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Fly Fishing For Pike
About eight years ago, I introduced my sons, Brandon and Sean, to fly fishing for pike. Within the first few hours of our initial trip, the pike’s fear-nothing, take-no-prisoners attitude etched a place within their psyche. I was no different. Pike aren’t called the water wolf for nothing – a stark comparison to trout, the usual fly rod quarry.
Know Your Quarry
When chasing pike on the fly, it is important to have a good, basic knowledge of its habits and seasonal movements. Knowledge that helps you explore the right locations, choose the right equipment and make the correct presentations throughout the season.
Pike are spring spawners, migrating into shallow bays soon after ice out to reproduce. After mating, pike remain in the shallows, close to their spawning areas. Here, pike feed aggressively, replenishing and recovering from the rigors of spawning. On most of the lakes I fish, the opportunity to chase pike in shallow, skinny water is limited as the lakes aren’t open to fishing until the first Friday before the Victoria Day weekend. Thankfully, when the season opens, water temperatures remain cool. Active, aggressive pike can still be found in water less than 10 feet deep.
Weed beds are prime pike haunts. I spend the majority of my spring pike excursions working shallow flats and weed beds. Weeds provide cover to a variety of baitfish, such as perch and shiners. Pike prefer to lay in wait, ambushing prey along weed edges, darting out to seize whatever swims by. Active pike also glide in and through weeds hunting food. No matter the time of year or water depth, make a point of exploring every weed bed you come across thoroughly.
Although, often classified as a warm water fish, pike are not – at least in my opinion. Pike are most active in water temperatures around 16 degrees Celsius, or 60 degrees Fahrenheit. When water temperatures rise to and above 21 degrees Celsius, or 70 degrees Fahrenheit, pike become lethargic, often retreating to deeper, cooler, more oxygenated regions. This is an important consideration when chasing pike during the warmer, summer months and early fall months. If possible, work the edges of drop offs, sunken humps and the deep edges of points during the summer months, when pike slide into deeper water. Slower retrieves may be necessary to match their somewhat lethargic nature at this time.
In the later part of fall, water temperatures have cooled and pike once again prowl the shallows in search of sustenance prior to the onset of winter. Like spring, I tend to work the shallow areas next to deep water. As water temperatures continue to cool, pike prey such as perch, minnows and walleye move into deeper water where they wait out winter. When the prey moves, predators such as pike soon follow. Keep this trait in mind if the shallow areas are devoid of activity. Work the edges adjacent to deeper water.
Equipment and Flies
When it comes to chasing pike on the fly, I prefer fast action, nine foot, nine and 10-pound weight rods. Fast action rods have the back bone to not only subdue large pike, but, more importantly, ease the stress of casting large, wind-resistant patterns over the course of the day. If the body of water you fish contains smaller pike, eight or even seven-pound weight rods are fine. Heavier rods also allow you to carry the fight to the fish, subduing it quickly and allowing a modicum of control during the fight should the pike bury itself in the weeds, a trait common to large pike.
A weight-forward, floating line is my primary presentation tool. Although any floating line will work, I recommend choosing a pike-specific taper if you envision chasing pike on the fly on a regular basis. Pike lines feature compact, heavy-front tapers that load fast action rods and punch wind-resistant patterns over considerable distances. Compared to traditional floating lines, the design characteristics of pike taper lines are a welcome relief at the end of a day’s casting.
Another line option worth considering is an integrated line such as RIO’s Outbound Short. Modelled after traditional shooting head systems, integrated lines feature large heads and short tapers, specifically designed for casting large flies a long way. In addition to a floating configuration, integrated lines come in a variety of sink rates, from 1.5 to 6.0 inches per second. I have both a floating and clear, intermediate integrated line that sinks at 2.0 inches per second for when pike are holding deep. A slow-sinking line allows me to get my flies down and use a slow strip retrieve to entice less active pike holding in water from 10 to 20 feet. You could employ a fast-sinking line but the retrieve speeds required to keep the fly from fouling along the bottom doesn’t allow for the slow strip pause retrieve often necessary for success. I find using a slower sinking line, such as the clear intermediate and waiting for the line to sink is a better option.
A stripping apron or basket is handy for managing longer casts and retrieves as they keep all of the line in one spot, reducing tangles and frustration. I add a skim of water to my stripping basket as this helps keep the line apart, further reducing the tangle factor.
