How to Catch Northern Pike by the Season

Northern pike adapt to seasonal freshwater temperature patterns. Learn the gear, techniques, retrieves, and flies to catch these predatory fish.

Northern pike adapt to seasonal freshwater temperature patterns. Learn the gear, techniques, retrieves, and flies to catch these predatory fish.

The sound of the oars stroking water filled the silence on the Stealthcraft Power Drifter captained by Steve Pogodzienski, also known as Pogo. It was one of those lulls in the conversation that happen when fishing from a drift boat, a bit of quiet that allowed me to hear the oars as we pulled up on another spot. Steve was at the oars in the middle while my friend Scott Tirrell and I cast big flies and swimbaits at shoreline structure for northern pike.

I stripped line and built a cast, the oar sound now joined by the hiss of my 10-weight fly line false-cutting through the air. I threw the fly tight to the shoreline and worked it back toward the boat. “Slow. Deeper.” Steve nearly whispered. It had been a good cast – what Steve would call a “reward me” cast. We expected that result, even though a hundred other casts that day had come up empty.

I allowed the fly to sink. “Tip in the water,” Steve told me. I dropped the rod lower and stripped. We could see the fly four feet down. After I stripped. the fly paused and kicked, turning on its side. As if in a movie, the monster made his dramatic entrance: a fish that would give children nightmares engulfed the fly. I strip-set as hard as I could, and my rod bent to the weight of the pike. “I’m on”, I said and the fish dove for mid-river.

It was a shocking take, violent and of pinpoint accuracy. The fly simply disappeared in the mouth of the angry predator.

Pike Fishing by the Season

  • Colder Water: Pike find slower moving water.
  • Warmer Water: Pike seek out current or depth.

Pike fishing location is based on water temperature more than season. Pogo broke down the year for me, laying out where fish should be. Location follows two basic rules: in colder water, the fish seek slower areas, and when the water warms, they seek current or depth.

Winter

In winter, pike relate to slower-moving sections of the river. They can be caught, but their metabolisms slow. Alter presentation to accommodate this by slowing down, and always use the figure-eight. Sometimes, you’ll need to sell your offering to lazy fish. Winter is the time to get a big fish but not necessarily numbers.

Spring

In spring, pike move into prespawn mode, roaming as water temperature approaches 40 degrees. Patterning position is difficult since they’re mobile, so cover water to locate fish, concentrating on emerging weeds.

Finding pike through the year depends on the water temperature.
Finding pike through the year depends on the water temperature.

Spawn

After spawning, a period of heavy activity begins. Pike stay shallow, following forage. Optimal metabolism temperature is around 66 degrees, and they’ll feed aggressively as the waters reach this temperature. You can downsize your fly offerings in early spring to mimic the smaller profile of young-of-year baitfish.

Summer 

Water over 75 degrees reaches the avoidance level for pike since they are coldwater fish. Warm water stresses them. An ethical angler should fish the coolest portions of summer days, which are dawn and dusk. Handle predators gingerly and return them to the water promptly. Revive them by holding them into the current—they will tell you when they are ready to go.

Fall

Late August brings cooler nights and declining water temperatures. Pike feed heavily as this happens because their instincts are telling them the coldwater period of inactivity is approaching. The fall is one of the best times of the year to target pike, and it is a great time to look for a real trophy fish.

Pike Fly Fishing

The more time you fish for any species, the more data points you accrue to apply to future situations. Since guides live on the water, it makes sense to listen to them. I did so with Steve, and I learned about technique, fish location, and gear required to target them.

Stephen “Pogo” Pogodzienski specializes in fly-fishing for pike in Connecticut.
Stephen “Pogo” Pogodzienski specializes in fly-fishing for pike in Connecticut.

Pike Flies

Pike flies are tied in three parts and when repeated up the hook shank, they build a fly to its head.

  • bucktail establishes a base
  • hackle feathers add length, profile, and motion
  • flash increases the attractiveness
Pike flies are tied in three parts: bucktail establishes a base; hackle feathers add length, profile, and motion; and flash increases the attractiveness.
Pike flies are tied in three parts: bucktail establishes a base; hackle feathers add length, profile, and motion; and flash increases the attractiveness.

The motion of these big flies in the water, kicking and gliding, was mesmerizing. I made slow, long strips, watching the head of the fly pushing water around its wide profile. I then paused to let the hackles pulse as the fly hung and kicked to one side, showing its full, bulky profile to following fish. Lastly, I stripped the fly back to life to make it kick to the other side.

