Thursday, 1 March 2018

Dry Flies for Winter Pike

You never stop learning.
Very recently I learned that pike will take surface poppers in the depths of winter. This astonishing fact is, I'm sure, well known to other more expert pike fly anglers. But it's hot news for me. And because I seldom fish for pike over the summer months, this opens up a whole load of new and interesting possibilities. Like Colin the zombie wood mouse for example. Born from a Friday night rush of blood to the head, some hen cape, balsa Avon float bodies, a suede boot lace, a scrap of felt and copious superglue, there is some method in this madness I swear.  

Colin's cartoon looks are more Gruffalo than Disney, but I've deliberately exaggerated some key trigger points - big zombie eyes, long trailing legs with big feet and contrasting colours with some hot pink in his ears. I've learned that the surface wake the popper makes is a big magnet but some attempt at match-the-hatch realism comes in handy if you need to pause your retrieve to tempt the take. Colin aims to represent the tiny wood mice that live along the wooded stretches of my local stream, and with a 4/0 sting in his tail his mission is to avenge the lost members of his real-life clan by providing some catch & release action this winter.

My fascination with the potential of creature-based surface poppers starts by accident on a pike fly foray with my son Will. I've been promising for a while that we would go try catch a pike together, and with three pike in front of us today in gin clear water, our chances seem promising. But fast forward two hours and every streamer in my fly box is wet and frustration and the bitter cold are beginning to bite. At first we were getting plenty of follows but these prove mere curiosity, with the pike happy to follow the streamer all the way in and have a good look, only to  turn away in the end with a contemptuous tail flick. Soon enough this situation degenerates further still - the pike (now bored) have become sullen and sink to remain motionless near the stream bed. On pulling an old and trusted streamer pattern past the jaws of the best fish, she actually turns 180 degrees and sits with her back to us - a cold shoulder indeed.

By now I have very nearly run out of tricks, having tried every pattern and retrieve style conceivable. Frustrating and worse, I feel disappointed for Will, who is by now ready to go home. But as we turn away from water I remember an untested and home bred creation still nesting in a dark corner of my old canvas bag. In the light of day my coot chick popper looks kinda crazy but Will thinks it worth a go.    

So I tie it on and lob it out to the far bank. Not sure if this is really fly fishing anymore but my Frankenstein creation actually looks pretty convincing as I strip it back in short bursts, creating a nice v-wake - just like a little coot chick hurriedly making its way across the stream. Within a yard or so the effect on the once torpid pike in the pool is electric - three pike are instantly on the fin and competing to hunt down the fly. The biggest gets there first and turns to engulf its fluffy form and Will yells with excitement. We land a lovely double - a good fish for this stream. There is nothing so warming and reviving as angling success and I'm so happy Will has got to witness first hand this little tableau of nature - a predatory behaviour that must play out for real in rivers and ponds across the land during spring and early summer.

To prove to myself this is no fluke capture I follow up with another visit a few weeks later. This time there is a fair chop on the water from the high winds, but I can see the shape of a much larger pike tracking my fly. It's truly heart stopping when the water begins to bulge behind the popper as she closes in, but this time, despite a mad last rush with gaping jaws, she misses altogether and turns away empty-mouthed. She comes in for a second hit and this time connects, but by now the coot popper is right under my feet. The hook twangs looses after a few wild head shakes and  I'm rumbled. So I move on, consoling myself with some casts to other pools. 

The surface is too choppy now to make out shapes beneath so I'm startled by a great slashing rise and an emerald green and yellow head slicing inches past my popper. Again another missed target but this time there is no second attempt. It feels something akin, I reflect, to rising trout with sedges and probably the closest you can get to pike on a dry fly. 

Highly recommended. And next time (if this snow ever stops) I'll bring Colin the zombie woodmouse along for a swim.



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