The northern pike is one of Minnesota's largest and easiest fish to catch.
Found in in nearly every Minnesota lake and river, the northern pike is a voracious predator known for powerful runs that strip line from your reel.
Though somewhat challenging to fillet, the northern pike is excellent table fare.
If you haven’t fished for northern pike you should. It's a cool fish.
- When to fish
Generally, northern pike can be caught from the opening day of fishing season in May through the last Sunday in February. But know that limits and dates can vary from place to place, size restrictions may exist and fishing for them in a particular lake could be closed or limited.
Minnesota has three northern pike zones and regulations vary depending on where you're fishing. You'll find the regulations for each zone listed in the inland waters section of the online fishing regulations. For an explanation of what these regulations are designed to accomplish, check out our northern pize zones page.
Even with the zones in place, some Minnesota waters still may have special regulations in place for pike. Check to see if this list contains the lake in which you're fishing.
Complete and comprehensive fishing regulations are in the fishing regulations booklet. The most up-to-date version is available online. Printed copies, which do not include the most-recent updates, are available where fishing licenses are sold.
- Where to fish
Most Minnesota lakes and rivers contain northern pike but not all so, if you intend to target northern pike, a good place to start is our LakeFinder tool, which contains fish population information for more than 4,500 fishing lakes.
You will find northern pike in winter in many of the same places you found them in autumn – points, narrows, weedlines and other weedy places where this top predator can hide while waiting to ambush prey. Lakefinder includes underwater topographic maps – also called lake contour maps – that can help you find some of these prime locations.
Typically, much northern pike ice fishing takes place in water six to 15 feet deep with your suspended minnow hanging anywhere from near the bottom to a few feet below the ice. You will want to experiment with how deep to fish your minnow. Basically, you want it to be where other baitfish are present and that can vary based on a variety of factors.
- How to fish
The best way to catch northern pike in winter is to use a tip-up rig. A tip-up rig is different than a rod-and-reel combination because there is no rod at all. Instead, a tip-up is an apparatus in which the reel is placed in the hole you drilled, and when a fish unspools line a signal flag “tips up.” Tip-ups can be purchased at virtually any bait shop or retail fishing outlet.
Once you have lowered your tip-up line into the water it is largely a waiting game. It is smart to check your sucker or shiner minnow every half hour or so, and even to jig it once in a while. Still, northern pike tip-up fishing is mostly waiting for a flag to pop up.
When fishing as part of a group, it makes sense to apply some strategy as to where you drill your holes and how deep to suspend your minnow in each hole. For example, if fishing a drop-off or you may want to place tip-ups at the 10-, 12- or 15-foot contour. Similarly, if you are fishing a point that extends into the lake you may want to set tip-ups at various depths along the point, starting in shallow and then drilling additional holes every 10 or 20 yards into deeper water. You must fish within 200 feet of your tip-ups.
Once a flag does fly, avoid the temptation to run toward it. Ice is slippery and there is no sense hurting yourself. Besides, northern pike often take a large minnow sideways in their mouth, swim with it for a while then turn the minnow head-first to swallow it. This feeding technique gives you plenty of time to get to the tip-up, grab hold of the line with your bare hands and gently sense what it is going on.
If the fish is still swimming at a good speed it is best to wait a while longer before setting the hook with a quick snap of the wrist and arm. If 15 seconds or more have passed and this fish is swimming slowly – or you simply feel a dead weight on the line - well, that’s is a good time to set the hook. It’s also possible that you’ll feel nothing at all. That means the fish has dropped your minnow.
