By Nick Simonson
Upon my return to North Dakota, while sorting through bins, chests and buckets full of odds and ends from the move, I found a black mesh cylinder with a zipper top. I opened it and turned it over, and three orange tip-ups slid out of the container, each still with leaders and treble hooks attached to the Dacron line which was haphazardly wound around each one’s spool, as if they were hastily pulled off the ice last season. Wandering back through my fishing memory book, I could not recall a time since my move from the Peace Garden State that I had deployed these orange flagged units, but excited at the discovery amidst the moving boxes and the padding paper, I immediately set to work respooling them with shiny new black line for the coming ice season.
That was July. My enthusiasm for a day of tip-up fishing with buddies on one of the state’s still popular pike waters has only grown, and the wait for safe ice has only made the anticipation rise to nearly unbearable levels. Now, a tacklebox loaded with treble hooks, quick strike rigs, leaders and weights is ready for full deployment alongside the recently dusted-off and readied tip-ups, and it was quick and inexpensive to have my armada of orange angling tools ready to roll after some of the state’s hardest fighting fish.
Build Your Arsenal
It doesn’t take much to get in on the tip-up action for pike in winter. A $50 stop at the fishing section of any department or sporting goods store for tip-ups, some line, leaders and treble hooks from 1/0 to 4/0 will have you all set for tip-up fishing. I prefer to use a single treble hook attached via 12-inch leader to 25-to-40 pound test Dacron line on my tip-ups. Others may prefer heavier line or longer leaders depending on clarity of the lake being fished. If you’re fishing catch and release, try a variety of quick strike rigs to lessen impact on the fish. Braided lines like Spiderwire or Fireline can also be used, however if you’re bringing it in bare handed, be very careful, as it can cut through skin when a pike inevitably makes one of its impressive runs.
The legal number of lines that can be used during ice fishing in North Dakota is four. This provides tip-up anglers with a chance for some real hole dashing action. That is in part the reason my tip-up armada spent much of the last decade collecting dust, as the other jurisdictions I resided in only allowed two lines through the ice, and the tip-up stored in my portable ice shack fulfilled its duty from time to time as my second line.
By setting three tip-ups in high percentage areas such as channel edge flats, points or along last summer’s weedline, anglers can capitalize on known pike cruising strips. By drilling holes in other areas nearby, an angler can jig spoons or baited hooks for pike and hop around while still keeping an eye on the flags. Keep track of where flags or bites come most often, and adjust a tip-up spread from there. Many brands and models of tip-ups exist, giving anglers more options than ever before in terms of features and price points. Some, like the classic Polar tip-up, are a bridge of orange plastic with a spool-and-flag setup in the middle. Its simple design and bright color make it a shoe-in for inclusion in any angler’s arsenal. Its flag holding notch also prevents the wind from tripping the flag and sending out a false alarm.
Other options, like a variety of hole covering thermal tip-ups, line counter models, and others with lights and literally all the bells and whistles one needs for a “fish on” alert, are available at a premium. Take a look at several different models and try a few out to see what works best.
Ready to Rumble
You may be dozens of yards away, in the truck, on shore, or in the icehouse when a flag trips on the tip-up. Don’t worry about missing the fish. Pike, by their nature as ambush predators, tend to grab a bait and run with it before turning it and trying to swallow it. As you approach the tip-up you can see the spool turning the T mechanism as the pike runs. Watch for the spin to slow or even stop. A good idea once the flag pops up, is to count to twenty, remove the tip-up from the hole and then grab hold of the line coming off the spool. If you can see the line angling off under the ice, there’s a good chance the fish is on. Feel for tension and prepare for battle.
The hook is set with a swift upward pull on the line, at that point you should feel the weight of the fish on the other end. When pulling up the line, make sure to lay it as neatly as possible next to the hole as the pike nears the surface. In case of a quick run by the fish, the line will smoothly flow off the ice, through your hands and back down the hole, instead of tangling on the tip-up, your leg or other obstructions. Work the pike to the hole, and steer its beak up to the surface. Utilize a Boga grip, or similar landing device to lock onto the lower jaw to hoist the fish up. Alternatively, a beat up leather glove over one hand will suffice, and once a pike’s tooth-filled mouth locks on to that material, it is tough to shake it off, use the gloved hand to pull the fish up, and the second hand to brace its body.
Have a set of pliers and a mouth spreader handy to take the pike off the hook. Tip-ups, by their nature of causing some delay between strike and hookset, result in mortal wounding of fish more often than just a jig or a spoon will, but that isn’t always the case. Quick strike rigs, or circle hook setups will connect with pike up around the mouth more frequently than a swallowed treble. If you’re fishing for the freezer, trebles will suffice, but these other options will help release smaller or trophy sized fish you may want to return to the water, with less chance of injury.
There’s a very unique opportunity in North Dakota to pursue pike under the ice. With many small waters still stocked with winter’s most aggressive fish, options abound for anglers to find quality tip-up fishing across the state. Take advantage of the four line option, find a favorite pike lake, set out a spread of tip-ups and get ready to holler “FLAG!” this winter.
(Featured Photo: A spread of tip-ups spans a weedy shelf for pike on a small North Dakota lake. Simonson Photo)