Northern pike are ferocious predator fish of the north. Their elongated slender bodies help them hide in weeds and among logs and rocks to ambush prey half their size. They have a long head and flattened snout. Their mouths are enormous with a one way road of teeth. These aggressive fish are striking in appearance, usually brownish green on top and sides covered with whitish bar-like spots. The fins are dashed with red and brown streaks and darker dots and the belly is cream colored and white.
Northern pike can grow in excess of 50 inches and reach weights of over 40lbs. Fish of this size are extraordinary but not uncommon in remote parts of Canada and the Yukon River drainage of Alaska. Huge pike also exist in the brackish waters of Europe and remote regions of Asia. In the lower 48 states of the US, pike average much smaller. Pike of 18-22 inches are common with fish over 30 inches considered good fish. Any pike over 40 inches are true trophies.
My Largest So Far
I’ve had the good fortune of fishing numerous amazing and remote pike places and have therefore admired many 40 plus inch pike. My largest was this 47 inch beast from the sloughs near the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska on September 10, 2021 while fishing with the Midnight Sun. The heavy-twisting fish was hard to handle for the photo while dodging teeth. I’d estimate this specimen at about 35lbs.
Northern pike are native in all of the circumpolar regions. They can be found through much of the northern reaches of the USA, parts of Alaska, Canada, Europe and Asia in both rivers and lakes as well as the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea. I’ve caught pike all over the US, Canada, Sweden, Poland, Turkey and Mongolia. The furthest south I’ve caught native pike is the Cuyahoga River drainage in Ohio.
Unfortunately this hearty fish species is often found out of its northern native range where they can become a nuisance because they devour other native fish such as trout, perch and bass. I’ve caught pike in most western states including WY, MT, ID and CO where they aren’t native.
For the most part northern pike are shallow water dwellers that hide perfectly still amongst weeds and logs awaiting for passing prey. These are usually slow moving heavily vegetated areas of rivers and weedy parts of lakes.
Pike are highly territorial with voracious appetites and often eat other fish half their own size. They also feed on mice, frogs, ducklings, salamanders, snakes and turtles. When food is scarce, it’s not on common for larger pike to cannibalize on their own young.
Pike relish the cooler times of year. They are especially active shortly after ice out. This is also the time when pike spawn. Pike prefer lake bays and river sloughs with dark bottoms as these are areas where the sun heats water up the fastest making perfect temperatures for spawning as well as digesting large meals.
My observation is that the most active time of year is the fall. Shorter days and cold nights inform pike that it’s time to fatten up for winter. Pike feed ravenously and are caught with relative ease as seasons end approaches. Its not uncommon for pike to intercept your fly before muskies have time to grab it!
I grew up in Massachusetts and parts of New Hampshire that didn’t have northern pike. I wanted to fish for pike so badly that I purposely went to college in northern Wisconsin because the region had plenty. I caught my first on a live bait in Lake Superior off the Ore Dock in Ashland my freshman year. After that first eye to eye contact with a pike I never looked back.
I became a pike freak during my four years of college. I not only fished them on the open waters of the Great Northwoods every chance I got, but I also specialized in ice fishing for them. I learned about the habits of pike through hardcore fishing for many years.
While in college I dabbled with fly fishing for pike, but it wasn’t until I moved west that I went full on fly fishing for pike. My wife and I fly fished northern Montana for pike often.
At least once every few years I found my way to top destinations in Canada ranging from the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Often times trout fishing trips to Europe turned to pike trips and on a 2008 Mongolia expedition we occasionally veered from the taimen spots in the main river for pike in backwater sloughs.
I’ve been fly fishing for pike now for almost 40 years. I’m still passionate about fly fishing for them. So much so that I recently moved back to northern WI where there are numerous places to chase them less than 30 minutes from the house!
Fly Fishing Tactics for Northern Pike
Start by locating shallow areas with weeds and structure. Keep your eyes open when searching for the weeds, sometimes you’ll actually see the pike. Often they will be perfectly still like logs, hiding and waiting to ambush.
Once you have your spot, whether you see fish or not, begin to work the area. I like long casts with a floating line. I almost always fish large streamer flies. You can match the local baitfish with your fly or go with an attractor. One of the most proven lures for pike is the classic red and white Daredevil, so a bright red and white fly always has a good chance.
When you start your retrieve don’t strip too fast. I prefer long slow strips. Just fast enough that my fly doesn’t sink from sight. I like to watch my concoction come through the water back to me. While often times a pike will crush your fly hard, there are times when they only follow and you need to entice them. Following a fly is common in places where the pike get pressured by other anglers. A great trick here is to speed up your strip. Make the pike think the fly is getting away. This creates extra excitement. In addition, speeding the retrieve up makes it harder for the pike go get a good look at your fake!
Always use about 12” of wire bite tippet. In the lower 48 states I use 25lb wire. When in top locations like Canada where 40 plus inchers thrive, I up my wire strength to 35-40lbs. If you don’t have wire you can try heavy monofilament, but chances are, unless you get lucky and hook the pike on the lip, their teeth will sever your leader most of the time.
Be ready for amazing strikes. There’s nothing more exciting than a wake zipping from the weeds through the shallows to indulge upon your fly. When the pike eats set the hook with a strip set. Absolutely do not raise your rod like when setting for a trout on a small dry fly. Pike have hard mouths and it takes a few vigorous strips to drive a hook. Follow the set with a couple jabs with your rod to the side then raise your rod for the fight.
Enjoy the battle once the pike is hooked. Pike often jump and big pike will do it all. Usually when you get them to the net they play dirty with strange dives, or if your wading, they like to charge towards you often tangling your leader in your own legs.
Always be careful handling a pike. The teeth are the real deal. I like to have a “jaw spreader” and an extra-long set of either forceps of pliers. Its extremely helpful for you and the fish if you fish barbless flies.
Rod: 9-foot for an 8-weight line.
Reel: A reel with a smooth drag is essential. When pike are near the net they are famous for violent headshakes that can break a leader.
Line: 8-weight, weight forward floating, WF8F.
Leader: 4 to 71/2-foot for 20-pound tippet with 12” of 25-35lb wire bite tippet.
Flies: The best hook sizes are from 3/0 to 2. I’ve had my greatest luck with bright colors such as red, chartreuse, orange and white. Excellent patterns include the Lefty’s Deceiver, Barry’s Pike Fly, Man Bear Pig, Game Changer and the Dahlberg Diver. If you tie, don’t be afraid to gob a bunch of materials on a hook and go for it!
Learn more about fly fishing for warmwater game fish by ordering an autographed copy of Jeff’s book, “Currier’s Quick and Easy Guide to Warmwater Fly Fishing”. Jeff’s popular book includes not only more strategies for northern pike, but also tactics and flies for largemouth and smallmouth bass, carp, perch, walleye and more!
Jeff’s Northern Pike Art
Get Jeff’s Northern Pike artwork on a variety of products by visiting his growing web store. Order one of his famous 15 oz coffee mugs, a frosted beer stein, a sunshirt or hoodie or Jeff’s custom sharpie art on a Cliff Fly Box. You can even commission Jeff to paint the one you caught!