- Auger for drilling a hole
- Scoop for removing ice and slush from the hole
- Rod, reel, lure and live bait
- Plastic bucket or chair to sit on, or more commonly a pop-up fishing shelter
- Warm clothes and boots
Useful & handy
- Sled or plastic bucket for hauling your gear
- Emergency ice picks to stab into ice in the event you break through
- Pop-up ice fishing shelter
- Propane heater
- Disposable hand and toe warmers
- Face mask
- Fish-finding sonar unit
- Underwater camera
- Sunscreen to prevent sunburn
- A Smartphone app (they are quite inexpensive) that will show you lake depths and where you are in relation to bottom contours
- Small towel or rag for drying hands
- Warm, waterproof gloves
- Head-lamp or flashlight for seeing in low light conditions
- Tackle box with a variety of lures, weights and bobbers
- Ruler for measuring fish if fishing on a lake where special sunfish regulations are in place
- Compass in the event snow squalls prevent you from being able to see shore
- Slip-on ice cleats for your boots
- What's important to know
- Northern pike have exceptionally sharp backward-facing teeth. Because that’s the case don’t ever put your finger in the fishes’ mouth while removing a lure. If it bites down you will be bloody, in pain and in quite the predicament. It is best to use a needle-nose pliers to remove hooks and perhaps use another pair of pliers to hold the fishes’ mouth open when dislodging a hook.
- Tip-ups typically don’t come with line attached. So, you will want to buy braided line in the 45- to 70-pound test range. Thicker line makes hand-over-handing the first out of the hole easier on your skin. You will also want to buy a two-or three-foot foot wire or fluorocarbon leader to attach between your line and hook. This will prevent the pike’s teeth from severing the line. Northern pike are sight feeders but a visible leader does not seem to deter them.
- Northern pike are ambush predators that prefer soft-rayed prey such as sucker minnows or larger shiners. Bait shops usually have a special selection of minnows for fishing northern pike. You’ll want a minnow that’s large enough so that pesky perch and other small fish don’t attack it, thereby tipping up a flag, but less than 12 inches length. Yes, you can buy bigger minnows but they get pricey and may not produce better than smaller minnows. Buy hooks and lures in proportion to minnow size. Local bait shop staff can show popular options for the areas you are fishing.
- Most anglers hook their minnows between the dorsal fin and the tail. This way they are suspended naturally. Avoid hitting the minnow’s spine when hooking it as this will kill the minnow.
- Some lakes are subject to special regulations that restrict harvest beyond the normal statewide regulations. Make you know how many fish you can keep by checking the fishing regulations booklet. Many lakes with special regulations have very good fish populations, and though you can keep fewer fish the size quality may be better.
- When cleaning your catch it is common to see small black spots on the fillets. These pepper-like appearances – called neascus – are not harmful nor does it alter the flavor of the fish.
- Fish are a healthy source of protein but any fish – even those bought in a store – can contain contaminants that can harm human health, especially in children and fetuses. You can learn more by checking out fish consumption guidelines in the fishing regulations booklet.
- Northern pike are very tasty but require an extra step to remove Y-bones during the filleting process. If you have never filleted a northern pike, view our pike filleting video or search online tutorials.
- Another option is to simply pickle the northern pike you catch. The Y-bones dissolve in the acidic vinegar.
- Basic biology
- Northern pike are typically olive green with short white bar-like spots on the sides and a white underbelly. The fins are reddish.
- Northern pike often become sexually mature at just two years old. They breed in late winter and early spring in shallow grassy areas, starting when ice still covers the lakes.
- Northern pike are not fussy eaters. They will eat most any fish, including those with spiny fins.
- Northern pike have an exceptionally slimy body that reduces friction as it accelerates through the water.
- The state record northern pike weighed 45 pounds, 12 ounces.
- Helpful information
- An internet search of "how to ice fish for northern pike" will yield various articles and videos that further expand on how to catch northern pike.
- An internet search of “ice fishing augers” is something you may want to research because drilling a hole is the very first step to catching fish. Hand and power augers come in a wide variety of price ranges and styles with battery powered augers increasingly popular because they start reliably with the flip of a switch. If you choose a hand auger, you may want to consider one with cutting blades no larger than five inches in length. That’s large enough for bluegill yet easier on your body because you will be making a smaller diameter cutting through less ice.
- An internet search of “ice fishing electronics” will yield various articles and videos on sonar units, underwater cameras and GPS units. These days the majority of ice fishing anglers use some sort of fish-finding technology rather than, as they say, “fishing blind.”