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Woodland Trails: Catching big fish on the ice

Josh knew right away that it was big fish. As soon as he set the hook he felt weight and called for assistance. I came to watch because when you have a big fish on the line and you're standing on the ice there isn't much you can do. Four times Josh fought the fish back toward the hole and four times the big fish ran out line. The problem was getting its head into the hole and hoping the hook set good enough to pull it through.

Catching big fish. It's the best. Superlative. Unsurpassed. The optimal fishing experience. Look at the pictures we take and the big smiles that ensue from the photos. Look at the brag boards at bait shops. Look at the back pages of sporting magazine, journals and outdoor newspapers. Big fish, big photo, big smile!

And it doesn't matter the time of year they are taken. Spring, summer, fall or winter are all great times to take big fish. In fact, some may argue that winter trophies are a little bit more special because of the conditions they are taken in and the methods used. Conditions can be brutal with wind, cold and snow. And methods are a bit barbaric with simply a hole cut in the ice and a small ice rod or tip-up to hoist heavy hawgs.

Ah, the tip-up. A time-honored method of taking big fish through the ice. Living in Wisconsin the tip-up is our third arm. Those living in Minnesota only have two arms as they are only allowed to use two lines - usually one with a waxie and the other with a minnow. But here in Wisconsin we have a third arm, meaning we can fish with three poles.

So what do we use the third pole for? Most generally a tip-up for a big fish. Yes, I know you can jig for walleye and drop a dead stick down a hole or set three tip-ups and use all kinds of combinations mentioned, but generally speaking your average angler in this neck of the neck or corner of the lake will run a pole or two and then set as many tip-ups as possible.

In more cases than not, tip-ups are set for the great northern pike. Yes, walleye are often the target as well. And lake trout on Canadian shield lakes are awesome. You name just about any kind of fish and they can be caught on a tip-up set on the ice. In fact, I recently heard about one angler who set three tip-ups on a lake and then went back into his truck and waited for them to pop. The interesting part of all of that was that he was fishing for crappies with crappie minnows!

For those of you unfamiliar with tip-ups, think of it as a device that has line and a reel like any fishing rig. The big difference is that the reel on a tip-up is underwater and when a fish hits the bait and runs off line it causes a little red or orange flag to pop up and wave in the wind. That alerts anglers that the gig is up and it's time for battle.

When fishing for big pike there are several options for bait. The old-worlders like dead smelt set on a special hook that allows them to hang dead in lifelike pose. The other two main options are shiners and sucker minnows. Most tip-ups are rigged with heavy black nylon line and a steel leader to prevent the pike from biting through the line and escaping with a free lunch.

On this day we had heard that big perch were hitting on Big Butternut Lake. Forget that rumor. You needed four of them taped together to get one perch a foot long. So to make time pass, we decided to set a few tip-ups and hopefully get a hammer-handle northern to pickle. The first tip-up popped and there was a small pike on the end of the line. Just the right size for pickling. But when the second flag popped, Josh knew he had a real fish on the end of the line.

As the battle ensued, we knew we had a good hook set and it was just a matter of getting the fish in close enough and started up the hole. Two years ago we took an 18-pound pike through the ice and we wondered if this one might be as big. Finally the fish began to weaken and Josh maneuvered the pike to the bottom of the hole and with an upward heave horsed the fish skyward.

The head filled the 7-inch hole. As it appeared, Josh grabbed the gill plates and heaved the fish onto the ice. It was a big fat pike destined to fill many glass jars with good eating. After a few pictures it was back to the boredom of three-inch perch, but the waiting tip-ups held the allure of anticipation that comes when someone yells "flag" or "tip-up!"