Too Much Fun: Pike On The Fly

Fly fishing techniques and equipment are effective ways to catch Northern Pike in shallow waters that they frequent. The fish like the mud and obtain warmth from the sun in such areas, and will go after natural-looking flies at the end of fishing line.

It was June, early spring in Northeastern Saskatchewan, and the large pile of Wollaston Lake was fighting to get at our flies. And flies were what these fish wanted. My partner and I tried other kinds of tackle, off and on, throughout our seven-day trip. We threw plugs, spinners, spoons, jigs, topwater baits, and though we caught much fish on hardware when it came to big pike, ones over three feet long, nothing could rival our streamers. The flies outfished hardware by at least 15 to 1. Our host, Gerald Howard, owner of Minor Bay Camps, keeps a daily “wall board” log of all large fish his guests caught and released. According to the wall board, the lure fishermen in camp averaged one or two 36- to 38-inch northern pike per day, with the occasional fish over 40 inches. Those of us fishing flies usually racked up a bunch of the latter every day.

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I cite these numbers only because they help deflate the myth that flyfishing for pike is a gimmick or, as I’ve heard it called, a stunt. In certain situations, namely when Pike is in water less than 10 feet deep, flyfishing is anything but a stunt; it’s simply the best way to catch northern, especially large ones.

What makes flies so useful? They look natural. Feathers and hackles undulate and pulse in a way no hard-bodied (or even soft plastic) lure can approximate. The more carefully a fish inspects a submerged streamer, the more interested it gets. Not only does the full fly bend and wave in the water; parts of it also do, even individual hackle fibers, which flutter, glisten with movement, and emit tiny pulsations. If you don’t work them, streamers also hover like minnows, close to neutral buoyancy. Nothing made of metal, wood or plastic comes so close to mimicking reality, looks so real to a large, cautious gamefish. This attribute is especially important with big pike, which, like tarpon and muskies, are known for following a lure, often for many feet, sometimes right to the boat, before striking or turning away. It’s as if the fish are somehow testing the bait, probing for a green light that only they can see. And streamers, it seems, have that green light, one that elicits a strike more often than not.

Catch the Fever

Not only is fly fishing the most efficient way to hook big pike in shallow water, but it’s also the most exciting way to catch northern of any size. On Wollaston, for instance, we hunted and cast like angling for bonefish and tarpon on the flats. It was early June, and the post-ice-out water was frigid. Big pike sought the shallow, clay-bottomed bays and bellied down into the warm mud, languorously soaking up the warmth from the sun.

We drifted silently along, often in less than five feet of water, searching for polarized glasses for what I called “mudding” pike; either the resting fish themselves or the bathtub-sized swirls of sediment that indicated a large fish had spooked ahead of our boat. It was marvelous sport to see a huge, green, loglike fish lying 30 feet ahead–or to project ahead of a large swirl–and whip out a cast that had to be both fast and accurate. You roll the fly out from pinched fingers, make one backcast to feed line, possibly one false cast to extend and gauge accuracy, then deliver. Splat the streamer beyond the fish, being careful not to lay the line directly overhead, and begin stripping it back.

Resting fish invariably lifted themselves from the mud and calmly locked onto the fly, sometimes hitting immediately, sometimes coming all the way to the boat before opening wide and, in a jet of speed, clamping down. A pike moving away from the vessel, lightly startled, would turn on a correct presentation, its elongate body bending nearly into a U, then propel out from this coil and rise to slam the passing fly or follow it with glowing predatory intensity, snout inches behind. Sometimes the fish would take, at times not. It’s heartstopping to have a 20-plus-pound, nearly four-foot monster nose the fly all the way to the boat, never knowing exactly when, or if, there will be a sudden explosion.

