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Matt Hayes’ Guide to Fly Fishing for Pike Part 1

Hooking a pike on the fly is one of angling’s great moments: from the moment that you feel the first surge of power down the fly line to the final cart-wheel jump, even a small pike will give you an adrenaline buzz that no other style of pike fishing can deliver.

Text & Photo: Matt Hayes

I used to think that lure fishing with spoons, plugs, soft plastics and jerk baits was the ultimate way to catch pike, that is, until I picked up a fly rod. While the direct contact that lure fishing delivers elevates it above bait fishing, the fly ratchets the connection between angler, lure and fish to a new level. It is also one of the most effective ways to catch pike and vastly underrated when it is compared to other methods.
 
Critics of fly fishing for pike have often stated that fly rods are not capable of landing the fish before they reach exhaustion. This is nonsense. Whilst a fly rod will flex and bend to the jumps and rushes of a hooked pike, because they are spring-like, they will tame pike quickly – I expect to land twenty pound plus fish within a few adrenaline packed minutes of hooking them.

I have also heard it said that pike fly fishing kills a lot of pike. This too, is nonsense. Unhooking a fish that is caught on a single hook is easy – it is bad handling and treble hooks, taken deeply by pike as they swallow baits that kill pike.

The chances are that if you are reading this you are already a full or part-time pike angler. Several years ago, the ‘serious’ pike fishing fraternity condemned fly fishing for pike largely because they were jealous of a few of us whom were going out and catching big pike on ‘their’ waters. Today, fly fishing for pike is attracting almost more interest than any other growing facet of angling in the UK and even the hard core are sneaking into tackle shops, tail between legs and wearing false beards and moustaches to enquire about buying some pike fly kit!
 
If you are a serious pike fisherman contemplating fly fishing for pike, what follows is some advice based upon several years of learning to fly fish for pike, designing and tying flies and experimenting with equipment. And whilst some of you will only be picking up the fly rod so that you can fish trout reservoirs ‘out of season,’ it is my hope that the majority of you will embrace this new technique for what it really is: the ultimate way to enjoy the sporting qualities of this great fish both big and small.

Before I move on I must first declare that I have recently started working with a Scandinavian fly fishing tackle company – Guideline. I joined the company because their passion for fly fishing, from the managing director to the more junior members of the team, was truly infectious. Whilst I am bound to recommend Guideline equipment, you can rest assured that it is top quality
 

Equipment

This is one of the most confusing areas for the newcomer. Choosing the right rod and reel is baffling to those unaccustomed to AFTM line and rod ratings as is setting up the leader and trace system. Over the years I have honed not only my fly fishing skills but also the equipment I use to catch pike on the fly. After years of experimentation, what follows is the equipment that I would recommend.
 
When I started pike fly fishing, because my casting was poor I naturally assumed that only the most powerful fly rods would be needed to deliver the large flies that I was using. Initially, I used only 10 weights (described as #10). A nine foot, ten weight rod was my weapon of choice (described as 9’ #10 in the fly world). I have since come to the conclusion that in most situations, a lighter rod is easier to cast and is just as capable of delivering the large flies. Nowadays, for most of my pike fly fishing I use a nine foot, weight nine rod (9’ #9). For smaller pike on drains, canals and small ponds I am happier to use a 7 weight. I will sometimes use a 10 weight for casting really large flies for big pike on reservoirs. The weight of the rod that you use should be dictated by the size and air resistance of the flies you are going to cast – the bigger the flies and pike, the more powerful the rod.

Nine feet, 7 weight (9’ #7): perfect for jacks and low doubles of drains, canals and small lakes. Will cast smaller flies up to 4 inches (10 cm) long.

Nine feet, eight weight (9’ #8): a good choice for many styles of pike fishing. Will cast flies up to 6 inches (15cm).

