I've been fly fishing for a broad range of freshwater species during the past 13 years. Of the many species available on fly to anglers in the U.K., perhaps the most exciting propositions are carp and pike. Despite many other species offering a challenge, from the wary chub to powerful barbel and the bold and colourful perch to name but a few, carp and pike grow so much larger and the fight offered by them is often so tremendously spectacular. At this time of year, it is the pike which is both the more active and the most likely proposition for the fly angler.
During February, the pike are beginning to prepare for spawning and are not only at the very peak of condition, but also at their heaviest weight. Increasingly, as the weeks progress toward Spring, the fish will become more aggressive as females seek out spawning sites and protect them, whilst smaller males compete to be alongside the females during spawning. As this occurs, tensions build up in the fish and the potential to aggravate a pike into taking a lure increases.
Pike will often feed voraciously for short periods leading up to the spawning period but even on stillwaters I don't fish for them beyond the old close season, 15th March. I believe that the fish need time to recover after the exertions of spawning. Catching the pike during and immediately post spawning sees the fish in poor condition and unlikely to give of their best, so surely it is better to leave them in peace and not risk damaging both the fish and sport for the future? That said, I will get on with catching them until 15th March!
As the fish go into spawning mode they invariably move toward the relatively shallower regions of river and lake. Where such areas border a drop-off to deeper water are key hotspots at this time, with the pike cruising both the shallower water and the shelf or gully regions of the deeper water looking to ambush prey. Finding these areas can be done conventionally by plumbing, or as I prefer to when lure fishing or fly fishing, by using the countdown method, thus finding features whilst actually fishing.
If I am fishing a new water, my choice would be a slow sinking line if bank fishing. My basic set-up is to use a 9.5ft rod rated for 8-9 weight forward line as per my carp fishing. Lines are usually intermediate and slow sinkers, though a fast sinking model such as the Cortland "Rocket Line" speed six is perfect for deep water, especially when boat fishing. To the flyline I use leaders of 3-6ft, using 12lb silverthread copolymer straight through to a short 15-20lb wire trace around 8 inches in length. I see little point in using a tapered leader when using larger weighty flies as the fly's weight aids turnover and straightens the line out easily. Changing tactics will often mean cutting the leader back which destroys the taper anyway!
Having set up, the fly is attached to the trace via a small but strong snap swivel. Flies have two basic features, they are big and they move well in the water, being made with plenty of pulsing fibres such as rabbit, marabou and various synthetic fibres incorporating extra flash. Having decided on fly choice, the searching process can begin.
On stillwaters, ideal places are around marginal weed beds, and shallow bays where casts can initially be made across the margins either side of the angler. Once the line touches down, count to two, then begin retrieving, incorporating a series of long pulls, pauses, short pulls and twitches. Alternatively try some really fast strips. If no take is forthcoming, count to four on the next cast and repeat the procedure until the marginal areas have been searched thoroughly from top to bottom. Having covered the margins, it's time to make longer casts, searching deeper water, again using the same process.
Keep note of how long it takes for the line to reach the bottom - you can feel when the fly and line touch down, as a little of the tension goes out of the line, and know the speed of decent for the line through the water. The water is then effectively mapped during fishing. This procedure also builds up a picture of the lakebed, with locations of features such as gullies, shelves, plateaux and weedbeds.
On clear waters it's possible to roughly gauge the average depths close in and so choose lines that will allow the angler to search such areas effectively. For example, for depths up to 8ft an intermediate is best, as the slower sink rate allows slower, teasing retrieves as well as fast strips. The use of a fast sinking line would limit fishing to fast strips in order to avoid constant snagging on bottom features. Conversely using an intermediate in very deep-water wastes time waiting for the line and lure to gain depth. Fast stripping will then pull both back up in the water again, ruining effective presentation. The ability to control depths at which flies are fished is as critical to success as finding the areas which the pike frequent during various times of the year.
Having built up a knowledge of the water's contours, fishing your fly too deep, too fast, too slow or too high in the water only wastes the hard work put into mapping it. With this in mind, always think about the depth and retrieve rates you are using.
For river fishing, water-flow rates will obviously affect sink rates for lines. I would suggest carrying two outfits. For deep and/or fast waters when bank or boat fishing I would have one set-up with a fast sinker and the other with a slow sinker. For shallower and/or slow waters I use an intermediate and a slow sinker. This enables me to cover the water top to bottom in all situations - whilst being able to control the line and hence the presentation of the fly at all times, so maximising takes and number fish caught.
On the subject of flies, many patterns are now commercially available, tied specifically with big predators in mind - though should you see anything resembling some of these creations from the insect kingdom flying at you, I suggest you run! Get a good selection of buoyant deerhair and foam patterns, these fish well on the surface. Use an intermediate weight lines to avoid surface wake whilst stripping lures on and below the surface, and use large tube and wet-fly-style lures for deeper areas on slow and fast-sink lines.
A great tactic is to use a fast sinker in deep water. Cut the leader back to 3ft then attach a buoyant pattern to fish it booby style along the bottom. Long pulls interspersed with a pause fishes the lure in a 'sink and draw' type movement, keeping the fly close to the bottom on days when the fish are well down.
Later in the year I will return to this fascinating topic to review summer sport and go into some top water antics in more detail. In the meantime feel free to contact me with any of your own experiences or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org