Fish Camps and First Days
Originally published in the April 2022 issue of Woods-N-Water News
Spring blooms hope in the heart of every angler; no matter the past season’s frustrations, a new season of fishing arrives with warmer weather, ice out, post spawn and spawning fish, and optimism envisioned in every cast. Year round catch-and-release for many species has scarcely dimmed the traditions around the first day for keeper season for many species, even if we mostly catch-and-release, anyway.
Michigan’s traditional trout opener on the last Saturday in April holds a rich history. Robert Traver (pen name of former Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker and author of Anatomy of a Murder) wrote “Trout Madness,” a bible for any Michigan fly angler, which begins with the essay “First Day” recounting Traver’s opening day exploits chasing trout in the Upper Peninsula.
“The day is invested with its own special magic, a magic that nothing can dispel,” Traver wrote. “It is the signal for the end of the long winter hibernation, the widening of prison doors, the symbol of one of nature’s greatest miracles, the annual unlocking of spring.”
Traver’s trout opener journal entries from 1936 to 1952 are as memorable for stuck fish cars and frozen ponds as for trout, but much like the opening day of deer season, the traditions of deer camp often are more memorable than the empty buck poles.
Jim Harrison - the late author, poet, and angler - grew up and lived in Michigan most of his life. In a 1971 article, “A Plaster Trout in Worm Heaven” – contained in his “Just Before Dark” collection of nonfiction - he describes why the trout opener doesn’t always produce the best trout fishing.
“The first day always seems to involve resolute masochism; if it isn’t unbearably cold, then the combination of rain and warmth manages to provide maximal breeding conditions for mosquitoes, and they cloud and swarm around your head, crawl up your sleeves and down your neck, despite the most potent and modern chemicals.”
A couple years ago I joined some friends for a Trout Camp up in the Pigeon River Country for opening day. We camped out the night before with snow falling and frigid temperatures, warmed up by beaver stew and moonshine. The next morning, I realized I’d left my reel at home in Ann Arbor – four hours away – so I joined the Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited’ s annual Pancake Breakfast at the forest headquarters without so much as wetting a line.
The Pigeon River Country Discovery Center at the headquarters contains an exhibit about Ernest Hemingway, who spent his summers in northern Michigan as a youth and often fly fished in the Pigeon River Country and the Upper Peninsula. The exhibit contained an excerpt from a letter he’d written inviting friends to a similar fish camp in the Pigeon River Country a hundred years earlier, which he referred to as the Pine Barrens.
“Picture us on the Barrens, beside the river with a camp fire and the tent and a good meal in our bellies smoking a pill with a good bottle of grog.”
That’s the spirit of the trout opener whether any fish are caught or not. Spring fishing openers are about the optimism of looking forward to warmer summer days on the water.
Tom McGuane – perhaps the finest fishing writer ever – also grew up in Michigan and used to fish in the Pigeon River Country, too. In “Small Streams in Michigan” - contained in his collection of nonfiction fishing writing, “The Longest Silence” - he describes fishing the Pigeon, Black, and Sturgeon Rivers:
“I’d pick a stretch of the Pigeon or the Black for early fishing, wade the oxbow between the railroad bridges on the Sturgeon in the afternoon. Then, in the evening, I’d head for a wooden bridge over the Sturgeon near Wolverine.”
I’m mostly a failed trout angler. After fifteen years of catching more tree branches than trout on a fly, I was almost ready to give up on serious fly fishing until John Cleveland told me about fly fishing for northern pike during a Michigan Outdoor Writers Association conference in 2018. That lit something in me, and since then I’ve been obsessed with it, gearing up with heavy weight fly rods and lines to cast giant bucktail streamers. It led me into fly tying, then into more purposeful and successful fly fishing for the other species that inhabit pike waters like bluegill, crappie, perch, and bass. The obsession has become so complete that I don’t even bow hunt anymore because it cuts into my fall pike fishing time.
The Lower Peninsula pike opener is also the last Saturday in April, like the trout opener, but I have the Upper Peninsula pike opener of May 15 circled on my calendar. My family has a cottage in Gogebic County on a lake dominated by northern pike, where I caught my first two pike on the fly in 2019. My great grandpa, who bought the old logging camp bunkhouse and deer camp shack to convert into a family cottage in the 1950s, used to host his family fish camp there and before that on a little lake across the border in Wisconsin containing musky and northern pike.
