“Snakes,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Bill Tapply shows off a fat Labrador brook trout.
Photos courtesy Vicki Stiefel

You don’t always get what you fish for.

It was a typical August morning in Labrador—gray sky, cold drizzle, wind chill somewhere around freezing. In the afternoon, the clouds would blow away and the sun would come out and the mayflies would hatch in the coves. Then, with luck, we’d catch a couple of those legendary six-pound Minipi brook trout on dry flies.

But for now we had to improvise. Dorman, our Inuit guide, had motored us to the foot of the lake, where it narrowed, quickened, and flowed into the next lake in the chain. He held out his closed fist. “Try this,” he said. He opened his hand and dropped a deer-hair mouse into mine. “Lemming,” he said. “Trout eat ’em, eh?”

The trick, Dorman explained, was to heave the mouse to the opposite bank and swim it across the current on a tight line. On my third or fourth try, a wake appeared behind the mouse. I held my breath and kept it coming. The wake accelerated—then exploded. I heaved back on my 7-weight rod.

My limp line sailed back over my head.

“Argh,” growled Dorman. “Damn snake. Bit you off. That was a good fly.”

“Snake?” I said.

“Pike,” he explained.

“Big one, huh?”

“All big ones in this lake. Damn nuisances.”

“Well,” I said, “let’s try to catch one of those nuisances, eh?”

* * *

The Anglo-Saxons called him Luce, the waterwolf, and likened him (in both appearance and function) to the pike, their long pointed weapon. His Latin name, Esox lucius, means “pitiless pike.” He was well named.

I had my first encounter with a northern pike when I was about ten years old. My mother had dropped me off at a quiet slough in northern Vermont. It was a backwater of Otter Creek, which flowed north and emptied into Lake Champlain. Smallmouths and largemouths both lived in that slough, and I’d brought my father’s baitcasting rod and a bucket of minnows.

It was a warm, sunny day, and the bass weren’t biting. But I was content. I shucked of my sneakers and socks and sat on the bank, dangling my feet in the water and watching my red-and-white bobber float beside a bed of lily pads. Bullfrogs grumped sleepily, and neon-colored dragonflies perched on my rod tip, and it was an altogether lazy and satisfying way for a boy to while away a daydreamy August afternoon.

I actually felt his eyes on me before I noticed him. I never saw him arrive. He just materialized. Suddenly he was hovering there, absolutely motionless like a big waterlogged stick—like a pointed weapon—barely a yard from my dangling toes. He was sleek and long—as long as my ten-year-old leg, at least—and he was staring up at me with baleful, predatory, utterly pitiless eyes.

Then, I swear, he grinned at me. His jaws slowly opened and closed, and he showed me his teeth.
After a minute, he swam over to my bobber and ate my minnow, right?


I didn’t wait for that pike to make the first move. I scrambled away from the water and reeled in as fast as I could and got the hell away from that place. I believed then, and I still believe, that if I hadn’t moved fast, I’d be walking around with about seven toes today.
I wanted nothing to do with that vicious tearing, shredding, eating machine.

Pike have fascinated me ever since.

I’ve caught them on live bait, and I’ve caught them by trolling sewn bait, and I’ve caught a lot of them by casting swimming plugs and red-and-white Dardevle spoons into weedy bays and alongside fallen timber. There is no bad way to catch a pike.

But the best way is on a fly rod. Especially on the surface. Pike are not shy. If they’ll hit a Dardevle retrieved a foot under the surface, and they usually will, they’ll also crash a big deer-hair bug popped and gurgled on top.

Watching a pike ambush a floating fly is like witnessing a mugging. The strike itself is the peak moment of pike fishing and the best reason to go for them on the surface. You’ll notice the wake first—a calculated, unhurried V in the water 10 or more feet behind your lure. The fish keeps his distance for a moment or two, taking the measure of his target. Then, without warning, the wake accelerates. The sudden explosive attack throws spray and leaves a hole in the water.

Cardiologists advise their patients not to cast floating flies for pike.

The author with a Labrador snake that fell for—guess what?—a yellow topwater fly.
Photos courtesy Vicki Stiefel

Once hooked, pike pull hard and sometimes jump spectacularly, but they tend to submit quickly. Beware. They often allow themselves to be led docilely to the boat. Then, just as you dip your net into the water, they detonate, and if you’re not ready for it, you’ll find yourself holding a handful of splinters.

To incite a northern to mug your fly, use a fast but erratic retrieve and keep it coming right up to the boat. Pike often follow their prey for a long distance, attacking only when they sense that it’s about to escape. So if a wake materializes behind your lure, you’re more likely to trigger a strike by speeding up your retrieve than by slowing it down.

When selecting a pike floater, I follow two rules: make it yellow, and make it noisy. The fuss and burble that a flat-faced popper kicks up makes it appear bigger than it actually is and will get the attention of any nearby northern. While deer-hair pike bugs work beautifully, they don’t stand up well to those razor teeth. Foam-bodied or cork saltwater-size poppers are more durable.

My 9-foot, 9-weight, medium-action graphite rod casts air-resistant floaters with relative ease. I use a weight-forward (bass-bug taper) floating line and a 6-foot leader, with a 2-foot shock tippet made of 50-pound-test Mason Hard mono to prevent bite-offs. Pike are not leader-shy.

I debarb my hooks and carry needle-nose pliers, which together permit easy releases and minimize encounters with those nasty teeth. Pike have bony mouths that are hard to penetrate, so I keep my hooks sharp. Even so, when a pike takes my fly, I haul back several times to drive home the point.

Pike prefer water that’s cool (around 65 degrees), shallow (less than 15 feet deep), and features cover such as fallen trees and weedbeds. I like to sight-fish for them in coves and along the banks, where I can often spot them lying motionless like waterlogged hunks of driftwood, ready to ambush.

Northerns are primarily daytime feeders. Although they seem to come to the surface most readily on overcast days, I have taken plenty of pike under a bright midday sun.

During their pre-spawn, pike are edgy and hostile and territorial. They are early-spring spawners, and I’ve had some of my best days shortly after ice-out, when every pike in the lake or river moves into shallow water.

* * *

Dorman made a face and mumbled something about “damn snakes,” but I persuaded him to take us to a cove where we could try for a big pike on a floating fly. I found a box of deer-hair bass bugs in the bottom of my tackle bag, added a shock tippet to my leader, and tied on the biggest, noisiest, yellowest bug I had.

I burbled it along the edge of some lily pads, and on my ninth or tenth cast, a wake bulged the pads, eased along behind my bug, speeded up, and engulfed it.

I whooped, reared back, and set the hook. The fish headed for open water. My reel screamed. “Big snake, eh?” said Dorman, and when I glanced at him I saw that he was grinning. I had converted him, I thought smugly. Even the crusty Inuit had finally seen the fun of catching pike on floating flies.

I managed to horse the big fish around to the stern where Dorman could net him. “Yes, sir,” he repeated as he dipped his net. “Damn big snake, eh?”

He lifted the net from the water. It held a six-pound brook trout.

“Damn trout,” I said. “Put him back, eh? I want one of them snakes.”

* * *

Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. 

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Time: Book 3, The Afterworld Chronicles and the reissue of her Tally Whyte series.

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