Gear

Fly fishing for pike requires weighty rods, in the 8- to 12-weight class, though heavy rods and large flies are not easy to cast.

Techniques

After fishing, a novice’s arm will be sore. Let the rod flex, load, and shoot line at the target.

After casting, work the fly and make it swim. Keep your rod tip pointed at your fly. Keep as straight a line from your rod to the fly as possible because slack line makes hooksets far more difficult.

Pike flies have a mesmerizing action as they come through the water, moving side to side, like a big, wounded baitfish.
Pike flies have a mesmerizing action as they come through the water, moving side to side, like a big, wounded baitfish.

Convey through your fly that it is a fleeing and weak prey, trying to escape danger. Once the fly reaches you, there is a final motion of a cast that dramatically increases your chance of success: the “figure eight.” Bohen estimates that 75 percent of the strikes he generates for clients occur within a rod length of the boat.

Figure-8 Retrieve

“The real game is getting a fish to follow it in and eat here, in sight of the angler and the whole boat.” To figure-eight a fly means that as it reaches you at the end of a cast, you drop the rod tip into the water and draw a figure-eight pattern below the surface. This motion is designed to suggest that the target has given up attempts to outrun a following predator and is frantic. It is amazing to watch a fish strike during a figure-eight.

This can even be done from shore, simply by creating a directional change as your offering approaches. Just sweeping a fly from left to right simulates the beginning of a figure-eight and can induce a strike. When figure-eighting, keep your off-hand tight to the fly line. Use both hands: one to hold the rod and the other prepared to strip-set when a fish takes.

Setting the Hook

Once a fish bites at any point in a retrieve, the most crucial aspect takes place: the strip-set. Takes are memorable, often visual, and for the most part few and far between, so missing a pike is crushing. It could be the only fish you’ll see that month.

The strip-set is an essential part of pike fishing. Lifting the rod after the strike will pull the fly away from the fish.
The strip-set is an essential part of pike fishing. Lifting the rod after the strike will pull the fly away from the fish.

In most freshwater fly fishing, when a strike occurs, it is second nature to lift the rod tip to set the hook. This is the opposite of what you must do when pike fishing. Instead, keep the rod tip pointed at the fly and rapidly strip line through the guides until you can’t anymore.

Pogo gave me advice on learning to strip-set during one of our “gentlemen’s breaks,” a down period to regroup, hydrate, and rest. He said to me, “Cast into a weed bed with a streamer. Just throw it into the weeds. Point at the fly, feel the contact with the weeds, and strip hard.” I did so and, after a few casts, I developed a mantra to help. When stripping my fly, I repeat the words to myself: Strip. Set. This puts the idea in my mind, and when the time comes to act, I feel mentally prepared.

Connecticut Pike

Pogo guides Northwestern Connecticut for pike and smallmouth. When fishing any new species, there is a learning curve. As Pogo told me, there is no substitute for time on the water, but booking a guide can flatten that curve.

Pogo began fly fishing in 2009, a natural progression from chasing steelhead with conventional gear. He was intrigued by fly fishing and hired a guide to teach him on his home water, the Housatonic River. He learned tight-line nymphing and how to fish streamers for trout, eventually encountering smallmouth. He progressed to fishing northern pike and eventually to musky.

Pogo navigates through some New England pike waters.
Pogo navigates through some New England pike waters.

When he connected with his first pike on a fly rod, it was all over for Steve. He suddenly didn’t care for trout, even big ones. He watched a pike wake on a Dahlberg Diver from ten feet away, and landed the fish, shaking, instantly addicted.

Steve committed himself to pursuing predators and the journey that began in Connecticut has taken him through the North Woods and the Mid-South. Steve credits Bohen, who he fished with a number of times, as an influence. In the same way, I credit Steve with teaching me pike fishing.

When I arrived to be guided by Pogo for pike in Western Connecticut, I wanted two things: a shot at a pike and to learn from one of New England’s premier predator fishing guides. I had my shots, and I finally made one count. With a solid northern pike in the net, the quiet of the boat was replaced by whoops of elation.

