Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Spring Pike Fishing Techniques for Vermont Fly Guys

Me and Ken with a couple of bruisers

It has been a while since I have written or posted anything and I have to give credit where credit is due- Ken "Pikepicker" Capsey got on my case and asked me to write something up about springtime pike fishing for the Vermont Fly Guys (here is their Facebook too) crew. I have known Ken for a long time and he is definitely Mr. Water Wolf in the flesh. He lives and breathes the Esox Clan and Brian Price (no relation to me other than an affinity for fishing on the fly) is no slouch himself. 

 When Ken asked me if I could write this I have to admit that I was honored to be asked. It was definitely something that Ken could have written up himself but he wanted me to share some of my insights with his crew. How could I resist? So, check it out and then get some flies from Vermont Fly Guys and have me take you out for a trip this coming spring!

Pike are fun to catch any time but the spring pike bite might be the best fishing for the water wolf all year. They are actively prowling the shallows looking for food and found in good numbers. The fishing can be hot and heavy if you are in the right place at the right time. 

March '12 pike- note the fly!
A lot of spring pike fishing really depends on the biology of the pike. The Northern Pike (Esox lucius) is the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the world being found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. While the Eurasian pike tend to differ from North American fish both share that they spawn in the spring. Typically pike spawn in shallow, flooded wetlands when the water temps are around 40. Some years that happens earlier than others and there are times
when they will actually spawn under the ice in some locations. Weather is a very important element of when the spring pike bite will begin in earnest.

Depending on the year there can be a great opportunity for fly anglers to get into some pre-spawn pike. 2012 was a great example of this in the Champlain Valley. A very warm winter kept Lake Champlain virtually ice free and fish were caught near the wetlands that they spawn in and the spawn was over by mid to late March. This year with the arctic weather that never seems to be ending will be vastly different- it is hard to throw a fly in the lake when it is locked up tight with ice. 

Clouser Half and Half's at the ready
When the opportunity presents itself look for drop offs near wetland areas. There are two methods of fishing at this point but they share a key element: fish slow. The first technique is to use a long leader and a heavy, jigging fly like a Clouser Minnow or a Clouser Half and Half. Let the fly sink to the bottom and slowly retrieve it with a slight jigging action brought on by a strip then pause of the line. The other method is to use an unweighted fly like a Bunny Bug or a Deceiver with a sinking or sink tip line. Let the fly sink to the bottom and slowly strip it back. Strikes tend to be fairly subtle. Don’t expect fast and furious action. It tends to be pretty slow (and cold). 

Typical pike spawning habitat
When the spawn happens fishing really shuts down. There will be good numbers of fish in shallow water often right at your feet if you are wading. Some of them will be the largest fish you might see all year. The big ladies are in there to bring about the next generation of aquatic predators with their multiple smaller male suitors following closely. You can throw everything you have in your fly box at them but chances are that they won’t have anything to do with them. Their minds are on procreation not food. The spawn can last a week to a month depending on the weather and location. Here in the Champlain Valley this typically happens in the last weeks of March into the first weeks of April. 

There is a period after the spawn where the fish are sluggish and the fishing is slow. The pike are recovering from the business that they just concluded. You might pick up the occasional fish but the best is yet to come.  This period of time can be 2-4 weeks. Then comes the big game!
When the water hits around 50 degrees the feedbags come out. Pike start their serious hunting. They really start to show up in big numbers and the fishing gets pretty hot. Timing is really the key for the earliest fishing during this period. Getting out super early doesn’t do any good. It is definitely the time to let the water warm up a while. Hit a trout stream in the morning and don’t head to the pike spots until around noon. Let the sun get the fish warmed up before heading out. 

Watercraft get you to the fish!
Most serious pike anglers are fishing from watercraft; boats, canoes and kayaks are very typical but float tubes can work nicely too. Personally I am a fan of something that gets me up out of the water so I can see fish. This is the time of the year when you can sight fish to individual fish if you are in the right spots. It takes a bit of time to develop the right “target signature” to be able to spot pike in ambush mode but when you do it gets really fun! There isn’t a lot of weed growth yet and sometimes the fish will stand out like a sore thumb. 

