Pike

Pike

There's a reason they're named for a medieval military weapon

  • By: John Gierach
My friend Ed Engle and I got into some northern pike one late spring almost by accident. We regularly fish a stretch of lake country in the upper Midwest for largemouth bass and, as you'd expect, every year some lakes are on and others are off. The reasons for that can be mysterious-especially to outsiders-so the standard drill when you arrive is to scout around on your own and talk to other fishermen to get the lay of things. That can take a few days, but most of these people are spin fishermen, so they're more likely than your average fly caster to point a stranger in the right direction.That year it turned out that the lakes that were fishing well were the ones that had more pike than bass and it was the pike that were on the bite. It was as simple as that. After a hiatus of several years, we were pike fishermen again. I actually don't consider myself much of a northern pike fisherman, even though I've caught them off and on for the past 45 years or so, starting as a kid in Minnesota with bait, then spoons and plugs and finally graduating to flies years later once I learned that was possible. The way I remember it, there were three kinds of fishermen when I was a kid: the bass guys, the pike guys and the walleye fishermen-who were mostly dour Swedes who thought a day spent trolling was almost too much fun. And then there were guys like my father who were generalists by default. Dad was primarily a hunter who would fish seriously for whatever was available, largely because there was nothing to shoot at in the summer. I had to love smallmouth bass for their strength, compactness and what I'd later come to think of as a trout-like fastidiousness. Largemouths were cool for their moodiness and head-shaking jumps. Walleye fishing involved torturous boredom, but the fish were delicious enough to almost make it worthwhile. Pike, on the other hand, were dangerous, and the tackle included things like jaw spreaders, long-handle hook disgorgers and sawed off baseball bats for the big ones. As a young boy, I was equally repelled and attracted by the violence of it. It seemed like most of the pike fishermen I met back then were old, gnarly guys with greasy caps and hands that were always scarred and often missing fingers. Whenever they'd catch me looking they'd cackle and say, "Big old pike bit that off." I knew that scaring little boys was high sport for old men, but I'd already been bitten by pike a few times myself, so I understood there was at least a grain of truth to it. I was at that age when I wanted to be like the men for a while before I actually had to become one. That seemed especially important after a helpful adult took me aside and said, "Do it all now, son, because soon enough you'll end up like me." I understood that in his case that meant having a low paying, dead-end job, ungrateful kids, a wife he didn't like and a bottle of whiskey hidden in the garage. Other men painted a different, sometimes rosier picture, but I knew there were hazards ahead, so I was trying desperately to learn the ropes and be brave. Of course the advice from the old guys about pike was always the same: "Don't be skittish about 'em. Go ahead and grab 'em." It sounded right, but then these guys had, you know, missing fingers and stuff. So to this day I'm still a little scared of pike. When I grew up and became a catch-and-release fisherman, I began to handle fish gingerly so I wouldn't hurt them, but I still handle pike gingerly so they won't hurt me. In those weedy Midwestern lakes Ed and I were fishing, switching from bass to pike isn't much of an adjustment, since both fish will eat the same flies in more or less the same sorts of places. The only real concession I make for pike is to use a 50-pound monofilament shock tippet to keep from losing too many flies to the fishes' sharp teeth. It's true that after years of fishing these lakes, we've come to think of the taller, denser common reeds as bass water and the skinnier, more widely spaced bull rushes that grow in slightly deeper water as pike habitat, but we've been surprised plenty of times by catching what we'd have said were the wrong fish for the place. In the long run, which lake you're fishing and what's biting make more difference than how you're fishing. In fact the biggest pike I ever caught out there was in what I'd always thought of as a beautiful stretch of bass water. Ed had been poling me around in a patch of tall reeds where I'd caught several bass, including a couple of nice big ones. We'd about covered the water and I said it was time to switch off and find a new spot, but then Ed made one of those brilliant calls. He pointed and said, "Before we do that, flip a cast up into that little pass. Sometimes a big pike will lie in a spot like that." He was talking about a pear-shape pot hole with a two-foot-wide channel leading out to open water: the aquatic version of a game trail with good ambush sites on both sides. He poled me into range, I made the cast, and although these things usually happen too quickly to register, I think I remember a telltale twitch in the weed stalks a split second before my floating bug went down in a splash. I knew it was a pike because it was too big and too vicious for a bass. The fish felt the hook and bored off into the thickest weeds. I lifted the rod straight over my head to try and keep the line out of the stalks and felt the boat lurch as Ed dug in the pole and began to follow it. The pike corkscrewed around in there and Ed