Tying for Teeth

Guest Blogger: John Satkowski, Toledo, OH, fly tying demonstrator and instructor, you can find him @ River Raisin Fly Company on Facebook

As the air crisps, the leaves start changing color, and the baitfish abound, fall creeps steadily upon the rivers and lakes. The fish start feeding and bulking up as they prepare for the harsh winter ahead. For me this means one thing, the pike rush into the shallows. I love chasing these toothy freight trains as they inhale any meal that happens to be unlucky enough to swim within their territory.

Pike have always fascinated me with their sheer predatory abilities. I have encountered numerous pike sitting with their belly resting on the bottom and a very large sucker sticking out of their mouth. The fish don’t seem to mind as I walk by and watch them try to digest their prey. They just have this mystique about them, as if they can just appear and crush a fly when you are about to recast. They strike with such brutality and speed, it has startled me on more than one occasion. When fall approaches, the bigger fish come out of the depths and vegetation and are center stage for flinging half a chicken’s worth of feathers at these magical freshwater barracudas.

The first issue is where to find the fish. In warmer weather, the pike reside in deeper vegetation or near the top of the aquatic vegetation. As the water drops to 50 degrees or below, the fish move to the greenest vegetation left in the body of water. As they are very vegetation oriented fish, they will still use the vegetation to ambush prey. This is where big, chunky flies imitating the pike’s forage will really shine. You can also use some different attractor streamers to provoke the pike into action. It is amazing when I have been able to see the fish and I am running flies right by their face and they remain calm and collected. A swift jerk of the rod tip and the pike turn and destroy the fleeing fly with reckless abandon. If you have never targeted pike on the fly, this time of the year will have you weak in the knees.

Once you have found the fish and what they are keying in on, it’s time to talk about fly selection and presentation. In my experience, there are certainly flies that always tend to do well. Rabbit strip flies, big flashy flies, and flies that push a lot of water can always tempt fish. I like to push the envelope with flies that move differently than the fish are used to and have the type of movement that provokes strikes. Flies that jackknife really hard or push water tend to do the best for me. A fly that can imitate an injured baitfish is also highly valuable during cold water pike season. Tying these flies can be deceptively difficult as getting the desired action can be a delicate balance of weight and material choices.

For larger predatory flies, the variety of tying materials is certainly overwhelming. When I first started tying pike flies, I loved tying with rabbit strips. I soon learned that although rabbit moves and wiggles very seductively in the water, your arm feels like it is going to fall off casting it all day. With all the new synthetic materials on the market now, a pike fly can be tied to get the movement, bulk, and profile wanted but can be casted comfortable all day. I like to tie fusion flies that incorporate some natural materials such as bucktail or other hair and have other synthetic materials woven in. Some examples of this are when I use Icelandic sheep mixed with a flashy, thin material such as Angel Hair or Ice Wing Fiber or if you use FrankenFly’s Vampire Sheep Hair, it’s already mixed for you. I also use a “prop” construction where I will use a synthetic body material such as Polar Chenille, Ripple Ice Fiber, or Supreme or Super Hair under the main body material to prop it up. I can then use a couple of turns of a dubbing brush over the prop material to make a bulky fly without a ton of weight. You can use any slightly stiffer material to prop up the main body, and a lot of these materials you can use tying techniques that apply to bucktail such as backwards tying. Fuzzy Fiber and Flymen’s Synthetic Bucktail work well for this method.

Aside from using prop materials to bulk up a fly without weight, Flymen’s Chocklett’s body tubing is great for making a bigger profile and create some water push. I used some body tubing in the fly tutorial and it helps the dubbing brush’s material flow over the fly adding some bulk and spreading out the rabbit strips. If you haven’t used the body tubing for bodies or heads, I highly recommend it. If you use the tubing for a head, you can use some resin or epoxy to seal the head and get an even stronger water push.

Another feature I have used quite extensively in this fly is the fly tails from Wapsi. Curly tail plastics are used on everything from spinnerbaits, jigs, and rubber worms. These fly version curly tails add a very enticing action to the fly and really provoke strikes. I have a number of patterns that incorporate these curly tails and they all catch fish, big fish. Traditionalists usually cringe at these flies, but they work and expanding your fly repertoire is always a good thing. Having some unique flies in your box can save the day from the almighty skunk.

When I go about designing a pike fly, I must first decide what kind of fly and action I need. In this case, I needed a jigging action fly that I can creep along the weedlines and trigger strikes from wary pike. The water is pretty clear this time of year so I am sticking to fairly natural color schemes but a firetiger or black/yellow/orange is never out of the question. I hope by going over my development of patterns, you will learn some things about streamer architecture and creating flies to target different species and situations. I am always looking at new techniques and materials to push my patterns to the next level and hopefully further innovate the streamer game.

I recently started using some Spawn Fly Fishing jig shanks with a large gape hook in the back to really accentuate the jigging action. You can weight the shanks in various ways such as some lead wire wraps with a bead, a conehead, or some lead barbell eyes. The hook rides up so you can remain relatively weedless amongst the vegetation and still get good hook ups. I also incorporate some dubbing brushes to make the fly durable and provide some bulk. I really like using brushes for flies like this because they offer some depth also that you cannot get with just tying the materials in. For this particular pattern, I used a craft fur brush by Enrico Puglisi that has really nice color choices. Sommerlatte’s UV Foxy Brushes are also some of my favorites but you can use any 3 inch dubbing brush or create your own of desired length. Most brushes contain wire, a core of EP fiber or similar, some flash element (e.g. flashabou, Angel Hair, Wing-n-flash, Ice Dub), and a main material (e.g. fox hair, craft fur, Polar fibre, Fuzzy Fiber). These brushes make tying streamers much faster and your patterns will be much more durable.

