Originally published in the March 2022 issue of Woods-N-Water News
By Drew YoungeDyke
Throughout the winter, I have dutifully tied flies to refill boxes for the species I expect to fish for most in the coming year, like bluegill and bass, but there is only one fish that I obsess over all year, only one fish that I tie more flies for than I could ever hope to use in the coming year, one fish for which I seek out countless YouTube videos and re-read the same articles about online and in past issues of outdoor magazines: northern pike.
Northern pike are a coolwater species that haunt the edges of weed beds and structure to ambush prey that swims by looking like an easy meal – and everything looks like an easy meal to northern pike. Durable flies made of just one or two materials can be effective for catching northern pike, provided that they present the profile of something pike eat and have a head that pushes water to make the tail wiggle.
My two favorite flies to tie for pike follow this simple theory and use just one or two materials, in addition to the hook and thread: Bucktail Deceivers and Pike Bunnies. The bucktail deceiver is an all-bucktail variation by Bob Popovics of Lefty Kreh’s Deceiver, originally a saltwater fly intended to resemble baitfish. Pike Bunnies are simple but effective streamers consisting of a rabbit zonker strip tail and a palmered zonker strip head. A couple strips of flash or glue-on eyes can be added to either. Sometimes I’ll mix them up, too, with a rabbit strip tail and a bucktail head, or add a tungsten conehead to either.
I fish both of these flies with a 9-wt Orvis Clearwater rod and Scientific Anglers floating , sink-tip, or full sinking line, depending on conditions and how deep I want to fish them, connected with a Scientific Anglers Stealth Predator leader, cast over and next to weeds beds and structure, depending on depth, and stripped back at varying speeds, pausing every few strips to let the fly turn like a wounded fish. It’s important to use a strip set with northern pike, rather than raising your rod tip like in trout fishing, and never lip-grip a northern pike like a bluegill or bass if you value your fingers!
This past fall, I fished the Huron River on a cold and wet October day. I paddled my canoe up the river and floated back down, casting a 2/0 bucktail deceiver near shoreline cover and stripping it back. As I floated along, one spot just looked…right. I landed the fly right where I wanted, stripped it back, and whomp! The underwater strike was the unmistakable attack of a northern pike.
I strip set the hook and worked the northern back to my canoe, the adrenaline still pulsing through me as I took a couple photos of the 30-incher with my iPhone and reached down to release it boatside, having forgot my net. I had tied the 6-inch, 2/0 white and natural bucktail deceiver last spring with just such a scenario in mind. A couple weeks later, I got a chance to fish again and connected on a 24-inch northern on the same stretch of river with an identical fly.
This is the streamer I’m focused on tying most this winter in a variety of pikey colors. My pike fly box is well stocked with all-black, black/orange, all-white, and white/natural flies, so I’m tying red/white, chartreuse/white, orange/white, and blue/white variations this winter. To tie a bucktail streamer for northern pike, use a streamer hook from sizes 2/0 to 6/0. I use thick 210 thread and the Loon hair scissors for more precise cuts on the bucktail, and either superglue, Loon UV resin, or Wapsi Fly-Tyers Zment on each tie of bucktail for added durability.
Working from the tail to the head, use hair from the tip of the tail, working toward the front; hairs to the front are more hollow, and will flair more when tightened. Gradually tie in thicker clumps of hair as you get to the head, too, allowing enough room to tie it all down before the eye.
After starting your thread, cut a long, thin clump of hair from the end of the tail. Grasp it tightly in the middle and pull out the short hairs. Tie it in just before the bend of the hook. Snip the excess hair in front of the tie and add a drop of superglue or UV resin. Snip a slightly thicker clump of hair from just a little further down the tail, tie in, snip, add glue, and repeat. You can add a couple strips of flash to any of the ties. This is all you do to tie this fly, gradually increasing the thickness of the ties as you move to the front and using hair from progressively closer to the front of the bucktail. The thicker head will push water to move the thinner tail. Most of my deceivers end up in the 5 to 8-inch range, depending on the length of bucktail and size of the hook.
