The whimsey starts at the fly shop, really. I mean, this is where the initial brain bomb leads you. One minute, after looking at the calendar, you realize that in just five short months, you’ll be in the Yukon chasing giant northern pike. The next, you’re in the truck, navigating snow-packed city streets in order to pick up all the ingredients you think you need to tie the perfect fly for a fish that’s about as discerning as Fat Albert at the Chuck-a-rama.
Don’t get bent out of shape, pike aficionados. I’m one of you. But, realistically, on the average early summer day when pike are in the mood, if a fly looks at all interesting, there’s a northern in the lake that’ll eat it, right? And that’s where the whimsey comes in. Pike flies don’t have to be precision-tied instruments of fishy destruction. They need only appear like something a fish with more teeth than sense might put in its mouth, even just to see if it tastes what it looks like.
Again, no disrespect intended. I have a great friend who once dredged a tortilla chip through a bowl of wasabi. Just because it looks like guacamole doesn’t mean it is guacamole.
KNOW YOUR ADJECTIVES
Pike flies come with a lot of goofy adjectives, too. First, they need to be “swimmy.” They need to undulate in the often-dark, tannic water found in the boreal north. The more alive they look, the more attention they get.
Second, they need to be “gurgly.” They need to move water. They don’t necessarily have to cause a racket, but it doesn’t hurt if they do. They just need to be attention-getters. Like clickbait web headlines, “injured in an accident?” attorney billboards and the Epstein list.
So, as you peruse the aisles at the fly shop, you’re looking for some flair. Not the requisite 15 pieces of flair. No sir. You gotta go overboard, like “your pretty boy over there, Brian.” I mean, if you’re just gonna “Joanna” your way through pike flies, you can stop reading right now. If you’re willing to go the extra mile, “that would be great.”
Wiggly tails. Flash, and don’t be shy. Long, wistful hackle feathers that you know, in your heart of hearts, really want to express themselves. Color. Don’t be afraid of color. Don’t be afraid of length, either. Six inches is about right (no need to whip out the ruler — don’t make it weird), but longer isn’t necessarily a horrible outcome.
Look to nature for inspiration. Frogs and mice are no brainers, so get creative. I once sent my son, who, at the time, was all of 10 years old, an oft-viewed video of a dastardly northern pike picking off the last mallard duckling in the line behind its mother.
“Why would you send me that?” my son sobbed after watching the pike gobble up the baby duck and then flee from the heartbroken hen hell-bent on somehow retrieving her soon-to-be-digested offspring. “Why!?”
“Take it easy,” I said, a little surprised at the reaction. I mean, this kid watched CSI, for hell’s sake. “It’s just CGI,” I fibbed.
Several years later, he and I watched a 46-inch pike gobble up a popper that looked a lot like that helpless little duckling. His reaction at 16 was a bit different.
“That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said, the trophy fish now tight to his 7-weight and bulldogging its way out of the little bay we were fishing and headed toward the open chop of Kudeniuk Lake.
Usually, the gaudier the better. But — and this is experience talking — don’t leave home without a dozen size 6 black and burgundy Slumpbusters and Woolly Buggers. The lakes of the north are full of leeches. You’ll notice the little bloodsuckers attached near the gill plates of the first few fish you catch. When things slow down, and you’ve convinced every pike that might eat a swimming wet diaper to do so, switch over to the little leech pattern.
Once you’ve combed the fly shop for perhaps the oddest conglomeration of ingredients any fly tyer might buy during a single visit, set aside some time. You’re going to need a lot of flies. Pike are brutal animals, and they possess more teeth than you can possibly count. Yes, there’s the row of grabbers along the jawline, but they also have dozens — maybe hundreds — of little teeth that adorn the roofs of their mouths and extend into their gullets.
The moral of the story, of course, is that damn near anything that gets caught in those jaws is going to stay caught in those jaws. So, for God’s sake, watch your fingers.
If you need more inspiration, the web is full of pike fly tying videos — pay special attention to the Scandinavian vise gurus — those guys have battled pike all their lives, and they know what they’re talking about.
But the rules are simple. Explore every rabbit hole. Follow every visceral instinct that might surface while you’re at the vise. You’re not a realist when you’re tying pike flies. You’re Picasso after hitting the dispensary with Melissa McCarthy. The fly you create should be both a sight to behold and significantly annoying. Think Fran Drescher making out with Vivek Ramaswamy.
With that visual, I’ll leave you to it. Happy tying, pike junkies.