Slough Sharks On The Fly
By Mike (Doc) Monteith
When I was a boy, my father would occasionally
take me fishing for Slough Sharks. That was the
name my father used when referring to a Northern
Pike. My Dad was a true sportsman. He hunted,
fished, played golf, hockey, baseball and curled.
He was very accomplished at all of these sports
but the one sport that really caught my attention
other than hockey - 'cause as we all know every
Canadian kid plays hockey- was fishing or rather
fly-fishing. My father used to guide American
fly fishermen on the famous Miramichi River in
New Brunswick. He was born and raised in
Fredericton, New Brunswick and after many years
in Germany, Manitoba and then Alberta with the
Air force he was transferred back to New Brunswick
to Canadian Forces Base Chathem. That's where I
was born and held my first fly rod.
The Miramichi was and still is famous for it's Atlantic Salmon
and when my father left the Air Force and we finally
made our way to Alberta the only fish that my Dad
would consider to be in the same league as his
beloved Atlantic Salmon, was trout. So Pike wasn't
on the top of my father's list of favorite fish and
he often told me, "you can catch these fish on a
cigarette butt, son". I was always under the
impression that the only reason we fished for Pike
or any fish other than Trout, was to benefit me,
so that I had the full experience of all of Alberta's
game fish. And it seamed whenever we went fishing
for Pike, which wasn't very often, he would tell me
the story of when he was stationed at the Cold Lake
Air Force Base here in Alberta. In this story my
father made a bet with an Air Force buddy that he
could catch a Slough Shark on anything in the boat.
His buddy called him on the bet and he chose the
cigarette butt hanging from my father's mouth. So
my father brought out his fly rod equipped with just
a bare hook and his cigarette butt. Casting to the
shallows and using a quick strip he did indeed catch
a Slough Shark (or so the story goes).
Trolling for Northern Pike in my father's 12ft aluminum car topper with spinning gear wasn't quite the same as trolling for trout and we never took our fly rods with us when Slough Sharks were our quarry. The Pike seamed easier to catch compared to trout and the mystery and finesse of fly-fishing wasn't a part of our days on the water. I guess the result of his story and the lack of the fly rod magic when fishing for Pike made me somewhat prejudice toward these fish. It wasn't until many years later when I decided to give writing a try that I would find a whole new respect for the Slough Shark.
I was looking for some feedback on an article that I had written regarding lunker trout close to home - Walter Is In My Backyard - and decided to get in touch with author Clive Shuapmeyer who lives right here in Alberta. While corresponding with Clive the subject of fly-fishing for Northern Pike had come up. I started reading many articles written by Clive regarding Pike on the fly and before I knew it I was fighting Slough Sharks on my eight weight and loving every minute of it.
I do enjoy fishing Alberta's mountain streams and Blue Ribbon Rivers but my passion lies in the local lakes and ponds that surround Alberta's capital city. There are no trout streams close enough to the city of Edmonton to get out for a few hours and although the fishing is incredible, driving three hours to Calgary, fishing all day, then driving three hours back again is not something one can do often (especially when one's body is used to working the night shift). So it wasn't much for me to grab my eight-weight rod and head out in search of Slough Sharks on the fly. It was really the idea of catching Pike on dry flies - or more correctly, top water flies- that captured my imagination. Clive had given me information on when and where to fish for Northern Pike and specifically when to use top water flies and what patterns work well. I started tying up some poppers and sliders in anticipation of the coming spring, of course Clive's recipes were much more elaborate and complicated than my own but the Pike didn't seem to mind and neither did I.
Wabamun Lake is about 45 minutes west of Edmonton and is known for it monster Northern Pike. This lake is also known for it's open water throughout the winter months. In a certain section of the lake, there is a warm water discharge flowing out from the Wabamun power plant. The plant takes the cold water from the lake and uses it to cool down the generators inside the plant then the water is discharged back into the lake. With this heated water, the bug life thrives here all year giving the many species of fish plenty to eat. Since Northern Pike are predators, these sharks can grow very big (some well over 20lbs) by feeding on the Perch, Whitefish and the occasional Walleye that benefit from the plentiful insects and aquatic life. And because of these lunker Slough Sharks, my decision on which lake to experience my first Pike on the fly was easy. Yes, it would be Jack Fish Lake (a little closer to the city but in the same direction). You see, Pike have very sharp teeth (and lots of them, which is probably how they got the alias Slough Shark) and since I fly-fish from a tube, I felt a little uncomfortable with the thought of pulling Jaws up to my rubber donut. So for my first experience I thought it best to try for some Sharks a little smaller in the tooth department.
