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.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Northern Michigan Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, Surfrider, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the or any other entity.