For Big Fish & Fast Action: Northern Pike

Increasingly, Maine fly fishermen are discovering the pike alternative.

“Pike are often considered warm water fish. But what many don’t understand,” the guide says, “is they are actually cold water fish, preferring about the same water temperatures as many trout and salmon.

Sit back for a minute, close your eyes and think about fly fishing here in Maine. What does your brain conjure up? Native brookies on a remote pond? Perhaps working for landlocked salmon on the West Branch, Grand Lake Stream, the Kennebago, Sebago or Moosehead. Maybe some the finest small mouth possibilities to be found anywhere? All are part of Maine’s fly fishing landscape and are forever scribed in its lore and legends. But what about Northern Pike?

How and when northern pike came to exist in Maine waters is a decades old mystery. Other non-natives such as smallmouth and largemouth bass were introduced by federal or state wildlife officials in 1869 and 1900. It is believed that the pike were brought in by someone trying to improve the fishery,a so-called “bucket biologist.” Whatever the case, pike are here in Maine much to the glee of a growing number of fly fishermen. One such person is pike enthusiast and guide Bob Howe formerly of Fairfield but now of Bingham.

“I grew up with landlocks and brookies,” Howe says, “and I still love them, but pike are a lot of fun. These fish are unlike anything modem Maine fishermen have angled for. They are big, fight extremely well, there’s lots of them, and once you get to know them, not that difficult to catch, among other things. Where in Maine can you go and expect to catch three-to-eight-pound fish with 20-pounders a possibility on a fly?”

The current state record pike is a 26-pound, 12-ounce fish taken from Great Pond in 1989. According to Howe, pike in the 10-to-20-pound range are quite possible, with three-to-eight-pounders common. Timing is the key.

Historically, Maine pike have been the target of ice-fishermen and those using terminal gear. “Pike are often considered warm water fish. But what many don’t understand,” the guide says, “is they are actually cold water fish, preferring about the same water temperatures as many trout and salmon. That’s why you don’t see them in the south, only here in the north. The biggest mistake the angler can make is under estimating the need for cold water, especially the large fish. The further north you go the longer water temperatures stay cold, or at least within the pike’s acceptable range, so it becomes less important. In many areas of Canada pike are found in shallow areas right through the summer. But here in Maine we’re on the southern limits of its range. Surface temperatures get warm, often very quickly, and it’s a whole different ball game.” With that in mind, Howe claims the spring season is the best time when its comes to taking these fish on flies, particularly when it comes to fish of size.

Pike are early spawners, here in Maine especially.. It is not unusual to find them congregating near sluggish inlets, within shallow coves and over weedy bottoms before ice-out, in two-to-six-feet of water. “It is often possible to fish for them in the open backwater coves, channels and mouths of inlets even while the main lakes are still covered with ice,” the guide notes. “Those available are rather sluggish, and not overly aggressive due to the super cold water, but they are among the largest fish available all season.

By the time open water arrives anglers can bet on even more pike being in shallow locals and actively spawning. In the Belgrade Lakes, the heart of Maine’s pike country, and places like Sabattus Lake, another hotspot, that means by late April or early May, some years earlier. Working conditions at this time are less than what most fly casters prefer.

Not only are pike in shallow water at this time, and lots of them, but they are extremely aggressive as well. This is particularly true of the males, which are in competition for females. “At no other time will these fish be more available to the fishermen, “Howe says, “or more willing to jump on a fly.” Spawning reaches a peak when water temperatures arc around 39-degrees, and lasts for a week or more. During the mating ritual, both males and females become greatly stressed. For several days immediately after they tend to go on a recuperative hiatus, during which they move and feed very little and are extremely difficult to entice. Following that rest, however, pike become feeding machines, literally strutting themselves, apparently building up reserves in anticipation of the coming summer. The scenario will continue into late May, perhaps early June depending upon spring conditions, with aggressive tendencies increasing daily, as water temperatures rise. Generally, peak activity seems to start around the second week of May and continues to about Memorial Day, when water temperatures are between 45 and 55-degrees Fahrenheit, what Howe calls the “pre-summer” period.

