The Allure of Solid Water

A proper pike fillet is worth a day spent on solid water

By Rob Breeding

I’ve never been much of an ice fisherman. My problem: hitting a small hole in the ice with my fly on a consistent basis has always been tough for a dude with my limited casting skills.

I know, lame joke. Sorry. But ice fishing just isn’t my cup of tea. I like fishing in winter, but I prefer fly fishing. It’s not that I dislike ice fishing, which is, after all, fishing. It’s just not in my repertoire of frequent winter sporting activities.

The few times I’ve played on the ice have been fun. There’s no casting, but jigging or dangling bait has its appeal. Unfortunately, I’ve never iced fished when water clarity allowed me to observe fish as they approached my bait. That sounds like a hoot.

Trout and perch are popular targets. And in northwest Montana, deep water ice fishing for Kokanee salmon has become something of a high-tech arms race, with electronic flashers that pinpoint the precise depth where the fish are schooling. The salmon feed on zooplankton, which often suspend in the water column. You have to know where the food is to find the salmon, and that’s why the flashers (fish finders) are so important.

Salmon baits are tiny and delicate, the lines are light, and soft tipped rods are necessary to keep from ripping hooks out of the tissue-like mouths of Kokanee.

Less high tech, or maybe I should say completely no tech, is the fish some would call the region’s No. 1 ice fishing target: northern pike. These fish are a different game entirely. Ice fishing for pike requires short, stout rods with the power to set hooks and turn angry fish away from weeds and other structure, and back toward the hole in the ice. The toughest of pike anglers don’t bother with rods at all, instead hand lining the beasts through the ice.

For those of you not familiar with pike, here’s the basic biological description: a large mouth filled with sharp teeth connected to a body designed to keep that mouth filled with food.

Some folks don’t bother with hooks at all. Instead, they cut large squares out of the ice and dangle fish decoys, lures or dead bait below their ice shack. When a marauding pike shows up to investigate, they harpoon the toothy monster with a spear that resembles Poseidon’s trident.

I’ve never speared pike, but after watching a few videos on YouTube I’m seriously considering ditching my 10-foot winter nymphing rod altogether. Spearing pike takes sight fishing to a whole new level.

I’ve caught pike before, on flies, and found them entertaining. I recall once on a trip in Canada we had a great morning catching walleye and pike and our guide fried fillets of each for shore lunch.

The pike was every bit as tasty as walleye, the freshwater fish generally considered the gold standard in culinary terms. Sadly, there was one problem with the pike: bones. Our guide didn’t know how to deal with the Y bones that run threw the middle of a pike fillet, so each tasty bite was interrupted as we picked the fine pieces out of our teeth.

There are countless recipes or other concoctions designed to deal with pike Y bones, pickling being the most common. But I’ve never seriously pursued the species since that day in Canada, precisely because I’m not fond of choking.

Serious pike anglers know how to fillet out Y bones. It takes a little extra work, and it’s easiest if you’re dealing with a fish 4-5 pounds or more, but there’s not that much to it. Again, YouTube is your friend. The social media site is filled with instructional videos on how to properly fillet a pike.

And I don’t care how you get ‘em through the ice, a proper pike fillet is worth a day spent on solid water.

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