By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors)
Fall fly-fishing for northern pike is about chasing a moment. All of it – the equipment, the strategy, the effort – comes down to a glimpse of a pike underwater stalking the streamer, a brief pause, and the sudden, violent strike. Within that brief moment is all the adrenaline of the strip-set and the anticipation of wondering if the fish is on the line, followed by the elation of a heavy tug or the disappointment in a slack retrieve.
Last fall I invited some friends from different conservation organizations in Michigan and Wisconsin up to my family’s Upper Peninsula lake cottage for a long weekend to chase that moment, along with Jordan Browne of Michigan Out-of-Doors TV to film it for a National Wildlife Federation film, Northwoods Unleaded. We spent three fun-filled days reeling in northern pike with nontoxic gear for both spinning and fly rods while the September leaves changed color overhead.
Michigan anglers have long traveled to Canada for trophy northerns but there are ample opportunities to catch northern pike throughout Michigan. My grandpa and I used to catch them trolling with spoons on Lake Skegamog in the northern Lower Peninsula when I was younger, and my family has been catching northern pike at our cottage on Chaney Lake since my great-grandpa bought it in the late 1950’s. In fact, a postscript to the first entry in the cottage log notes that “Grandpa Bill caught a beautiful 24 1/2-in. northern.”
Chaney Lake is a small 530-acre lake near the Ottawa National Forest in Gogebic County. Our dock points to the deepest depression in the lake, reaching about 20 feet deep, while the edges boast shallow weeds perfect for pike to ambush prey and a large shallow weed complex at one end for spawning. Chaney Lake is under special pike regulations allowing the take of up to five pike under 24 inches and one over, designed to increase the size of the fish in the lake and reduce the abundance of “hammer handles.” Similar regulations are being considered for additional lakes throughout Michigan by the DNR Fisheries Division.
George Lindquist, past Michigan United Conservation Clubs president, caught a hammer handle off the dock as the first evening approached, as did Craig Challenor, president of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. With the bite on, we split up into two groups with the gear anglers on George’s 17-foot boat and the fly anglers with me in our little aluminum rowboat.
George’s crew cast into the drop-off. We heard the shouts from George’s boat as Sarah Topp and Ryan Cavanaugh caught beautiful pike. Sarah is the former On The Ground coordinator for Michigan United Conservation Clubs and Ryan is the co-chair of the Michigan Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Sarah caught one over 24 inches and kept it to pair with the next day’s lunch of pasties from Randall’s Bakery in Wakefield.
Marcia Brownlee, director of Artemis Sportswomen, and Aaron Kindle, director of sporting campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation, joined me in the rowboat with fly rods. We worked the weed edges extending out from shore. As Aaron rowed, I cast an articulated streamer with nonlead dumbbell eyes to the weed edge and stripped it back on my 8-wt rod. I watched a northern pike follow it a few feet below the surface and strike suddenly when I paused the retrieve. With a strip set, I had my first northern pike on the fly. It fought violently into Aaron’s net just as the sun was setting across the lake. It was only about 18-20 inches but I released it.
Later in the weekend, l caught another small northern just off the shallow weeds on a Lefty’s Deceiver fly weighted with tungsten putty. Everyone on the trip ended up catching pike, but I was the only one to do so on a fly rod. As a novice pike fly angler, though, I wanted to know if this was just luck or if I was actually fishing the right spots with the right equipment and the right tactics for fall northern pike.
“For lakes, I like to search on the edges of shallow flats where pike will ambush baitfish,” advised Kole Luetke, a fly-fishing guide for Superior Outfitters out of Marquette. “I also continue to fish the typically key structure that I fish thought the year, such as weed beds and deadfalls on the shore line. The key is to locate the baitfish, and in the later season warmer water temps. On rivers, I fish typical structures like deadfalls and slow backwater and sloughs.”
Kole guides clients for multiple species across the Upper Peninsula, including northern pike and muskies. He uses somewhat similar tactics for both, though he uses relatively smaller flies for northern pike.
“Oftentimes during the fall when I'm hunting bigger fish I will utilize the ‘L-turn’ or ‘figure 8’ like in musky fishing,” he said. “My retrieve speeds slow down when the water temps drop, and I like to utilize long pauses throughout the retrieve.”
As with the ones I caught, northern pike will follow the fly – often all the way back to the boat – and strike during the pause. Rather than lifting the line for another cast, drawing a figure-8 with the fly with the rod tip down gives the pike more opportunity to strike. Kole uses larger flies than the smaller streamers I fished, though.
