River Pike: A Somewhat Predictable Creature
River pike are one of my favorite fish species to target on the fly, both fishing for them and guiding clients onto them, pike always give me an extra level of excitement. Rivers, compared to stillwater are more susceptible to changes. Water levels fluctuates faster and make the pike respond in different ways. When you drift down a river, it’s a forever changing landscape. Behind each bend could be your new record pike waiting in ambush.
So, what are some helpful tips you can use for targeting river pike?
First, let’s have a look at the seasons. I usually visualize this by cutting the year in half, spring/summer and autumn (fall)/winter. It's important to keep in mind that pike behavior is highly connected to these seasons.
Early in the year, pike will start looking for areas where the spawning will take place. If the water is high, pike usually like to find flooded pastures and fields close by. It doesn’t have to be a big spot for pike to congregate, so keep an eye for these places.
If a dry spring occurs and no flooded spots can be found, look for heavy vegetation close to the shore and don’t always expect the fish to be on the far bank! Approach with stealth – fish the shore closest to you first while maintaining a low profile. Once you have fished the near bank you can then proceed to cast on the other side of the river (if it's a small river of course).
Once the spawn is out of the way, the pike will look for food. This usually means that you have to find slightly deeper water than can hold baitfish. Find the food source and you will find the pike.
Summer is a time where the oxygen levels and water levels can drop considerably, forcing the pike to push in very shallow spots where the flow is stronger because the water cooler with more oxygen. When I guide in summer I usually stop in places that looks like a trout stream, where the river gets shallow and runs fast. Many clients are surprised that i stop in such places, shallow, no more than 3 ft deep with a strong flow. But pike love to hug to bottom in these place and behave exactly like a trout would; hiding behind a boulder, or within long weeded right in the middle of that flow.
Nothing is more exciting than fishing a full floating line with a short leader and a slow sinking streamer. Just cast 45º downstream and let fly flow animate your fly. Keep an eye on it at all times, the takes can be lightning fast!
Choice of Flies
Tied with Chocklett's Body Tubing.
Start the season with larger patterns, pike come out of the winter and spend lots of energy spawning so the need for a high calorie meal is important. They are not shy hitting big flies. Anything above 7 inches (20 cm) is a good bet.
As the summer settles in and the water warms up, the digestive system of the pike slows down. They would rather eat snacks all day long than nail a large meal. So small flies are a must, bunnies, mini bones, baitfish in the 3 to 5 inches range are great! (8 to 12 cm).
Autumn (Fall) / Winter
This is the time when we start to get the first important rain fall, daylight diminishes, and the first frost is not too far away. We are at an exciting time, pike are feeling the changes, their appetite is on the up, and the bigger flies are on demand again.
This is also a time where the extra rainfall will bring rising levels, cooler temperatures, and maybe floods. Pike are leaving their lazy summer hides in quest for food – again, look out for deeper holes that can hold baitfish. Fish the bends where the strong flow is broken and anywhere you see a calm spot away from the main flow, especially if the river is in flood.
As we enter the winter the water gets cold and the pike metabolism starts to slow down again, but at this time they still have a weak spot for a large meal that can sustain them for a good few days. It takes longer for digesting a big meal, so pike are happy to get one big eat and sit idle for as long as it takes to digest their last hefty meal.
Slow and low is so important in winter, find deeper holes, fish big noisy flies. Add rattles, wiggle tails, use body tubing in your ties to create volume and better water displacement. Sink lines are a must to reach those lazy, bottom-hugging winter fish!
Tips for Success in Rivers: Knowledge Is Everything!
1. Learn How to Read a River
Learning to read a river unfortunately doesn’t come quickly. It’s a skill acquired over years of experience. You can start by learning how a river flows and understand the current.
Find and identify strategic spots like undercut banks, tailouts, and edges of shallow riffles. The inside of river bends and edge of swirling eddies all are places where fish like to stay.
Fish are constantly on the move in a river, simply because a river is under a constant state of change. The flow changes after prolonged rainfall and have color changes as well. Pike will look for areas where they can get a break from the strong flow. Either behind a bend, in deeper water, or any feature that will break the flow and form a nice area for them to rest and wait in ambush.
2. Get to Know Your River
This is similar to reading a river, but this comes with time spent on one specific river. Find the shallow runs, the deeper pools, sunken trees, and boulders. All are capable of holding a big pike at different time of the year.
For small to medium size rivers, one easy way to do this is to visit your river in summer when it's at the lowest level and take note of the features and their locations for future reference.
For bigger river where you will probably need a boat or raft, a sonar will be a great way to map out the bottom. You don’t need an expensive unit; as long as you can see the depths that’s all you need.
3. Line Selection
Fly line selection is important. This can only be done on the day and the river you are fishing. Again, this goes with knowing your river. Are you fishing it in the spring or summer where usually you need floating and intermediate lines, or do you need a sinking line because the fish are holding close to the bottom and are unwilling to rise? Trial and error is the way to go here.
Get your gear ready before you go out. I usually bring three lines when I fish whether it's a lake or a river. One floating fly line, one intermediate fly line and a sinking fly line.
Some days pike will rise from the depths and chase your fly from a long way out, other days you really need to place your streamer right in front of the pike's mouth.
Be ready to cover multiple scenarios to be successful.
4. Fly Selection
For small to medium size rivers that are shallow and fished in the warmer months, I mostly use small streamers 3 to 4 inches long (8 to 12 cm) and usually try to "match the hatch." Present something close to the food available in your area. Small to medium size Game Changer style flies are one of my favorites. These work great as you can just let them drift down with the odd twitch. Try this with a floating line for maximum thrill! In fall or winter i usually leave these rivers alone, as the floods usually pushes to fish away from them and most of the time it’s impossible to fish due to the high levels.
Medium to large rivers with good deep holes can be fished all year long. You just need to adapt to the conditions you will meet. Again, I favor smaller flies in the warmer months and big flies when the water cools off. “Loud flies" are good for when you fish deep and/or in tainted floodwater. This could be T-bones, flash flies, or brightly colored flies. T-bones are my favorites here as they have a massive presence. Pike are perfectly tuned predators, making the most of their lateral line sensory system. Flies that push water will get noticed!
Often when I guide clients on a river, especially returning clients, they always want to insist on spots where on a previous visit they got a big fish. And more than often they are disappointed because these areas where they once experienced great success are just not producing on the day. This is particularly due that most anglers think that big fish have their designated spots and they stay there all the time. This is far from the truth – yes, they might visit these spots at different times throughout the year, but a pike never stays in one spot for too long.
Remember, rivers are strongly impacted by the seasons and weather. Be open minded and ready to cover multiple situations.
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About Norbert Renaud:
Norbert was born in France, but has lived in Ireland for most of his life. His father came to Ireland for fishing in the late 1960s and passed the bug onto him. Living in an area that holds 365 lakes and rivers, it's easy to get addicted to fishing. There are little predator species locally to chase on the fly: trout, perch, or pikes… His choice is very easy. He runs L'ile Verte Fishing Lodge and when not behind the stove cooking for the clients, he's either guiding, tying flies, or fishing for himself.