For anglers used to hatchery trout and small bass on the fly rod, a trophy pike can be a formidable foe, although easy to take with some tips and tricks planned in advance. Pike in northern states and Canada can touch both ends of a yard stick - or more - , pull the scales down more than a 20 pound bag of sugar - or more - and scare any apprentice dentist with those mouth full of a few hundred teeth. Not all pike are that long, that heavy, but all will have that many teeth, making these a quarry that can eat and spit out flies, cut leaders and create general hell when hooked. Here's how to hook them on the fly and keep them on the hook to land, photograph and release.
1. Realize that any trophy size pike is a grand daddy in the slow growth area of the north where these fish are prominent, and release all of almost all of your catches. In good areas, it is not uncommon to catch a lot of pike, and while small pike make a good shore lunch when prepared right, pike are better off photographed and released.
2. To take pike on the fly, have the right tackle. This means a matched rod and reel outfit of eight or nine weight, with a rod nine feet long. Both size outfits will work fine for casting the big flies used for pike, although for best results, use flies with a lot of synthetic materials that will shed water on the pick up and back cast and make it easy to cast. Either direct drive reels or anti-reverse reels will work fine, since pike seldom run far enough to create knuckle-busting problems that are associated with direct drive fly reels.
3. Both floating and sinking lines are ideal for pike. All should be weight forward or bass bug style for easy distance casting. Use floating lines where possible, since they are easier to pick up and cast than pulling a sinking line out of the water. Sinking lines should be full sinking, with a moderate sink rate, unless the pike are very deep in mid summer where a fast sink rate line will be better.
4. Use leaders appropriate for the line and the fish. These are big, angry fish, so don't use light leaders. Best leaders with a floating line are nine feet long, tapering from a butt sections to about tippet no less than 12 pound test. In thick weeds use a heavier leader to prevent break-offs. For sinking lines, use a short leader or no more than three feet to keep the fly down with the line and the fish. In all cases, use a braided wire leader - don't believe reports articles and books stating that 30 pound monofilament is OK as a shock or bite leader. 30 to 45 pound test nylon coated wire is best, with up to 15 inches suggested when fishing big flies for big pike down deep. Pike will take flies deep and the extra length is required to prevent cut-offs.
5. Avoid snaps and swivels for the wire leaders when pike fishing - they are just one more mechanical thing that can break or go wrong. Instead, use an Albright knot to attach the tippet of 12 pound test or heavier mono to the wire bite leader. Then use a simple figure-eight knot to attach the wire to the fly. Both will hold well and be a surer connection than other knots, splices, leader sleeves and such.
6. The best flies for big pike are those of synthetics to shed water on the cast to prevent overloading the rod. Ideal flies are seven to nine inches long, even longer if you are after really big pike and can cast the fly. Try to simulate in color, length and size some of the big pike lures used by angler casting spinning or bait casting gear.
Best pike fly colors are bright and black. All black with a little flash is good as are single color flies in yellow, orange, chartreuse, red and flies in combination colors such as red/white, red/yellow, black/yellow, black/orange, red/chartreuse, black/chartreuse, etc.
7. If tying your own flies, add flash to the fly. Flash such as Flashabou, Krystal Flash, Fire Fly, Kreinik Flash-in-a-Tube, holographic flash materials and similar stranded materials tied into the wing or tail add to the attractiveness of the fly. Pike will often cut this material off, but they often destroy the fly as well. Best sizes for pike if tying or buying are sizes 1 to 4/0, with 2/0 capable of taking almost any pike and neither too big for small pike or too small for huge trophies.
8. To make "bullet proof" flies for pike, consider simple basic patterns with the tail and body materials laid down in a bed of five minute epoxy as you wrap the fly, and also epoxy the head. The flies are simple, but time consuming to tie, but will usually hold up for several pike or more.
9. Often the best places to fish for pike are in vertical weeds. Very skinny shallow are best in early spring when and where pike and spawning, deeper weed beds in summer and weedy flats in the late summer and early fall. For this, consider flies with a mono weed guard that is tied in at the tail and head. If you tie your own flies, these are easy to add while tying, and many flies today are available with these simple but effective weed guards.