“In the fall I like to increase the size of fly I use. Typically, I fish articulated flies anywhere from 8 to 12 inches. I don't often exceed the 12-inch mark for pike, but I will occasionally throw triple-articulated flies over 12 inches,” Kole said. “My preferred fly colors are fire tiger, brown and yellow, and white is killer in the tannic waters of the UP. In order to turn over large flies I use a shortened leader, 18 inches of 40-50lb Fluorocarbon connected to 18" of 40lb bite wire. This is similar to the leader I use for fall musky fishing.”
With Kole’s advice, I’m looking forward to another trip up to the cottage this fall for pike fly fishing, but probably solo. I’ve tied larger articulated flies in the colors he suggested, bought a 9-wt Orvis Clearwater rod and a sinking line to better cast them, and rigged up some wire tippet leaders along with premade ones from Scientific Angler. I’ll target the same weed edges, structure and drop-offs, but I know it won’t be quite as fun without the whole crew there this time.
That moment of anticipation between seeing the pike follow the streamer, pausing the retrieve, and the sudden burst of underwater violence will make it all worth it, though. Travelling to the far end of the Upper Peninsula isn’t necessary to find it, either. Wherever you are in Michigan, there’s a lake or a river nearby holding northern pike and endless opportunities to chase that moment.
By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the August 2020 issue of Woods-n-Waters News)
It’s fortunate that some of the simplest fish to catch are also some of the most fun and accessible: panfish on public land lakes. Public land lakes are open to everyone and fish like bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and crappies are fun for everyone from the beginner to the expert to catch due to their abundance, appetite, fight, and mild flavor when kept and cooked. And as more people are venturing outdoors to paddle and fish to maintain social distance, Congress is advancing bipartisan legislation to provide greater public access to fishable waters to catch them.
Earlier this summer, I packed a deflated fishing float tube in a backpack and hiked just under a mile from a parking area along a trail to a lake within the Bald Mountain Recreation Area in northern Oakland County. The trail runs along a grassy water control structure for the little warmwater lake where I’ve had success in past years fly fishing for bluegills and largemouth bass from shore. With a float tube and a couple boxes of flies I tied this year, though, I wanted to fish the whole lake and catch some largemouth bass or northern pike.
While inflating my float tube and assembling my fly rod, though, I could see bluegills and pumpkinseeds on their gravel beds near shore where I planned to launch, so I tied on a little foam hopper I tied up this spring. I cast it just past the bluegills and stripped it lightly over top of them so the foam lip could pop the water like a little bass popper. Curious bluegills swam up to it and nibbled until one took a confident bite and I set the hook. Immediately the bluegill exploded, darting every which way underwater trying to free the hook. I played it lightly since I’d only brought my 9-weight rod for casting larger bass bugs and pike streamers, but it was still fun even on that heavy line. The six-inch bluegill was my first on a fly I’d tied, to which I quickly added six- and seven-inch pumpkinseeds and a crappie.
Content with my shoreline panfish catch, I launched my float tube and fished the weed edges, structure, and shaded pockets along the shoreline. A green bass popper was too big for the dozens of panfish that nibbled at it, but I finally connected with a topwater largemouth bass that fought with everything it had, burying itself in weeds before I scooped it out with my net. What fun! I passed a pair of anglers in a green canoe on the way back to the launch and we chatted briefly at a distance. Mike and Megan Schumer, father and daughter, lived nearby and showed me the full catch of crappies they’d already reeled in from the lake for a panfish dinner. That’s what it’s all about, I thought.
I returned for a few hours for the next three days and caught 29 total fish, mostly bluegills and pumpkinseeds, a few largemouth bass, and a pair of crappies, including one which took the 2/0 red and white Clouser Minnow I tied for northern pike! One of those days I kept five bluegills and pumpkinseeds over six inches, filleted them and pan-fried them for a fish taco lunch the next day, all courtesy of our public lands.
The Bald Mountain Recreation Area is state-owned public land acquired in large part by a $197,000 grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) approved in 1966 just after the fund was created by Congress in 1965. The LWCF operates on the same principle as the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, created a decade later. It uses the royalties from offshore gas and oil development – not taxes - to acquire and develop outdoor recreation opportunities for everything from public land, trails, and boat launches to baseball fields and park pavilions. Last year, the LWCF was permanently authorized through the John D. Dingell Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, a welcome example of bipartisanship for our public lands. However, only twice in its 55-year history has Congress ever actually appropriated the full amount authorized to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Which means that every dollar less than that full amount has been money intended for the LWCF but siphoned to other uses. That could finally change thanks bipartisan legislation moving through Congress as of this writing.
