Written by: Phil Monahan
“Can we please change this fly?”
Guide Dan Lembke–all six-foot-eight, two-hundred and ninety pounds of him–was sitting in the center of the boat, rebuilding my wire leader and considering what fly to tie on, when Sandy’s exasperated request came from the casting pulpit in the bow of the Lund. Sandy hopped down onto the deck and held out the red-over-yellow, bead-chain-eye baitfish pattern he’d been casting fruitlessly for the past half hour or so.
Without even looking up, Dan said calmly, “Sandy, can you do me a favor?”
“Will you get back up there right now and start casting that damned fly?”
I laughed as Sandy sheepishly turned, climbed back up in the pulpit and resumed casting.
About three casts later, his 9-weight was bent into the cork, as he fought the biggest northern pike of our trip, a forty-two inch beast with a mouth that could easily hold a basketball. It was the kind of life-list fish that we had traveled to Wollaston Lake to catch and easily the biggest fish of Sandy’s life so far. As he lifted the huge pike out of the water to give us a view of its full magnificence, Dan deadpanned, “I can change that fly now, if you want.”
Learning to Love the Wolf
I have long been fascinated by northern pike. During my first season as a guide in south-central Alaska, I initially learned to fish for pike by casting a frozen herring, suspended under a classic red-and-white bobber, on the sandy flats of Hewitt Lake. In the crystal clear water, you could watch the fish glide warily up to the bait, often stopping just inches away for a few moments before deciding whether to eat it or not. About half the time, the pike’s tiny brain would register something amiss, and the fish would slowly swim away. But even if the pike did take the herring, success was not assured. You had to let the fish swim with the bait for a few seconds before setting the hook, or risk pulling the rig out of the fish’s mouth. Once you drove the hook home, though, it was time to simply hang on, as the water would erupt in a spray of anger, adrenaline, and survival instinct.
It was exciting and fun, but as a fly fisherman, I really wanted to trick these predators into attacking something made of feathers, fur, and flash. Something moving like a live baitfish. It wasn’t until a couple years later–at a different lodge, in the Bristol Bay region–that I got my chance. Although the guests came to fish for rainbow trout and sockeye salmon in the nearby Copper River, the lodge itself sat on Pike Lake, and my fellow guides and I spent many evenings casting Clouser Minnows for water wolves in the weedy bays and along rocky points. The pike didn’t grow particularly large, but they sure were fun to catch. In the single, blurry photo I have of myself holding a 10-pounder from that summer, I look inordinately proud of my accomplishment.
Over the next twenty years, I fished for pike just once, on Lough Muckno, near Castleblayney, Ireland. My guide was a diehard bait fisherman, and when I took out my fly rod at the beginning of the day, he tsked and said, “Dese fish won’t eat a fly.” But by the end of the day, he was cackling maniacally every time a pike hammered my deer-hair frog as it chugged through the lily pads. By the time we headed back to shore, the poor frog was missing both eyes, all its hackle, and one leg. Although none of the fish was over ten pounds, I was reminded of how much I love these toothy predators.
To finally fulfill my dream of catching a really big pike on a fly, last summer my friend Sandy Hays and I traveled to Wollaston Lake, in the northeastern corner of Saskatchewan. The lake is enormous–more than 100 miles long and forty miles wide, dotted by hundreds of islands–and it is home to huge northerns, the real monsters exceeding fifty inches. All of this water is fished by the guests of just two lodges and members of the Hatchet Lake First Nation, which has a reservation on the eastern shore of the lake. The majority of fish have surely never seen a fly or a lure.
As a secondary goal, I also wanted to catch a pike on a Mallard Duckling pattern tied by Pat Cohen. A master of spun deer hair, Cohen creates all manner of baitfish, frogs, and classic bass bugs, but I have long admired his Baby Bird series, which are elegant, articulated, and gigantic. Created mostly from spun deer hair and feathers, they are tied on size 4/0 and 2/0 hooks. I figured that the Mallard Duckling would be just the thing to tempt a monster northern to the surface, and I chose the bigger of the two options. I filled out my pike box with some huge streamers, poppers, and mice.
On our first day in the boat with Dan, however, I was surprised to learn that the guides at Wollaston lake Lodge generally prefer smaller, sparser flies during the midsummer season, so most of my monstrous patterns stayed in the box. Instead, we started out casting pretty sparse bucktails with bead-chain eyes.
We had flown to the northern end of the lake in one of the lodge’s two DeHavilland Turbo Otter float planes and then hopped into a boat stored on an island. After motoring for just ten minutes, it was time to start our quest. Dan allowed the boat to drift along the bank of a narrow passage between two islands, as I cast from the bow, and it didn’t take long to bring the first pike to the boat. Although we were casting subsurface patterns, the experience was still visually exciting.
