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Ice Fishing Jersey Pike

by Jim Hartobey
Contracting Biologist
December, 2005

The time has come to start digging out or to purchase some ice fishing gear, as each cold day increases the likelihood of safe ice and the chance to fish the frozen lakes and ponds of New Jersey. I look forward to calling friends and scheduling which days we will hit which pond or lake.

I recall when a friend of mine first offered to take me ice fishing with him. My reply was "I don't ice fish, it's like fishing in a toilet bowl." Little did I realize that I would come to embrace this sport, and look forward to braving the brutal cold in search of my quarry.

There is no need to drive out of state since New Jersey has a healthy Pike population as a result of an aggressive stocking program by the Division of Fish and Wildlife. New Jersey offers quality pike fishing in some of our better-known lakes, such as Budd Lake, Farrington Lake, Spruce Run Reservoir, Cranberry Lake, and Pompton Lake. These lakes have been heavily stocked with thousands of northern pike raised at the Hackettstown State Fish Hatchery over the years, and the Division uses several of these lakes to collect broodstock.

Angler with northern pike
Nice northern pike await below the ice
Click to enlarge

Northern pike are easily caught throughout the winter months, and ice fishing is one of the best ways to target them. I can expect to catch anywhere from 1 to a dozen in a day's time on a lake that harbors them. The secret is the right equipment, location and bait presentation.

Getting On the Ice

My ice-fishing excursions begin with checking the ice for thickness. However, anyone who goes out onto a frozen body of water must realize that there is usually a degree of risk and needs to be aware of conditions. Ice seldom freezes at a uniform rate, and what constitutes a safe ice is difficult to apply in all cases. While three inches of ice on a farm pond may pose little danger, that same three inches on a moving stream or lake with springs, stumps and currents could be very dangerous. Massachusetts Wildlife has a handy chart to determine safe ice conditions at
Angler with good sized pike
Another happy angler!
Click to enlarge

I usually do not venture out unless the ice is at least 4 inches thick for safety reasons and to keep myself alive and dry - I recommend you do the same. It's relatively easy to check the thickness: take your auger or spud (basically a very long-handled chisel for chopping a hole in the ice) and drill about 6 feet away from the shoreline. Depending on the thickness, you can make the determination of whether to proceed or move to another location


I've found that tip-ups are the best tool for catching pike since it's mostly a waiting game. Some anglers do use jigs and other lures, but I always suggest that beginners, or even experienced ice anglers, stick to tip-ups. New Jersey allows a maximum of 5 tip-ups per person and they can be purchased in bait and tackle stores or ordered through a catalog or online.

I prefer large wooden tip-ups for their strength and durability, spooled with 40 pounds of black dacron line. The thicker dacron line is easier to pull up when you've hooked a fish, and it keeps you from cutting your hands. Pike are not hook shy, so use a leader on a size 2 or 4 hook. I like to add a rattler about a foot above the hook to draw in the fish. Rattlers are normally used for rubber worms, but some have a hole through them to attach a line.

An auger that can drill an 8-inch hole is needed because some pike may be in excess of 15 pounds - hook into one of them and you will regret buying a 4 or 6-inch borer when you can't bring up the fish. The extra inches are worth the investment. Augers are available in gas or hand powered, and both work equally well. Each type, of course, has advantages and disadvantages.

To haul equipment across the ice, a sled comes in handy. Some anglers build elaborate sleds, or modify a sled they own, but a simple kid's sled works wonders and costs only a few dollars.

Location, Location, Location!

I know the feeling of walking out onto a lake all pumped up to catch fish and, seeing the vast expanse of "Frozen Tundra" ahead of me, thinking, "where should I begin?". So let's take the guesswork out of it. Simply look for any protruding points and start trekking towards that point. Northern pike like to hang near points, and it also acts as a funneling spot for traveling pike.

Start drilling about 15 feet from the tip of the point. Check the depth and if it's deeper than 3 feet, set your first tip-up. Deploy the rest of your tip-up in 20 to 40 foot increments angling away from the point and checking the depth in each one. I use a clip-on weight (looks like a bank sinker with clamps) to determine the water depth. Once your rig (no bait yet) hits bottom, pull the line up a couple feet then attach a marker (split shot) on the part of the line level with the water. This gives you a pre-set marker so you do not have to do this every time you check your bait. Make sure to take the clip-on weight off before you bait at this point.

  To increase your chances, don't be too locked in fishing close to shore because Pike do frequent open waters where there is structure or springs. When you have a straight line of tip-ups you increase your chance of intercepting pike as they pass through from one area to another.

Another great lake feature to utilize is the inflow. Any inflow is a great spot to set up, but be aware of thinner ice which is typical over moving waters. I usually fish this area late in the season as pike move to the shallows to spawn. Fish this area as you would a point.


Finally let's talk bait. Bait can be anything in the form of a fish, and the livelier the better since lively bait will keep the rattle moving. I tend to use large golden shiners when targeting trophy-size pike. The only problem with going large is the increased rate of spit-ups by smaller pike. Smaller pike will grab the large shiner and start swimming off with it instead of engulfing it, making you set the hook without luck. When this happens, go small.

Author with pike
Author Jim Hartobey with his favorite hard-water fish - the northern pike!
Click to enlarge

Bait can be hard to find during the winter, however you can catch and store your own bait. Yellow and white perch are easy to catch and can be stored for an extended period of time in an aerated live well. I've kept perch in a garbage can with an aerator for a month at a time without any problems except for their by-products.

Native perch tend to swim more on a hook and go berserk when a predator swims near it. Hook your bait through the body at the base of the dorsal fin and use a split shot above the leader to help bring down the bait. I usually start at the first tip-up and bait as I go to the last one. Check the bait every 15 minutes, and at the same time clear the ice forming in the hole. If your bait appears to be lively then drop it back down, if not then put a new bait on.


When your flag goes up indicating a fish has taken your bait, take your time and slowly walk over - most people make the mistake of running to the tip-up sounding like an elephant and scaring away the fish. Just gently raise the tip-up out of the hole and get control of the line while letting it continue to spool out freely. Then set the hook.

The line is strong enough to pull the pike out of the water. I would not spend more than 3 hours at a given location if the spot isn't producing. When that happens, just pack up and look for another point and head over there.

This winter, don't sit around the house wishing for spring. Get the gear ready and head out to a frozen lake to catch Jersey Pikes. Remember to release those you do not plan to keep as quickly as possible to ensure that the success of this fishery continues. If you catch a whopper, feel free to call us at the Lebanon Fisheries Office at 908-236-2118.


arrow Northern Pike Facts & Information
arrow Hackettstown State Fish Hatchery
arrow 2005 Hackettstown Broodstock Collection
arrow Related Articles
arrow Fishing Regulations

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Last Updated: December 22, 2005