Sight casting is always the peak of the sport when flyfishing, but flyrod pike are exciting even when you’re casting blind. You cast, and strip, and suddenly from the left or right, or directly behind the streamer, a wake appears, a moving, rippling bulge headed toward your fly, coming faster and faster. The urge is to slow the retrieve, but that’s usually a mistake; it’s better to speed up, making the fish think that the streamer is getting away. Slam. Charging pike hit a fly like nothing else in the fresh water.

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Once hooked, pike fight far better against a flyrod than they do against any other standard tackle. Those who would disparage even a big pike’s resistance to capture should try putting the thick-stick, short-lever baitcasting rods and No. 5 spinners aside and see what even a modest six-pound northern feels like against a nine-foot, 8/9 graphite rod.
All of this helps explain why fly rodding for pike is a hot sport today. And why shouldn’t it be? As trout streams become more crowded, warm water flyfishing gains in appeal. Pike are widely distributed across the northern tier of this continent. I’ve to fly fished for them in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, throughout the upper Midwest; in Vermont and New York; and in every Canadian province of Quebec west. This is to say that even if one can (and, if possible, should) get to northern Canada to sample the very best pike fishing, most anglers in the northern-tier states can find good sport close to home.

Terminal Tackle

The how-to aspect of flyrod Pike is not complicated, though there are some general guidelines. Pike have nothing of permit’s skittishness, nor are they finicky like spring creek brown trout; but they aren’t pushovers, either. Proper tackle is necessary but fairly essential [see sidebar]. There is some debate over the need for wire leaders, but once you see how even small pike can shred and mangle terminal tackle, you’ll never want to throw a small monofilament shock leader again.

I favor 12 to 18 inches of 30-pound-test nylon-coated wire. This turns over easily on the cast and is supple enough for knot tying. I ignore the often-touted stopper-knot and melded-plastic rigs and just attach the wire to my flies with a primary three-turn clinch knot, pulling it rock-tight with needle-nosed pliers. I’ve never had this fail. I use an Albright knot to fix the class tippet (usually 12- to 16- pound-test) to the wire; and end up with a leader five to six, but no longer than seven, feet long. Even in clear water, I’ve not known pike to be leader-shy.

Pike will respond to a wide range of streamers. The most necessary, and possibly the most deadly, is the simple saddle-hackle streamer, four inches long (1/0 to 3/0 hook), enlivened with a few strands of tinsel or sparkle fiber, and finished with a palmer-wrapped saddle-hackle head. It’s an easy pattern to tie, reasonably fluid to cast, and pike love them. A favored modification on this is the variously named Flesh, Bunny Leech or Rabbit fly, which adds a two- to three-inch rabbit strip tail behind the hook bend. Some anglers believe that five- to six-inch flies attract bigger pike, but I don’t. As with tarpon, there seems to be a point of diminishing returns in the big-fly/big-fish reasoning. The best tarpon flies seldom stretch past four inches, and most of them–the Apte II, Cockroach, Deceiver, Orange/Yellow Tarpon–make great pike flies as well.

When Pike is down deeper than five feet, the best fly I know is the beady-eyed Whistler streamer, designed by Dan Blanton. It’s somewhat difficult to cast, but it sinks well into the fish zone, and pike everywhere seem to love it.
Although Pike is not fussy about specific patterns, I have known them to be surprisingly selective about color. At Wollaston Lake, for instance, one day a white-bodied, red-headed streamer would take 60 or 70 fish, only to be hardly touched the next day, when orange-and-white was hot.

The following day orange-and-white was duly received, but sculpin or perch patterns lured fish after fish. For this reason, I carry a range of color combos.

By the end of our week at Minor Bay Camps, we had caught and released hundreds of pike (28 of them 40 inches or longer). Our example influenced other fishermen, who at first were skeptical of our flyrods, but who, seeing the wallboard numbers and hearing a few of our stories, vowed to buy fly rods and get in on the fun. I hope they do. The word is out on flyrod pike, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Fishing that’s so much fun couldn’t stay secret forever.

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