On about my tenth cast, as I stripped my line back to the boat, a pike seemed to appear out of nowhere behind the bucktail, but it did not strike. I started to slow my retrieve to let the fish catch up, which made Dan leap to attention.
“Don’t stop!” he said. “Strip faster.”
With the fly just ten feet from the boat, I made two quick strips, and then watched in awe as the pike shot forward, flared its gills, and inhaled the pattern right in front of us. As soon as I made a strip-set, the fish turned and headed for the bottom. My 10-weight fly rod bent sharply, as I tried to pressure the fish to the surface, but she resisted by either bulldogging downward or running away from the boat. After a fight that also took my line under the bow and around the motor, Dan finally reach down and lifted the big girl from the water.
“That’s about thirty-six inches,” he said. “A little bigger than average for this lake.”
It was a gorgeous specimen, tinged in grays and greens, with some rust in the tail. That beauty was an auspicious start to four days of fly-fishing, during which we experienced extremes of weather, spells of remarkable fishing, and some tough stretches during which we struggled to hook up.
Going to Extremes
The first two days were downright tropical, with punishing sun and temperatures in the 80s; on the bow of the boat, it felt more like The Bahamas than northern Saskatchewan. That did not keep the fish from biting, however, in places the guides call “Box Bay” and “Bay of Pigs.” Dan explained that water temperature, more than weather or structure, determines where fish are holding, and he took careful readings everywhere we stopped. Things went decidedly south on day three, however, when we were blown off the water by powerful rainstorms that ended up dumping five inches of rain overnight and dropping the water temperature of the entire lake by several degrees. When we headed out late on day four, the fishing had clearly gone off the boil. We still caught about a dozen pike, mostly in sheltered coves, but Dan had to work harder to find fish willing to eat.
The morning before the rains came, however, we enjoyed the best topwater fishing of the trip, which meant that I had the opportunity to break out the Mallard Duckling. Because it is both heavy and wind-resistant, the pattern is no fun to cast, even on a 10-weight rod. After about a half hour with no action, I switched over to one of Sandy’s many mouse patterns and immediately started getting strikes. I put the Duckling back on, and on my second or third retrieve, as I lifted the fly to re-cast, a medium-size pike lunged out of the water, attempting to pluck the fleeing bird from the air. The strike missed, but as the fish re-entered the water, its jaws closed on the slack line that I’d stripped onto the surface beneath the casting pulpit. The pike swam away slowly and bit my fly line clean in half.
I quickly grabbed Sandy’s rod, tied the duckling on, and cast into a clear patch among some weeds. I slowly stripped the monstrosity, trying to imitate a struggling bird, and the water erupted as a pike smashed it. We whooped and hollered as I fought the fish, excited to have caught one on such a crazy agglomeration of spun deer hair and feathers. It wasn’t my biggest pike of the trip, but it was certainly the most memorable.
Rather than simply fulfilling my desire to catch a big pike on a fly, my trip to Wollaston Lake has renewed my fascination with these apex predators, and I plan to devote more time to pursuing them. There are good pike waters not far from my home in Vermont, and I find my mind wandering to destinations such as Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territories. I was the only one in my party who didn’t get a fish over forty inches–even the photographer did!–so I still have that goal to chase, as well. There’s something special about the aggressive confidence of a pike smashing a fly that will keep me coming back.
If You Go
Travel: A trip to Wollaston Lake, in the northeastern corner of Saskatchewan, requires an overnight in Winnepeg, followed by an early-morning charter to Points North Landing, a gravel airstrip in northeastern Saskatchewan. Guests of Wollaston Lake Lodge then board a school bus for a forty-minute drive over gravel roads to the lodge.
Seasons: Fishing season is short so far north, running from the second week of June, through the third week of August. Each month offers different conditions. The biggest fish are usually caught after ice-out; the weather is nice and fish numbers are high through July; and August brings “cabbage season,” when the weeds spread out on the surface and big pike start to hunt before winter.
Gear: An 8- to 10-weight rod, a reel with a strong drag, and a floating line will do most of the duty. A sinking-tip or intermediate line will come in handy for fishing deeper water.
Flies: The season dictates fly size, so talk to the lodge about the best choices for your trip’s time frame. A selection of large baitfish patterns in a variety of colors and weights will be most useful. Always include topwater poppers, sliders, and mouse patterns. And perhaps a Mallard Duckling from rusuperfly.com.
Contact: Wollaston Lake Lodge, 2018 Orvis-Endorsed Fly Fishing Lodge of the Year.
This story originally appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal.