There’s rarely a warning. Not with pike. 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 wake the surface for 10 feet before committing. Smallmouth bass often ghost up under a popper before sipping it, and even though largemouths can take down a hair bug without giving themselves away, it’s not the same kind of surface hit that you get from a northern. When they rise to the occasion, you’re usually treated to an air show.
Pike will attack surface flies almost year-round. Summer arguably provides the best conditions for racking up numbers of pike on topwater patterns, but in my experience, fall produces bigger fish up top, at least where I live in Northeast. As the water cools, larger pike that have been seeking refuge in deeper, colder water during the summer regain the willingness to slide shallow to hunt for food. If you’ve got pike close to home—or can make a fall pilgrimage to pikey waters—and have been leaning on subsurface streamers, trust me when I say that while you may catch fewer pike up top, you’ll remember the surface hits more. To help you make some of those topwater memories, here’s a rundown of the outfit, rigging, and flies I lean on most. I’ll also tell you what to expect when that unexpected smash happens so you don’t screw it up.
Use an 8-Weight Floating Line for Topwater Pike
Unless I’m bound for Northern Canada where 40-plus-inch pike are very common, I lean on an 8-weight fly rod and reel. This provides the perfect amount of backbone to turn over beefier pike flies, yet it won’t wear you down during a full day of casting, and it won’t overpower the smaller “hammer handle” pike most of us in the lower 48 encounter while looking for the heavy hitters. Any 8-weight rod and reel you can afford will do, but you will want a dedicated floating line for topwater pursuits.
Most the time, slow-sink or intermediate-sink fly lines are what you need for pike, but pairing them with topwater flies doesn’t really work. These lines may not be heavy enough to drag a thick foam popper or slider under, but the belly created by a sinking line won’t allow you to achieve the ideal presentation and can hinder your ability to get a solid hook set. Whatever 8-weight floating line you have should be fine, but I’ve come to really like Scientific Anglers Titan. It features a long, thick front taper designed to turn over bulky flies faster and with less false casting, which stops your arms from wearing out and helps you cover more water.
The Best Surface Flies for Fall Pike
Topwater flies are designed create all sorts of different disturbances on the surface. Classics like the Dahlberg Diver push water and dive an inch or two below the film when stripped forcefully. Gurglers are designed to create a V wake as they slide along. Both flies will get hammered in the fall, but I rely most often on a good old-fashioned popper.
Lately I’ve been fishing the PTO Dreadnought, a fly designed by my buddy Mick Trompen. It’s a squared-off, boxy popper with an angled face, and though it can be fished slowly, it shines when you work it with short, fast, hard strips. In my experience, noisier poppers produce best in cooling fall waters. I believe that’s because this time of year, pike are less discerning about their meals and are just looking for any kind of food. Poppers that make a sharp sound while throwing plenty of water trigger some of the most aggressive strikes, and the sound helps pike home in the target faster and from greater distances.
You can purchase premium tapered leaders for throwing pike poppers, but I keep it simple. I’ll splice 2 feet of 30-pound monofilament to 2 feet of 20-pound monofilament with a Blood knot, and then I’ll add approximately 8 inches of Cortland’s Tie-Able steel leader to the end to prevent bite-offs. I find that a short, compact leader like this turns foam bugs over easier, helps me cast them more accurately, and provides a much surer hook set.
Don’t Get Caught Sleeping When a Big Pike Hits
I can’t tell you how many pike I’ve missed on topwater patterns because I turned my head to respond to someone, or to sneeze, or to untangle my line for around my foot. Naturally, you want to be focused regardless of what you’re fishing for and how you’re fishing for it, but pike are less forgiving, especially when they eat at the surface. A striper or largemouth or redfish often sucks a fly under and swims away slowly enough that if you missed the take, you might still have time to set and drive in those hooks. When a pike hits a popper, its hard, fast, and comes out of nowhere.
Pike rocket at surface flies like torpedoes, often clearing the water. If you’ve ever watched montages of topwater pike eats on YouTube, you might have noticed that they also love to attack from directly behind. The problem is they’ll get such a head of steam at the last second, even if they fully engulf the fly, they’re barreling right at you. This instantly throws slack into your line, and if you’re not quick to recover it and set, there’s a good chance the fly will get spit.
To increase the odds that you’ll drive the hook home, work your flies with the rod low. I like the tip and inch or so off the surface. Try to always manage your line so it’s as straight to the fly as possible without any curves or excess slack. When a pike makes a move, just keep stripping with that low rod angle until it comes tight. If you survive the shock of a surprise attack and manage to jam that hook solidly into that bony mouth, then you can raise the rod, settle in, and catch the breath you lost during the explosion.