Fall Northerns On The Fly
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.
Hunting with Sisu
By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the November 2020 issue of Woods-N-Water News)
Many Michiganders, especially Yoopers, have heard of “sisu.” Sisu is a Finnish word with no direct translation into other languages which is roughly like combining grit, resilience, fortitude, and stubborn determination in the face of hardship over the long term. Though I grew up in the northern Lower Peninsula, I learned the term from the Finnish side of my family at our cottage in the western Upper Peninsula. I’ve often thought about what that term means to me and have often found it tested in the outdoors.
The Finns had to have sisu to survive the harsh, cold climate of their country. Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula mirror that climate, which is part of what drew so many Finns to the Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota to work in lumber camps and mines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as it did for my family. The northern Michigan outdoors can test sisu in large and small ways.
In 2014, when I was running the On the Ground (OTG) wildlife habitat program for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, we had a musky spawning structure project planned for March 1 on Chicagoan Lake in the Upper Peninsula. Seventeen volunteers signed up, but on the morning of the project the temperature was -16 F, not counting the wind chill on a frozen lake with no trees to block it. I was sure that most would be no-shows, and I would have understood. But then George Lindquist arrived, followed by all the others, and we spent hours on that ice assembling telephone poles like a tic-tac-toe board, securing steel mesh to the middle square, and filling them with fieldstones to sink them to the bottom of the lake when the ice melted. Every one of those volunteers showed sisu.
I’ve also had it tested in physical endurance events. Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, has been quoted saying, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong,” and I kind of consider that to be when sisu kicks in, too. Cramping up in mile 12 of a 31-mile (50K) ultramarathon was when something went wrong; sisu was finishing the remaining 19 miles limping, cramping, slow, but not giving up and finishing anyway. In deer hunting, there are endless ways sisu gets tested in Michigan. Our weather conditions in late November – and our ethics as hunters - often require it.
From where we set up our deer camp in the Pigeon River Country, I often still hunt routes that take me in a two or three-mile circular route through hilly wooded terrain, and at many points along it I can be up to a mile or more from camp. In 2015, I was fortunate to shoot a 3 ½ -year-old eight-point buck shortly before the close of shooting light. I was up on a ridge I’d still hunted to where I’d sat against a tree watching a trail. The buck was cruising the valley below and I shot him at a distance of about 70 yards. He ran up the opposite hill, back down, and collapsed less than 50 yards from where I shot him. I waited about 20 minutes, and it was dark by the time I found him. I was looking at close to a mile-long drag of a heavy-bodied deer in the dark after I field-dressed him.
I could have marked my spot, gone back to camp, and returned in the morning with help. With coyotes around, though, I didn’t want to leave him so I grabbed an antler and started dragging him uphill. Luckily a pair of flashlights belonging to my dad and cousin shone from the top of the hill before I got too far, so my cousin and I each grabbed an antler and dragged him up the hill. I thought we could cut across a valley as a shortcut, but as it turned out it took us out of the way and we had to drag it back up a hill to get back on course, across a stump-and-slash covered clear-cut plateau, and down through the woods to our camp.
There’s nothing particularly unique about this deer drag, but we had to show some sisu to complete it. When something went wrong (we went the wrong way) we had to gut through it with stubborn determination despite adding an extra hill and probably an extra quarter-mile to our drag. In Michigan, I suspect sisu gets shown by hundreds of thousands of deer drags in cold weather across rough terrain every year.
Similarly, I think it’s sisu to gut out the discomfort and stay on stand when the weather is cold, when the seat is uncomfortable, and when every urge is to head back to camp for a hot meal. And maybe the most important way it shows in Michigan’s deer season is when a hunter loses a blood trail but doesn’t give up. Losing the blood trail is just the part that goes wrong; sisu is persisting in spite of that and making the small and widening circles to cut for tracks, to search for broken branches, and to find the deer no matter how long it takes.
Part of sisu is being prepared. For instance, you can’t drag a deer out if you don’t have the physical conditioning to do it without a heart attack. You can’t stay on the stand when you’re cold and uncomfortable if you don’t have the cold-weather clothing to prevent frostbite and hypothermia. And you might not find your deer after losing a blood trail if you didn’t bring extra batteries for your headlamp. I train with trail-running and CrossFit to be in condition to drag deer and I camp out in the snow in the winter to know my limits and how to keep warm in the cold. Don’t try to drag out a deer if you have a heart condition or are just not in condition to do so or risk frostbite or hypothermia because you didn’t layer up. Sisu isn’t being reckless in the short term; it’s being determined in the long-term.
Sisu is a special quality but it doesn’t have to be unique. Any person can show it; Michigan’s hunters just get more opportunities than most. When something goes wrong or gets hard this deer season – you shoot a heavy deer in a valley a mile from camp, you get cold and uncomfortable on stand, you lose your blood trail, or the million other things that can go wrong in deer hunting – don’t give up. Just look at it as a chance to show your sisu. Make the drag, stay on stand, find your deer. That’s sisu.
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 Outdoor Writers Association of America, and a member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
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