Tip-Up Pike Tactics


A tip-up hanging a dead sucker, cisco or other baitfish is an unbeatable ice fishing presentation for northern pike. Here’s a refresher on where to find pike in winter and how to catch them using tip-ups and dead-bait.


Hard-Water Pike Locations

On large, deep lakes, ciscoes, whitefish and other pelagic fish are important food sources for pike. Anglers will find northern pike, along with walleye and lake trout, hunting these forage fish on points, humps, saddles and other structures in 15 to 30 feet for much of the winter.


In shallow and fertile lakes, pike gravitate to large bays, mid-depth flats and points to fill their bellies with suckers, minnows, yellow perch and other forage. Healthy vegetation often boosts an area’s appeal for northerns. If present, structures near deep basins are worth exploring on fertile lakes during mid-winter.


River backwaters also offer excellent winter fishing action. Tucked away from the main channel’s fast flow, back bays, sloughs and other backwater features attract panfish, minnows and other pike forage.


Regardless of the waterbody, the arrival of late ice prompts pike to move towards spawning bays and creeks. Tip-ups set around shallow and mid-depth points, flats, drop-offs and bays near spawning habitat routinely catch some of the biggest northern pike of the year.


Tip: Ice safety is always a priority, especially on rivers and at late ice. Use a spud bar to test ice thickness and condition, carry Ice Claw Safety Spikes and exercise extreme caution.


Tip-Up Options

The Rapala Tip-Up With Glow Ruler and Thermal Tip-Up are excellent choices for northern pike. Each model has a “light” and “heavy” trip-setting. The heavy setting is best for pike. Each tip-up also easily fits over a 10” ice hole.


The Rapala Tip-Up With Glow Ruler’s highly-visible flag is useful in heavy snow conditions. Its large spool with extra line capacity is also advantageous given a pike’s propensity to make long runs.



The Thermal Tip-Up’s circular, insulated design covers the entire ice hole, which prevents freeze-up and snow from blowing into the hole. It also blocks light and is handy in shallow water where pike can be spooked by ice-hole “spotlights” and overhead movement.



Use Tip-Up Specific Ice Line

Spool tip-ups with Sufix Performance V-Coat and Performance Tip-Up Ice Braid in 30- or 50-pound for pike. These lines are made with high tenacity polyester braid (HTP) for superior abrasion resistance, durability, low stretch and diameter to strength ratios. The Hydro Fusion Process also ensures the line sinks quickly and handles exceptionally well in cold weather.


The Business End

Northern pike are all about maximum reward for minimum effort, which is why a dead sucker, cisco, shiner or other baitfish are great for tip-ups. Frozen herring or mackerel also work and are easily found in most grocery stores.


A quick-strike rig is best for presenting a dead-bait. This rig lets you immediately set the hook when a pike takes the bait, which helps prevent hooking fish deep.


There are many quick-strike rig styles, but a basic template for in-line rig involves two, VMC #6, #4 or #2 treble hooks spaced two to three inches apart. Multi-strand wire and crimps have long been used, but more anglers are making quick-strike rigs with 50- to 100-pound Sufix Advance Fluorocarbon Leader and 100% Fluorocarbon Invisiline Leader. This is because fluorocarbon is nearly invisible underwater, helping catch more pike from clear water and systems receiving heavy angling pressure.



Rig a dead-bait with one quick-strike hook between the bait’s dorsal fin and head, the other hook closer to the tail. Hook location can be adjusted to hang the bait vertically, horizontally or somewhere in between.


Tip: Review local fishing regulations regarding the use of bait-fish, the number of hooks points allowed per line and number of lines allowed per angler, adjusting tactics and rig design as required.


More Dead-Bait Tips

Spread out tip-ups to cover water within an area. Give the area some time to produce, but don’t overstay. If pike aren’t biting, keep moving until you start catching fish.


Although not required for tip-up tactics, a portable fish finder and a GPS with a contour map help position dead-baits near edges and transition zones that pike use to hunt and travel. Ledges, rocky points, creek channels and weed lines are just a few examples of these important features.


A dead-bait set a couple feet off bottom is an excellent all-round strategy for pike. In shallow water, a bait hanging in the middle of the water column can be equally effective.


Big northerns can be leery of noise, particularly when shallow. Keep quiet. Walk - don’t run - to a tip-up with a flying flag.


Once you arrive, move the tip-up to the side, grab the line and set the hook with a long, steady pull. Bring in line hand-over-hand, letting the fish run when it wants, until you’re able to lead its head up the ice hole. After getting a good, safe hold of the fish, use your trusty Fishermen’s Pliers to remove the hooks.



Lastly, practicing selective harvest helps sustain the pike fishery. If keeping fish for the table, take home small to medium pike and release big northerns.