The feeding habits of the northern pike change a lot throughout the year, and several conditions and variables dictate feeding habits from season to season. Let’s look at winter in particular and answer the question of why do pike feed in winter?
The answer to this question is simple, and it’s because they have to feed to live. While northern pike feed considerably less in the winter months than they do in spring, summer, and fall, it’s still a necessity.
Why Do Pike Feed in Winter?
Pike feed considerably less in the winter months due to being cold-blooded, but what does being cold-blooded have to do with feeding behavior?
Nearly all fish are cold-blooded, and when the water temperatures start to decline in the late fall, northern pike, like other predatory fish, typically start feeding very heavily, and as fall progresses they eat considerably larger prey than they would feed on in the spring and summer.
Author Note: Pike feed heavily in the fall to gain as much fat reserve or store as much energy as they can before the water temperature gets so low that ice starts forming over the lakes.
Think of it in a similar way to a bear putting on fat before winter hibernation.
Once temperatures get to winter levels, the metabolism of a larger predatory fish like a pike slows down to a crawl.
This drastic drop in metabolism helps the pike conserve energy throughout the winter, but it still needs to be supplemented with periodic feeding.
What Do Pike Eat in the Winter?
Pike eat primarily fish in the winter, no surprise there, and their diets are unchanged from any other time of the year, except for species and food items that aren’t present under the ice.
Top Tip: Prey like ducklings, frogs, mice, and other animals simply aren’t on the menu during the winter months.
Due to being very lethargic in the cold water, pike are not going to chase a meal down, and instead look for easy meals.
Easy meals can consist of dead fish or wounded and sick fish that they can catch with very little effort, as well as prey like mudpuppies which are actually fairly active in the winter months.
Being opportunistic feeders they will even eat small prey like aquatic insects that other fish like panfish eat.
Talk to any fishermen who spends time on the ice fishing for panfish and they will likely tell you of the occasional big pike being caught on tiny jigs.
Do Pike Like Deep Water in Winter?
To answer this question we must determine what “deep water” is. During the warm water months, the northern pike can be found in a wide range of depths, from very shallow water that can be only a few feet deep to suspending in mid-lake basins where they stalk schools of baitfish.
Pike will be found wherever there is baitfish to feed on, and in the winter months, baitfish will still inhabit fairly shallow water and live and feed in weed beds and other areas with cover, as well as being in deep water of 30 feet or more.
Pike can be found in water as shallow as six feet in the winter months, and an excellent place to find them will be in areas with vegetation that holds baitfish in 6-15 feet of water.
Underwater structure such as drop-offs, spines, and humps, will also hold pike for the same reasons.
Drop-offs or shelves where the depth increases rapidly are great areas for pike, and they will cruise along these edges in search of a meal.
How Do You Catch Pike in the Winter?
The main tactic used by ice anglers to catch pike in the winter is to use live or dead bait presentations under tip-ups.
Tip-up fishing is a passive form of fishing, as it doesn’t require an angler to actively fish, and they can sit unattended, only needing periodic checks throughout the day to ensure the bait hasn’t been stolen or to ensure it hasn’t gotten tangled up in weeds.
Baitfish like lake shiners, river shiners, chubs, and small suckers are great choices to use with a tip-up, and dead bait like large smelt, suckers, and even herring or mackerel can make for great pike bait.
Dead bait works so well in the winter months due to the slow lethargic nature of pike in the cold water that we mentioned earlier.
Dead bait is an easy meal, there is no chasing involved, and it’s hard for a big pike to pass up a smelt dinner when it’s just hanging in the water above it.
Jigging with artificial lures can also be a successful tactic in the winter months, and you can use sections of dead bait in combination with lures like spoons for deadly results in the right situation.
Many conditions that affect pike feeding throughout the year still apply in the winter months.
Conditions like atmospheric pressure, weather fronts, moon phases, moonrise, moonset, sunrise, and sunset still dictate the feeding moods of a pike.
Oxygen levels are crucial when it comes to pike feeding in the winter, and the more oxygenated the water is, the more active pike will be. Along with oxygen levels, water clarity and light levels will also play a role.
Top Tip: Clear lakes are great lakes to pike fish in the winter, as the light levels are higher than in stained bodies of water.
This makes it easier for pike to find prey, especially in deep water, as the ice and snow above filter out most light during the day.
There you have it, everything you could want to know about pike feeding behavior in the winter months.
Pike still feed regularly in the winter, but they may go longer periods without actively feeding.
Pike fishing can still be action-packed in the winter months too, just have to go out when the conditions are favorable and you will be running to flagging tip-ups all day long.