Got a full bait bucket after a long cold unproductive day on the ice? That lake you yanked a dozen pike from in early January has suddenly turned into a dead zone. What to do with the 9$ in live bait you’re holding? Instead of unceremoniously dumping those suckers and shiners or spending lots of time and energy trying to keep them alive for the next weekend, save them in the freezer. Store them (clearly labeled!) for some early spring pike action on the open water! It’s never too early to start planning for next season. Deadbaiting pike in the early weeks of the spring and summer can be a fantastic way to boat some of the biggest pike you’ll see all year. April, May and June create conditions that concentrate large pike into classic and predictable locations and feeding patterns.
Using sandwich sized freezer bags, just add 5-6 unused ice fishing shiners to each bag and stick them in the freezer. Lay them flat for easy usage in a few months, and take care not to let them pile up in the bottom of the bag. A wad of frozen together shiners and suckers makes for a frustrating game of dead minnow jenga. A thin layer of fish popsicles that thaw and separate easily will make your transition from freezer baggie to hook much easier.
Every minnow counts! Don’t submit to cold wet hands after a long day on the ice. Don’t just drop that uneaten shiner off the treble and walk away. Take the extra step and return them to the bait bucket so you can save them (and some money) for the upcoming spring. That expensive and unfortunately uneaten February bait will translate to a quick grab-and-go from the freezer come warm weather and open water. No need for the time-consuming and expensive trip to the bait store. Targeting giant early season Wisconsin pikers with deadbait is a productive and enjoyable day on the water. All that’s needed is an understanding of the locations and presentations needed to get them to eat.
Early season pike are fairly easy to locate. Pike spawn early- sometimes while there’s still ice gathered in back bays and the water temps are 40-45 degrees. That spawn lasts a few weeks. When the procreating has come to a close, the pike will swarm back bays, shallows and flats looking to scoop anything that’s even remotely edible.
On rivers, this will be sloughs and backwaters. Look for big shallow areas off the current, which will warm and also push food up into the flats. Imagine a minnow floating in the current, and picture how that dead fish would eventually wind up washing up onto your chosen slack water spot. Put your baits there.
On lakes, this will be the warmest bays and shallow flats. They receive lots of sunlight and might also have downed timber or early weed growth. These spots should also register a degree or two warmer than the main lake areas on your electronics.
Any changes in cover or structure on these shallow spots can be key. Think about where the dominant predator in the area would set up. Sprinkle the baits around any areas that offer those ambush spots for a cruising pike.
Safe and Quiet
Anglers can take advantage of this predictable pike behavior from both boat and shore fishing. On rivers especially, the areas populated by these voracious predators in the early season will be easy to access. Stay away from the spots on the main river, and do a little bushwhacking to find shoreline access to the backwater shallows. From the boat, make sure to scout ahead to save that lower unit from damage! Water hazards like stumps and snags can wreak havoc. Drop the trolling motor early and often as you work into the shallower spots. The shallow water means easily spooked fish. Use a quiet approach as possible. Some anglers will access the water they plan to fish, and then sit quietly for 10-15 minutes to let the area settle.
Rig medium heavy rods with 20-40lb braid, a few split shot sinkers and terminate with leader and treble hook or large single. My preferred reel is an Abu Garcia C4 matched with a medium Mojo Bass or Premier St Croix rod with a fast action to increase casting distance. The bait clicker on the reel will announce strikes loudly so I can focus on watching floats, and the high gear ratio of 6.3:1 on the 6600 can keep with a run from a big hooked pike.
You can hook the deadbait either through the lips or back hook them. I have not found either to make a difference for hooking percentages or action. Worth mentioning: when river fishing, the lip hooked bait offers less drag if there’s current present so it’s easier to keep the bait where you want it with less weight. I like a bait on the bottom towards deeper water, as close to the mouth of the bay or slough as I can.
Suspend deadbait about halfway up the water column with a medium sized float. I use the 5” Thill Gold Medal Series. Back hook the dead shiner on a treble so it sits a little more naturally. Start with one float towards deeper water, and set one 8-10 inches and cast up to the shallow flats. You’re trying to contact both fish moving in, and fish already cruising the shallows.
With the suspended baits, I prefer a 7 foot St.Croix Premier medium heavy fast spinning rod with an Okuma ABF-40 or 55 baitrunner reel. The spinning outfit is preferable for casting this setup as far as possible from boat noise. The baitrunner feature on the Okuma series will allow the fish to take the deadbait and not feel the pressure of the line or rod loading up.
Reading the Action
If you’re seeing action on the bottom, increase the amount of rigs set that way. If the bottom is not connecting, but the floats are seeing fish, adjust your approach to match. Often, early morning fish will be contacted towards the mouths of bays and slightly deeper water as they move in to feed. Once the water warms and fish have established themselves in the shallow water, you’ll see more action up on the flats.
If the action on the deadbaits is slow or non-existent, fancast jerkbaits. Keep the pauses long and move the bait slowly. This can also be very effective for river shoreline anglers. Always leave a deadbait rig out when casting for any fish that follow the jerkbait but don’t strike. They might just turn around and eat that ice fishing shiner you saved!
Label and store the bait in your freezer. Use the cold winter off days to scout lakes and sections of the river you’d like to target for early season pike. Study lake maps, ask fishing buddies, ask at your favorite bait stores, and scout ahead to figure out how you can access the backwater areas that will hold those pike come ice out.
When the season opens, grab a few packages of your frozen bait and head right to those spots you’ve targeted and researched in the off-season. Those giant pike are going to be hungry this spring, and you’ll be ready!
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