Since I am not really trying to imitate anything specific with this pattern, I am going to rely on the action of the fly to create a disturbance in the water and attract the fish. The color will take a backseat to the action in this case, but using colors that are familiar to the fish will definitely enhance the design. Pike take all kinds of forage fish, but do concentrate on certain prey items at times. I always have a sucker color in my box because I know they are a favorite high protein meal for the pike. Rock bass, shad, juvenile gamefish like walleye and smallmouth, chubs, birds, and even crayfish can be on the menu. My personal feeling is I can develop a pattern and based on its color and how you fish it, can imitate different food items. A good example of this is my pattern pictured here. Depending on how you strip and move the fly, it could be a goby/sculpin, baitfish, leech, or even a crayfish. You can have one pattern but multiple imitations in your box, and that is usually a winning combination.

Once I have developed a pattern in my head, I always put my ideas down on paper. I sketch out the fly and from there I can start to visualize the profile and what I want the fly to do. I start choosing materials that will make the fly move and act the way I intend. Every tyer has their favorites that they like to work with, but you have to think about the material’s properties and what they will add to the fly. This is where a lot of new tyers make a misstep. They add materials, sometimes too many materials, and rob the fly of movement and action. I love using arctic fox but it is not meant for every streamer fly. Whenever I need a lot of movement and breathing I choose the arctic fox, but since it is a natural material it soaks up water. A lot of it will make the fly heavy and difficult to cast all day. I tend to use mainly synthetic materials with natural materials to either accent or prop up other materials within the architecture of the fly. When you take the time to choose materials for specific purposes, the end result will be much more effective.

Pike and other predatory fish often want to eat larger prey which means larger flies to imitate them. The problem I have with a lot of pike flies is they collapse and get very skinny once wet. Pike will surely hit these flies at times, but when they are targeting broader profile prey such as sunfish and perch a broader fly is needed. I use composite dubbing loops to accomplish this. I will lay out the materials I need and build the loop on a measured and marked piece of paper to make sure the size is consistent. I believe these flies are a little more efficient in mimicking baitfish because the different materials scatter and reflect light differently and make the fly seem more alive to the fish. The way I typically set these dubbing loops up is I use five to six materials in the loop and build from top to bottom of my mark which will be back to front on the fly. Keeping the materials spaced correctly and relatively sparse is the key to get nice looking flies that are easy to cast. A typical loop material progression would be the following: angora goat base layer, one or two colors of long fiber ice dub, ripple ice, Wing-n-Flash or Angel Hair trimmed to size, Senyo Fusion Fibers, and a longer fiber or material. You can put a lot of different materials into a dubbing loop including a lot of things you wouldn’t think of like turkey tail fibers, rubber leg material, and even foam strips as illustrated by the picture. The sky is the limit when using dubbing loops so give some a try to bulk up your pike flies and make them more durable.

One last element that I try to incorporate in my flies is new uses for old materials. There are a lot of deer hair head streamers out there, but when the deer hair is trimmed like a diving lip and epoxied it greatly increases the action of the fly. When coupled with some marabou, the fly darts and wiggles around in the water tempting more strikes than just a normal deer hair head fly. One of my newer patterns has a deer hair head trimmed to a very tight wedge with a lead eye and a “helmet” of foam. This allows the fly to stay suspended two or three inches below and surface with a walk the dog action. It’s the sort of thing that just rings the dinner bell for predatory fish looking for the weakest fish out of the school. You can also make things happen by playing with weight. On this streamer, I took the conehead and reversed it. The fly has an erratic action in the water and moves more unpredictably. Don’t be afraid to play around and try new things.  A new look or slightly new action of a fly can trigger a strike so modification of your patterns definitely pays off. I hope you incorporate some of these methods and techniques at your vise, no go out there and catch a monster.

2 thoughts on “Tying for Teeth

  1. Mike Cline

    I remember my first encounter with northern pike. I was truly naive about their ferocity and teeth. It was the early 1990s and we were making our first trip to Lake Kabatogama in Northern Minnesota. I started fishing for smallmouth just like I did in Alabama. The bass were easy until that first pike hit. I landed it but was really unprepared for the teeth. We learned quickly and on subsequent trips, fine wire leaders and wire tippets helped us land most of the pike we hooked. My favorite and most productive fly was fairly simple. On a 5/0 straight worm hook I used body tubing tied tight at the hook bend and behind the hook eye. Inserted in the tube before tying off was a small rattle. Then the tubing was soaked in epoxy. Large red and white saddle hackles were tied in at the hook bend and just behind the hook eye and warps sealed with epoxy. It was very durable fly, about 5-6” long and easy to cast on the sinking line I was using at the time. I got to fish every summer for Pike in Northern Minnesota and Southern Ontario for 10 years. Although we have pike here in Montana, they are a bit far from Bozeman to make the effort. I can imagine that the plethora of synthetics we have today plus the UV cured resins can make for some very interesting flies. Nice overview on the consummate piscatorial predator.

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  2. John Satkowski

    Thank you Mike, even though I use a lot of the new products nothing beats the old red and white saddles, I did get to fish some pike on Flathead lake in Montana and they were just as fun as the ones at home. Take care and tight lines…

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