The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) will permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund to its full authorized amount of $900 million each year, as well as fund a backlog of maintenance projects at federal national parks and other public lands. The National Wildlife Federation and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation worked to ensure that federal public lands open to hunting like Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Forest Service lands were included. The GAOA recently passed the U.S. Senate, considered its biggest hurdle, and as of this writing is expected to be soon considered by the U.S. House of Representatives.
In Michigan, though, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Land and Water Conservation Fund grants has been anglers, as much of it has been used to acquire and develop boat launches and the acquisition of public lands containing fishable water like Bald Mountain Recreation Area (which also received LWCF funding to develop its shooting range). The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act will ensure that even more investments in public water access and public lands can be made in more places, providing future generations with places to fish.
I returned down that same trail to that same public land lake on Father’s Day. Instead of a float tube, though, I had my 16-month-old son Noah in a backpack carrier and my 5-weight fly rod in hand. Along the way, I passed or was passed by hikers, mountain bikers, and trail runners, all of us keeping a safe distance. And while I may have tried not to notice it before, they appeared to represent multiple different races and ethnicities. We smiled and greeted each other. They wished me Happy Father’s Day, and I thanked them and wished the same, and I hoped that I was as welcoming to everyone else on the trail as they were to me. Everyone belongs outdoors, and our public lands belong to all of us.
With my son on my back, I tied the same foam popper to my fly line and cast it into the near shore waters, in the pockets between the lily pads and weeds where bluegills and pumpkinseeds swam. It took a few casts until I felt that tug, the furious rush, and I played the six-inch bluegill back to shore, the first that Noah and I caught together. I held it up for him to see and he looked at it curiously, not sure what to make of it. That’s alright, I thought. He’ll be more excited in a couple years when he feels that tug for himself.
We caught a few more on foam hoppers, Chernobyl ants, and a foam bass popper I tried to catch a largemouth with, but which enthused a pumpkinseed more. While we fished, people passing on the trail nearby asked questions about what I was fishing for, and with what, and I answered. Maybe they were part of the new influx of people discovering or re-discovering the outdoors as a way to social distance during this COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe now they’ll try out a worm on a hook on the old spinning rod or baitcasting reel in the garage they never used or they’ll buy a new one, and now they know a spot.
I’m happy to share, because these panfish and public lands are for all. This will always be the place where my son and I caught our first fish together. Maybe we’ll come back more as he grows up and we’ll fish it often like Mike and Megan Schumer do, enjoying parent-child bonding time long after he’s a child. Maybe one of those hikers will pick up a fishing rod and catch her first fish in that same spot and feel that tug that hooks her for life. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?
By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the July 2020 issue of Wood-N-Water News)
The three of us loaded our fly-fishing gear into my loaner Toyota Land Cruiser and set out from the hotel in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, crossed the Mississippi River into Minnesota, stopped for gas, packable lunches, and fishing licenses with trout stamps, and followed a maze of two-lane and country dirt roads to a public access trout stream through private property in the Driftless Area.
The Driftless Area encompasses parts of western Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, and northeastern Iowa, deriving its name from its limestone geography and lack of glacial deposits – “drift” – left by ice age glaciers which covered the region just north of the Driftless Area. Coldwater streams fed by groundwater filter up through the limestone and flow down through a hilly, pastoral landscape of forests and farms. While most of these streams flow through private property, Minnesota boasts 221 miles of trout stream easements in the region which allow public fishing access.
My fishing partners were Scott Mackenthum, an outdoor writer and Minnesota fisheries biologist, and Buddy Seiner, host of Fish Stories, a web-based audio chronicle of fishing tales. Both are more accomplished anglers than me and I looked forward to learning from them. We were staying in LaCrosse last September for the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers conference, and we all had the same inspired idea to skip the range day to fish the Driftless for secret public trout. Scott knew just the spot but the location is classified (I’d like to be invited back). However, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) publishes maps of all the public access trout streams in southeastern Minnesota through a print booklet available locally and digitally online.
We unloaded our gear from the Land Cruiser and discussed our strategy while assembling our rods. We’d enter the stream near the road crossing and fish upstream through the private property parcel which had granted easement access for anglers, staying within the stream corridor permitted by the easement and all practicing catch and release.