My pike leaders are short and stout, 7.5 feet or less. Short leaders work best for casting and turning over large flies. Pike are not leader shy. A short, five to six-foot length of 20-pound nylon leader works well. I use Toothy Critter leaders most often, as they come out of the package complete with a knotable coated wire tippet. Should the tippet section need replacement, I tie a perfection loop at the end of the leader. From there, I either clinch knot a new section of coated wire tippet to the leader loop or form a perfection loop in one end of the wire leader and attach the tippet to the leader using a loop to loop connection. On occasion, I have used small swivels to connect leader to wire tippet.
Pike are armed with a formidable array of teeth, not only along the edges of their jaws but inside their mouths. Their gill rakers are also razor sharp. Food is designed to go into the mouth and never come out. Unless you enjoy tying on new flies after each strike, you need to have some sort of bite-resistant leader, such as coated flexible wire or thick 60-pound plus fluorocarbon. Thick fluorocarbon is abrasion resistant and preferred by a number of anglers who, like me, have a weakness for nasty, toothed quarry such as pike. My favourite tippet material is 20-pound PowerFlex Bite Tippet. Although not clear like fluorocarbon, Bite Tippet is a coated wire material that is strong and flexible enough to tie knots. There is no need to learn a new suite of knots, as the standard knots you use for traditional nylon or fluorocarbon tippet work fine. To attach the fly to the wire tippet, I prefer the non-slip loop knot. The non-slip loop knot remains open, allowing the fly to move and swing, providing additional proof of life for any suspicious pike.
A pike’s teeth are just as unforgiving on fingers as they are on flies and tippet. A long pair of forceps is a must whenever you are removing a fly, even if the fly looks as though you could easily reach it with your fingers. Don’t be tricked by a fly hooked on the outside of a pike’s mouth – an innocuous head shake can rake the pike’s needle-sharp teeth across your hands and the next thing you see is blood everywhere. Accidents do happen, so I never leave home without a healthy stock of Band-Aids and antiseptic.
Also, don’t forget a pair of wire cutters. I did once. Cutting wire tippet with nippers can be done, but it is a struggle. You will need a new pair by day’s end.
I always have a set of jaw spreaders with me, but I only use them as a last resort. I am not a fan of how they force a pike’s mouth open and if the pike shakes its head they often slip free, ending up on the lake bottom. I now attach a floating key chain to my jaw spreaders to reduce my losses. If you pinch the skin flap right at the chin of a pike, well away from the gills, its jaws often hang half open and provide enough space to remove the fly with your forceps.
Landing and releasing pike differs from other fish, such as trout. Pike are long and slimy, making them difficult to hold without risking injury to you or the fish. If you use a landing net, make sure it has a large basket. Large nets not only permit you to successfully land pike, but also allow you to reach in and grab them. Smaller nets also land pike, but once in the basket they straighten out and that makes them difficult to remove. Cradles allow you to land long fish, such as pike, efficiently. Remember to position the pike in the cradle so it noses up against the closed end. Once in the cradle, hold the handles together, keeping the pike in check until you are ready for the release. A cheap pair of cotton gloves provides traction for holding pike by the tail, as you support them under their belly below the pectoral fins. Big pike are heavy and being able to control them prior to release, using a cotton glove, keeps everything manageable.
My pike fly selection is simple. I like large, No. 2 to No. 3/0 flies, constructed primarily of long, flowing, synthetic materials such as craft fur and Ultra Hair to suggest baitfish, and, on occasion, leeches. Synthetics are more durable than natural materials such as bucktail. After a good mauling, most synthetic flies can be combed back into shape, ready for action once again. I found that when I increased my fly size, the average size of pike I caught increased too. Small, aggressive, “hammer handle” pike have no problem chomping large flies either. On many of my flies, I use dumbbell eyes. Dumbbell eyes provide weight and cause the fly to jig seductively during the retrieve. Eyes are an important component to any pike fly. Make a point of choosing eyed flies whenever possible. I am a huge fan of Clouser, Deceiver or Half ‘N’ Half style patterns. Rabbit is another popular pattern material, as it breathes and moves like few other materials when wet. Unfortunately, once waterlogged, rabbit is heavy. Casting a saturated bunny pattern feels similar to slinging a large, wet sock. I still have a selection of rabbit-based patterns on hand, but I prefer synthetic-based flies most of the time.
Top water patterns should complement your subsurface streamer collection. Watching a pike explode on a gurgling or popping pattern is nothing short of heart stopping. When a pike attacks a top water pattern, their true savagery is exposed. Patterns such as Dahlberg Divers, Gurglers and a myriad of deer hair poppers and sliders are excellent top water choices.
