“Told you it would be worth the hike just for the view,” said our guide, Justin Bleicher, as we finally broke through the forest and made it to the edge of the lake. “I’ve seen a lot of beauty up here, but not much can rival this hidden lake.”
I gazed out across the water, noting the wispy clouds in the azure sky above. I’d left the lodge about an hour before, spent 30 minutes in a boat, and then walked through the woods for about 45 minutes in my waders to get to this spot. As I looked around I realized that Justin was right—I was standing on the edge of one of the most beautiful lakes I had ever seen.
My father-in-law John Johnson was my fishing partner. A retired 30-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service, John has worked in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and fished and hunted across much of the American West. He began his career as a teenager in fire observation towers where he’d be alone for months at a time save for a once-a-month visit from a co-worker bringing food to his isolated tower by pack mule. Yes, John knows wildlife and has spent much of his life in the woods—and even he was impressed with our lake view.
Definitely Not a Trout
Anglers come to Alaska for big trout and salmon, and with good reason. If you time it right, you can be in for the trip of a lifetime. Timing is everything is Alaska, but since the fish don’t keep calendars, their migration can vary a few days or even weeks at time each year. The trout fishing was a bit slow on this particular trip, so Justin suggested that John and I take a hike and look for pike in a nearby lake.
A name can often tell you a lot about a thing. Take the pike, for instance. Pike are named for the long, thin, sharp-edged medieval weapon. Their Latin name, Esox lucius, translates to “water wolf,” which communicates very succinctly their temperament and feeding habits. Pike can grow more than 3 feet long and can easily exceed 20 pounds in lakes where there is plenty of food.
You’ll find them in Alaska but also in the lower 48 in places you might not expect, like West Virginia. The pike has razor-sharp and teeth protrusions in the roof of its mouth that grows toward its throat. Though these teeth may sound uncomfortable and no doubt earn the pike a free pass to be in a perennial bad mood, they serve an important purpose. Once a pike gets its prey in its mouth, it is nearly impossible to get it out again.
Hunting the Water Wolf
Justin encouraged us to wade out along the edge of the lake and cast streamers near the tall grass, which grows relatively close to the shoreline. Before long John’s rod was doubled over as a healthy pike found out too late that his easy meal wasn’t so easy. John routinely outfishes me, so I was preparing a suitably snide remark on his catch when I spied a small pike lying in the grass. Unfortunately the fish was so darn close that I really couldn’t cast to him. Like the tricky fellow only a few feet from me, pike often hide in tall grass and ambush their prey. And they do a good job of it, too. He’d nearly ambushed me because his camouflaged skin made him nearly invisible in the tall grass.
What to do? He was closer to me than the length of my fly rod—casting was out. Instead I turned to a Walt’s Popper, a surface fly I had brought just for this occasion, I slowly moved my rod in his direction, and then dropped the pattern near him. The water exploded as the pike made a mad dash for what he thought was a hapless baitfish. Seizing the popper, he immediately headed for cover, dragging out fly line and flattening the tall grass in his path. Eventually I brought the water wolf to hand, and Justin carefully held the fish’s mouth open and removed the hook with a special tool designed for that purpose.
Pike anglers may have to fight fish in heavy cover; for this reason, 8- and 9-weight rods best fit the bill. Choose light wire leaders; if you prefer to use monofilament line, I suggest nothing less than 50-pound test. Flies vary from large poppers like the one I used in the 1/0-3/0 range to streamers in various colors. You’ll rarely need a sinking line unless you fish in moving water. Sink tips, however, do come in handy. The key piece of gear you’ll need is something to remove the hook. Under no circumstances should you attempt to remove a fly from a pike’s mouth without the proper tool. Long-handled pliers will work in a pinch—and I’d also suggest gloves.
On the way back to the lodge Justin suggested we take one more look at a shallow section of the lake. We crept stealthily through the tall grass and sure enough, we could see at least half a dozen pike around us. Perhaps I’ll best remember the moment when a pike ran right between my legs. The fish must have been spooked by John who was wading a little ahead of me. Honestly, just the thought of something with that many teeth swimming between one’s legs leaves most men, including me, a little weak in the knees. The fish actually bumped the inside of my thigh trying to run from John. I stood stock still in shock, and he paid no attention to me, for which I am eternally grateful. By late in the afternoon, John and I were catching pike two at a time and having the time of our lives.
Pike may not be glamorous, but they sure are a change of pace for most fly anglers. So if you find yourself in Alaska, or in your own local waters and the trout don’t comply, I highly recommend hiking for pike. Though they may be a slightly higher maintenance quarry than trout, pike are stealthy and fierce fighters that earned my respect.
Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is the author of Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters. He’s also a member of Local 2068 and serves as a Captain on Engine 431 for Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.