Fly Fishing for Pike--The Basics

By Scott Richmond

As our raft drifted through the shallow, clear slough between the lake and the river, we could see pike everywhere. They lazed under the bright morning sky, some just subsurface in the middle, some near the lily pads, and a few hunkering near the bottom.

I picked out a big guy about 40 feet away and plunked a huge black streamer about five feet from him. He turned slightly when it hit the water. I started to retrieve the fly. The pike edged toward it, slowly at first, then with a burst of speed that ended in a detonation of water.

"It's all about the grab," I hooted.

Why Pike?

Pike are a major target for anglers fishing interior Alaska and northern Canada. Eager anglers visiting popular tourist destinations like Fairbanks, Alaska, should arrange at least a day of fly fishing for pike. The shallow lakes of the interior abound with "barracuda of the north," and once you've caught a few it's easy to understand why some folks get addicted to them. While pike don't have the stamina for long, speedy runs, the "take" can send shock waves up and down your spine.

Habits and Habitat

Pike are carnivorous, eating just about anything that looks like it might be meat. Fish (including other pike), mice, ducklings, frogs . . . if it hangs around the water long enough, a pike will eat it.

Like many predatory fish, pike are ambushers. They are well camouflaged, and often hang out around structure waiting for unwary or unlucky food to come their way. Then they lunge for the kill, chomping their unfortunate prey with their wide and toothsome mouth. Once those sharp teeth tear into prey, it's all over; pike aren't into catch-and-release.

Interior Alaska has a plethora of small, shallow lakes, many of which are connected by sloughs or creeks. This ensures a widely dispersed pike population. As you might expect, pike are well adapted to these cold waters. So are their primary prey, whitefish. The two species live side-by-side--at least until a whitefish gets too close to a pike!

A typical pike lake might be 3-100 acres, edged with lily pads, and maybe have a few beaver lodges scattered around. Large females use the shallows for springtime spawning. Otherwise, bigger pike will be in deeper water and leave the shallows and surface feeding to smaller pike.

Tackle for Pike

  1. Rod and reel. Pike are big, and the flies are big. So you need an eight to ten weight rod, depending on the size of the pike you expect to catch. The reel needs to balance the rod, but because pike are built for short bursts of speed, not long, sustained runs, don't expect the fish to run far into your backing unless it's unusually large.
  2. Fly line. There are fly lines made specifically for pike. They are front-heavy to accommodate large, wind-resistant flies, and are made to stay flexible in cold water. You'll need a floater at a minimum. If you're serious you should also have a sink tip and/or an intermediate line; a lot of big pike are caught at the five-ten foot level.
  3. Leader. You don't need a tapered leader. Just a straight length of 20-pound Maxima will do the trick. When using a sink tip line, tie on four feet of leader. For surface fishing, you can get by with six feet.
  4. Shock tippet. Since pike are such toothy critters, you need something they can't chew through near the fly. A short section of heavy mono--say, 60-100 pound--will work. Tyger leader is a good alternative. It's coated micro-braided wire that can be tied in knots without special tools. Whatever you choose for a leader, check it and the shock tippet after each fish or strike, and retie/replace it if it's nicked or frayed.

Flies

There's no question that a slashing surface strike with an explosion of water is one of the big thrills of pike fishing. So it's good to have some big deer hair flies that have a bulky profile and make a substantial wake on the surface. Black, black-and-orange, and black-and-green are popular color combos. You'll need a fly that's six-eight inches long. Mouse imitations are another good surface choice.

For sub-surface and near-surface streamers, big six- to eight-inch flies in red-and-white, black-and-green, black-and-orange, and black are productive. The Dahlberg Diver is a useful pattern, as are other big streamers. Black is best in murky water.

But unless you're targeting spring spawners, you'll catch bigger pike if you imitate their primary fodder: whitefish. Experts say that imitating the appearance and behavior of whitefish is the key to catching big pike in the interior. Whitefish don't hang out near the surface, so a sink-tip line will help you get to the right depth for catching big pike. Good patterns are Flashtail Whistlers and Puglisis, especially the former.

Tactics

Pike are ambushers, so structure can be important. Lilly pads, points of land, rocky spots, and beaver dams are all good places to find pike.

However, don't ignore open water. As mentioned before, the biggest pike are often found in deeper water where they seek unwary whitefish.

Sometimes you can sight-fish to pike. You may find them lolling around in a slough between shallow lakes or between a lake and a river. They may also be spotted cruising near weedbeds, or just lying on the bottom waiting for something to happen. If you're just not sure where the pike are, try trolling until you locate some fish.

When presenting a surface fly, a big "splat" on the landing can get the fish's attention. After that, retrieve the fly with a steady speed; big "splooshes" like you might use with a bass bug are not especially helpful.

For all flies, vary the depth and speed of your presentation until you find what works. You will often have followers, or fish that slash at the fly but don't get hooked. If this is happening, try a faster retrieve. But you're not going to hook every fish that takes a stab at your fly. That's life; deal with it.

Fish and Angler Care

Care should be taken when releasing pike--care both for the fish and for you. "My, Grandmother, what big teeth you have," was probably first uttered by a pike angler, not Red Riding Hood. Those pearly-whites can do a lot of damage to you.

On the other hand, you can do a lot of damage to the pike with too much handling while you gingerly try to retrieve your large (expensive) fly.

A good strategy is to use a jaw spreader to hold the fish's mouth open while you retrieve your fly with six-inch (or longer) needlenose pliers or a hook disgorger. You can get a jaw spreader at some tackle shops, or on the internet.

The best fish handling strategy is to leave the pike in the water as much as possible. If you use a net, use one with a rubber mesh. The traditional woven mesh will only result in a tangle of fish, line, and fly.

If your pike has taken the fly deeply, or you see blood, just cut the leader and hope for the best. Better to lose the fly than the fish.

For More Information . . .

To learn more about fly fishing for pike, listen to the six-minute audio segment below (requires Quicktime player). Howie Van Ness, a pike expert and owner of the Alaska Fly Shop in Fairbanks, shares ideas about pike fishing in the Alaska Interior, including the Fairbanks area and Denali.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).