Nine feet, 9 weight (9’ #9): all round fly rod to cope with pike of all sizes. This outfit can cast flies as long as 8 inches (20cm) as long as they are not too bulky.

Nine feet, 10 weight (9’ #10): used for big pike on trout reservoirs when casting big, bulky flies up to 12 inches (30cm).
 
Choosing a rod with the right action to handle big flies is vitally important. In recent years, a number of cheap pike fly rods designed by companies whom generally produce coarse fishing tackle have appeared and I would advise you to steer clear of them. They are generally too stiff, heavy and a nightmare to cast. The newcomer will suffer badly when trying to cast with these rods and tennis elbow/tendonitis are common complaints.

My favourite rod is made by Guideline- the ACT 4. The ACT4 is made in a variety of lengths and ratings, including the most popular pike choices: choose from weights 7, 8 and 9 in nine feet. The rod is light, responsive and very easy to cast. Even when using meaty flies, provided that the rod is balanced with the right reel and line, casting a full line (30 yards) is no problem for a decent caster. The ACT 4 costs just under 200 pounds – a very good price for a fly rod of this quality. You will thank me for persuading you to spend a few extra pounds when you pick up your friends cheap fly rod and try to cast with it!

The Guideline EXP 3 is an entry level fly rod that cost just under a hundred pounds. It is a fantastic fishing rod, especially for the money and because it has a slightly softer action than the ACT4, is a great rod to learn with. Having said this, the EXP 3 is an exceptional blank for the money, whatever you experience. Available in nine feet weights seven and eight it is a good choice for the lighter pike fly work.

My ten weight is a Guideline RS Saltwater LPXE. This is not a cheap rod but it is a truly stunning performer with a crisp action, capable of delivering even really large flies considerable distances. I would recommend this rod for proficient casters – practice with lighter rods and flies to improve your technique and build up your casting muscles before you move onto the really big stuff.

My ten weight is a Guideline RS Saltwater LPXE. This is not a cheap rod but it is a truly stunning performer with a crisp action, capable of delivering even really large flies considerable distances. I would recommend this rod for proficient casters – practice with lighter rods and flies to improve your technique and build up your casting muscles before you move onto the really big stuff.
 

Reels

The most important features of a good pike fly reel are a good drag and enough spool capacity to carry at least 75 meters of fifty pound backing and the fly line. Saltwater proofing is not important and pike fly fishing so it is not necessary to spend a fortune. Whilst pike will not go on huge runs that empty your backing, the first run is often a very powerful surge and it is vital that the drag system on the reel will kick in smoothly (some reels have poor ‘start-up’ inertia) from the outset. The reel I would recommend is the Guideline Reelmaster LA. It has an excellent drag and is very light. There are two models to choose from. The Reelmaster 6-8 is made for six to eight weight fly lines while the 9-11 is made for nine to eleven weight lines.

Backing

Backing is used to fill up the spool and to give you extra line to fight the fish with. I use Micron backing or gelspun backing rated at 50 pounds. Use enough backing so that when you add the fly line, the spool is full but not so full that the fly line jams on the spool guard.
 

Fly Lines

Choosing the right fly line is critical: you must choose a line that will load your rod properly. In the past, with some of the cheaper fly rods I found it necessary to go up a line weight to load the rod. In other words, it was necessary to use an #11 line with a #10 rod. Thankfully, the Guideline rods work very well with the correct line rating – in other words a # 9 line with a #9 rod etc.,

The lines that you need are WF (this means weight forward) and you can choose between floating and sinking lines. The best lines have tapers designed for casting and turning over big flies. This means that the taper is short and ‘heavy’ at the front end with the rear line being relatively thin and easy to shoot. Some anglers use shooting heads but they are undoubtedly more difficult to control and are best used by more experienced casters.
The lines to opt for are designed for fishing with big flies. Guideline’s lines are designated ‘pike,’ making identification very easy. There are two types to choose from and these will cover all of your needs from both bank and boat. The floating line is the most useful when fishing into shallow water (up to 7 or 8 feet deep). Since most pike fly fishing is in spring and autumn when pike are at their most aggressive, they will come up off the bottom for flies (I have seen flies blasted off the surface by fish coming up through twenty feet of water).

