Got Any Smelt?

Thanks to Dan Donarski for another guest blog piece with more great ice fishing advice and the best bait to use.

In these parts walleye and perch seem to get the most attention among ice anglers. Sure there are the tried and true whitefish and herring fellows, both spearers and bait anglers, but these are certainly in the minority.

One fish that just doesn’t get much respect is the northern pike. Yes, I know, there are some of you out there, but compared to the others you are a minority. And that’s a shame.

Pike are great sport, as anyone fishing for walleyes with a Jack’s spoon will tell you when a big toothy critter takes a swipe at the spoon and minnow-head combo. For the died-in-the-wool pike angler the fun is even better. It becomes a hunt.

You hunt the places where pike are found. You look for weed beds, now mostly dead. Specifically you hunt for the weed beds that are still standing up in the water. These provide cover for the baitfish, ands the pike.

Tulies or reeds aren’t the best places to look. Not all weeds are created equal. Rather, hunt for the coontail, the pickerel weed, the cabbage. Even when you find these pike magnets you should go one better.

Look for the outside edge of the weed beds, or a hole inside a big bed. Even better is to find that weeded adjacent to deeper water or some other structure. All these things add to the welcome sign for the pike.

Even among pike anglers, chances are that they fish one rig off a tip-up and the other rig they use to try and catch some perch or other panfish. But, if pike are your quarry, then both rigs should be used.

Tip-ups are easy. Not much more than a set it and wait for the bite rig, which will be a tell-tale sign by the flag. Then it’s a simple matter of hoofing it over to the hole and seeing if a fish is taking line from the spool. A nice thing about this rig is that you can fish dead bait off it very well.

Swedish-style hooks work well with dead bait. There is another choice though, if you can find it. Called a Kurtis Katch-All, this multi-hooked rig will find a home in a pike’s mouth from whatever angle the fish hits it. If you have any whole smelt in your freezer this rig will put them to very good use.

In fact, dead smelt, sometimes called floater smelt in the bait shops, is more than likely the finest bait of all to use for pike. Smelt are oily fish, oily fish put off a lot of scent, pike like that. You will, too.

On the second rig I like live bait. Bait in the form of big chubs, suckers if you can find them. Fished below a float that is tuned to just keep the bait from swimming away, these can be quite deadly. So you don’t lose the rig down the hole, use rubber bands to secure the line to the rod handle, keeping the bail open. When the fish takes the bait it pulls the line from underneath the rubber bands and the line leaves the bail without any friction or resistance. Set the table with both rigs and chances are quite good that any self-respecting pike will come by for a quick bite.

That quick bite is something you need to watch. Generally speaking a pike comes in on bait, dead or alive, and T-bones the thing, taking it at the middle of the body. With the Kurtis rig, go ahead and set the hook, you will strike home. It’s when you use a simple treble or Swedish hook that you need to give it time.

When the pike T-bones the bait, the toothy critter will swim off with it. Sometimes they swim a good long way. Then they stop. While they are stopped they turn the bait around and swallow the thing, head first. After they have swallowed it they again slowly swim off.

It is not until they start to swim off again that it is a good idea to set the hook. Do it any time beforehand and chances are good they will be able to spit the bait out. So, flag goes up or bobber disappears, you watch line leave the reel. The line stops moving after a time and then starts to move again. Now set the hook. Oh yeah, and hang on.

There is any number of good waters in the area. Drummond is certainly one, as are the Les Cheneaux Islands. Waiska and Munuscong Bay, Lake George, baie de Wasi are other big water spots.

Going inland the Manistique Lakes are perennial favorites. Then there’s Indian. The list goes on and on. Chances are that if it is a lake, and certainly if it is part of the greater St. Mary’s and northern Lake Huron waters, pike are swimming under the ice.

And, below the bridge all you have to look for is the drowned river mouth lakes. Muskegon, Manistee, Pere Marquette, Macatawa. These lakes, emptying into Lake Michigan are the stuff big toothy critter dreams are made of. The big fish come in this time of year t feast on the gathering prey fish. And smelt is chief among these.

Get some smelt, some chubs or suckers, use wire leaders (another method is to use heavy, as in 50-pound or greater mono, for the leader), find a good weed bed, and be patient. Some of the biggest pike of the year come through holes in the ice. Now is a good time for you to help them get themselves on the ice.

Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.