An Expert Guide to Fly Fishing for Northern Pike
Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith details all the gear and knowledge you'll need in order to land some northern pike on your fly rod this season!
Most fly fishermen are trout anglers. The sport began by casting small flies that look like insects to refined-looking fish. Modern technology has changed all of that. With the advent of modern fly-tying material, quality flies can be tied from various materials using new techniques. Fly rods are built now with composite materials. No longer are they wispy canes of bamboo. Instead, new fast-action fly rods have the backbone to launch flies that take half of a chicken to tie. Fly lines have been re-engineered from horsehair and silk.
With compact shooting heads, these fly lines enable anglers to target other species. With all these changes, I encourage you to expand your fly fishing targets. Consider targeting northern pike on the fly. I am convinced that you will become an Esox angler once you try. You might even take a trip to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and try fishing for trophy pike.
About Esox Freshwater Fish
The Esox family of freshwater fish contains fish that conventional anglers have long sought. In addition to northern pike, more common species include chain pickerel and muskellunge. Anglers can catch them on the fly. These fish are predators built with a flat head, yellow eyes, and sharp teeth. Pike will eat just about anything that swims. Frogs, snakes, mice, ducks, bluegill, perch, and even smaller pike are apt to become dinner if they swim in front of a large pike.
They are ambush hunters and are one of the fastest-swimming freshwater fish. They lay in wait, motionless as they suspend in shallow water near weed beds or drop-offs, waiting for the dinner bell to ring. These drop-offs can be fished blindly with searching casts, but large fish are often seen, and sight casting is the norm. These casts are not delicate long casts with tight loops. These casts are 20 feet or less wide looped casts, and the action will be right in front of your eyes. Make a strip jerk retrieve. If no takes on the first cast, cast again, and vary the retrieval speed. A slower retrieve will often coax a lazy fish into a strike.
Also, northern pike are territorial. Even if they are not hungry, if you annoy them enough, they will lash out at the fly. Often, anglers will see a wake in the water as the pike chase the baitfish imitations down before crushing your fly. This is what makes pike fun to catch. They will not peel off backing like a blistering bonefish run, but the take is savage in nature and unlike anything else. They will jump, roll, and try everything else to spit your fly. They are like a junkyard dog that will not let go of a bone. This adrenaline is why anglers chase these fish.
Essential Gear for Northern Pike Fly Fishing
To get into pike fly fishing, you will need gear slightly different from trout fishing. The good news is you will not need much of it. Here are the essentials.
A fast-action rod usually works best. The size of the fly is really the determining factor, not the fish. The flies used are anywhere from 6 to 12 inches in size. Aerodynamics is not the intent; a larger fast-action fly rod will help turn these flies over. A 7-9 weight fly rod is usually adequate for the job, with an 8-weight rod being a good all-around weight. If muskies are also in the mix, a 10-11 weight rod may be required as these flies tend to be even larger. Make sure to get a rod with a fighting grip and butt to help battle these brutes. The Temple Fork Outfitters BC Big Fly Rod is designed specifically for Esox fishing.
These fish are not known for long runs, but a good disc drag large arbor reel to aid with line management is a solid choice. If the drag is strong enough to fight a water wolf (the Latin name of a pike), you will be in business.
Make sure to get a fly line that matches the rod. Since most of the casts will be within 20 feet, a quick-loading compact head will come in handy. The line should be strong enough to load the rod and turn over flies the size of your forearm. Scientific Anglers Titan Taper fly line is a good floating line option. In some situations, an intermediate line works well to get to fish suspended in the water column, and during the dog days of summer, a full sinking line may be required to reach pike that are in deeper waters.
For the leader, it is all about turning large flies over. Long 12-foot 7x leaders designed for Trico hatches will not work. A 7.5-foot leader is really all the length you need. For the tippet, these fish have sharp teeth and will bite through monofilament in a heartbeat. The Orvis Predator Polyleader is a good option and comes with a snap swivel for easy fly changes.
The good news is that you will not need a large selection of flies. For most pike, the bigger and flashier flies, the better. Do not be afraid to cast something that looks like a Christmas tree ornament. Pike like flash. Flies need to push a lot of water, and the coloring should somewhat mimic the natural colors of the bait intended.
Topwater flies include mice and frog imitations. Baitfish streamer patterns work well below the surface. Typically, these flies are on 2-4/0 hook sizes. Anglers should seek quality flies as cheap flies will shred after one fish. To keep it simple, a handful of topwater patterns and streamers are all that is required.
Pike are large fish. Plan for safe handling before hooking one. Ensure your net is large enough, and keep your fingers away from their teeth. A good pair of pliers will help with hook removal and the wire bite tippet.
I hope I convinced you to give northern pike fly fishing a chance. If muskies are around, I encourage you to try your hand at these monsters as well. Warm water fly fishing can be just as fun as trout fishing, so add this to your bucket list. If you have questions or need help selecting a rod, reel, and line for northern pike fly fishing or gearing up for your next adventure, please reach out to myself or a fellow Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated. We would love to help. Tight Lines!