A floating line will present the fly somewhere between a foot and three feet below the surface depending on the speed of the strip retrieve and the pauses between each strip.

For deeper water, the int/sink 3 line is the one to choose. This line is a medium/fast sinker at the front end (sink 3) with a running line at the rear that is intermediate (slower sinking). This means that the line sinks faster at the front than the rear – a much better system than a fly line that sinks at a uniform rate because when fishing from the bank, the water is shallower closer in. Having said this, if you allow the line to sink, by counting it down, you can effectively fish as deep as fifteen or twenty feet from a boat. Sometimes, I allow this line to sink right to the bottom and using a buoyant fly and short strips, inch the fly back so that it hovers just above the bottom. The Guideline floating and sinking line will cover all of your fishing needs and they are both available in 7, 8 and 9 weights.
 

Leaders


My leaders are made up in two sections. At the front end of the fly line I attach a braided leader loop (the best are the Roman Moser Minicon leader loops). Choose a leader loop that is designated to match the weight of your line. Follow the instructions on the packet. To the leader loop I attach a length of stiff fluorocarbon (I use 30 or forty pounds Guideline Egor). The length of the fluorocarbon is generally around seven or eight feet (just over 2 meters) for floating and sinking lines but if I am using a buoyant fly and sinking line I will often use a short leader of around a meter.

A size ten swivel is tied to the end of the fluorocarbon and attached to this is the bite tippet, usually around 10-12 inches (25-30cm) long. Pike flies don’t get ingested deep and leaders of this length will avoid bite-off’s and aid fly turnover. The material I use for the bite tippet is either regular pike wire or, better still, an armour coated braid called ‘pro leader.
I have experimented with titanium pike traces made for fly fishing but I found that casting tight loops resulted in the wire snapping because of friction caused by hinging. Regular wire or pro leader avoids this problem. To make changing flies easy, attach a reliable quick-change link to the end of the wire as you would when fishing with lures. The total length of the leader is, therefore around the length of the rod (except with the buoyant flies and sinking lines).

Other Equipment

 
An unhooking mat to protect the pike is a useful accessory. It is fine to lay pike on soft grass but hard banks require extra protection and a portable, lightweight mat is a real boon. To unhook the pike, a good pair of artery forceps can be clipped to your fly vest or jacket.

Another accessory I find invaluable is a stripping basket. This is worn around your waist and holds the fly line when you strip it in. The best I have found is a model known as the ‘flexi-stripper.’ This consists of a nylon plate that has nylon prongs poking up: the prongs trap the line in coils that prevents the coils from lying on top of each other (a problem with regular baskets) and as a consequence the line rarely tangles when casting. You will thank me for recommending one of these baskets when bank fishing because grass, thistles, weed and brambles all trap fly line when you strip in and prevent the line from shooting properly.

You will also need a net. I tend to ‘chin’ small to medium size pike but I must confess that when a pike of over twenty pound pops up I prefer the extra security of a net. This is a good policy because big pike require extra support to prevent displacement of their internal body organs. If you are going to display a pike by holding it either horizontally or vertically, lift it into position carefully and support the lower belly with your non-lifting hand.
 

Flies

You cannot go fly fishing for pike without flies and the good news is that an increasing number of commercially tied patterns of good quality are now available. Fulling Mill, Fishtec and Donegal are just some of the commercial suppliers of good pike flies. When I started pike fly fishing I was already tying flies. I used my knowledge of the actions, profiles and colours of other forms of successful pike lures to influence my fly designs, basing them on the prey fish species likely to be found in the waters I was fishing. I tied flies in all sorts of shapes and sizes, some as pure attractors in bright, flashy colours, others in more natural colours to mimic roach, perch and trout – the species that pike frequently prey on. As a consequence, I now have a range of flies that I tie to match differing waters and conditions and while in the early days I believe that my flies were much more effective than the commercially tied patterns, the gap has undoubtedly narrowed.

