There is rarely a warning. Not with points. When a striped bass attacks a topwater fly, you often see a boil or a swirl before the toilet flushes. Snakeheads will track a foam frog and skim the surface for 10 feet before engaging. Smallmouth bass often show up under a popper before taking it, and although largemouths can take a hair bug without giving it away, it’s not the same type of surface strike you get up north. When they rise to the occasion, you’re usually treated to an air show.
Pike will attack surface flies almost year round. Summer undoubtedly offers the best conditions for piling up numbers on topwater patterns, but in my experience, fall produces bigger fish up top, at least where I live in the Northeast. As the water cools, larger walleyes that have sought refuge in deeper, cooler water during the summer regain their willingness to wade into the shallows to hunt for food. If you have pike close to home – or you can make a fall pilgrimage to the drinking water – and you’ve been relying on underground stripers, trust me when I say that although you may catch fewer pike up, you’ll remember the strikes on the surface more. To help you create some of those topwater memories, here’s a rundown of the gear, rigs and flies I rely on the most. I’ll also tell you what to expect when that unexpected hit happens so you don’t screw it up.
Use an 8 weight floating line for Pike
Unless I’m bound for Northern Canada, where 40-inch pike are very common, I rely on an 8-weight fly rod and reel. This provides the perfect amount of backbone to return the strongest pike flies, yet won’t tire you out over a full day of casting and won’t overpower the smaller “hammer handle” pike that most of us at the lowest meeting 48 years old. looking for the heavy hitting. Any 8-weight rod and reel you can handle will do, but you’ll want a dedicated floating line for high water chases.
In most cases, slow or intermediate sinking fly lines are what you need for pike, but pairing them with top water flies doesn’t really work. These lines may not be heavy enough to pull a thick foam or a slider down, but the belly created by a sinking line will not allow you to achieve the ideal presentation and may hinder your ability to get a strong set of hooks. Whatever 8-weight floating line you have should be fine, but I really like Titan Anglers Scientific. It features a long, thick front taper designed to turn big flies faster and with less false casting, which stops wing wear and helps you cover more water.
The best surface flies for fall Pike
Topwater flies are designed to create all kinds of different disturbances on the surface. Classics like the Dahlberg Diver push water and sink an inch or two below the film when forced off. Gurglers are designed to create a V wake as they slide together. Both flies will hammer in the fall, but most often I rely on a good old fashioned popper.
Lately I’ve been fishing the PTO Dreadnought, a fly designed by my friend Mick Trompen. It’s a square-shaped popper with an angled face, and although it can be fished slowly, it excels when you work it with short, fast, hard lines. In my experience, the loudest poppers produce best in cooling fall waters. I believe this is because at this time of year, points are less discerning about their meals and just look for any type of food. Poppers that make a high-pitched sound as they throw a lot of water make for some of the most aggressive strikes, and the sound helps get in the target faster and from greater distances.
You can buy premium tapered leaders to throw pike poppers, but I keep it simple. I’ll tie 2 feet of 30-pound monofilament to 2 feet of 20-pound monofilament with a blood knot and then add about 8 inches of Cortland’s Tie-Able steel leader to the bottom to prevent bites. I find that a short, compact leader like this turns foam bugs easier, helps me cast them more accurately, and provides a much safer hook set.
Don’t be caught napping when a big drop hits
I can’t tell you how many spots I’ve missed on high water patterns because I turned my head to answer someone, or sneeze, or untangle my line around my leg. Obviously, you want to be focused no matter what you’re fishing for and how you’re fishing it, but minnows are less forgiving, especially when feeding on the surface. A striper, largemouth or goldfish will often suck a fly down and swim so slowly that if you missed the take, you can still have time to set up and drive in those hooks. When a pike hits a popper, it’s hard, fast, and comes out of nowhere.
The Pike surface rocket flies like torpedoes, often skimming the water. If you’ve ever watched montages of topwater pike feeding on YouTube, you may have noticed that they also like to attack from behind. The problem is that they will get such a vapor at the last second, even if they swallow the fly completely, they are flying towards you. This instantly leads to slack in your line, and if you’re not quick to retrieve and set, there’s a good chance the fly will spit.
To increase the likelihood that you will take the hook home, work your flies with the rod low. I like the tip and the inch or so off the surface. Always try to manage your line so that it is as straight as possible without any excessive bends or slack. When a pike makes a move, just keep stripping with that low rod angle until it tightens. If you survive the shock of a surprise attack and manage to jam that hook firmly into that bony mouth, then you can pick up the rod, settle down, and catch the breath you lost in the blast.