Freezing rain. That was the initial forecast for early Saturday morning. I thought it could be the end of this early-season trip in search of a pike or two. My brother Pete and a few other friends had told me about a spot with some decent pike during the winter. I have been dying to get into a water wolf, since it has been since October since I last landed one. I know that the season is coming up quickly, but it is never too early to have a pike on the end of a fly line. My buddy Kevin was concerned about making the drive, so we decided to make a game-time decision just before leaving in the morning. As it turned out, our destination was above freezing at 6 a.m., and with a forecast in the low 40s for the day, we decided to go for it.
Gearing up for early-season pike is a pretty simple affair. An 8- to 10-weight rod is the standard bug flinger for the job. We were using floating lines with weighted flies to get down to the fish. A sinking tip would not have been a bad idea, but I was trying to keep this pretty simple. I definitely prefer 12-inch wire bite tippet on my leader, but some people go with hard mono or fluorocarbon. What it ultimately boils down to is that if you don’t have protection from teeth on your leader, you won’t land many pike. We had a wide variety of flies at our disposal—bunny strip leeches, Clouser Minnows, Half-and0Halfs, and other big streamers from 1/0 to 5/0. A pike’s mouth opens up really wide, so big hooks will catch even relatively small pike.
We met up with my brother Pete at our destination—sorry, but the location must remain classified—at mid morning. The stretch of river we were fishing is not classic slow pike water, but has some slower spots where the toothy critters like to spend their time before spawning. There was a good deep hole midriver with current moving on either side of it. It is great place for a pike to hold, and Pete had taken some pike from the spot before. The side of the river I was on was a bit too deep to easily wade out, so I remained on the bank and cast out into the current. The water was tannin-stained, but the visibility was great. I had on a 2/0 Half-and-Half—chartreuse and white with tungsten hourglass eyes—that I had tied up the night before, and I could easily see it. Because of the trees behind me, I had to roll-cast the heavy fly out into the river. This is where a 10-weight rod comes in very handy. I could not have cast more than a couple of dozen times when a big pike rolled up to the fly from the bottom. I had my rod lifted high to keep the line out of the current right under my feet to let the fly sink deep in the middle instead of getting swept downstream. That was my downfall: I didn’t have a tight line, and I didn’t get a hook set. But I knew the fish were there.
The boys were ready to start fishing, so they headed to the other side of the river to work that pool. I headed upstream to work water under the dam. The reason this fishes well at this time of year is that it is the outflow of a lake and remains relatively ice-free most of the winter. Unfortunately, nobody was home in any of the deeper holes I worked. I was casting my fly upstream and letting it sink in the current to get closer to the bottom and then working it with the rod tip to give it a good jigging motion. This works really well, especially if you strip in some line while you work the rod. It is also really useful if you are standing up above a piece of water and want to work the fly through deep pockets. But there were no takers.
I walked back down to Pete and Kevin. They had not had any luck yet but were working the water near where I had my strike pretty hard. I decided it was time for me to explore a bit and I headed downstream. The flow was not too fast, and I kept probing any deeper, slow pockets I found. Without any luck, I might add. Then I got downstream of a bridge in a deep run, so I started swinging my streamer through it. There are some nice browns in this river, and they are definitely fond of smashing streamers too. After I had mended a couple of times, my line went tight and I felt a good head shake. I stripped in line and raised the rod, which got the fish near the surface. It looked like a nice brown and I cranked on my reel to get rid of the excess line in front of me.
It was a pretty good-size fish, but with a 10-weight rod and 18-pound tippet it doesn’t take long to subdue even a big trout quickly. When I got it in front of me, I got a bit of a shock, though. It wasn’t a brown. I had a landlocked salmon! There aren’t supposed to be any in this river, but here I had one, and a really nice one at that. I landed the fish, snapped a few shots of it, and then let it go.
Shortly after that, Pete and Kevin joined back up with me, and we worked downstream. The piece of water that is open to fishing is only a mile or so, and we covered the whole thing over the course of the next few hours. We put flies into any water that looked like it would hold pike and also swung through the deeper holes that might have browns in it. Pete and I both had a couple of takes but nothing solid. The rain had begun in earnest, and after a bit we decided to call it quits.
It was a great day on the water. We lost a few flies to snags in deeper water but there were enough strikes to keep us interested. I think using a sinking tip might have allowed us to fish the water a bit better, but I feel like we really gave it our all and that the fish just weren’t as responsive as we hoped. We agreed that it must have been the front moving through that gave the pike lockjaw, but I suspect that we were still just a bit early.
After saying goodbye to my brother, Kevin and I headed back home. We talked about getting out again soon for more early-season pike and started plotting some other trips for later in the year. I kept wondering where that salmon had come from. There are a couple of nearby ponds that are stocked with salmon, and if they were an outflow-spawning strain they could have migrated down last fall. It could have been stocked as a brown accidentally or even have been put in intentionally by a “bucket biologist.” Ultimately it doesn’t matter. That fish did make my day though!
Drew Price is a guide who lives in northern Vermont. He specializes in trout, pike, and other species, including bowfin and fall fish.