Matt Hayes’ Guide to Fly Fishing for Pike Part 2

Having already described the kit that you need to fly fish for pike, in part two of this series, I will concentrate on fishing techniques and how to use the new kit to its best advantage.

Choosing Flies

Choose flies first and foremost that you can cast, especially if you are a newcomer. You have to put the fly in front of the fish to catch it. Pay attention to the profile of the fly, both from the side and below and carry a range of flies, some with bright, high contrast colours and others that are more subtle. You should also inspect the fly to check its quality. If the fibres start to come away in your hand if you tug them it will not last very long when savaged by pike! Also check the quality of the hooks – many commercial flies are tied on fine wire hooks of poor quality. Finally, make sure that the fly is tied so that the fibres are layered and will not foul around the hook when the fly is cast.

On the day you should experiment with flies. Sometimes, the pike will react very aggressively to bright, flashy flies while on others they will ignore them. Big flies work superbly when the water is ‘roiled up’ and coloured by a big wave while in flat calm conditions, a small, subtle fly may be better. Use both natural and bright, high contrast colours until you find what the pike want on the day.


Whilst it is not always necessary to make long casts to catch pike, it does help. I always begin by making a few short casts parallel to the bank before gradually lengthening the cast to cover greater range. Pike often lie very close to the bank and a ‘softly softly’ approach to fishing will produce more fish than blazing in and thrashing the water. Four or five well-placed casts in a swim are enough before taking a few steps and covering a new area.

Learning to cast is one of the joys of fly fishing. Frustrating at first, you must learn to cope with your inadequacies and concentrate on fishing well for short bursts. Since pike flies are bigger and bulkier than most other types of flies, casting them can be strenuous and it is best to fish in short bursts so that you build up your casting muscles. Over doing it will result in wrist, shoulder and tendon strains – these are very, very painful!

I would advise newcomers to book casting lessons from a local instructor. Casting is about timing and not effort: no matter how hard you try you will not ‘force’ big flies out into the water. Half a dozen lessons from a professional will teach you the basic techniques and from thereon in you can analyse your own technique and improve with practice. Learn good, not bad habits from the outset!

Casting pike flies is tricky, especially when the wind blows strongly from any direction. To be a really effective pike fly caster you will need to learn to double haul the fly line to increase line speed and power. This requires instruction and practice – there are no short cuts. You will also need to learn to cast by using the wind – aiming a high forward cast in a tail wind or turning round and ‘back casting’ if the wind is blowing into your casting arm.
One of the most important differences between casting big pike flies and other, lighter styles is that the cast must ‘flow.’ Whilst it is widely accepted that there must be a pause between the back and forward casts, I have found that waiting too long between casting strokes causes the rod to ‘bounce’ when casting big flies; this bounce causes shock loops in the line and results in an untidy cast that reduces distance. Another cause of this problem is slashing the rod forward too quickly. As I have already stated, you will not ‘horse’ a big fly into the water, you must work until your timing is smooth and unhurried so that the line does not stop and start suddenly. Power in the casting stroke should be smooth, building speed throughout the stroke gradually with a sudden stop to allow the line to unfurl. Practice, practice, practice!
When you have become a competent caster you will learn to enjoy fly casting with big flies. Two or three back casts are all that are required to deliver a good cast – I frequently see pike anglers whom have turned to the fly rod making eight or nine false casts to deliver a poor cast and this is very frustrating. I know this because that is how I started! A good start with some lessons will provide a faster route to competent casting.


I like pike flies to ‘pulse’ in the water. This means allowing a short pause between each strip. The length of the strip can vary from two feet down to just a few inches. Short strips tend to make the fly fish more erratically while longer strips result in a fly that moves more smoothly. Both approaches can work and you must experiment because on some days a steady, long strip will produce pike while on others short, erratic strips will nail the fish. Mixing up the styles will also work very well. Try to imagine a pike following the fly on every cast and induce it into striking in the same way that you would play with a ball of wool to tease a kitten. Slowing the fly down and speeding it up can be achieved by combing the length and speed of strips. Pauses, short twitches and speed-ups will taunt lethargic pike.

Another tip I can give you is to lift the rod slowly before you make the back cast, hanging the fly in the water before you lift off. Pike often make a late surge at flies just before the lift off because they think that the fly is trying to get away and too many anglers go into the back cast too quickly, missing a valuable opportunity and left to stare at a big boil in the water caused by a frustrated pike! If you miss a pike, make another cast in the same direction but vary the strip rate. Speeding the fly up will often cause the pike to grab the fly more confidently.

