By Drew YoungeDyke
This Michigan Outside column was originally published in the November 2019 issue of Woods'N'Water News.
Water wolf, hammer handle, gator, snot rocket: northern pike go by many names in Michigan, often by bass anglers upset at their ruined baits. Esox lucius has a distinction no other fish can match, though: the only circumpolar freshwater fish in the world. These ambush hunters are the top predators in most of their waters, ranging across the lakes and rivers of the north with a rich history in both biology and mythology. And catching one on a fly has been an obsession of mine for the last year.
The obsession started last summer while trolling for walleye with Mike Avery and Tom Lounsbury on Saginaw Bay. I caught a 28-inch northern pike, and it awakened a long-dormant connection to the fish after over a decade of focusing mostly on trout when I fished. My grandpa and I used to troll for northern pike on Lake Skegamog, Elk Lake, and Torch Lake out when I was in college. We never caught many fish but those days with him during his last few years were priceless.
Northern pike go back much further in my family history, too. The extended Finnish side of my family has a cottage on Chaney Lake in the far western Upper Peninsula. The first entry in the cottage log ends with the postscript, “Grandpa Bill caught a beautiful 24 ½” northern.” Chaney Lake is a small lake home to many northerns, if not big ones. Photos in the family albums show a succession of proud anglers holding northerns throughout the years.
I thought of that one I caught with Mike as beautiful, too. The dark green body, the light spots giving it camouflage, and especially the intricate black swoops and patterns on its golden fins. They were as beautiful to me as the red spots on brown trout. The next day I went bowfishing with John Cleveland, a representative for Dardevle lures – the classic pike spoon - and he told me about fly fishing for northern pike up in Canada. I envisioned fly fishing for northerns out of the old aluminum rowboat on Chaney Lake and it made perfect sense.
Like any new obsession, I started with the literature. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources released a Management Plan for Northern Pike in Michigan in 2016. “Habitat is a key factor in determining Northern Pike population dynamics in inland waters,” it notes. Northern pike spawn in shallow aquatic vegetation and flooded wetlands adjacent to water bodies, and their loss through shoreline development has reduced northern pike habitat, especially in southern Michigan. One of the DNR’s top goals for northern pike is to “protect, restore, and enhance habitat on Michigan waters,” noting that the loss of spawning habitat, especially through aquatic plant management, is “a major threat to the state’s Northern Pike fisheries.”
A 1988 report for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations gave a synopsis of all the biological data known about northern pike at the time. What I found most interesting was how they hunted. Using camouflage to blend into cover, often vegetation, northern pike first see the prey with one eye, then slowly turn their body to face it, then stealthily approach it until it’s just a couple inches away. Then it bends its body into an “S,” coiling like a spring, straightening into a strike, its mouth closed until the final instant, when it opens quickly. This creates a suction drawing the prey in, where the pike’s inwardly-inverted teeth make escape almost impossible. For 60 million years, this design has allowed northern pike to thrive throughout the northern freshwaters of the world.
In Finland, northern pike are called hauki (which has become my favorite hashtag to follow on Instagram). Northern pike play a prominent role in ancient Finnish mythology, as preserved in the national epic poem The Kalevala. The hero of The Kalevala, Vainamoinen, slays “the mighty pike of Northland,” feeds everyone with it, and creates a magic harp from its jawbone. A prayer to the water-god Ahto asks him to “stir up all the reeds and sea-weeds, hither drive a school of gray-pike, drive them to our magic fish-net.”
I wondered if my great-great-grandpa felt a connection to the Finland he emigrated from at age 17 catching pike in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula where he lived to age 95. Pike fishing is still popular in Finland and other northern European countries. I found some YouTube videos from Finland-based Vision Flyfishing helpful in learning the basics of fly fishing for northern pike, along with the Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing Series episode on pike and muskie. The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast with Tom Rosenbauer had some good pike-focused episodes, and talking with outdoor writer Tim Mead helped, too, who has fly fished for northern pike in the Upper Peninsula with a float tube.
Over the spring and summer I geared up. I ordered an 8-wt Orvis Encounter fly rod and reel package and an assortment of large streamers and popping bugs. I ordered from Orvis to ensure that the weighted eyes and bead-heads in my flies were nontoxic: Chaney Lake supports a pair of loons, which can be poisoned when they ingest lead fishing weights lost or broken off. It also hosts bald eagles which fish its waters and can get lead poisoning from eating fish which have broken off line with lead weights attached.
I also bought a used fishing float tube which I tried out on a few likely pike waters over the summer, without catching any. This would be harder than I thought. My friend Chris Engle took me to a favorite pike lake with his daughter and my dad. I didn’t catch any but his daughter, Paige, caught a dandy with a spinning outfit. I also fished sections of the Huron River near my home in Ann Arbor that I thought likely for northern pike, and had a couple strikes, but no catches.
Finally, I got up to Chaney Lake in September, along with some friends from different conservation organizations for a weekend of hunting grouse and fishing for pike with non-lead ammo and tackle. Michigan United Conservation Clubs president George Lindquist brought his 17-foot fishing boat and we also had the cottage’s aluminum rowboat. George caught the first northern of the weekend off the dock in the early evening, and since they were biting we figured we should get out on the lake and catch them!
George took a crew in his boat and I set out in the rowboat with my National Wildlife Federation colleagues Aaron Kindle and Marcia Brownlee, who manages Artemis Sportswomen. As Aaron rowed, I cast an articulated streamer with (non-lead) weighted eyes and stripped the line back. The northern stalked it, and I waited until it struck to strip-set the line, and it was on. Aaron netted it and I finally had my first northern pike on a fly! It wasn’t large – maybe 20 to 24 inches – and I released it without measuring. I caught another the next day after losing the articulated streamer and molding tungsten putty around the head of another streamer to give it the same effect as weighted eyes.
