Fly Fishing for Pike
Fly Fishing for Pike -- By Tim Mead
Craig, my son, and I were admonished – over and over – by Glen Beatty, “Don’t throw there, that’s a ‘frog thief.’ Keep it away from the frog thieves.”
We had some trouble avoiding the frog thieves. For one thing, Glen’s frog thieves were northern pike less than 12- or 15-pounds. And those guys, particularly the smaller ones, are quick as a wink. Dozens of times, as our fly drifted enticingly past a monster pike, a smaller fish would dart ahead of the trophy, grab the fly and be off. Pretty tough duty, fending off the 5- and 10-pounders on our 8-weight fly rods! For another, much to Glen’s chagrin, Craig and I were having a ball catching the frog thieves.
Craig and I were fishing at the prime time for trophy pike – early spring. We arrived at Wolf Bay Lodge on Phelps Lake in northeastern Saskatchewan just after ice out. Indeed, Brent Osika, owner of the lodge, had earlier warned us that the lake might not be open for plane landings.
Northern pike spawn in cold water, perhaps under thawing ice, in early spring. They then linger in the spawning bays, soaking up the warmth from spring sunshine. At that time, they are within range of anglers sight-fishing.
My opinion – take it for what it’s worth. In half a century of pike fishing, there is no method of trophy pike fishing more exciting than sight-fishing with a fly rod. When the monsters are shallow, it’s possible for veteran guides like Glen to demand his anglers cast only to trophies.
Craig and I each had our favorite 8-weight fly rods, with matching reels and floating lines.
In years past while fly fishing for pike, I had relied on cable leaders to avoid bite-offs. At Glen’s suggestion a year earlier, I had switched to a length of titanium as the business end of our leaders. Titanium is available in long coils. Craig and I cut off a length of titanium wire, usually 15-inches long, plus or minus. The basic leader should be monofilament, at least 6-feet long and not longer than 9-feet, tapered to 10-pound test, plus or minus. At the monofilament end of the leader, we doubled the titanium into a loop. With an Albright knot, we fastened the monofilament to the titanium. We attached the flies to the titanium with a clinch knot. You’ll have to pull the clinch knot tight with pliers, and the knot will never reach the “pulled tight” dimensions of a comparable knot of monofilament. But it will hold.
And unlike cable leader tippets, the titanium will not kink. When the titanium piece gets too short after changing flies several times, replace it.
Glen led us up and down Phelps Lake to shallow bays with names like Mickey Mouse, Perfection, Reel Good, Frog, Bay of Colossus, Mushroom and Seahorse. All held trophy pike. What did these bays share besides the trophies?
One thing they shared was they were protected from the main portions of the lake. As an upshot, cooler surface water could not be blown into the bays as easily as would have been possible with more open-mouthed bays. Consequently, these bays were warmer than other bays or the open lake. Immediate post-spawn pike spend a few days recovering in relatively warm water.
For another, they were pretty shallow. From the mouth of the bay, all the way to the back, we usually could see the bottom. And often see the pike outlined if they were over patches of sand.
Also, the most productive bays were predominantly “black bottom.” At times the dark bottom was only in patches, but more commonly the entire substrate was dark. Dark bottoms warm earlier than sand bottoms, thus facilitating eggs to mature more rapidly.
And, for reasons I do not understand, round or nearly-round bays seemed more productive of trophy pike than more angular ones.
Typically, we motored into the chosen bay and began casting as Glen maneuvered the boat along the bank. Usually we were casting 40-feet, plus or minus a bit. This distance is well within the range of most fly rod anglers. Even beginners with a couple of lessons this distance is within reach. From time-to-time Glen suggested a cast to a specific spot, but usually Craig and I merely picked our own targets.
In most of the bays we fished, even those of several hundred acres like Seahorse, we soon had big pike located. Then we fished by sight. At times we took turns casting. At others we were both casting to cruising pike. Our casting was facilitated because I cast left-handed and Craig casts right-handed. As a consequence, we were casting with our rods away from one another. Often we agreed, “you cast toward that one and I’ll cast to this one.” Three times during the week, we each had a 40-inch fish on at the same time.
The secret, if there could be said to be a secret, was to cast within the range of big pike and let the fly settle close to the fish’s mouth. Glen provided a running commentary. “Let it sink. She see’s it. Strip. Strip. Strip. Stop. She’s got it! Set the hook!” And the battle would be on.
