They have wide, flat heads, baleful yellow eyes, and lots of sharp teeth. Big ones will considerably outstretch a yardstick, weigh more than 20 pounds, and eat streamer flies with the same kind of finesse that Mike Tyson brings to a press conference. This is not flyfishing for the faint of heart.
Chasing northern pike with fly tackle is growing in popularity in part because opportunities are so widespread. It’s a hot ticket now in a few Colorado reservoirs, for example, and some backwaters in the suburban Connecticut River near Hartford can offer prime sport. In the upper Midwest, meanwhile, pike compete with walleyes to be the most popular angling target.
For numbers and size, nothing beats the Far North, specifically northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and portions of the adjacent Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Pike are also found at various locales from Labrador to Alaska-there are some very big ones in the Yukon, for example-but north-central Canada is still the mother lode.
Fortunately, the demands of fly tackle and tactics are essentially the same whether you’re targeting 20-inchers in Connecticut or 20-pounders in Manitoba. You will most likely be throwing big, air-resistant flies. That single factor is what determines the rest of your gear.
RODS, REELS, AND LINES
Ten-weight outfits are probably the most versatile pike-fishing tools. Consider an 8-weight as the light end, with which you’ll have problems casting the largest streamers and fighting the biggest fish. A 12-weight is not too heavy, especially if the rod is moderate-actioned (and not a stiff, so-called tarpon rod). The large mass of such heavy fly lines helps substantially in casting large streamers, where casting technique and loading the rod properly with a deliberate stroke are more important than high line speeds and squeaky-tight casting loops.
Floating fly lines with an exaggerated weight-forward bias, such as so-called bass-bug or pike tapers, are also helpful in delivering big flies. If all else fails and you still have trouble getting a big streamer to cast smoothly, try overloading your rod by one line size. This slows the rod’s action-making for an easier casting stroke-and puts more mass in the air to help carry the fly.
Intermediate-style (very slow sinking) lines may be useful at those times when pike are reluctant to take right at the surface. In some early-spring outings, when the pike insist on a fly fished about 2 feet under the surface, I’ve found an intermediate to be essential. With the exception of the Far North, you might also want a fast-sinking line or shooting taper that you can use to probe deep along the outside edges of summer weedbeds.
Northern pike are bulldogging sorts of thrashers rather than long-running fish. They don’t put big demands on a reel, and just about anything capable of holding a large fly line plus 100 yards of Dacron backing is sufficient. One of the newer large-arbor designs will be helpful in making it easier to crank up line when moving from place to place.
FLIES AND LEADERS
Red, yellow (or chartreuse), white, and black are the basic colors in pike streamers. Big and bright is the traditional approach, but in recent years the most effective fly has been made with a long strip of black-dyed rabbit fur. These bunny flies range from 4 to as much as 8 inches long and are especially effective on big fish. Unfortunately, fur-winged streamers soak up lots of water and become heavy in the air when you’re trying to cast them. Patterns like the Dahlberg Mega-Diver, with wings made of synthetic fibers, are sometimes just as effective and substantially easier to cast.
There is a general perception that pike are gullible, stupid fish that will eat just about any streamer fly. But this isn’t so. Like other fish, pike become quickly educated as fishing pressure increases. Even on Far Northern llakes, I’ve had to use more drably colored, imitative streamers to draw strikes near the end of the season, a time when pike would turn behind-but not take-more typical brightly colored flies. The pike fly selection in most mail-order catalogs is fairly limited. For more variety and fishy-looking appeal, look at the large striped-bass flies, many of which also work extremely well for pike.
Leaders can be simple, but you’ll need a wire bite tippet to prevent cut-offs. Most recently, I’ve been using Surflon Micro Supreme by American Fishing Wire, a fine-diameter, nylon-coated stainless-steel material that can be tied with conventional flyfishing knots. With large lines and flies on Far Northern lakes, I use about 3 feet of 40-pound-test hard monofilament as a leader butt, followed by 3 feet of 30- or 25-pound-test, followed by about 1 foot of wire tippet. This heavy design enables relatively easy casting with big flies and also allows you to land large fish quickly. Pike leaders are also available commercially.
The pike themselves will tell you how to retrieve your streamer as you gauge their responses to whatever it is you happen to be doing. In general, erratic is the key word. A mix of fast and slow strips, hops, and jumps of the fly will usually draw the most fish.
The exceptions can be significant. Last spring when Field & Stream contributing editor Dave Hughes and I were flyfishing northern Saskatchewan’s Misaw Lake, many of its abundant big pike had just finished spawning and wanted their streamers stripped slowly and steadily. These were big fish in shallow water. Their responses were easy to see in the sunlit shallows. A slow, steady stripping of the fly seemed to tickle a fish’s nose as it swam gently up behind the fly. Then a great mouth would open, and the fly would simply disappear. It sometimes seemed to happen in slow motion and was truly heart-stopping because some of these pike were nearly 4 feet long.
There were 50- and 60-fish days on this particular trip, which is primarily testimony to the area’s abundant and large fish. The flyfishing was exhausting, partly from fighting big pike, but mostly in an emotional sense. Monsters with big teeth are scary things, especially on a fly rod.