Pike on the fly
Over recent years it seems that pike fishing with the fly has become one of the fastest growing branches of the sport in the UK. Hopefully gone are the days when the pike was considered to be the scourge of the game angler, and is now looked upon as the awesome freshwater sport fish that it is.
Fly-fishing for pike has been around for many years. Possibly not quite as long in the UK as some other countries such as the USA, Canada and Scandinavia, but we are catching up both in attitude and approach. I remember as a youngster in the mid-eighties watching videos of huge pike and muskies been hooked and caught on a method that I had only considered at the time to be used for trout. Now more anglers are turning their attention to fly-fishing as a first choice approach to catching pike instead of a secondary method when all else has failed. Huge pike often get caught on the fly, admittedly not always the intention of the angler, but never the less it shows their willingness to take a bit of fur and tinsel rather than the more conventional spun baits.
Pike can be found in most of the freshwaters throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They belong to a family of fish called Esocidae, which consists of six species in total. We only have one species in the UK and Ireland, which is Esox Lucius, the pike. Throughout North America and Canada you will find most of the other members of the family known as Pikes and Pickerels. This comprises of the Northern Pike (Esox Lucius), the Muskellunge (Esox masquinony), the Chain Pickerel (Esox Niger), the Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus) and the Red Fin Pickerel (Esox americanus). The last member of the family is the Amur pike. The Amur pike, more commonly known as the black spotted pike lives and hunts in the Amur River system of North-East Asia. The Amur pike is quite a chunky fish, with all the same characteristics and features of the other family members, growing to around 35lb when fully grown.
Given suitable water quality pike can thrive in most situations from our inner-city canal systems, park lakes, slow flowing rivers, to the huge Lochs and Loughs of Scotland and Ireland. In the main pike prefer cooler waters which are rich in vegetation, preferring still or slow moving water; where it stalks and ambushes any unexpected prey. Adult pike are solitary fish with strong territorial instincts feeding on a diet of fish, waterfowl, amphibians and small mammals. Pike are also cannibalistic. It’s quite common to find larger pike stalking and feeding on their smaller relations. I say smaller relations. I have seen some quite large pike with bite marks from other pike. There are some interesting photos in Fred Buller’s book; the Doomsday Book of mammoth pike, showing pike of similar size locked together head to head where one is trying to eat the other.
Spawning usually takes place between March-May dependant on some key factors. Firstly is obviously water temperature. Pike prefer cooler water temperature between 41 and 45ºF (5-12ºC), but can spawn as low as 2º C, and also under ice. Whilst there can be some flexibility between temperatures, the most important factor is underwater vegetation. Spawning will not occur until this is present, as it is vital for the eggs to be scattered and fertilised amongst the weed.
For years pike have had a stigma for been a heartless ruthless killer. It is true that they kill for food and survival, but they will only take what they need. In fact pike as a species are a fragile fish. Like most other species of fish they are susceptible to water condition changes, but unlike most other coarse fish often find it harder to tolerate angling pressure. The mouth full of sharp teeth hasn’t helped its reputation over the years. Lots of angler’s panic when they catch their first pike. Stay calm. Make sure you have the correct unhooking equipment and treat the fish with care. Like any other fish, pike don’t like to be dragged around on the ground or left to thrash around. If you thinking of going out pike fishing for the first time, it’s perhaps best to go with an experienced angler. Unhooking pike isn’t difficult or dangerous. They do have sharp teeth, but the secret is not to put you fingers near them. After unhooking a few, you soon get the hang of it. I remember unhooking my first fish. I expected it to start snapping at me like a rabid dog, but thankfully they don’t as most of the time they will just lie on the unhooking mat until the job is done in a second or two. Be careful not to damage or break any of the teeth as you pull the fly from the pike’s mouth as they need them to survive as a predator
When it comes to setting yourself up to go fly fishing for pike, there are few things to consider. If you are new to the sport or are thinking of giving it a go for the first time, I will try and explain the approach and set up that has helped me over the years. I'm sure this is not the only method but it has worked very well for me. It is important at the outset to know the difference between bait casting and fly-casting. There is a slight difference in the approach when it comes to presenting a weighted lure to a fish, compared to that of a semi-weightless fly. Unlike spinning where it is the weight of a lure that loads the rod prior to the forward cast, when fly-fishing it is the weight of the fly-line that is used. So instead of using the weight of lure to load the rod, and in turn pull line from the spool as it shoots out, fly anglers use the weighted fly-line to do the same thing. Casting is all about loading and unloading the rod and creating additional line speed when needed. Loading of the rod simply means that the rod blank is curved (loaded) under tension. The cast is made by this loading and unloading of the rod, ensuring that we use well timed, controlled movements of the arm, hand and rod for maximum efficiency. The fly attached is simply pulled through the air as the fly-line travels back and forth with the cast.
