Fourth-generation Minnesota guide Jonny Petrowske shares strategies for catching northern pike all winter long.
Pike grow big in Minnesota’s Upper Red Lake, where Jonny Petrowske and his family have been outfitting hunters and fishermen for four generations. From the time Upper Red freezes each winter (usually in early December) through the end of February, these big toothy predators are a major attraction both to Jonny P, as Petrowske is best known, and to visiting anglers
While pike will always be pike, favoring big meals and attacking offerings with gusto, likely locations and feeing behavior go through definite changes over the course of a normal winter. Understanding those changes and planning strategies accordingly creates far better chances of success, whether you fish Upper Red Lake, Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake or some other pike-filled waterway.
Just prior to lakes icing over, whitefish of various sorts move shallow to spawn in many pike-populated lakes. The northerns, not being the sorts of fish to turn down easy meals, stray shallow also, and that’s usually where they can be found for the first few weeks after the lakes have fishable ice across the tops of them.
“If fact, commercial whitefish fishermen used to complain about the big pike that would get caught in their nets during late fall,” Petrowske said.
During this time, Petrowske stays shallow, typically drilling his holes over less than 6 feet of water in areas where he expects whitefish to spawn, and he’ll move around periodically in search of feeding fish.
Pike prefer an ambush point for hunting, so Petrowske always sets up near some kind of ridge or hump. “On Upper Red, where we have very little structure in most places, you might be talking about a depth difference 6 or 12 inches, but that’s where the fish will be,” he said.
Petrowske’s number one lure for early season pike is a 3- or 4-inch Viking Spoon, which he’ll work very aggressively, even pulling it all the way up, banging it off the bottom of the ice and letting it flutter back. “That wild fluttering action often is exactly what the pike want at that time.”
Petrowske rarely uses a flasher when he’s fishing super shallow because the cone angle doesn’t show enough to be of great value; however, he will use an underwater camera to look for fish and watch how they react to his offerings. Occasionally he’ll see a pike staying 20 or 30 feet away, watching his spoon, but never committing. That’s when Petrowske grabs a rod rigged with a 2 3/4-inch Lindy Darter, drops the Darter to the bottom and works it with gentle lifts. Often, the switch seals the deal.
A few weeks into the ice season, usually in late December at Upper Red Lake, the whitefish move out of the shallows and the pike lose their reason to stay shallow. They typically move into the lake’s main basin, often to water in the 12- to 20-foot depth range, where they’ll spend the next month or so.
Petrowske looks for the same kinds of rockpiles or ledges the walleyes use, except he won’t set up over the edges, like he would if he was fishing for walleyes. Instead he’ll drill either directly on top of the structure or about 20 feet off to the side of it.
“Those big pike cruise off the sides of structure so they can trap baitfish between themselves in the rocks,” he said.
Unlike early in the season, when Petrowske will move around in search of fish, he’ll pretty well stay put during mid-winter and will let the fish come to him. To aid the process, he’ll use a lot of sound, rigging up with either the largest size of Rattl’N Flyer Spoon or the same big Darter he used early in the year and shaking hit rod tip a lot to call in the pike. He might also put out a tip-up, rigged with a big live bait, and fish it while he jigs nearby.
Toward the end of the ice season, the pike begin moving shallow again. This time they are moving toward their own spawning grounds, and they’ll make the transition through a series of movements. The stray up and down with fronts and stay in the areas where they find the most chubs, redtail shiners and other baitfish.
Petrowske suggested beginning with the areas where you’ve caught fish through mid-winter, considering likely pike spawning areas in that part of the lake and then fishing breaks and rocks in-between. He’ll begin his search just a little bit shallower than he had been fishing and then work his way gradually shallower until he finds the fish.
Big baits are really important for late-ice pike. Petrowske will fish the biggest Viking Spoons made and the biggest Darters during February. He slows and softens his presentations, though, giving the Viking Spoon short lifts, letting it wobble back down and pausing it, and lifting and dropping the Darter gently and steadily so that it just swims in big circles without a lot of erratic movements.
Whether he’s working shallow or deep and no matter what mood he expects from the pike, Jonny P always keeps an eye out for “light breaks,” which the fish use as ambush points.
As an example, Jonny P described an opening in the snow that lets light shine through where everything else nearby is snow covered. “The pike will hold right along that dark/light edge, using it as structure,” he said, noting on lakes like Upper Red, where there is not a lot of bottom structure, those light breaks can be important.
Petrowske’s rod of choice for pike through the ice is a Thorne Bros Walleye Sweet Heart, which has a medium heavy action. He believes this action, which is lighter than some anglers prefer for pike, allows him to get the best movement out of his lures. He uses a big baitcasting reel that holds a lot of line and spools up with 20-pound test for spoons and 12-pound test for Darters, adding a leader tied from knotable wire such as TyGer Leader.
Want to Go?
To learn more about trout fishing with Jonny Petrowske, visit the Outdoors With Jonny P website. For a current report from Upper Red Lake, visit Lindy’s Live Audio Reports page.