kept us close behind him, going faster than I'd have thought you could pole a 14-foot aluminum johnboat. Neither of us said a word, which is the kind of thing that can happen with old fishing partners: The fat may be in the fire, but there's no need for discussion. Finally the pike plowed himself into a mat of weeds and stopped. Ed poled the boat up to where my leader vanished straight down past the gunnel. I grabbed the shock tippet in my left hand and hauled up a frowning head that looked as big as a Chesapeake Bay retriever's. I reached down and plucked the fly from the pike's lip with a pair of needle-nose pliers. He sank from sight and then swam off slowly, shouldering aside the reeds. When I looked back at Ed he was holding his camera and I thought, Yeah, if I hadn't been afraid to pick the thing up, we'd have had a nice hero shot. As I said, I think largemouth bass and pike will eat pretty much the same flies, or at least that's been my experience, although I know there are those who'd argue. Over the past 10 years or so I've reduced my bass and pike fly selection to the bare minimum of two patterns in a couple of different colors. One is a store-bought floating deerhair frog-style thing in either natural or psychedelic colors. The other is a long, skinny rabbit-strip streamer tied in chartreuse and white, red and yellow or red and black. This is the kind of simplicity I've been aiming at in other kinds of fishing, but, for unknown reasons, haven't come close to yet. The streamers are simple affairs with lead eyes and two fur-on rabbit strips glued skin-side together along the hook shank. A few years ago I also started trimming all but a short buzz-cut of fur off the strips to give the flies a long, snaky look, leaving a short tuft of long fur right at the tail that wiggles as the fly sinks. A pike fisherman in Nebraska once told me they looked just like rubber worms, which I took as the highest possible praise. Big fish do turn up from time to time, but for the most part these lakes aren't known as trophy water for pike. In some places the pike actually seem a little overpopulated, and you'll catch a lot of small ones not much more than 20 inches long. The powers that be are apparently trying to breed for better size, since the regulations say you can keep pike up to 28 inches long, but anything longer than that has to be released. The rules seem to have gone over well with the locals. Most of them happily fish for keepers and bring home a stringer of them for supper most nights, but they also like to brag about the ones that were so big they had to throw 'em back. I actually enjoy pike that aren't much longer than 20-some inches, especially when I've been away from them for a while and am getting reacquainted. They're a good flyrod fish at that size, with plenty of fight, and it's always fun to just see them again. I also like flipping around for them back in the thick tules. I can't really call it casting because you use not much more than a rod length's worth of line and leader, making a sort of high, aerial rollcast or, if you hold the fly in your line hand, something resembling a soft, lofting bow-and-arrow cast. "Flippin'," as they say: moving slowly, staying quiet, getting as close as you dare and keeping as much line as possible out of the weeds. It's about as close as you can get to grappling while still using a rod. I've never found a rig that makes this kind of fishing graceful or pretty, but a long, stiff rod that's over-lined by a size or two works as well as anything and lets you put the wood to a fish when it makes a run. The heavy shock tippet also helps a little. At least on short casts, it acts as a weight-forward leader, turning the fly over at the end of the flip. It's also fun to slither a flat-bottom swamp boat back into the places where marsh gives way to lake without any clear boundary; where it's too thick and shallow for most boats, but also too deep to wade. Once Ed and I got too close to a marsh wren nest and the adult-all of five inches long and weighing a fraction of an ounce-perched on the bow of the boat and read us the riot act. We poled away sheepishly until she stopped scolding. Another time we came upon two large snapping turtles screwing and sat there watching for 20 minutes. It was hypnotic: a cross between hardcore porn, a horror movie and Animal Planet. Ed and I caught pike off and on for several days, but our best morning was a still, chilly one with the big lake so socked in with fog that at times we couldn't see either bank. The pike were pretty raspy that day and I got a good one right at the ragged edge where the reeds began to give way to bullrushes. The fish was big enough that he'd begun to lose that arrow straightness and develop a gut: well past the size where we'd have had to put him back whether we wanted to or not. The fight was the usual short-range panic with line tangled six different ways in the rushes and a little hand-to-hand combat at the end. I slipped on the woven-Kevlar glove with the soft rubber pads that I'd taken to using. These gloves are designed for people who work with things like raggedly opened steel drums and they work beautifully for pike because they're hard to bite through and the rubber gives you a better grip on a big, slimy fish. I cradled the pike behind the gill flaps in my gloved left hand and deftly lifted it so Ed could take a photo. I have the snapshot on my desk. It's your standard grip-and-grin shot with a nice big pike and a fisherman who's grinning confidently into the camera, just like he knew what he was doing.