A fish camp on May 15 would provide perfect symmetry to the annual deer camp firearm opener on November 15, being perfectly six months apart, dividing the year in two. I hosted some friends for pike camp at the cottage in the September before the pandemic struck and it felt like I was on to something. Reviving that fish camp tradition – more than a century after he started it – would be like coming out of that long winter hibernation that Traver wrote about. Maybe I’m just looking for that magic that nothing can dispel. A magic that would allow me to fish with my ancestors, in whatever weather comes, and maybe share a bottle of grog like Hemingway, even if I’m the only one on the lake.
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.
Originally published in the February 2022 issue of Woods-n-Water News
By Drew YoungeDyke
With a snowstorm in the forecast on a cold winter day, it’s natural to think about the opposite: a bright sunny day in June, green leaves reflected on the water, and stripping a popper next to a submerged log. Pop, pop, whoosh! A largemouth smashes the surface and tugs the fly deep into the cabbage, each twist sending vibrations down the tight 8-wt line as it tries to shake it off.
The fight makes you think it’s a fish worthy of sparkle-boat plastered with sponsor logos as you kick or paddle your float tube, canoe or kayak over to it and net the bass, cabbage and all. Even a small bass leaves you smiling as you take a quick picture and release it.
This scene is what bass fishing is to me, and it’s the experience that I’m tying flies for this winter while restocking my bass box. As voracious eaters, there are numerous effective patterns for largemouth and smallmouth bass, but this winter I’m focusing on the simplest patterns using the least materials, especially a variety of poppers and Clouser minnows, which are simple to tie and that I’ve had the most success with on bass.
Before I started tying my own flies, I had the most success with the appropriately-named Orvis Bass Popper. Years before I started tying, I had bought a package of Zudbubbler popper bodies with the intention of learning to tie that I found in my old tackle bag, so I started tying poppers with those. While my skills were still developing, the flies floated well and popped hard and despite the sloppiness of my early ties, actually caught a few fish! One tied with yellow/black grizzly hackles I dubbed the “Killa Bee” in honor of the Wu-Tang Clan, and it even caught a few before I lost it.
This winter I may buy some additional foam popper bodies but, to start, I’m going old-school by using actual wine bottle corks to make my poppers. The recipe is simple.
Use a medium size streamer hooks up to size 1/0 – or even worm hooks with the barb pinched down. I wrap thread along the shank of the hook to provide a base to glue to for the cork body, which I cut into shapes with an open face, sloping back, and a range of widths with a flat bottom. I tie on a tail of either marabou, bucktail, or zonker strip at the beginning of the bend of the hook, followed by a collar of bucktail or hackle.
I take one length of round rubber or sili-leg material, fold itin half, and tie it around the shank at its midpoint, leaving enough room in front of it for the popper body. Snip the resulting loop in the rubber legs to leave two legs extending down from each side. Next, cut a slit on the bottom of the cork body for the hook to slide into, extending about a third into the body. Next, apply superglue to the slot and fit it over the hook – ensuring the eye isn’t covered – and let it dry.
The popper body can be left alone or finished with more detail by using a sharpie to draw eyes, spots and/or stripes, or by gluing on stick-on eyes. I’ve finished a few using Loon UV Hard finish in both clear and black, brushing a coating over the cork popper. Experiment with different colors; I’m focusing on olive, chartreuse, yellow, natural, white, and black this winter.
The point of the popper is to provide a lot of topwater action, angering the bass into striking from its cover, with explosive topwater takes. It’s as fun as fly-fishing gets, in my opinion. If it floats, pops with each little strip, and you’re stripping it over cover in almost any small inland warmwater lake in Michigan, then each pop holds the anticipation of a strike. I usually fish these on an 8-wt floating line, or even my 9-wt floating line for bigger poppers to ensure a smooth turnover. While it’s not a stealth game with poppers, I still want to deliver the fly accurately to the spot I want without spooking the bass that may be in cover underneath. I want it take on the strip-pop, but be ready for a strike as soon as it lands on the water- I’ve had plenty of those, too.
As the summer gets warmer and bass move to deeper cover, I switch to Clouser Minnows. This wispy little bucktail fly was developed for saltwater by the legendary Bob Clouser but has proven effective for multiple freshwater species including bass and northern pike. I’ve caught some nice crappies with Clouser minnows, too. And like all the flies I’m tying this winter, it is simple to tie and made with relatively few materials: a hook, thread, bucktail, nontoxic dumbbell eyes, and flash. These are usually tied two-tone with the darker color on top; chartreuse/white, olive/white, and red/white for pike are usually what I tie. I fish these with a floating 8-wt, a sink-tip, or a full sinking line depending on how deep I want to get.
