|Tim displays trophy pike|
It all started the summer the Detroit Tigers faded the last week of the season and lost the American League title to the New York Yankees. In mid-summer, when my parents took my sister and me to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Tigers were safely in the lead. On that trip a life-long fascination with baseball was joined by another – pike fishing.
We stayed in a cabin on the shore of Sawyer Lake. There were pike and perch in the lake. While dragging a red and white Bass Oreno around the lake, I caught a 14 inch pike. It was the biggest fish I had ever caught. It met the Michigan minimum size for pike and we ate it. I was thrilled. It’s a thrill that has never faded.
My folks bought 90 acres near Sawyer Lake and built a cabin back in the woods. My sister and I still own the property and use the cabin often.
By summer 1953 I was a diehard pike angler. I went down to Sawyer Lake every day we were at the cabin and fished all day. Mother let me keep the pork rind on my Johnson Spoon in a glass of water on the table so it would not dry out. One summer Uncle Steve flew to the Upper Peninsula to visit and he brought a fellow school teacher, Bill Bradford, with him. Mr. Bradford had just returned from Ontario where he caught monster pike and was willing, perhaps eager, to fill the head of a boy with tales of pike lots bigger than those I caught in Sawyer Lake.
Nonetheless, Mr. Bradford asked if I would take him down to the lake and help him catch some pike. Earlier in the day I fished hours with only a couple of fish to show for my effort. Along a hundred yards of shoreline, Mr. Bradford raised a dozen or so and caught as many in half an hour, casting a red and white Daredevle, as I caught all day. All he did, and looking back I’m sure he knew, was fan the flames of my “thing” for pike fishing.
Outdoor writers of the time, and I read them voraciously, offered only minimal interest in pike fishing. Ray Bergman, then Fishing Editor of Outdoor Life, wrote in an article later reprinted in Fishing with Ray Bergman to the effect that pike fishing was a fine way to rescue a fishing expedition when more worthy quarry like trout were not cooperating. Ted Trueblood, one of my genuine heroes, claimed in The Angler’s Handbook pike had two qualities attractive to anglers: they struck savagely and were willing to hit artificial lures, but that was about it. Others put down pike as “snakes” or “hammerhandles.” Here were authors on whose every word I hung and they minimized the appeal of northern pike. I didn’t get it. And still don’t. Each month Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, and Sports Afield arrived and I devoured them. They filled my head with teenage notions of adventure. Legends of monster pike swirled through my head. Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653, wrote of pike so large they tried to drag mules into the water. While I doubted any pike in Sawyer Lake was large enough to pull a mule into the lake, I knew deep in my teenage gut I was sure to catch a trophy there. Between visits to the family cabin and through the long winter, such visions danced through my dreams.
Both Bergman and Trueblood (and others) mentioned fly fishing for pike, but as a young man that was not practical for me. My first fly rod was an eight and a half foot bamboo rod Dad purchased at a warehouse auction for five dollars. It came with an automatic reel. Trueblood said a bass weight rod could handle pike, but this was no bass rod. This, obviously, was long before rods were assessed by the grains of line they could cast.
Over the years Dad and I reassured one another that someday we would take a trip to some exotic lake pike fishing, hire a guide, do the whole adventure bit. Time passed and we talked. Thanksgiving 1974, Mom pulled me aside to say if we were ever going to fulfill those plans, we better get at it. In August, 1975 Dad and I flew to an outpost camp. We caught lots of pike, much larger than those we caught at Sawyer Lake. Dad broke off a trophy fishing with eight pound test line. A couple of days later, with new 15 pound test line, Dad caught the biggest pike of his life, 40 inches on the nose. It was before catch and release was common, and we flew the fish out and the mount hangs on my wall. (Photo 6 goes here.)
When son Craig was a teenager, we began to talk about catching pike on fly rods. On a fly-in to an outpost in Ontario we took our 4-weight fly rods. We were a little under prepared, but what the heck. We caught a few pike about four or five pounds. The highlight of the fly fishing trip was a 10 or 12 pound pike that grabbed Craig’s popper and took off for parts unknown.
We started planning for more fly rod pike fishing. We were taking annual trips to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, a wilderness adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. One evening after setting up camp on a long point in LeMay Lake, Craig and I took the canoe and our fly rods to a small bay. Smallmouth bass and pike between five and 10 pounds were thick. After I lost my third or fourth deer hair bug, Craig admonished me, “Dad, you better switch to a wire leader. We did not bring enough gear for you to lose a bug every other fish.”
A decade ago I made a trip to Phelps Lake in northeast Saskatchewan in search of trophy pike. I did not take any fly fishing gear. Mark Montesbroten, my guide, however, had a fly rod. He claimed he knew where a monster pike was hiding and assured me I could catch her with his rod. Though I did not raise the fish, Mark said about my fly casting, “You’ve done this before.” In the week I was at Phelps, I caught a number of pretty good pike on Mark’s rod, but none of the 40 inch plus pike I caught on conventional gear.
In the years since, both Craig and I have devoted significant energy to catching pike on our fly rods. We have better gear, now. We use 8- or 9-weight rods. These rods can handle a pretty big fish. At Phelps Lake and several lakes in Ontario, Craig and a couple of other angling friends and I have successfully targeted pike with fly rods, big pike.
Lots of our best pike fishing with fly rods has been sight fishing. Monster pike linger in shallow water after spawning. A few years ago Craig and I went to Phelps Lake together. Now both grown men, we yelled and hollered as we cast to 40 inch pike cruising in less than five feet of water. A carefully cast four or five inch streamer made of zonker strips, I call them black bunnies, rarely got past one of the huge pike we saw. As the fly approached a fish, it simply disappeared. And the battle would be on, powerful runs, thrashing on the surface. What’s not to like?
My long-time enthusiasm for pike fishing still extends to the modest-sized fish found in Sawyer Lake, and many other lakes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. After a trip to Ontario where Craig and I caught much larger pike, we stopped at the cabin in Michigan. There we were catching pike between 20 and 25 inches and having a high time. I noted the irony that a week ago we were shaking pike that size off. Craig, still a teenager, said, “Dad, this is what the lake can give us.”
In the last few years on the small lakes I fish in Michigan, I have fished for pike from my tube boat with my 8-weight. In half a day, I can paddle myself once around Sawyer Lake. As is true everywhere I ever fished, sometimes things are pretty slow. More frequently, however, I have steady action on the two to five pound pike in the lake.
A couple of months ago, fishing in Ontario, I hooked a two foot pike. As I was bringing it to the boat, my companion noted it was a little one. I replied, and this is one of the basic truths of my life, “Pike that size are the fish of my youth. The day I catch a pike like that and it’s not a great thing will be a very sad day.”
Ultimately I gave up the dream of playing first base for the Detroit Tigers. But the lure, the fascination, with pike fishing lingers on. And I call myself fortunate.
Last updated on March 9, 2018