10. Other flies that are very effective for pike in the above colors and weedless styles include poppers, sliders and tube flies and poppers. Poppers and sliders of foam such as Live Body and Edgewater will hold up to the strikes of pike provided that synthetic materials are used for the tails. Tube flies and poppers will also work, tying the fly or popper on a length of hard plastic tubing, then threading the wire leader through the tubing before tying on a plain sharp hook.
11. On all flies, use single hooks and bend down the barb. Some areas and some camps require that now along with release measures to protect pike populations. Use pliers to bend down the barb, since this will not affect landing the fish. Big pike, once securely hooked, are seldom lost.
12. Learn the best seasons for pike fishing, just as you learn the best times to fish for trout and bass. Since pike are typical of the north country, the best fishing is usually from shortly after ice out to mid fall or when it gets too cold to fish. Pike are usually found in skinny shallows to spawn early in the season, then moving to deep water during mid summer, then onto weedy flats in the late summer and early fall. Later on in the fall they retreat again to deep water to last through the winter. The biggest fish are often caught in deep water in mid summer, but the easiest fishing is in early spring in the shallows or late summer and early fall in flats that are ten to 12 feet deep.
13. Pike like structure, but structure for pike is not the rocks of a stream as for trout or the wood of bass, but the weeds of open water. Often easy fishing can be had by casting along the edge of a visible weed beds where pike will often wait to ambush prey taken from open water. If the weeds are not too thick, fish directly in them using weedless flies.
14. Perfect your distance casting before pike fishing. Some pike experts think that pike like to follow a lure or fly for a long distance and hit it only when it is leaving their immediate "home" area. For this reason, long casts are a must to get a maximum length retrieve with the fly and to provoke pike into striking.
15. Fly retrieves should be varied as with all fishing, but the best single retrieve is a slow strip of the fly so that it jerks along a foot or two at a time, with a slight pause between movement. Use flies and bugs that travel in a straight line, since pike are not built to move rapidly sideways to ambush prey.
16. For solid strikes, hold your fly rod low and pointed towards the fly and line, and retrieve with the line hand by pulling the line and controlling pauses with the index finger of the rod hand. That way, you are ready to hold the line and strike the fish regardless of when a pike strikes the fly. Pointing the rod at the fish also makes for a firm strike using the butt section of the rod to sink the hook in the fish.
17. Pike sometimes hit hard - but sometimes don't seem to hit at all - they just engulf the fly. Often the only clue to this is the feeling of a weight or bulk on the end of the line, or the fly line moving off to the side. Become a line watcher, and when this occurs, strike hard and wait for the fireworks.
18. To keep your fly line from tangling with other tackle, put the tackle away, at the other end of the boat, in rod racks or lockers or cover the tackle with a tarp or large piece or netting to prevent the fly line from tangling in reel handles and rod guides. Cover shoe laces and boat cleats with duct tape to prevent fly line tangles here. The tape is easily removed at the end of the day.
19. After catching each pike, check your leader, fly and other terminal tackle. Replace any leaders or flies as required, since a flaw in a leader can result in a lost fish on the next cast. Leaders might become twisted and worn, but are generally OK if not seriously frayed. Straighten the leader out by rubbing it slightly under tension on the boat gunnel to remove kinks. (Like stretching and playing a bow across a violin.) Sharpen hooks and check flies for damage.
20. To land a big pike, consider making a "cradle" that is like a like a stretcher with two long poles in each side. Lead the pike into the net between these two poles, then close the poles around the pike and lift at the same time. Pike are too long to fit into a standard landing net. Another way to land pike is to bring them to the boat, then reach down and grab the pike just under and ahead of the gills and at the wrist of the tail. Do NOT grab the gills or eyes, as this will seriously injure the fish. Lift the pike gently, have a companion ready to take a photo, then use pliers to remove the fly. Assuming that you bend down the barb (remember tip # 11?), this should be easy. Place the pike gently back into the water and make sure that it is swimming well before releasing it.