Again, use medium size streamer hooks up to size 1/0 or 2/0. It’s important to remember that the Clouser will ride hook-up, so if you do not have a rotating vice, you’ll be tying it upside down, so to speak. Wrap the thread from the hook eye to about halfway between the hook eye and the point of the hook. This is where the dumbbell eyes will be tied in. For tying in dumbbell eyes, I recommend watching a few YouTube tutorials to see some different options for holding them secure. With the hook down, tie in the dumbbell eyes on top of the hook shank. I always use nontoxic, nonlead dumbbell eyes because should you lose the fly or a fish breaks it off, nontoxic eyes will not poison eagles or loons as lead will. I use a combination of diagonal cross wraps, wraps in front of and behind the eyes, and wraps under the eyes, above the hook shank, to tighten them. End the wrap in front of the hook eye and make sure they’re level. At this point I add a drop of UV clear, head cement, superglue under the hook shank for extra security.
Select a pencil-width of bucktail from the middle of the bucktail, Remove the short hairs and tie it in at a 45-degree angle in front of the dumbbell eyes, tying down with wraps up to the hook eye and back. Loop the thread under the dumbbell eyes and tie the bucktail down behind the eyes with a couple tight wraps, then a few open spiral wraps down the hook shank and back up to the eye of the hook. Next, tie in a couple strands of flash, folded in half around the tying thread, the length of the bucktail, along the belly of the fly. Finally, add a similar or slightly larger clump of the darker bucktail and tie it in under the fly in front of the dumbbell eyes, and whip finish. I’ll add UV clear fly finish or head cement to the head of the fly, as well. When riding hook up, the darker color should be on top, imitating a minnow.
Cork bass poppers and Clouser minnows are two of the simplest patterns to tie to catch bass on the fly. If you’re a beginner fly-tyer, these are great ones to learn on to develop confidence and catch fish. Woolly buggers can also be effective. Watch YouTube videos to see how the flies are tied, as well as books like The Orvis Fly-Tying Guide by Tom Rosenbauer. Alvin DeDeaux also has a great YouTube series on “guide flies” that he ties for Guadalupe Bass in Texas using very simple materials. If you’re a more advanced fly tyer, I’d recommend checking out the Schultz Outfitters YouTube page for tying some of their patterns, Mad River Outfitters out of Ohio, or Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer.
Next month, I’ll describe some simple northern pike flies to tie for voracious warmwater action.
This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue of Woods-n-Waters News.
By Drew YoungeDyke
Cold winter nights make me look forward to warm spring and summer days casting flies to gullible fish, often from behind my fly-tying bench sipping a local Michigan craft beer; there’s little more satisfying in fishing than catching a fish on a fly you tied. Before I started tying two years ago, that seemed like some mystical feat only a Jedi warrior could pull off. I’ve found that it can be simple and achievable, though, especially for the warmwater and coolwater species in most small Michigan lakes.
In the two years since I started tying flies with an Orvis starter kit, I’ve tied the trout dry flies and nymphs included in the kit, attempted complicated multi-shank streamers like the Game Changer through Bar Flies nights hosted by Schultz Outfitters, and tried some creative monstrosities that ended up in my Box of Misfit Flies, later to be stripped down to the hook for another try. This winter, I’m focusing on simple, proven flies for the bluegill, bass, and northern pike that I fish for most often.
These flies are relatively simple to tie with few materials, though tying them well – with proper silhouette and proportions – takes time and practice. Rather than spending the winter trying to tie complicated multi-material flies that are probably beyond my current ability, I’m focusing on improving how I tie these simple flies. They’re also good flies for beginners to tie and catch fish on to build confidence – and have a lot of fun - in both fly tying and fly fishing.
Bluegill, Pumpkinseed, Crappie, Perch Flies
Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, crappies, perch, and other panfish are a blast to catch on the fly. Especially in the late spring and early summer when on their beds, bluegills are eager eaters and fight hard on a light line. They’ll also take small, simple flies that are fun to tie. The same flies I tie for bluegills have been successful for me for pumpkinseeds, crappies, and perch (and even largemouth and smallmouth bass). I most often fish for bluegill with my toddler son, with a goal to catch fish to show him and let him touch before releasing them. This summer I’m also tying with the goal of letting him try to catch a few on his own. I also like to target panfish off the dock at my family cottage, or catching a few from shore before launching my canoe or float tube to target bass or pike.