Sometimes I’ll finish the fly with a hollow tie, but mostly this winter I’m working on improving my proportions and the overall silhouette of these simple but effective flies. Glue-on eyes can also be added, buy mine rarely last more than one strike so I don’t often add them anymore to pike flies.
Bucktail deceivers resemble baitfish in the water, and the bucktail undulations move and flow with an enticing reality. Strip them at varying speeds, stopping every few strips to let the fly fall, flow, turn sideways and jackknife; this is often when pike will strike. However, be ready for a strike as soon as they land.
As you progress in your fly-tying, you can apply the same concept of taper to tie a bucktail version of Blane Chocklett’s revolutionary Game Changer fly.
One of the people I reached out to when I first started fly-fishing for northern pike out was fellow outdoor writer Tim Mead. Tim has fly-fished for northern pike out of a float tube on lakes throughout the Upper Peninsula and relies on simple, durable streamers.
“For pike, I've given up on feathers,” Tim recommends. “They don't last more than a couple of fish. For me: zonker strips. They last lots longer. The two 50-plus-inch pike I’ve caught were both on zonker strip streamers.”
Pike bunnies – also called pike snakes – are perhaps the simplest pike fly to tie. I have several in olive, and this winter I’m tying in the classic pike colors of red/white, purple/black, and red/black, and all-black. Like the bucktail streamer, the idea is to use a bulkier head to push water that makes the skinnier tail wiggle and move.
After starting the thread, tie in a strip of bucktail, ensuring the hair flows toward the back. I taper the strip at the tie-in point, as well, and glue down the tie or add UV resin. A couple lengths of flash could be tied in here, as well, the length of the tail. The length of the tail is up to you and determines the length of your fly; I usually cut mine at 4 or 5 inches. Much longer, the tail tends to foul the hook for me. Next, tie in the end of another zonker strip; if you’re making it two-tone, this is where you switch colors. Move the thread up to the head of the fly, allowing room to tie in before the hook eye. Add a drop of superglue, UV resin, or head cement to the back tie-in. Palmer wrap the zonker strip forward, taking time to keep the strip tight to the hook and brushing back the hair so it doesn’t get caught under the strip. Tie it off at the front of the hook, whip finish, and add UV resin or head cement to the head tie-in. Some add glue-on eyes to the head tie-in, as well, though I don’t. And that’s it!
An articulated variation of the pike bunny is John Cleveland’s “Bunny Buster” fly, which also uses a flashy bead head.
I’ve tied some flies this winter that are a combination of the two above, with a zonker strip tail and a bucktail head. As in the bucktail deceiver, I’m mindful of the taper and use the hollow hair from the front of the bucktail to flair the head and push more water to make the tail move. Inspired by Upper Hand Brewery’s Sisu Stout seasonal craft beer, I tied one on a 2/0 streamer hook with a white zonker strip tail, some white/pearl polar flash, and a reverse-tied blue bucktail head (the colors of Finland’s flag) that I call the Sisu Streamer, superglued at every tie to withstand multiple pike strikes.
Sisu is a good concept to keep in mind in tying and fishing flies for northern pike. Sisu is the Finnish concept of enduring tough conditions with grit and simple determination over the long haul. Simple, durable flies will endure the tough conditions of multiple vicious northern pike strikes, and you’ll need lots of sisu to double haul cast after cast of heavy bucktail and zonker strip streamers in sometimes tough conditions to catch them.
Fly tying doesn’t have to be complicated or intimidating; by starting with simple but effective flies for warm and coolwater fish like panfish, bass, and northern pike, you can tie flies that catch fish with confidence while you develop your fly-tying skillset. As you advance in fly-tying, you can use the skills you develop with these simple flies to tie more complex patterns, but you’ll always keep these staples in your fly box because they catch fish. There is nothing more satisfying in fishing, in my opinion, than catching a fish on a fly that you tied yourself. Tight wraps and tight lines.
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.
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