fly anglers are reluctant to target pike on a fly rod. Maybe pike
doesn't meet their definition of what fly fishing is all about or
maybe it's because of their days spent targeting pike before picking
up a fly rod. Whatever the reason, they have no idea how much fun
they're missing out on. Fly fishing for pike doesn't have much
finesse associated with it, chucking those big heavy streamers on
heavy rods with steel leaders but if you've been thinking of trying
something new and are looking for some explosive action then maybe
it's finally time to step back and wrap your head around some pike.
The northern pike has many names. The scientific name is Esox Lucius. Lucius derived from its resemblance to the pole-weapon known as the pike and Esox comes from the Greek name meaning big fish. Around these parts, smaller pike have been called hammer handles and snot rockets while bigger pike have gone by names like gators, slough sharks or water wolves. There are many other names we hear anglers calling northern pike and the names differ according to what geographical area in the world they're found. But regardless what you like to call the northern pike, when you hook into one on a fly rod, you call it exciting.
There are fly anglers who hunt pike all summer. Using sinking lines, they'll fish deeper water in search of these toothy critters. Most fly guys however, will target pike in the spring and late fall as the shallow stillwaters at these times are warmer than the deeper waters meaning more insects which in turn will draw in the bait fish and the pike will follow. Pike will hunker down in these shallow waters, awaiting it's prey. They'll hold completely still, relying on it's incredible ambushing skills to devour a tasty meal.
Techniques and Presentation
Unlike most stillwater fish, pike are not always cruising around foraging for food. Pike are ambush predators that like to hold near weeds, in depressions or on the edge of drop-offs. When they make their way into the shallows, they will at times, sit in as little as a foot and a half of water and sighting pike is a great way of finding out just how shallow the pike are holding. By cruising the shoals and wearing Polaroid glasses, you can see them lying in wait. You may spook a few out of their hiding spots while you're doing this but it gives you a good idea of just how shallow you should be fishing them. Once you know how close they're holding to the shore, anchoring down and casting parallel to the shore line can be very productive. Although pike don't hold in tight schools, they can hold in fairly close proximity to each other. Fishing parallel to the shore while fan casting and working from deeper water inland will spook less fish when hooking up and give you better coverage of fish-able water. Experimenting with your retrieves is also an important element of fishing for pike. Although my favourite retrieve is a strip, strip pause, pike don't all respond to the same stimulus and where you may find one fish taking a dead slow retrieve, another may take only the fastest of retrieves. Constantly changing the speed of your flies should produce good results. When the fish are less active, a slower presentation right in the face of a holding pike can produce strikes probably more out of aggression than hunger. When pike are shallow and if conditions are right, consider using sliders and poppers. Although pike are not as precise when it comes to top water feeding as trout, if pike are aggressive and the surface of the water is smooth, top water flies can make for the ultimate dry fly fishing. The takes on top water flies are heart pounding and will at times startle you. The pikes aggressiveness really comes through when you see one attack your fly. Even the small hammer handles are a blast to catch on floating patterns.
Tackle and Equipment
Recommended tackle when going after northern pike should include rods in the 8 to 10 weight range. Although these heavier rods will help you horse in these aggressive fish, you'll be more concerned with casting out the large flies needed to entice these big eaters and casting these heavy flies all day can cause fatigue, The more backbone your rod has the easier it will be to cast these big flies.
Large arbour reels to match the weight of these heavier rods will help when fighting pike, especially when you hook into that 40 incher. Pike are known for their strong runs and can quickly take you into your backing so reels that come with some form of drag control will be beneficial.
Pike fly lines are now available from all the major manufacturers and Rio, Cortland and Scientific Anglers all make excellent pike lines. If you are only going to choose one type of line for pike, a floating line should be considered as a good all around line. To get presentations deeper adding more leader and heavier flies is an easy fix. An intermediate sinking line also makes a great addition to your arsenal and a handy tool for pike that are holding a little deeper.
The one thing us fly anglers can't seem to agree on is pike leaders. Seems everybody has their own opinion on this one. Through experience, I've found that relying on about 4 feet of 20lb wire tippet attached to about 3ft of heavy mono has saved a lot of lost flies. Rio has come up with an amazing 20lb knot-able wire tippet that's very supple with a diameter of only .016" making changing flies or building leaders easy work.
Other notable pieces of equipment that you will want to consider are long hemostats, long enough to go digging into a mouth full of teeth. Jaw spreaders, to keep that mouth open while using your hemostats. A cut proof glove in case the mouth closes on your hand, a large net or better yet a cradle for getting big pike under control and of course a good cutting tool for dealing with wire tippet.
Flies and Materials
Traditionally, 3 to 6 inch rabbit strip and buck-tail patterns have been used when hunting the northern pike. Rabbit strips offer incredible action when retrieved and there are a good variety of patterns available. A quick search on Google will bring up many of these patterns like Barry Reynolds’s bunny leech which is highly productive. Keep in mind though, these flies tend to get water logged and do become quite heavy.
Marabou, although not as durable, is a much lighter material that doesn't hold as much water and it offers an awesome pulsating action under the surface. A simple yet affective marabou pattern to try is the popsicle leech. With just a cone head, some chenille and wrapped marabou that flows back over the body, this fly has proven it worth time and time again. I've caught my personal best with this pattern on a pike that went over 40 inches.
Buck-tail flies are also highly successful but tend to get chewed up pretty quick.
A newer synthetic material used today that doesn't hold any water and is really durable is Superhair. When combined with crystal flash these materials make for a highly visible fly that is superior over the less durable deer hair and polar bear flies. With just a quick comb-out, this material will continue looking like new even after being raked through the sharp teeth of a pike. Superhair can replace traditional materials on flies like the Mickey Fin, Lefty's Deceiver and the Clouser Minnow. The most deadly pattern I've used for pike to date was introduced to me by Phil Rowley out at Lake Wabamun a couple years back. The Half and Half (1/2 Deceiver and 1/2 Clouser) has produced many large pike when other flies just couldn't draw their attention.
Floating bass flies work equally as well when used for top water pike fishing. Poppers and sliders draw attention as do frog and mice imitations. Creating your own top water flies is fairly simple. Using thick foam like you see in a pair of cheap flip flops and cut out using copper tubing make for great popper heads and materials like chenille, superhair, buck-tail, rabbit strips and crystal flash can be added according to your liking. Most of the top water flies I use are gaudy, home made flies tied brightly to draw attention. When tying streamers consider matching colors to the pike’s natural prey found in the stillwaters you’re fishing.
The northern pike's aggressive nature and nasty demeanour make for exciting and explosive action. If you've yet to experience pike on the fly, don't let it be one more thing that you've shelved for another day. Fly Fishing for Pike really can be some of the best fly fishing you've ever had.
Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner of Alberta Stillwater Adventures, specializing in one-on-one introductory to stillwater fly fishing clinics.