If you’ve ever watched the top of a tip-up spin after a pike has taken the offering below, be it frozen smelt, herring or perhaps even a hot dog, you often wonder when the metal circular blur is going to stop. Sometimes the process takes well over thirty seconds before the whirring T slows down and the force of nature on the other end takes a break from its underwater jaunt. That’s because pike are creatures of speed, sprinters capable of blasting across a short distance at an incredible pace to ambush their prey and trap them in their toothy maw.
After that initial attack, however, pike don’t stop moving. With the bait T-boned in their mouth, held tight by not only the jagged teeth along the edges of their jaw, but also those curled up in a wide row along the top of their bony beak, they swim on assuring that the morsel is held tight and not lost. After a bit, however, they stop to turn their lunch lengthwise and swallow it for the long process of digestion.
This pause is where we as ice anglers see the shift in our equipment and know when to set the hook. By watching that spinning component, we know when to get ready for the battle. At the call of “FLAG!” the sprint over to a triggered tip-up can set off a rush of adrenaline, especially on those waters where big pike are present. Since one never knows whether it’ll be a hammer-handle sized specimen or a true leviathan, a sense of mystery and excitement remains with any deployment of fish traps on the ice. Setting that excitement aside however can be part of the challenge, like watching a bass blow up on a summer topwater and waiting a second or two to set the hook, not jerking the tip-up from the ice hole in a cold spray of water and slush is an acquired skill. Instead, on approach, inspect the tip-up for motion. If the flag holder is still twirling when you arrive, let it stop. Then grab the tip-up from the ice, pull up the slack line and feel for the fish below. If there’s weight, set the hook with a strong upward pull and get ready for the battle.
When the fight gets going, keep things as neat and tidy along side the hole as possible, setting the tip up a couple feet away and gently laying any gained line on the ice between the unit and the hole, so that it can easily slide back up through your hands and down the hole when a pike makes another dash into the depths. This also helps keep line from tangling around the tip-up and other obstructions which might result in a lost fish, or just a mess. In all situations, keeping the line tight is key to landing the fish, but in those instances where circle hooks are being used to facilitate a release, it is of the utmost importance and is just one added element to consider in the heat of the moment.
The final challenge comes at the end of the fight when steering a pike’s head into the ice hole. It’s easier at early season when the cylinder isn’t as deep. But later in winter, sometimes the hole can be as deep as the fish is long, even with bigger pike. It requires some finesse, and to have played the fish out a bit, to angle the head up toward the surface but the pointy nature of a pike’s snout helps once the fish has been fatigued. Yawing the auger a bit at the completion of the hole also creates a concave angle to
the edges of its bottom which can help bring fish up a bit easier.
At the hole, I like to use an old glove to lip-land toothy pike. Their jaws instinctively lock around it, making it an easy pull onto the ice. Other options include a landing tool like a Boga grip, or a tight grasp around the area behind the head, if you don’t mind getting your hands or gloves cold and wet for a bit. If a release is being considered, avoid touching the gills or the eyes of the fish and those hooked too deeply, especially with a larger treble, should be kept as they are less likely to survive.
Remember that when a pike takes a bait under the ice, and flag pops the battle has not yet begun. Wait for that pause that signals the fish’s grab and go run has stopped, and then get ready to set the hook. A little time and some practice on those lakes loaded with pike will condition you on what to watch for and how to convert more on ice excitement this season…in our outdoors.