With this in mind it helps to consider a couple of things. First it helps to make sure that the weight of the fly is kept to a minimum. Try to use flies that are made containing synthetic materials. Apart from the beauty that a lot of today’s synthetic materials have, they not only pimp flies, they also allow one to shed most of the water during initial lift off into the back-cast. Unlike modern materials, natural fibres hold a lot of the water which they absorb, making them heavy and poorly aerodynamic. This can make them awkward to cast at times, especially under windy conditions. Another important advantage of man made materials is the ability to tie flies that create the illusion of bulk and size without creating a heavy lure. My flies often combine both natural and man made materials which if used judiciously can really compliment each other. Mixing natural fibre for their pulsating movement with materials such as angel hair or crystal flash for their glisten and waving action as the fly is pulled through the water.
Fly size is down to personal choice. I once witnessed a pike of 35lb that had been caught on a size 10 Cat’s Whisker which although was certainly not unheard of in our well stocked reservoirs and proves that large fish don’t always want large flies. Personally I wouldn’t be persuaded to cast too many size 10 Cats Whiskers in the hope of landing large fish. My main preference is between size 1- 3/0. I speak to a lot of anglers who swear by using larger hook sizes. It’s a personal choice, but it usually depends on the style of fly that I’m using which determines the size and shape of the hook. In the early days I would use large hooks for all my flies, dressing the entire length of the shank with all sorts of road kill and flashy bits. It used to catch me fish but as my approach began to become more refined, so did my flies. I now like to tie my flies so that the hook is contained mainly in the head section of the fly. This allows for the body to be free moving and encourages a more lifelike action as the fly is worked through the water.
For most of my bait fish patterns I use the smaller hook sizes, and with the larger longer flies I increase the hook size to try to stop the risk of missing a take. I don’t like to use stingers, as it can sometimes become messy. I would prefer to loose a pike than have a trailing hook running the risk of causing damage to the fish. Unlike trout fishing where there are hundreds of different patterns and names of flies, pike flies are pretty limited. What we lack in numbers, we make up for in colours. I only use about four different styles of fly. Bait fish patterns always work well, and so do the popular “bunny fly”. These can be tied in an array of sizes and colours to match the pike’s mood and their colour preference that can change from day to day. Like trout fishing the most exhilarating way to catch pike is on the surface. Throughout the warmer periods stripping a popper back across the surface can be heart stopping. Watching a large pike chase and lunge after your surface fly as it gets closer and closer to the boat certainly gets the knees knocking. As with the rest of my flies I like to carry a selection of both size and colour using anything from small bass poppers, to things more akin in design to flies used to raise marlin from the depths of the sea.
It is all very well making sure that our fly is light and easy to cast, but the item that often gets overlooked is the connection that helps to turn the fly over, and keeps us connected with the fish. The leader and trace set up should be constructed for maximum energy transfer so the fly has a chance of turning over at the end. I have seen all sorts of leader set-ups over the years; some good and some not so good and I have used most of them in my time fly fishing for pike. When it comes to catching pike, fly presentation isn’t always in the mind of the angler. Half the time you are just glad to get it out there and just hope that it provokes a reaction from a fish if it happens to pass one. Don’t get me wrong, you certainly don’t have to have to take the same approach as when stalking a big plump brownie on a well-fished river which demands patience, a good understanding of entomology and not a little casting skill. Pike on the other hand tend to be treated with a bit more vigor, but like stalking wary brown trout, the more stealth you put into your approach the more pike you will put on the bank. When pike fishing its quite possible to catch a fish just as the fly and line are crashing into the water, watching as your line goes tight as your fluorescent half chicken is turned and dragged away. You pull in the slack as fast as possible to connect that 10/0 shark hook into the fish. You pray that your double granny knot holds. It’s on! The fish is pulling back.
That is the extreme example, but its not far off what you sometimes see. Its true pike aren’t always as line shy as some other fish, but like everything else, I have tried to refine my approach over time to try and give me the edge over the fish. Just like other resident fish, most of the pike will have seen the same old crash cast, and rope thick leader trailing a scruffy lump of fur behind it. It pays to remember it may be good for the sport that fly-fishing for pike is becoming popular, but the more popular it becomes the more difficult the pike will be to catch. So trying to perfect your approach, whether it be learning to make better casts, fine tuning set-ups, tying better flies and fishing harder hopefully should help you to stay one step ahead of the fish. Has this increased my catch rate? It’s hard to say. But when fishing I believe confidence plays a huge part. If I have the confidence that what I'm doing works, then that is half of the battle won. The next half is the best part. Putting it into practice and trying to fool a few fish.