Setting the hook

This is a subject that causes a lot of problems for novices. To set the hook properly, you must understand that pike do not bite flies, rather they suck them in. Rarely, when a pike takes a fly, does the angler feel a sharp tap on the line, more often than not there is a pull, draw or sudden tightening of the line. When you feel this, the natural reaction is to do one of two things: either strike with the rod or stop stripping. Both are wrong. You will not set a pike fly hook by striking with the rod. Rather, when you feel a take, keep stripping until the line tightens up. You must strip as fast and hard as you can to get the line tight. When you cannot strip any more, clamp down on the line lift the rod slowly and allow the pike to turn away. This first power rush is one of the defining moments in pike fishing: the line zips through your fingers, the water boils and the pike surges away leaving a furrow in the water!

Playing the Fish

Pike are played as much with the reel as they are with the rod. As the pike flies away, release the fly line under moderate tension by allowing it to slip between finger and thumb that gently squeeze the line. If the running pike does not take all of the slack line, your task is to get the fish ‘on the reel.’ To do this, clamp the line with your rod hand by trapping it against the blank while batting the spool of the reel with your free hand. Once the fish is ‘on the reel’ you can play it more effectively. Many pike will tail walk at this stage in the fight. Keep the line tight and enjoy it! You must always keep the line tight and make sure that there is a bend in the rod to absorb the shocks down the line caused by an aggressive fish. However, if you want to beat the pike quickly, do not raise the rod until it takes on a horseshoe bend. Rather, keep the rod low and while not pointing it directly at the fish, semi-point it so that the rod has a gentle, not an acute bend. This will cause the pike to have to fight the drag on the reel and it will tire more quickly. Even thirty pound plus pike can be tamed within a few short minutes if you fight them this way.

Fishing Strategies

When you have learnt to cast competently, you can concentrate on presentation and employ some imagination in your fishing. When casting from a static position, either an anchored boat or a ’swim’ rather than open bank, fan-shaped casts to cover the water are important. Start short and gradually extend casts when fishing from the bank so that you do not disturb the water until you are sure that pike are not lying close.

From a drifting boat or when walking/wading open bank, it is wise to cast at a diagonal angle rather than straight ahead. This will allow more pike to see the fly than a straight-out cast. Bank fishing requires a more thoughtful approach than boat and a cast made parallel to the bank followed by a cast at a more direct angle before stepping on will help you to cover fish lying close in and further out.

You should also concentrate on turning the fly over above the water. Too many pike anglers treat pike as if they have no caution, slapping the line down onto the water in an ugly heap. It is better to cast slightly shorter and turn the fly over nicely than it is to go for distance and achieve an ugly presentation. To turn the fly over it must come to a stop in the air. You can achieve this either by gripping the line as it begins to lose momentum or casting so that the loose line snakes out and snaps against the reel. The effect of this sudden tightening of the line while the fly is above the water will cause the fly to flip over, straightening line and leader so that the flies lands gently on the water. Do not try to cast further than your comfort zone, stripping out only enough line that you can cast comfortably and your presentation will dramatically improve (so too will your catches!)

Fishing at different speeds by varying the retrieve has already been covered but you should also fish at different depths. In the prime parts of the pike fly season (spring and autumn) pike are found in shallow to medium depth water. Buoyant flies can be fished either on a floating line to either ‘pop’ or ‘wake’ or they can be fished on a sinking line and short leader so that they rise and fall just above the bottom. Both styles have their day. Fitted with a weed guard, flies can be fished through dense cover and one of the definitive moments in pike fly fishing is to twitch a fly across the surface next to dense cover and see it engulfed in a huge, swirling display of aggression.

In water up to ten or twelve feet (three to four meters) deep, a floating line and a fly fished either on the surface or just below it is the most common and exciting way to catch pike. You will often see pike looming up behind the fly before they take it. Remember not to stop stripping when you see a pike zoom the fly and open its jaws – an easy mistake to make! Pike will willingly come up through the layers to take a fly stripped on or just below the surface.

There are occasions, however, when pike are lethargic that a sinking line is useful. The Guideline intermediate/sink 3 sinking line can be counted down to fish varying depths. In shallow water, start stripping straight away and the fly will come back just above the bottom while in deeper water, count the line down until you find the taking depth. This can be anywhere between just below the surface and just above the bottom. Remember that the faster you retrieve the fly the shallower it will fish. By counting the line down to different depths and varying the speed of the retrieve, you can use the sinking line to cover almost any depth band down to around fifteen feet (five meters).


You will never have more fun with a fly rod than when pike fly fishing. Though far from easy to do well, pike fly fishing can deliver some of the most heart-stopping moments: fish that smash the fly off the surface, loom like crocodile from the depths to stalk the fly and tail-walking head shaking displays that will leave you breathless.

I cannot emphasise enough how important to approach pike fly fishing with the right mentality. Those whom take up the fly rod simply because they are obsessed with getting on trout reservoirs to catch big fish will miss the whole point and they will rarely become good fishers. Rather, you should take up pike fly fishing to learn to cast, enjoy the fishing and to see and feel the pike as the fish that it is – a truly world class sporting species. You never know, it may inspire you to try other forms of fly fishing and become a true all-round angler!
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.