By early June, things are definitely starting to change. Many of the larger females have moved to deeper water. Some large males will lag behind until surface temperatures climb into the 65-70-degree range, which means by the third week of the month. But not soon after, generally before, even they have gone to deep summer resting places and go in to a state of near dormancy. They will hold to these deepwater bastions, at depths to thirty-feet or more through the summer.

Compounding the problem is they take advantage of their “pre-summer” feeding binge and feed very little. They move even less. “Not easy to reach them with a fly,” Howe says, “you’d have to be in the right, almost exact spot, and even then they might not take. Even with lures and bait it’s a slow process where depth finders and electronic fish location come into play. Not exactly your typical fly fishing scenario.”

Still, pike can be taken on flies during the summer. Because smaller specimens can tolerate warm temperatures and become less stressed during the spawn most fish caught are under 10-pounds. Despite their size, conditions are near ideal for open water fly fishing tactics, and on appropriate gear even pike of this size put up a respectable fight.

However, Maine pike–like all pike–are greatly effected by light, and they are not nocturnal. Following the spawn, Maine pike seem to feed most heavily early in the day, from just after daylight to perhaps 10 A.M.. From about 2 P.M. to just before dusk is also good, but generally not as productive as early in the day. There is a definite lull during the mid-day hours, before the sun is on the water and after dusk.

The same is somewhat true during the early spring season, with the exception being during the actual spawn. Maine pike seem to move towards spawning areas early in the day with the hours from daybreak to perhaps 9 A.M or 10 A.M. most active. The action is good during these hours. They seem to mate, however, in the afternoon, with activity increasing as the sun grows stronger and brighter. As the sun drops spawning slows and fish move back to slightly deeper water. Keeping this in mind, pre-spawn and spawning period fly fishing opportunities can be phenomenal from dusk to mid-afternoon then tapering off towards dusk.

Things begin to change again as surface temperatures cool in the fall. Generally by mid-to-late-September some fish have moved towards the shallows. This may be delayed if weather conditions remain warm, which they often do. As temperatures continue to drop, however, pike will certainly move in. The question is when, and keeping an eye on water temperatures is important. Rarely it is worth a try until water temperatures drop into the mid-or-low-60’s. Even then, it is rare when pike will be found at spring depths, or in the same places. “Instead, our pike cling to the shelves, and along the edge of drop-offs, generally those about twenty-feet down, and are found anywhere from eight-to-ten-feet deep,” Howe says.

With all things considered, October and into early November where legal and when weather permits often prove better than much of September. I have been on North Pond the second week of October under “Indian summer” skies and literally had the entire place to myself.

Most bass enthusiasts agree approach, casting finesse and accuracy are important when working shallow water during the spawning season. The same goes for Maine pike. Despite a rather aggressive and protective behavior they can be easily spooked. Maine pike waters are also clear, not tea-colored as one might expect, so they have good visibility. It is important is to cut outboards well back from potential hotspots, making sure not to create wakes that splash against the shore. Failure to do so can be disastrous, particularly when the wind is down and surfaces are calm. So can fly lines and leaders flashing overhead and flies smacking the surface. Respect these fish as you would other coldwater species and success will come easier and more often.

As a rule expect to make casts of 35-to-45-feet. Being able to double-haul or otherwise shoot line 50 or 60-feet is a bonus during the spring and summer. Wind will often be a determining factor early in the spring season, less from late-June through August, and while it is always best to stay within controllable casting range the further back the better. It also helps to keep casts low, keeping in mind the shallow, clear conditions.

Always scout and study an area. Pike like structure and cover, submerged logs and rocks and fallen trees. During the actual spawning ritual and for a short time thereafter weed beds are particularly good since pike like to deposit eggs where they will come to rest in dense vegetation. Later, lily pads as they begin to emerge are hot spots, as are rock-infested points and coves just before pike head for deep water. Look for these and other possible areas and conclude the best line of attack before making a cast. As a general rule. it is often best to cast to the side and beyond a possible holding area, working the fly through it, rather than casting directly to the mark. Above all it is important to make that first cast and presentation count. A second or third cast, even after a perfect presentation. greatly reduces the chance of success.