To start with, I always use tapered leaders for all of my pike fishing. Its pays to try a few different types, finding what sort of taper suits you best. At the moment for a lot of my pike fishing I’m using bonefish tapered leaders. They have quite a stiff butt and mid section that aid energy transfer to the fly. If I am looking for something a little bit stiffer, or perhaps a different material, then I like to make up my own tapered leaders. It’s not rocket science. I use two different braking strains of fluorocarbon, co-polymer or mono, tie them together with a double grinner which is probably the best knot to join different thicknesses of leader material and then attach my trace material. When making my own I usually start with a butt section of around 30lb, then step down to a 25lb mid-section, then choice of trace depending on the water that I’m fishing. The break down of the percentages is 40% butt, 40% mid-section, 20% trace.
I try and keep my leader length to the minimum that I feel confident in using. The longer the leader, the more energy that’s needed to travel down it to turn the fly over. Most shop bought tapered leaders tend to be about 9-10’ in length, so I like to trim them down. This does two things. One it will allow me to have the suitable length of leader that I need, and also increases the stiffness of the tip section to also aid turnover. After trimming, the length is usually about 6-8’ where I attach 18 inches of wire trace. When using big flies, if turnover is still a problem, I will swap my standard tapered leader for a poly-leader. This again will aid turnover even more, and help when casting large surface poppers or big pike flies.
If you talk to any bait angler or spinner, I'm positive 99.9% would be using a wire trace. Even though the choice of species is the same, many fly-pike anglers opt not to use one. Personally I have always used wire when fishing for anything with sharp teeth. The main disadvantage with wire trace and fly-fishing is the turnover. This can be a problem if the terminal set-up isn’t quite right. There are quite a few ways to construct a wire trace set-up, and I have played around with all different sorts over the years. The first I tried were the ones directly off my spinning rod. This is the kind that you see a lot of anglers using. It comprises of a swivel at one end, with a length of trace connected to a swivel and snap-link at the other end. Ideal for connecting spinners and plugs etc. But like I mention earlier, when fly-fishing the more weight we have connected to the fly-line the more awkward it becomes to cast. Combine all this metal work with a soggy big fly and your asking for a tough time. The easiest option is to eradicate any extra weight. This means getting rid of the snap-links and swivels, and perhaps changing the type of wire that you use.
Everyone has their own way of doing things and my favourite method to construct a leader and trace set-up is as follows.
As mentioned I always use a tapered leader when fly-fishing for pike. This is connected to the fly-line by either a loop to loop (perfection loop) or directly to the line with a nail knot.
Once cut to the desired length, I attatch18 inches of wire by using either a double grinner or an Albright knot.
Then I simply attach the fly to the trace by either tying a half-blood knot or a Homer Rhode loop knot. The knot is dependent on the type of fly that I’m using. If the fly has a lot of it’s own movement, such as a bunny fly with a big long pulsating tail, then I simply attach it with a half-blood knot. At times if I feel the fly needs that extra bit of swing and movement to help it attract fish, then I opt for the Homer Rhode loop knot.
Which Rod?. You read and talk to a lot of people who say that you must use a 10ft rod with an AFTM rating 11-12. Personally, as I am not an Adonis I would find casting one of these rods all day likely to necessitate a hospital visit. It’s easy to understand why such heavy rated rods are advised, mainly for the welfare of the fish. A lot of anglers feel that lighter rated rods won’t be sufficient to handle a large fish although I have to disagree with this theory. My own personal choice is a 9ft #9 (fast action) rod. Even though it is a lesser AFTM rating than thought by some to be powerful enough for the task, realistically it is usually more than enough. Most quality rods will handle big fish. It is more than possible to use lighter rods without any problem at all. After all, many destination saltwater anglers often catch large, powerful fish on similar rods to the ones used for pike. If I was to use a 12-weight rod as suggested by some anglers, I would be looking to tackle 100+lb Tarpon, not pike. I fully understand and appreciate that the welfare of the fish comes first, but fishing is supposed to be sporting and fun. Call me old-fashioned but I still like to feel a fish pull back from time to time.
The shorter length of a nine-foot rod, and the fast recovery helps me to aid loop control. First the shorter length makes the rod slightly lighter in the hand and makes casting more comfortable when out for a long day. I also find it helps when it comes to making a positive stop at the end of the casting stroke. What we are looking for with the cast, is a tight loop and fast line speed. I've heard comments such as you don’t really need to cast further than 15yrds when fly-fishing for pike, but what if the pike is 20yrds away? True, lots of pike do get hooked close in, but how many of them have followed the fly close in from range before making the choice of grabbing the fly? I strongly believe that the better the ability of the caster, the more successful the angler. Combine a fast line speed with a tight loop and you will cover your fair share of the fish. Try and cast a sodden pike fly with a fat baggy loop and you will miss out on a lot of fish.