I began fly fishing for northern pike by accident more than 10 years ago when I was targeting bass with deer-hair bugs in a slow, small tributary of a Connecticut lake. I was wading downstream and working a big deer-hair mouse in a soft arc, from the center of the river to the shoreline and back to me. As it swam, it left a wake on the surface, its rabbit-strip tail undulating and kicking.

Always carry a pair of pliers to remove hooks from the toothy mouths of northern pike.
Always carry a pair of pliers to remove hooks from the toothy mouths of northern pike.

That first pike appeared like an apparition behind the fly. Initially, I couldn’t believe it was a fish. It was suddenly there, a dark-green shape stalking, a ghostly vision. When I stripped the mouse, I could feel the hunger in the pike’s motions as it followed. I moved the fly, its tail danced, and the pike repositioned itself below it, patiently pursuing. But then, in one motion of its pectoral fins, I sensed it beginning to hurry. Though it hung back, there was a nearly imperceptible urgency in its motions as it coiled to strike. Finally, it exploded forward and took the fly. My bass tippet didn’t stand a chance. That fish didn’t stay hooked, but I did.

I quickly learned that fly fishing for pike is difficult, even for a good caster. Hauling heavy fly line and throwing pike flies takes good technique, persistence, and effort. Over my early pike pursuits, I built a list of attributes from back to front, showcasing effort and persistence if not technique. Every cast when I shot the line and hit my spot, I considered a success.

I asked Pogo about differentiating spots; i.e., how to tell an A spot from a B. I told him we had drifted past several downed trees and river bends that I thought looked fishy. Why hadn’t he dropped the anchor on those? He said, “Time on the water. There is no substitute for time on the water.” I made a mental note: Keep working.

Steve uses two boats: a Stealthcraft Power Drifter jet boat as his primary rig and a raft to access smaller waters. The jet boat makes his trips simple. It can skim up-current quickly, which puts Steve above his take-in point and he then drifts back for take-out. Pogo can read water temperature and see bottom composition using electronics; he knows his water intimately.

I have always prided myself in being able to figure out a species of fish, find where they live, and catch them. Much of this good fortune came from the goodwill and communication of fellow anglers. Pogo provided me an opportunity to cut my teeth on pike to prepare for a Wisconsin muskie trip.

Stephen ‘Pogo’ Pogodzienski | Guiding Western Connecticut for Northern Pike and Smallmouth Bass

Wisconsin Pike & Muskie

A friend of mine suggested I reach out to Brad Bohen of Hayward, Wisconsin. Brad has guided for muskellunge with a fly rod for years, developed and spread the sport, and created flies that have been copied many times over. We struck up a conversation and I made plans to book him for a trip.

What had once seemed impossible eventually came to pass when I watched a 42-inch muskie rise and leap from a Wisconsin river, its entire body kicking and flapping like a bronco horse. I had finally made it to Wisconsin and I got bit. It was my apex moment fishing for apex predators. There was nothing I had ever seen to rival the visage I saw there, up to my waist in water with my ten-weight bent to the cork. I had never felt so alive with a fishing rod in my hands.

Fishing for pike and muskies is more of a primal experience than any other Northeast freshwater species can provide.
Fishing for pike and muskies is more of a primal experience than any other Northeast freshwater species can provide.

Bohen spent his youth exploring the St. Croix River. He fished for anything that swam, but eventually narrowed his focus to muskies on flies. One of his goals is to catch a musky in every state where they exist.

Fly-fishers nationwide have used Bohen’s fly designs and tactics. While many fly designers deal with major distributors, I prefer my flies sourced from independent tyers like Bohen. I prize several flies Bohen tied, especially his Buford.

All pike and muskie flies exist on a platform of a flowing tail tied behind a head to suggest a large baitfish. The Buford’s head is sparsely spun bucktail that pushes water and, in doing so, kicks the fly side to side where it pauses “almost like a glide bait,” as Mark Burns of Urban Fly Company told me recently.

Pogo began fly fishing in 2009.

When you have the right amount of line out, you can control that fly and move it side to side, then pause it and engage it again” Burns told me. The spun head acts as a buoy, pulling the fly upward after it is stripped on an intermediate line.

Fishing for pike and muskies puts you closer to a more primal experience than any other freshwater species can provide in the United States. As Bohen said in one of our conversations, “You are your fly. It’s a miniature version of you – you occupy it and give it soul. Shrunken, you are the bait you fish. There is such an element of fear involved.”

Brad Bohen | Guiding Wisconsin for Muskie

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