The Wooly Worm is a simple, classic fly that was the origin for the Wooly Bugger. Tied on small 3x streamer hooks, it’s an excellent bluegill fly. I tied one in a peacock green chenille with an orange yarn tail and it seemed like I couldn’t let it even drop on the water without a little bluegill taking it. It also caught several pumpkinseeds and a couple perch hanging around the dock at my family’s cottage. In addition to peacock or olive green/orange, I’ll also tie it in yellow/red this winter.
Materials: Chenille, hackle, yarn, nonlead wire, small 3x streamer hook
Tying process: I wrap 6 to 7 wraps of nonlead wire, depending on the hook size, and tie it in with the thread, then wrap the thread back to the bend of the hook. I cut a small tuft of yarn and tie it in at the tail. This can be longer now and trimmed later. Next, I tie in the small dry fly hackle and chenille, and wrap the thread forward to the just behind the hook eye. Wrap the chenille forward to the eye and tie it down with a couple tight wraps, then trim off the excess in front of the wrap. Palmer the hackle forward and tie it off with a couple tight wraps, and trim off the excess. Whip finish and then trim off the yarn tail in proportion to the fly to fan out. This fly can also be tied with a nonlead bead head.
This classic bluegill fly may be one of the simplest flies to tie and can be tied in a variety of colors; I’ll focus on orange and black this winter, maybe green, too. It pretty consistently catches bluegills and pumpkinseeds for me. Last summer, I even caught a 14” smallmouth on a little orange foam spider while fishing for bluegills.
Materials: Small dry fly hook, foam, round rubber
Tying process: Cut a small piece of foam about the length of the hook, or just a little longer. Taper the head to wedge narrow enough to tie down and round the tail. Start the thread in the middle of the hook and tie down the foam. Tie in two strands of round rubber legs on each side. Move the thread up toward the eye and tie down the narrow strip of foam to form the head. Whip finish.
Bully Bluegill Spider
This is a new fly for me that I intend to solve a very specific situation. Often when fishing with Noah off a dock or a public fishing pier in a little inland lake, the little bluegills are visible all over. I know I’m on the clock before my toddler loses interest, and I just want to get a fish in front of him quickly. Sometimes I’ve dangled every fly I have in front of these little fish who have seen everything and would probably prefer a little worm, with few takers, as most of my flies are designed to move and, well, they’re just right there.
Materials: Small dry fly hook, nonlead wire, chenille, round rubber legs.
Tying process: Wrap the nonlead wire toward the bend of the hook and wrap it back over itself to create a small ball. Tie in the thread toward the hook eye and back over and behind the nonlead wire, building a small thread dam behind and in front to prevent the nonlead wire from sliding on the hook. Tie in the chenille behind the nonlead wire and bring the thread up to the front of the hook, about an eye’s length behind the eye. Wrap the chenille tightly over the nonlead wire and down the hook, secure the chenille with a couple tight thread wraps, and cut off the excess. Take a length of round rubber legs and fold it in half. Tie in at the midpoint, which should form a loop of round rubber at the front. Fold this loop back and wrap over it to create a head. Whip finish. Snip the rubber loop and trip the four rubber legs to even lengths.
My friend Dan Macut also ties flies for panfish and is pretty successful at catching them, too. He recommends a simple foam hopper pattern as his first choice.
“I use a size 10 streamer hook for most of my panfish flies,” he recommends. “I like a slightly wider hopper and only use one piece of foam folded over trying to keep it thinner allowing for more and better hook-ups. I add some deer hair for wings and keep the rubber legs on the longer side...I think they act like outriggers and to the bugginess of the fly. Colors don't seem to matter, but bright colors help you see your fly. I sometimes pay attention to the hatch and I might try to match the color of their current meal of choice. Last year there were a bunch of black dragonflies on my favorite lake and a black hopper seemed to work better.”
Whether you’re just starting out tying flies – or if, like me, you just want to get back to the basics and catch some fish – these simple panfish patterns are easy to tie and effective on bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and black crappie. Pop open a Michigan beverage and tie some up this winter and try them out on some fun and delicious panfish this summer.
Next Month: Simple Bass Flies
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.
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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