Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Thunder Bay’s Overlooked
Northern Pike
There may be more 40-plus inch northerns swimming in Lake Superior, than anywhere else in Canada.
By Gord Ellis

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.