Setting the hook with a fly rod is different than with a bait caster (or spinning) gear commonly used by pike anglers. For one thing, a fly rod is much more flexible than a bait casting rod. With a bait casting rod, an effective hook set is usually accomplished by a smart lifting of the rod tip. If you try to set the hook with a fly rod by lifting the rod tip, the flex in the rod will absorb the energy of the line, never moving the fly in the pike’s mouth. During the retrieve, point your rod directly at the fly. Any action to the fly should be imparted by stripping line by hand. When you feel the pike turn and begin to pull – not when you see the white of the pike’s mouth over your fly – strip hard, two or three times. Set the hook with the line-strip and the butt of the rod. When you are sure you have a good hook set, the lift the rod.
Fly reels, unlike bait casting or spinning reels, are supplemental in fighting fish. Usually, I manage the battle with a hooked fish by hand. I strip line, under a finger on the rod above the reel, when I can gain line and let it pay out through my hand when the fish runs. One upshot of that technique is the deck must be clear of pliers, extraneous lures (I’m notorious for switching lures and leaving the discarded one on the deck), or other gear which may be tangled in the stripped line as it falls on the deck. Several times when fishing at Phelps Lake, big pike pulled sufficient line to draw backing off my reel – standard fly line length is 90-feet. Figure it out for yourself.
If you can, without losing attention to maintaining tension on the line, begin to use the reel to play the fish. Most 8-weight matching reels have a drag mechanism, though the drag on a fly reel is rarely as useful as that on a bait caster. If all line is on the reel and the fish runs, “palm” the reel spool edge to increase or decrease tension. Truth be told, Craig is much more effective than I in getting the line onto the reel and using the reel to fight the fish.
While it may seem that fly rods are pretty wimpy gear to take on trophy pike, quite the reverse is true. Surely, you cannot muscle a 20-pound fish to boat side with a fly rod. Yet, the long rod provides plenty of leverage. And if you alternate the strength of the rod butt and the flexibility of the tip as demanded by the fish, pretty big pike can be taken in a relatively modest time. When the fish lunges, utilize the flexibility of the rod to absorb the shock. During a long run, put pressure on the fish with the butt. Obviously, you have to take into account the strength of the leader. Unless you make a mistake, however, even a monster pike ought not to be able to put a direct pull against the strength of the leader. Lots of us have caught fish that exceeded the direct pull strength of the leader.
Pike can be taken on a variety of flies. At times, surface flies like a Dahlberg Diver or Peck’s Popper work great. This winter, I’m planning to tie some deer hair mice for next spring’s trip. When the big pike are recovering from the spawn, as they were when Craig and I were fighting off the frog thieves, a slowly sinking fly works best. And none better than a fly made of a zonker strip. A zonker strip is is a 1/8th inch wide strip of rabbit fur. I tie pike flies on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks with straight eyes. Many fly rod pike anglers, including me, call flies tied with zonker strips “bunnies.” If you want flies that sink a little faster, wrap the shank of the hook with lead before tieing the zonker strips. The best colors are all black, black- and- orange, red-and-white – these are typical “best” colors for pike.
Last winter I tied up a number of minnow-style flies with epoxy heads and made of artificial fibers that worked great for the pike we caught at Phelps Lake. Brown or black back and white belly were particularly effective. With a mixture of black-and-green on the back, white on the bottom, and marked with slanted black lines with a water-proof marker provides a great perch pattern.
I began my long career pike fishing in northern Michigan, and I still spend part of each summer there. Trophy pike, in contrast to Phelps Lake, are plenty rare. In the small lake near our cabin, the pike are usually below 5-pounds. For these fish, a fly rod is an ideal approach. I often take my fly rod and tube boat to the lake and spend the day catching and releasing these pike.
And why did Glen call them “frog thieves”? Glen carries a bait caster rigged with a hookless rubber frog. In the event his clients seem unable to lure a pike into striking, Glen throws the rubber frog to attract a pike within range. Non-trophy pike often grab the frog and run off with it, and because the frog has no hook, Glen can’t prevent them from stealing his frog. So, don’t throw to the frog thieves.
Last updated on ...May 22, 2010