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Pike on surface flies

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The great buzz of John Bailey's fishing life these past few years has been targeting the unusual and the unexpected on fly. Here, he recounts the tale of a very special day.

Let me make a few things quite clear from the outset. I first wielded a fly rod around fifty years ago, loved it and have relished fly fishing ever since. However, despite a huge amount of experience on four continents, I remain very much self-taught. I've been lucky enough to fish with expert, even famous companions and I suppose just watching them has allowed some of their knowledge to wash off onto me. And I've read books. Even written them. But, at heart, I still feel as full of trepidation as I did way back as a kid in short pants. This is a lengthy preamble to stress that I'm not Ad Swier, the Dutch maestro or John Horsey, the wizard from the English West Country.

What I'm going to describe now is a single day because I think it highlighted pretty much everything I think I know about fishing for pike with surface flies. The day was glorious and I think that really helps. Warm, still and, above all, crystal clear water all make for perfect surface fishing. Moreover, the lake this day was quiet, the only anglers the five of us in my party. No dog walkers. No other boaters, no jet-skiers, no swimmers or anything else around to cause disturbance. A particularly important point, I believe, when after pike on top.

As far as tackle, none of us was quite sure the best outfit to use. Neil, for example, plumped for a Hardy Sirrus, fifteen foot, double-hander with floating line and big Angel reel. Robin went lighter - and eight / nine-weight reservoir kit. John the same and Tim a ten-weight saltwater outfit.

When it comes to flies, one thing I am convinced of is that colour is unimportant

Our flies, too, were a bit of a mish-mash. Rainy's poppers, pike bangers, pike bunnies and pike bombers all spent a fair amount of time being aerialized. I, personally, was lucky that I'd been to a spring fly fair in the English Midlands and picked up some juicy mouse patterns. By the way, it's always worth going to fly fairs anywhere they occur in the world because there you'll find dedicated fly tyers all doing their own thing and coming up with creations no commercial concern would ever even dream of. When it comes to flies, one thing I am convinced of is that colour is unimportant. I guess the pike either see the silhouette or, at least at first, the commotion the fly is making on the surface.

Because we only had one boat, we took it in turns to fish a float or from the bank and, in truth, results didn't really vary. Of course, when fishing the bank, you don't get the same access to unexplored water but perhaps you don't disturb the fish as much either. And, anyway, a lot of pike, especially the smaller ones, tend to hug the reedy shallows anyway.

And we were lucky. John caught a clonking fish, just over thirty pounds, from very shallow water close in and he could see every move the fish made. Tim, too, caught a mid-twenty, again in water only three feet deep even though at the time he was fishing from the boat. In fact, the day proved what I've always tended to think: the best type of water for fishing pike surface flies is crystal clear, between two and ten feet deep with plenty of bottom weed where pike of all sizes like to hide or lie in ambush.

The day was one of pretty constant action. This gave us all the chance to compare notes later in the pub and see what had worked for us and what hadn't. Again, our combined experiences didn't really surprise me.

Our conclusions were that the more slowly you retrieve, the more time the pike has to think about the fly passing overhead and the more he is inclined to make the right decision. The slower retrieve, too, the greater chance the pike has of actually catching the fly. This is particularly important if the pike isn't ravenous. Also, and I think this is important, the slower the retrieve the more able the pike is to home in on the fly and actually get hooked efficiently. This can be the eternal frustration of fishing on the top: fish too fast and many pike come unstuck. You'll get the boil all right and the heart-pumping excitement but there's no fish on the end!

Another thing we all concurred with is that if a pike has a good look at a surface fly and decides not to attack then it will rarely change its mind. If you're going to target that particular fish again, then it makes a hundred percent sense in my book to change the fly quite radically.

Sometimes you are lucky and you watch the fly line actually move away from you and you can tighten with confidence

Al, in particular, had missed a lot of action and we all decided that this was because he was striking too quickly. Of course, in the excitement it's an easy thing to do but far better, calm down, count to one or two before tightening. Sometimes you are lucky and you watch the fly line actually move away from you and you can tighten with confidence. Sometimes it's better to strike conventionally or other times pull into the fish much like hitting a tarpon. Experiment until you start hooking up. And it goes without saying, or it should do, that you make sure your hook point is just as sharp as it possibly can be.

Pike are not easy to fool and your retrieve is just as important here as it is in any other branch of fly fishing for any of the species that are reputedly more intelligent. I've already mentioned the retrieve, in my view, should be slow but that doesn't mean that you can't vary it. A couple of fast pulls often work well especially using a popper which can really send out the vibrations. Twitching, flicking and jerking the rod tip on the retrieve always imparts really life-like activity to the fly as it moves. Let the fly rest and then really urge it into movement again so it pops, chugs, splashes and does everything it can to attract the attention of a pike. The one thing I would advise is that when a pike follows you don't stop retrieving: nine times out of ten, the pike will stop too and swim round taking stock of the occasion before, almost invariably, deciding not to attack. Pike are very different to bass in this respect.

I'll be honest. Of course, throughout the day, some of us from time to time reverted to traditional lure fishing with plugs, spinners, spoons and rubber baits. Probably, the amount of time spent with both methods was about equal so the statistics are interesting and reasonably fair. The day had been a prolific one and we guessed we'd caught around about a hundred fish between us, give or take. Out of those, we very roughly estimated seventy to have been caught on fly and thirty on lure - including the two biggest fish. Of course, though, as I said earlier conditions were absolutely perfect for the fly this particular day. Warm, clear, calm and perfectly serene - exactly what we had all been praying for the night before.

And a last point. Fly fishing with a single hook (and a trace of course!) is much kinder to the pike than using lures with one, two or even three sets of trebles. A single hook is always easy to extricate even when it's been sucked down comparatively deep. Once you start with three, six or nine hook points in a pike's mouth then that fish's life is inevitably in the balance. Just another enormous plus for the method we all love the best.

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