By the end of the weekend, everyone caught at least one northern. Sarah Topp, AmeriCorps coordinator at Huron Pines in Gaylord, caught a keeper that we grilled for a delicious lunch snack the next day. And after a summer of not catching any, and on Chaney Lake, out of the aluminum rowboat - just as I had envisioned - I finally had the water wolf of the north at the end of my fly line.
By Drew YoungeDyke
This Michigan Outside column was originally published in the November 2019 issue of Woods'n'Water News.
The springer spaniel darted in front of us, flushing a ruffed grouse from the hunter walking trail but too far in front of us for a shot. It was our only flush of the day, but the heartbeat thump that echoed through the woods was exciting for two new ruffed grouse hunters in our party from out West. We had covered over five miles of tough hiking both on the trail and most often off of it in the dense young forest cover grouse prefer. Ruffed grouse hunting offers a perfect opportunity to log some cardiovascular exercise while enjoying Michigan’s outdoors.
I have only hunted ruffed grouse a handful of times, shooting none and missing one. Every hunt – tagging along with more experienced upland hunters – has covered between about three and five miles of hiking. Unlike still-hunting for white-tailed deer, upland hunting goes at a much faster pace, often trying to keep up with my friends’ bird dogs in a skirmish line, through whatever cover may arise.
Ruffed grouse prefer young forests which have a much thicker undergrowth than older canopied forests which block the sunlight, especially young aspen forests. The Mosinee Grouse Enhanced Management System (GEMS) in Gogebic County, about five miles south of Wakefield, holds multiple blocks of mixed age-class aspen stands and maple and oak forests interspersed by upland openings and hunter walking trails. Nine friends joined me there in late September as part of a cast and blast weekend of ruffed grouse hunting and northern pike fishing with non-lead ammunition and fishing tackle, based out of my family’s cottage on nearby Chaney Lake.
Our party split into two groups. Jordan Browne of Michigan Out-of-Doors TV was filming so we sent him with the more experienced ruffed grouse hunters consisting of Michigan United Conservation Clubs president George Lindquist, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation president Craig Challenor, Michigan Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers co-chair Ryan Cavanagh, and Huron Pines AmeriCorps coordinator Sarah Topp. I joined the other group of my National Wildlife Federation co-workers Aaron Kindle of Colorado and Marcia Brownlee of Montana, and Wisconsin Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers members Bill Koepke and Marissa English of Wisconsin and their springer spaniel, Jango.
While my western colleagues have hunted dusky grouse and sage grouse, they were surprised by how much ground we covered looking for Northwoods ruffed grouse. A 154-pound person burns an average of 370 calories per hour, according to the Center for Disease Control. Hiking on uneven ground, though, burns 28% more energy than walking on even terrain. Most grouse hunting occurs on uneven ground, even if the elevation is relatively flat as you step over fallen logs, duck under branches, and walk through a mix of ground cover types. While calories burned are a function of the hunter’s weight and will be different for every hunter on every hunt, it’s safe to say that it will be significantly more than the calories burned while sitting on the couch watching football game on television.
Neither of our parties got a shot on grouse that day; the other party had three flushes but no shots through the thick and colorful late September foliage. Ryan had picked up a roadkill grouse on the drive over, though, so we cooked that up as a lunch appetizer to go with pasties from Randall’s bakery. A 4-oz. serving of ruffed grouse contains 29g of protein and 1g of fat, according to the USDA, making it a healthy source of lean protein. And if you use steel shot or another non-lead alternative, you keep it clean of lead toxicity both for anyone eating it and any raptor scavenging it if you wound or fail to recover it.
The Mosinee GEMS site we hunted is part of the Michigan DNR’s network of 19 sites across northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula which are managed specifically for high quality ruffed grouse habitat that is publicly accessible and easily recognizable. It is actually Gogebic County forest, known as the Mosinee Grade Tract. I learned from my mom’s cousin that my great-grandpa used to hunt that tract.
Ruffed grouse habitat requires active forest management to keep young forests in rotation: this means trees have to be cut. In the Pigeon River Country State Forest, where I’ve hunted grouse and where I do most of my deer hunting, the DNR is planning an ambitious conversion of 88-year-old red pine stand choked with invasive species understory into an upland habitat mecca. The 230-acre stand will be clear cut and the ground roller-chopped to allow early successional aspen to regenerate, interspersed with oak and hawthorn plantings to provide wildlife food sources.
This project will occur in a highly visible section of the forest, where many people may misunderstand the wildlife value of clear cuts like this. For a few years after treatment in 2021, it will look like a clear cut where pine trees now stand. But conservation is about the long term, and in a decade or so when my infant son is ready to start hunting with me – if he decides to – the area will be regenerating into aspen cover for ruffed grouse and I might finally be successful at hunting them!
Ruffed grouse hunting has been growing on me as upland hunting friends have invited me along over the last few years. I enjoy the camaraderie, the terrain, the habitat, the dogs, the heartbeat thump of the grouse beating their wings, and the taste of the grouse my friends have shot. And I hardly even noticed that the whole time I was also burning calories and getting a great cardiovascular workout. Ruffed grouse hunting in Michigan is a perfect way to find fitness in the outdoors.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member for 2% for Conservation, a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, and a state-appointed member of the Pigeon River Country State Forest Advisory Council.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the PRCAC, or any other entity.