Pike on the Fly

Northern pike are aggressive predators. Under the right conditions, they are a blast to catch. Pack your bags for the fly fishing trip of a lifetime.

[by Chuck Furimsky]

When you hit the line on your fly fishing bucket list that says, “catch a big northern pike,” it’s not time to be casual. Spending a fistful of money for the trip of your dreams requires serious planning; doing it right will give you memories that last a lifetime. There are many well-run lodges in Canada that feature pike fishing, so it is paramount that you research the one that is right for you.

My most recent pike-fishing trip was to Gangler’s North Seal River Lodge, in Northern Manitoba. I have several friends who have fished there, and it is always nice to get the opinions of people you know and trust. Their reviews so excited me that I just had to book a week at Gangler’s.

I don’t know how long you have fly fished, but my trip didn’t require a lot of expertise. Yes, you should have average casting skills and some experience in fighting tough fish. The weather is the only thing you cannot control, but two out of three isn’t bad.

Here We Go

There are several ways to plan a Canadian fishing trip. For example, you can drive to a lake, book a cabin, operate your own boat, cook your own food—and catch lots of fish. That option suits a lot of doit-yourself anglers and is worth exploring, but I wanted to spend more time on the water and less time managing camp, so I chose to visit a lodge. To get to Gangler’s North Seal River Lodge, I flew to Toronto and spent the night. The next morning, I hopped a flight on the lodge’s private airplane to the lodge.

White & Orange Demon
by Hans Van Klinken

Hook: Daiichi X452 or 2546, size 2/0 or 3/0.
Thread: Orange 6/0 (140 denier).
Eyes: Dumbbell eyes.
Tail: Orange arctic fox, two grizzly feathers, and pearl rainbow flash.
Rib: Gold or silver wire.
Body: Green Straggle String or green crystal Micro Chenille.
Wing: White Zonker strip, rainbow Krystal Flash or holographic fiber, and white arctic fox.
Throat: Orange rabbit fur.

Looking out the plane’s window, I saw thousands of lakes that all surely teemed with fish. When we landed, our bags were delivered to our cabin, breakfast was served, and we were motoring out to the fish within an hour. I landed more than 40 pike on that first day, and there was no doubt that I would be sad to leave at the end of the week.

Regardless of where you fish, you must be prepared for the weather. The previous summer, I fished out of another excellent lodge in Southern Ontario. If you study a map of Canada, you’ll see that the weather conditions in Southern Ontario might be very different from those in Northern Manitoba; in one location, the lakes might still be locked in ice while the weeds are already growing in open water in the other destination.

Always pack good rain gear, and be prepared for fluctuating weather. Gloves and waterproof footwear are a must. On this trip, we had only scattered showers, but it was windy. Fortunately, our guide could find protected area with little wind, but we did bounce around a bit when traveling on open water to the lodge or other fishing areas. What’s my best advice? Go prepared for almost anything.

Flies Must Match the Water

Matching the hatch is a big deal when fishing for trout, but this means little to pike. If you select a size 18 Trico imitation but the brownies are keying in on insects closer to size 22, you might want to bomb a pod of feeding fish with a size 4 grasshopper to spook them and get even, but a pike just might smash your fly—if a pike ate grasshoppers. A northern pike, however, is an aggressive, meat-eating predator, and it is apt to crush almost any meaty-looking choice from your fly box.

Before I took my trip, I contacted a few talented fly tiers and begged for some sample patterns to test. I wanted to occasionally switch flies and see if one pattern would be a clear winner. I received half a dozen designs, and to my pleasant surprise, the pike ate them all with equal recklessness.

Closely study the water before selecting your fly; the pattern should always match the conditions. Forget about the dozen pike you just caught in a deep hole off the wooded shoreline; your guide just pulled into a shallow cove with weeds growing all the way to the surface. Cut off that weighted Clouser Minnow or you’ll be bending your rod on weeds. Select a fly that floats high and has a weed guard. As it pushes water over the surface, a pike will explode out of the weeds and inhale your fly.

When you move to a new location, examine the water and then select your fly. Most of the patterns in your fly box should have a lot of flash and be bulkier than normal, and natural and synthetic materials are both acceptable. Color combinations are debatable, but you won’t go wrong with flies tied in red and white or in black and orange. If you hire a guide, use patterns tied in the colors he suggests. My guides usually pass over the flies I meticulously design and select the ones I found in an old tackle. After hooking 10 pike using his preferred fly, you will trust his choice.

I used almost all the flies I carried with me on this trip, and each worked like magic on the aggressive pike. I’d like to say that my patterns caught the most fish, but they all produced. You will definitely need a selection of sinking flies like Clouser Minnows, high-riding poppers, and articulated movers and shakers; each will have its place based upon water conditions. That’s one of the beauties of pike fishing: these fish spend much of their lives living under the ice, and when the short summer arrives, they eagerly eat both baitfish and flies.

Dan Blanton’s Whistler is the one pattern you must have in your fly box. Dan ties this fly in several color combinations, but the pike preferred red and white. Fish the Whistler high in the water column using a floating line, or swim it deeper with a sinking tip. A red-and-white Whistler, stripped quickly through the water, definitely excited the pike; I can see why it has been a favorite pattern for many years. Today, with so many talented tiers, pike flies have an explosive future.

The Right Tackle

Gear selection depends upon what species of fish you’re targeting. Most pike-fishing lodges also offer opportunities to catch walleyes, lake trout, and perhaps grayling. If you have a shot at casting to all these different species, pack an 8- or 9-weight outfit for pike, a 7-weight rod for walleyes, and a 4- or 5-weight rod in case you get a chance to fish for grayling or trout.

Floating lines are the first choice, but also carry at least one sinking-tip line for exploring deeper water. Leader selection for pike, especially your choice of tippet, is crucial. When targeting pike, use an 8- to 12-inch-long wire bite tippet. I normally don’t like using a snap swivel when fly fishing, but it will save a lot of time that would have been spent tying knots in that heavy tippet.

When it comes to pike fishing, I am always asked, “How big were the fish?” The folks at Gangler’s consider a 42-inchlong or bigger fish “a record pike.” I caught one 42-incher, and my partner caught a 41-inch pike. We also caught plenty of pike measuring 36 to 40 inches long, and if I took a conservative guess, we each landed around 200 pike, a dozen walleyes, and a couple of lake trout for the week. We never fished for grayling.

If northern pike are on your bucket list, you’ve made a good choice. Canada is not too far to travel, the fishing is fantastic, and the people and lodges are wonderful hosts. And if your companion is a spin fisherman, treat him with kindness; when he sees how much fun you’re having, he just might convert to fly fishing.

Chuck Furimsky is the director of the Fly Fishing Show and the International Fly Tying Symposium. Chuck lives in New Jersey. For more information about Gangler’s North Seal River Lodge, go to www.ganglers.com

Incase you need another reason to chase pike on the fly, check out the recent video of Blane Chocklett fishing for pike in Saskatchewan.

Wollaston Highlight-Blane Chocklett from Drift Media Productions on Vimeo.