Whenever casting for pike always assume pike are watching or at least nearby and aware of a fly’s presence once hitting the water. Let it sink momentarily and then give it some life. Streamers are the rule here, so start off slow with foot-long retrieves, gradually increasing speed in an erratic, darting motion, then flowing down again as it is pulled through the target area, speeding up again only if a fish is seen in pursuit. Long casts allow plenty of time to experiment. At intervals, don’t hesitate to stop the retrieve altogether, allowing it to sink a little bit, as if tired or injured. Pike will nail a fly moving or hanging.. If a strike fails to come, wait a few minutes, allowing the pike to settle back in and try again. Remember, too, pike are notorious for following a potential victim. It is not uncommon for them to strike at boatside, or just as you lift the road to recast. In the case of a follow, speeding up the retrieve often works, but always; always be ready for the attack and work the fly all the way in before lifting it from the water.

It is important also to quickly, eliminate slack in the line once the fly hits the water for the purpose of setting the hook quickly. When these fish strike it comes fast and furious. I prefer keeping the rod tip low, pointed at the target area, keeping the line straight on the retrieve, setting the hook with an aggressive backward tug on the line. not Lifting jig of the rod, especially, on larger pike. By doing so, the hook point is at a better angle to penetrate flesh and fewer misses are the result. Once the fish is solidly felt a second backward strike should follow, just to make sure. By striking this way, the fly. will still be in the water, in front of the fish increasing the chances .

Maine pike waters are no place for trout rods. These are powerful fish, even the small ones. The larger fish are actually demanding on all components. Although I prefer multiplying reels for various reasons any well built single-action counterpart with a smooth drag will do the job. Contrary to popular belief, these fish rarely make long runs. So 100-yards of backing in the 20-pound test range is adequate.

What is needed is a rod with some grit, particularly in the mid-section ‘and tip. It need not be long, 8-1/2-to-9-feet, but achieving some level of control is important, too. A rod of this nature will makes things easier all around.

As for line, a floater is used exclusively through the spring and summer seasons. Once pike begin to move from deep water in the fall an intermediate-to-fast sink-tip will reach needed depths. Standard weight-forward tapers will handle most situations, particularly in the hands of experienced casters, but one of the speciality tapers, such as Cortland’s “Pike/Musky” taper, will help beat the wind and make casting and turning-over heavy, bulky, flies easier for casters of all levels. Size 8 or 9 is recommended.

Of critical importance is the leader. It must be long enough to deliver flies with little disturbance, yet short enough to control. It must aid in turning-over large pike flies properly and it must also be strong. Something from 8 to 9-feet is a good length. On the tippet-end, wire is often used but wire kinks make it difficult to cast and drop to the water without a disturbance. Pike also inhale their prey, often engulfing a fly. The pike’s teeth are not razor-edged but pointed. ‘They do not cut through a tippet, but fray it in the struggle. With that in mind a tippet merely has to be heavy, enough to withstand this action.

What works best is a shock-tippet the same as those used for baby tarpon and other saltwater game. Those available commercially are ideal. Climax makes theirs of Perlon. They meet all necessary requirements for this type of work meet are easy to construct knots with, even in 20-to-30-pound test.

When it comes to flies, Maine pike do not seem overly fussy. Smelt are a traditional food source in the Belgrades, as are shiners and white perch. Traditional Maine streamer patterns tied larger and fuller than normal on size 2 hooks such as the Grey and Black Ghosts will catch these fish. So will many saltwater streamer patterns, particularly Deceivers. Other popular offerings fall along more bass and pike-like design. Topping the list of Mike Holt, owner and proprietor of the Fly Fishing Only Shop in Fairfield, who caters to a growing number of pike enthusiasts, are Whitlock’s Water Pup in black as well as purple, Dalberg Divers, particularly the Mega-Diver, Whitlock’s Hare Diver and the Clouser Crippled Minnow, all on size 2 and size 3 hooks. Other baitfish,, mice and floating bug patterns, even diving balsawood designs will also work. Time and time again experiments prove surprising. 

For more articles and stories about hunting, fishing and the outdoors, be sure to subscribe to our monthly publication the Northwoods Sporting Journal.

To access past copies of the Northwoods Sporting Journal in digital format at no charge, click here.

Reader Feedback

The Northwoods Sporting Journal is the largest hunting & fishing magazine in the Northeast.