Pete Barnes is among a community of anglers who regularly drag their gear onto the ice on the north end of Hayden Lake near the sportsmen’s access.
He may go out a couple hundred yards from shore.
He’s been doing it since right around Christmas.
Like most anglers there, Barnes targets northern pike using tip-ups, which are spring loaded flags that pop up when the line from a fishing reel gets jerked.
Idaho Fish and Game allows anglers to use five tip-ups each and anglers spread them around — close enough together that the lines are easy to manage if there’s a bite, but spaced to prevent things from getting tangled under the ice.
Watching tip-ups takes practice.
“It takes a lot of patience,” Barnes said. “It’s not a big bite fishery.”
Barnes, the chief bailiff in the county’s court system, has fished pike for decades. He grew up on high mountain trout, 12-inch fish, or 14-inch fish, sometimes smaller, beautifully colored fish that fit in a pan.
But there’s something about chasing a toothy predator that can grow as big as your leg that brings out the growl in aesthetes.
“It’s fun to catch big fish,” Barnes said. “The lure of a 20- or 30-pounder is always on your mind.”
Around 23 lakes, sloughs and ponds — bodies of water — in North Idaho contain pike, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Pike are common in Lake Coeur d’Alene and its Chain Lakes along the Coeur d’Alene River. Chatcolet, Fernan and the Twin lakes have pike, but Hayden Lake, just north of Coeur d’Alene has something that winter pike anglers need in addition to a lake full of fish.
“There’s been about 7 to 9 inches of ice on the north end,” Barnes said.
Despite warm weather and rain, the ice at the upper reaches of Hayden Lake has so far remained solid.
“I’m kind of surprised, it’s been holding good,” Barnes said.
Fishing has been pretty alright as well. Barnes has hooked a 19- and a 20-pound northern pike since he dropped his first line in December. He uses herring for bait, but each angler has their own favorite.
“Some use perch, some use (pike minnow), I’ve even heard of guys using hot dogs out there,” he said. “As long as they smell that meat, they’ll take it.”
Northern pike begin spawning next month. By then, on many North Idaho lakes, the ice is usually out, and anglers fish from shore dropping “dead bait” — usually pre-packaged smelt of herring — along the bottom around weed beds.
“Dead bait season is when you get the biggest pike,” Barnes said.
Since being illegally introduced into Idaho in the 1970s, Idaho Fish and Game has managed pike as a game fish without setting a minimum size or bag limit. Encouraging high harvest has not adversely impacted pike numbers.
According to Fish and Game, Idaho anglers annually harvest about a third of the pike population, keeping pike numbers in check, slowing down their migration and stemming their predation on other species.
“In general, northern pike haven’t had destructive impacts on other game fish or native fish species,” Fish and Game Fisheries Bureau Chief Jim Fredericks said.
On most days, anglers can expect a couple hits on a tip-up. Some are short takes, or “bump and runs,” a fish may drop the bait, or not get hooked.
Some days, anglers arrive at dark and leave at dark, with little to show for the time spent watching tip-ups. Lucky anglers get one nice fish a day, Barnes said. Some days a fisherman can catch three or more, usually under 10 pounds.
“Some days you spend 10 hours on the ice and no flag goes up,” he said. “It’s still a good day.”
He eats the ones that he doesn’t throw back.
“It’s flaky white meat. It’s fantastic,” he said.
So far, he hasn’t caught a wall hanger, he said. But with each popped flag on a tip-up, he may be getting closer.
“Everytime a flag does go up, you’re thinking it could be that 30-pounder, and that’s exciting,” he said.