Pike presentations are straight forward. A good presentation often consists of nothing more than a long cast, letting the fly sink and then pulling it back using four to six-inch strips blended with strategic pauses. I favour varied, erratic retrieves. Start slow and increase the retrieve tempo as the fly gets closer. This crescendo-style retrieve induces pike to follow the fly. As the pace increases towards the end of the retrieve, pike are triggered to grab the fly. Pauses in the retrieve are critical too. Once stopped, the fly flutters down suggesting a crippled baitfish. A curious pike will either snatch the fly as it begins to descend or when it moves forward as the retrieve begins again. You can also add bounce or pop to your pattern, as though you were shaking a thermometer with your retrieve hand as you pulled the fly through the water.
The seductive rise and flutter of a pitching fly is tough for pike to refuse. Flies allow you to use a variety of retrieve speeds to induce a take. Keep your rod tip low, at or in the water to maintain contact with your fly. At times pike can be subtle eaters. A tight connection between you and your fly ensures subtle takes aren’t missed.
At the end of every retrieve, always raise the rod slowly to ensure a pike isn’t a few feet behind the fly. Often, pike slash at the fly as you raise the rod to cast. The ascending fly increases speed, converting a following pike into an aggressive taker. Should you see a pike behind your fly, raise and lower your rod or steer it in circles using the rod tip to induce a take. If the pike slides away, seemingly uninterested, make a short cast in the direction the pike was travelling. Let the fly sink and then strip it back. The change in retrieve angle and how the pike views the fly often results in a confident take.
When you get a take, use a strip strike. Pike grab your fly and turn away in hopes of returning to their lair. Stripping the line and sweeping the rod sideways pulls the fly into the corner of the pike’s mouth as it turns, ensuring a firm hook set. When using surface patterns, you soon discover pike are splashy, aggressive feeders. Give the pike the time to come down over the fly and turn before setting the hook. If you are able to tantalize a large pike to the surface, you can watch the pike close its mouth around your fly. The trick is to remain calm amongst the chaos of the strike so you can provide a firm, true hook set. Such is the allure and excitement of taking pike with top water flies.
Plentiful in most prairie lakes, pike always seem to be in the mood. Pike are famous for taking flies with reckless abandon. For the most part, pike aren’t too fussy about pattern type or color. If pike are in the mood to eat, your fly won’t stand a chance. My eldest son, Brandon, loves pike as they don’t run away when they follow a fly back to the boat. More often than not, their aggressive nature gets the better of them as your fly disappears in a flash of white as the pike’s mouth opens wide, engulfing the fly. After one memorable trip full of large, fly-crushing pike, Brandon stated, “Compared to pike, trout are for sissies!”
Pattern recipes for pike on the fly
Clouser Deep Minnow-Chartreuse/White
Designed by Bob Clouser
Hook: Mustad S71SZ-34007 No. 2 to No. 8
Thread: 6/0 White or Uni-Mono
Eyes: Real Eyes Plus
Belly: Bucktail or Polar Bear
Flash: Crystal Flash UV Pearl and Chartreuse
Back: Bucktail or Polar Bear
Tying Note: Tie the Clouser Deep Minnow in a variety of color combinations and sizes to match a variety of forage fish in both fresh and saltwater.
Designed by Lefty Kreh
Hook: Mustad S71S No. 6 to No. 4/0
Thread: White or Mono 6/0 or 3/0
Tail: Six to eight neck or saddle hackles mixed with a complimentary color(s) of Crystal Flash
Body (optional): Pearl or Silver Poly Braid
Wing/Collar: Bucktail, tied in two clumps along the sides of the hook
Top Wing: Bucktail
Topping (optional): Peacock Herl
Throat: Red Crystal Flash or Flashabou
Eyes: Prism Tape Eyes
Tying Note: Vary the size and color of the pattern to suggest the local forage base. Try tying bright attractor combinations such as red and yellow as alternative.
Originated by Jack Gartside
Hook: Mustad S71S SS, S74S SS (No. 2/0 to No. 8)
Thread: 6/0 or 3/0, color to match
Tail: Bucktail mixed with Flashabou. Calf tail may be substituted for smaller versions
Body: Crystal Chenille, Polar Chenille, palmered hackle or marabou
Shellback: 2MM or 3MM Sheet Foam, trim the excess so it protrudes forward over the hook eye
Tying Notes: A wide variety of materials can be used for both the tail and body, depending upon the targeted species and personal preference. A red beard can also be added to suggest gills of a wounded baitfish.
Hook: Mustad C52SBLN No. 2 to No. 4
Thread: 3/0 or 6/0 white
Tail: Strung Marabou mixed with a few strands of SuperFlash or Flashabou
Collar: Deer Hair
Body: Deer Hair spun and clipped
Tying Note: Body can be tied completely out of natural deer hair or insert a bright mid-section of chartreuse, hot orange, red or yellow deer hair.
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