Location is a big part of fishing pike. There are definitely places to focus on. In lakes and ponds look for shallow flats that are from 2 to 5 feet deep that are close to wetland areas but also provide access to deeper water. Pike spend their time during the night in the deeper water and come shallow to feed. Wetland areas are where they just spawned and also tend to be a lot warmer than the depths. There are also a plethora of food sources for them in those areas from a variety of baitfish, frogs, crawfish and even insects like dragonflies.

River inflow pike
 Another area to pay close attention to is any inflows. Streams and rivers will be running a bit warmer than the large body of water that they flow into. This will appeal to pike. It can be a spark to get those fish feeding more. Weedy areas in those deltas can be fantastic in the spring. 

River pike are pretty similar. Areas to look for are spots that could be a bit warmer. Look for inflows again. Streams and drainage areas from surrounding wetlands are spots to look for. Another good area to probe are side channels and oxbows. Any place that the water might be just a few degrees warmer can be a place to look. One of my favorite pike rivers has quite a few nice inflows that the pike will congregate around. I have found several dozen pike stacked up where the warmer water is coming into a bigger river. Situations like that can provide really hot fishing!  If you are ever in a spot where you can get up into a backwater wetland area that surrounds the river you might find some pretty hot fishing too. 

A couple of 9 wts rigged and ready with plenty of ammo

Gearing up for this spring fishing is pretty typical for pike fishing. A 9 weight is the gold standard. It will let you get a wide variety of flies out there and can handle a big fish very easily. Some people will use an 8 weight, which can work well but casting big bunny bugs all day with an 8 rather than a 9 will tire your arm out a lot faster. Another factor with the 8 weight is that it will not subdue the fish as fast as a 9 will. If you are getting into some large pike and you want them to swim away healthy it is best to use something that will land them quickly. Remember that they might swim off alright but an extended fight will cause a buildup of lactic acid in the fish which may lead to delayed mortality; the fish could die in the next day or two because of that. If you are practicing catch and release with these fish (the largest fish are the females and are critical to the population) then you really should consider using a heavier rod to help their survival. A 9 or 10 weight will work far better than an 8. Your arm will likely thank you too. 

A good floating pike or bass line or heavy “integrated shooting head” like like the Rio Outbound will serve you well tossing big flies. You will be casting a lot and going for distance a lot so it a good line really makes a huge difference. It will also benefit you to be a competent double haul caster. The double haul will help you get that fly out farther with less effort. A longer cast means that the fly can be presented to more fish and when the fly is in front of more fish you are likely to be catching more fish. 

Leaders can be pretty simple. A tapered leader is fine but not necessary. I typically use about
Kevin showing off why wire is critical!
an 8 foot leader: 4 feet of 25 or 30 pound mono or flouro down to 4 feet of 15 or 20 pound. These are very simple and will turn the fly over well. A bite tippet is critical! If you aren’t fishing with some sort of bite tippet then you should not be fishing for pike. They have a mouth full of teeth (over 400) and those teeth are super sharp. They have micro serrations that make very quick work of mono which you might know if you have fished for other species where pike are found. Wire and heavy fluorocarbon are both good options. Personally I prefer wire because I have had 80 lb flouro sliced on me. I make my own wire leaders using 12-18” of 20 or 30 pound wire tied on the end of the leader with an Albright knot. I tie the fly onto the bite tippet with a Non-slip Mono Loop Knot. That gives the fly a loop to provide more action.

The spring pike fly box can be pretty simple. Typical sizes in the spring are from size 2 to 4/0 and from 3 to 6 inches in length. Big flies aren’t needed. Baitfishes this time of the year tend to be fairly small so these smaller flies work better; larger flies tend to be ignored. Colors that seem to work best are yellow, white, red and white, red and yellow, chartreuse, and black. I personally use red and white and yellow the most frequently. One thing that seems to make a huge difference with pike flies is to make sure that there are large, visible eyes. Pike key in on this feature and I feel it is a critical part of any predator fly. Think about it- most baitfishes have very prominent eyes and a predator often focuses on that to strike. If you tying your own flies don’t be afraid to put in a lot of flash. If the fish seem to be spooked by too much flash, for example if the water is very clear, then you can always cut some off when you are on the water. 