Buddy caught the first few fish, little brown trout from a shallow pool at a bend using a hopper-dropper. They weren’t giants but it was good to be on the board. He landed them in his net and released them quickly. I had never fished with a dropper before, so Scott showed me how to tie on a beadhead nymph from the hook of my foam hopper. He had fished the stream before and wanted to get further upstream where the brook trout were more likely to hold, so he moved quickly ahead of us to skip the browns and get to the brookies.
Like northern Michigan, the Drifltess Area of Minnesota holds brook, brown, and rainbow trout. Brookies are the only natives. Brown trout are non-native but wild and reproduce naturally, and rainbow trout are stocked by the Minnesota DNR in areas with high angling pressure. This stream held browns and brookies.
Buddy went ahead of me and I fished slowly to give him time to get some space. For what seemed like most of the morning, I had no strikes, no luck, no catches. Par for the course; trout fishing with a fly rod for me is often a wade through the stream in a beautiful setting with the occasional practice cast while spooking fish and snagging flies in the tree branches on the back cast. While usually I am perfectly content in spending time in the setting, I’d been practicing my cast more than usual in the prior months and really wanted to catch a few Driftless trout while I was there.
The setting was worth it almost on its own, though. The small stream was cool and clear, winding downhill through a sunlit forest, riffling over rocks and forming relatively deep pools at the bends. It was hard to believe that this was publicly accessible even though it was private land; the stream was much too small to be deemed navigable.
The Minnesota DNR purchases public angler easements like this, marked on the roadside with a tan sign, through multiple funding sources including trout stamp revenue. The easement allows the public to fish the trout stream within set corridor boundaries on each side of the streambank. The easement is permanent and attaches to the land even if it is later sold to another owner, similar to a conservation easement. The Minnesota DNR can also conduct fisheries habitat projects on the stream and prioritizes publicly accessible streams for stocking. While the public can fish the stream, that is all they can do: no hunting, no camping, and no dogs. Packing out any trash either brought in or found goes without saying.
I lost my dropper nymph somewhere along the way and switched to a dry fly. I caught up with Buddy and he had caught a few more since we separated. We decided to fish together and try to find Scott to make sure we made it back to the conference in time to shower and change before the Awards in Craft ceremony, where I was giving out the National Wildlife Federation’s Asian Carp Writing Contest Awards and all of us had submissions in different categories.
Buddy spotted a promising pool at a bend of the stream but told me to fish it. “I’ve already caught a few, let’s get you a fish,” he told me. He handed me his St. Croix rod with a hopper dropper already tied and instructed me where to cast it and where to mend to drift the dropper in the deep channel of the pool. I felt the tug within a few casts, set the hook and guided the brown trout into Buddy’s net. It was beautiful, maybe 12 inches, golden brown with black spots and a perfect mottling of red dots outlined in white. I caught three more, then Buddy caught a couple, and then we moved on.
It seemed like we waded, fished, and hiked forever without running into Scott, and we all lacked cell reception, but our search was fast forgotten when we came upon a sandy stretch with dozens of brown trout visible holding in the current. Buddy tried one cast and they scattered but regrouped. They never left the stretch, but darted with every cast and never betrayed an inkling of taking our flies. We settled for watching and marveling at them.
As time was getting late it dawned on us that we may have missed Scott if he went back to the Land Cruiser along a streambank trail within the easement while we were in the river; the riparian vegetation was thick enough, especially with stinging nettle, which Scott warned us about since were all wet-wading in shorts and wading boots. We turned back, hoping we were right, and along the way my shins and calves began to sting from exposure to the invasive weed when the fine hairs covering it stuck into my skin as I must have brushed against it. As Scott warned, I didn’t itch it, but instead got back in the stream and let the water soothe it.
Scott was waiting for us back at the Land Cruiser. He’d hiked back over an hour earlier after the sole of his wading boot blew out, but not before catching a few brown trout of his own, though not the brookies he was after, which eluded all of us. No matter; we all had a fine day of fly-fishing for trout in the Driftless Area, catching and releasing a few beautiful brown trout in an idyllic setting on a sunny mid-September day. To top it off, we made it back to the awards ceremony and each placed in the categories we entered. We couldn’t have had such a day without Minnesota’s angler easement program which allowed us access to that private stream to catch secret public trout.
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.
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.