A good pike fly should trigger a pike into striking and yet should be easily to cast. It should also look good in the water and have a natural, sinuous movement. A well-tied fly pattern will out-fish any other type of artificial pike lure, its only limitation being how far it can be cast. This is because the movement of a pike fly is more natural and subtle than any other type of artificial pike lure and it can be worked much, much more slowly without losing its action or fouling up. I have often seen pike flies that look good on the fly tying bench but do not look so good when immersed in water. This is because the materials ‘clog up’ or are so bulky that they make the fly tough to cast. A good pike fly will have volume without bulk and this means that the materials should be tied in carefully to ‘puff up in the water’ and repel water quickly when you go into the cast.

The best flies also have a good profile: I like a classic ‘willow leaf’ or extended ‘tear drop’ shape when seen from both the side, above and below. Pike often look up when stalking their prey and flies will be seen, like baitfish, in silhouette and the shape of the fly when seen from below is therefore paramount. To achieve this profile, materials have to be layered to create the correct taper. How far this principle is taken is up to the tier. On trout waters, for instance, I often tie flies with a distinctly ‘blunter’ and bulkier head to mimic the shape of a trout’s head.

Colours are also important as is the amount of flash. Flashy, bright flies tend to catch aggressive pike and are well worth a cast, especially in coloured water but in clear water more subtle colours and tones are often more successful. As a general rule I would advise you to carry a range of flies – some bright and flashy, others more sombre in hue and with subtle amounts of flash.

Don’t assume, either, that you need to use the biggest flies. Smaller flies are easier to cast long distances and since a pike can only take a fly that it sees or senses, sometimes smaller flies are a better choice. My fishing partner, Mick Brown, rarely uses flies longer than five inches and he catches plenty of pike. Myself, I experiment with both small and big flies and I will cast flies between four inches and 12 inches. Newcomers will certainly find it easier to cast small flies and can do so with confidence that if you put a smaller fly in front of a big pike it will often take it.
 
Flies can be tied with a variety of materials either singly or in combination. Flash is used in most pike flies but it should be used carefully and while a few really flashy flies are sometimes useful, I look for flies that have subtle amounts of flash – just enough to light them up in the water.

Rabbit Strip – a very traditional material. Rabbit strip has sinuous movement that allows the fly to be fished very slowly. It tends to ‘suck’ water however and is heavy to cast. Marabou – this material is very light and easy to cast, puffing up in the water to give the illusion of volume.

Marabou, however, is very fragile and whilst some Scandinavian fishers use it extensively, I tend not to because of its lack of durability.

Bucktail – buck tail is highly underrated. I love this material. It can be tied in layers to give the illusion of volume, sheds water easily and pulses nicely in the water. Cheap and very durable. Synthetic – synthetic materials are now the most common choice for pike flies. EP fibres, fishair, super hair and polar fibre being prime examples. They produce beautiful flies and it is easy to produce flies with striking contrasting colours or subtly blended hues. Synthetics are tough, durable and yet have excellent movement. They also shed water quickly, making them easy to cast. Yet, I have seen many commercially tied flies made with this material that look great but fish poorly. This is because the fibres have not been trimmed properly to give the illusion of volume without bulk and foul the hook when fishing.

Deer Hair – great for buoyant flies and creates turbulence when the fly is stripped. Deer hair is reasonably durable and sheds water well.

If you want to know more about pike fly fishing and the equipment that you should use, go to www.guideline.no/en/ Guideline fly tackle can be purchased from a number of tackle shops in the UK. Go to the Guideline website and click on the ‘dealers’ tab ot find your nearest.