an outing.” Size varies, but in the shallower waters, Paul says they’ll most often catch pike from 2-8 pounds.
Typically, Paul sets out a series of tip-ups trying to pick areas where pike will be cruising around searching for an easy meal throughout the day. He will spool the reel with 20-pound braid and then use a Bigtooth Rig made by Clam Outdoors with a chub for bait. “With the clear water, I like the gold blades the best, but I also will use red. If it is shallow water, shallower than 10 feet, I will not use a leader, but in deeper water I will use a 3-foot Flurocarbon leader (20 pound test).”
Paul takes the chub and takes one treble hook and gets one of the hooks secured just under the skin just behind the dorsal fin on one side. He does the same thing with the other treble hook on the side. To help attract the pike, Paul will clip the tail off where the tail meets the body of the chub. “This gives a ‘blood’ scent trail, and if a pike is in the area, it’ll come to the chub.” It’s not necessary to get the bait on the bottom because pike often cruise up off the bottom.
The Bigtooth Rig is a quick strike rig, so Paul stresses not to wait a long time to set the hook. “When the flag trips, get over there and lift the tip-up out of the water, letting the pike take the line (you don’t want them to feel resistance). As I do this, I strip off some extra line so that I have extra in case I need to give a big pike line when it makes a run. I tell my clients to set the hook when the fish is making a run. Then work the fish toward the hole. If we are keeping pike, I will have a gaff handy in case, but if not, we’ll get it coming up the hole and then grab it under the gill. Just make certain to be careful. I suggest having a glove to protect your hand.”
Paul does one more thing to heighten the northern pike experience for his clients. “I will have a tip-up ready with an already hooked lively chub in a bucket of water. When we see a pike enter our fishing area, we’ll take the chub and put it down the hole. This will often trigger a response from the pike. What a rush when you see it take the bait!”
As the season goes
Things change as the ice season goes. “By mid-season, I often find the bigger pike moving into deeper water, say a rock pile or a deep weedline up to 20-feet or so. It’s here that we get the chance to catch pike over 10 pounds.”
At late ice, things change again. Pike are getting ready to spawn, often times spawning beneath the ice. In preparation, they will move to areas where water is flowing into the lake. “On Spirit Lake, this means the Buffalo Run area, Little Spirit area and Hale’s Slough.”
The secret is out
Catching pike on West Lake and Spirit Lake has been a best-kept secret, but the secret is out…that is if you take the time to target these toothy critters. Paul says, “These fish are so plentiful and such great fighters. They are also excellent eating. Anglers have the opportunity to fish the best of both worlds at the same time: quality panfish and quality northern pike!”
It just doesn’t get much better than that!
Photos courtesy of Paul’s Guide Service