Along with the rod, the job of casting pike flies is made possible by using the correct fly line. When it comes to line choice, first we have to match the correct weight line for the rod. If the line is too heavy it will slow the cast down, if its too light it will be harder for it to load the rod. The AFTM rating was developed to make the job easier for us. If you’re fishing with a nine-weight rod, then combine it with a nine-weight fly-line. This will help to ensure the correct weight of line to load the rod properly. Lines have changes somewhat over recent years and it pays to play around with different lines and profiles. Sometimes you will find that a certain line feels better on a certain rod, but if you are unsure, keep to the correct AFTM rating. Next you have to decide what kind of waters you will be intending to fish and how deep the pike are going to be at certain times of the year. The fly-lines that I tend to use are weight-forward (WF) lines. There are a few line manufacturers who have designed fly-lines specifically for casting large pike flies which takes the guesswork out of finding the best profile for the job in hand.
I usually carry four types of line with me. These are a floating, intermediate, sinking and a sink-tip line. Along with these I also carry various length sink-tips with different sink rates.
With the different variety of lines that I carry, it makes the job easier when searching out pike. Just like any other species pike can be found at different depths throughout the course of the year. My favourite line to use on all waters is an intermediate which allows me to fish the fly from just under the surface to quite deep down. It is worth remembering the more dressing a fly has, the slower it will sink. So if the pike are deep down I will change to a sinking line and fish a slighter dressed fly. As a rough rule of thumb, the colour of the line itself will indicate its primary use. If the line is brightly coloured it will tend to be a floating line. This allows the angler to see the line on the surface. An intermediate will be a clearer colour or translucent. This allows it to sink and be fished through the layers of water without been too obtrusive in appearance. Next the sinking line. This will tend to be a dark colour. Brown, green or blacks are the most popular colours. This allows for the line to be fished deep along or near to the bottom, blending in with the lake bed.
When fishing intermediate or sinking lines, as well as having the correct weight of line we also need to understand the inches per second rating (ips) which informs us how fast it will sink. Normally the rating will say something like 1.2"-2" per second for an intermediate line, which seems to indicate a very wide range of sink rates, if the line is AFTM 9 it will sink at nearly 2" per second whereas for an AFTM 5 of the same line will probably be nearer the 1.2" mark. So when selecting one for the job, it pays to know the depths of water that you’re going to fish. If the pike are lying hard on the bottom in 35’ of water, its advisable to use a line and fly that will get down to the target as fast as possible. Its will be a slow day if you have to wait ten-minuets or so for the fly to hit the deck, before been able to start the retrieve.
There are a few theories about reels. The old saying was that the reel is used only for line storage. I suppose this is true in some situations - small fish for instance where the use of the drag will not come into play, but when you have just upset a 5-foot long fish by trying to drag it out of its underwater surroundings, it helps to get the line back onto the spool quickly and use the drag on the reel to help to subdue its power. It’s a personal choice, but when playing all large fish I prefer to get them back under the power of the rod and the reel. Prices of reels vary dramatically but one needs to make sure that the reel has plenty of capacity for backing and will have an adequate braking system (drag) to control any large fish which you may encounter. You don't have to pay a fortune, just make sure its reliable.
The last thing that I will mention is about safety. This includes both to the angler and the fish. First the angler. When casting any size of flies it is always mandatory to wear eye protection and something to protect the head. If a stray fly happens to come whizzing past, the last thing you want is for your face or worse, your eyes to become the target! It will hurt. Polarised sunglasses are the best option, as these will allow you to see through the glare on the water and hopefully help you to spot a fish or two, as well as protecting you eyes in the process. A peaked hat or cap will also reduce glare into your eyes on a sunny day, and again if a stray cast sends the fly your way it will stop it from giving you an unwanted parting of the hair. Lastly is your quarry - please look after it once you have caught it. You’ve had your fun, and it is only right that we put it back unharmed to get back on with its life. If possible I will unhook the fish in the water where it can’t thrash around and damage itself.
It helps to have the correct tools at hand for landing and unhooking pike. I always carry a landing net that will accommodate the largest of pike that I hope to catch. The only pike that I bring ashore or into the boat is one that I want to weigh or photo but as I have already mentioned most are unhooked in the water. These are simply "chinned" where we insert a few fingers under the chin and slip them behind the gill cover to open the mouth allowing us to use large-nose pliers to extract the hook and once unhooked cradle the fish in the horizontal position and wait until its ready to swim away. If any pike are brought out of the water, then they are laid down on a padded unhooking mat and unhooked as quickly as possible to save any further stress to the fish. A quick weigh and a trophy shot for the boys down the pub and away she swims to cause more havoc in her under water home.