"Daredevle" Bunny Bugs on the drying wheel
 My personal favorite fly to use this time of the year is the bunny bug. They are simple flies, quick to tie, tough as nails (Barry Reynolds refers to them as pike chew toys) and incredibly effective. They are unweighted and look great in the water- lots of motion. Despite being unweighted these flies can be unpleasant to cast when all soaked. It has been described as trying to cast a wet kitten before. A bunny bug will last many fish before they finally give up the ghost. Definitely a great feature when the action gets hot!

The Deceiver and tarpon style flies also work really well. The big downside to these flies is that they are a bit more delicate than bunny bugs. Bucktail and feathers have a tendency to get chewed up by those sharp teeth. Although they might be more prone to destruction these flies should be in your bag. In very clear water these style flies are more imitative and can provoke a strike when bunny bugs aren’t. 

As the water gets a bit warmer then topwater flies can be a blast to play with. Dahlberg Divers and poppers get vicious strikes from pike at times. Spring pike aren’t always in the mood to hit flies on the surface but when they are it is a treat!

My brother Pete with a shallow water water wolf
When fishing spring pike there are some good techniques to think about. Casting to structure can be very valuable, especially in rivers. Structures like wood, rocks, cattails and fresh weed growth can be very attractive to ambush predators. Don’t hesitate to toss flies at them. 

My normal procedure when fishing spring pike is to fan cast an area before moving on to the   Then keep moving on looking for active fish. I find that the fish are often on the shore side of the boat sometimes in surprisingly shallow water. I have found them with their backs literally out of the water. 
next spot. I start from one side and then fish 180 degrees . If I am solo in the boat then I will work the other side but when fishing with a partner I work one side of the boat and the other person works the opposite side.

When sight fishing for spring pike look for movement. Pike will be cruising the shallows slowly looking for prey. Look for dark shapes just sitting on or near the bottom. There might be times that you find pike lounging just under the surface of the water. The key element to fishing to visible water wolves is to cast to them properly; a fly dropped on their head will scare them. Cast in front of the fish and beyond it by a few feet. If you pull the fly toward the fish they may not see it or it could be seen as a threat which could spook the fish. The best bet is to broadside the fish with the fly if you can. Don’t get the fly too close. A pike’s vision isn’t designed to see things close to their face. A fish might not react to a fly when they first see it so just keep the fly moving. If you get a follow don’t slow the fly down; keep it moving at the same pace or even better move it faster! A good sharp hook set is important to getting into a lot of fish. Both a standard set or a strip set will work. 

Right temp, right time!
If you don’t get a reaction from the fish try again. Sometimes it can take multiple casts to get a fish to move. Try different retrieves too. Fish in the morning and on overcast colder days will like a slower retrieve than fish later in the day. The same holds true as the season progresses: warmer water means faster strips. 

Water temps are going to dictate how long you find big numbers of fish, especially larger fish, in the shallows. Once the water is regularly over 65 degrees, sometimes even 60 degrees throughout the day the best spring pike fishing is over. Pike are often described as a warm water fish but the reality is that the bigger pike are really more of a cool water fish. The big ones like the water temps below 60. Once they start heading out deeper the situation changes and so do the techniques so take advantage of finding these large, hungry fish in the shallows while you can!
Ken Capsey with proof that spring pike will leave you a very happy man!



  1. Love pike on the fly. Don't have much of an opprotunity here in Kansas but I go up north each year for them. I have caught most on clousers but lately have been trying articulated patterns.

  2. Nice post, Drew! I've only caught a couple pike, and only over the last few years. Even then, they were essentially accidental.

    I understand the importance of bite tippet, but I never use it and have not had a fish cut me off... yet. I know it is a matter of time I'll lose a nice one.

    Keep up the informative posts!