By Howell Raines
ELY, Minn. — For the third year in a row, my sons and I ventured into the wilderness lakes north of this town with our fly rods and with our hearts free of suspicion that anything would come between us and our beloved smallmouth bass. Enter the northern pike, the barracuda of the inland seas, a fish sometimes maligned for the boniness of its flesh and its tendency to swim sluggishly toward the boat when hooked on conventional tackle.
Northern pike on four-weight fly rods are another matter.
My theory is that the traditional lures for pike – spinners, spoons, or plugs with big treble hooks – give the fish such a big uncomfortable mouth full of foreign objects that they just give up; sort of like a human being in a dentists chair. On the other hand, being hooked lightly by the single thin hook of a streamer fly seems to irritate these fish no end. It certainly makes them bloody minded. Several times we had pike come unhooked after lengthy fights and then come back to strike the fly a second time.
There have been a number of articles lately in the sporting magazines about the northern pike as a good fly rod fish. I hadn’t taken the articles too seriously until our first day at Carp Lake, just across the Canadian border from Minnesota in the Quetico Provincial Park.
My 19-year-old son, Jeffrey, and I were prospecting for spawning smallmouth when he struck a pike of five pounds or so. It made a spectacular, bonefish-like run across a shallow flat, then sped back to the canoe, wrapped the leader around an anchor line and broke off. Later, Jeffrey took another pike of the same size that showed us a series of thrashing surface runs in sea-serpent style. Our afternoon ended in a flurry of severed leaders along a quarter-mile stretch of bank where big fish rocketed out of sunken tree tops to smash our flies and then bored back into their tangled lairs.
After the first day we got a little more skillful at fighting this fish into open water. We also added short shock tippets of 40-pound mono to the ends of our leaders. This protection against the pike’s sharp teeth ended most — but alas not all — of our cutoffs.
As for our flies, any brightly colored streamer will do. In these situations, however, I stick with what I think of as The Best Wet Fly Ever Invented. Its official name is the Clouser Deep Minnow. Since its invention several years ago by Bob Clouser, the self-effacing proprietor of Clouser’s Fly Shop in Middletown, Pa., this fly has become a standard in the fly-fishing catalogs. It has been used to take virtually every species of fresh and saltwater game fish in North America. My son Ben, 21, ties his own Clouser Minnows. One morning, he set up his fly-tying vice in camp and made several minnows in nuclear-reactor colors of fluorescent pink and orange. It seemed clear we were on to something when Jeffrey hooked a smallmouth bass on one of these garish productions and a pike attacked the hooked fish in an attempt to get the fly from its mouth.
Let us speak of the obligatory One-That-Got-Away. Ben hung his fly one morning on a sunken pine top, and when I paddled the canoe over to retrieve it, we spooked a large pike. Several hours later, I cast to the exact same place. I watched my fly sink in the clear water. I gave it a short jerk. Then the fly disappeared from sight. I set the hook, hitting firm resistance, then nothing. The pike had bitten through my shock tippet. I had done everything right and lost the fish. Books on the sport urge us to remember at such moments that if we never lost a fish, there would be no thrill to catching any fish. It is this kind of thinking that reminds us that fly fishing has produced relatively few great philosophers.
Our outfitter, John Schiefelbein of North Country Canoe Outfitters in Ely (800-552-5581), had recommended, and mapped us into, Carp Lake for smallmouth bass, rather than pike. And indeed, there was excellent bass fishing. Schiefelbein strongly urges his clients to practice catch-and-release fishing in spring. I have long favored pike over bass as an eating fish. I feel like a heretic to say it, but pike might become a favorite catching fish as well.