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.
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