The best time to fly-fish for Northern Pike is in the spring when the Pike are shallow and hungry after spawning. Summer is tough for fly anglers because the Pike tend to go to deeper waters and autumn can be a crapshoot (some days are good and some not so good). So it was in the spring that I went off for my first Slough Shark adventure. Armed with my eight weight rod, both floating and sinking line, long needle nose pliers, jaw spreaders and some plastic coated wire leaders, I performed my best bozo the clown impression and entered and launched my round tube onto the home waters of the mighty Northern Pike. It was early morning around 5:30am and the sun was just lighting up the sky. There was absolutely no wind and the lake was like glass. I tied on my own version of a popper. It wasn't pretty but it worked and may even have looked a little better than a cigarette butt (maybe). The popper was made with a yellow rabbit strip tail, green crystal chenille for the body, yellow deer hair for the wing and a green foam popper head made from those cheap foam sandals you can buy at Wal-Mart. The first thing I noticed once I got my rig together was the casting. I figured out quickly why it called for an eight-weight rod (those big Pike flies were not easy to cast and called for a double haul right off the bat). The second thing I noticed was just how ferocious these Slough Sharks were. These fish don't mess around when they see something they like. I cast out my fly towards shore and landed it about 10 feet shy of the cattails. I gave my line some slow strips and then paused. I then gave it some quick short strips. The presentation and retrieve may have to vary according to what's turning the Pike on that day and experimenting is all a part of the fun. Before I could pause again I saw the wake coming up behind the fly and my heart started pounding. I continued stripping the line in using quick four-inch strips. Then I saw the wake again coming from the side of my fly and before I knew it...WHAM! I lifted my rod to set the hook and...hmm; no fish. It seems Pike are not as precise as Trout when taking food on top of the water so it's best not to get too over zealous. Mr. Slough Shark wasn't done yet however. I quickly stripped my line in to make another cast towards the cattails but before I got it close to the tube...WHAM! He hit it again. This time I waited to feel the Shark on my line and when I felt the tug I set the hook. Within no time I had my first Pike on a fly. I had never experienced such an aggressive take, it was one of the most exiting and explosive strikes I had ever seen. The closest I could get to describing some of the hits I've had by a Northern Pike would be the breach of a Great White Shark taking a seal off the surface of the ocean (I'd seen that on a National Geographic special once). The only difference was that the Pike rarely left the water completely and nine out of 10 times struck from the side as apposed to directly underneath. The Pike I tubed was only about two pounds and it got me thinking about Wabamun Lake and what it would be like to take a 10 plus pounder on a floating fly. The rest of the morning saw the same action as my first Slough Shark and many Pike were brought to hand. The biggest was about three pounds and all the hits were just as explosive as the first. I even caught one right beside the tube. After noticing how badly my popper was chewed up, I decided to tie on a new one. The fly was floating about three feet in front of me while I put my fly box back into the pocket of the tube when that shark struck, and it scared the pejeebies out of me. It was around ten o'clock when the Pike slowed to the top water flies and I had tubed close to 20 Sharks so far, so I thought I would try a sinking line and a large streamer. I chose a yellow and green Perch pattern and I did catch a few but the streamers just didn't do it for me after the Pike explosions I witnessed on the top water flies. Happy with how my morning had turned out, I decided to head back to shore and call it a day. I successfully fished Jack Fish Lake several more times that spring and it wasn't until the next year that I went after the big Sharks at Wabamun.
Wabamun is a very large lake and when you're fishing in a float tube and the wind picks up, it's best to get to shore. Around the warm water discharge however, the wind isn't as menacing because of the bay it's in. The problem is the current you have to fight because of the discharge. If you don't pay attention, the current can push you pretty far out and away from the shelter of the bay. It's hard to get back to the mouth of the discharge fighting the current and if there is a good wind, you could be in trouble if you get forced out too far.
In the spring, Pike will sit in some very shallow water. Two, three or four feet of water is quite normal. So this is were I look for Slough Sharks first. I'll try and match my streamers with the forage fish in the waters that I'm fishing. In Wabamun, Perch and Lake Whitefish are what the Pike like to fill up on. For poppers, sliders or floating flies, you can either match the forage fish or go with a frog, a mouse or even some bright gaudy pattern. When there is chop on the water I use a weighted streamer on a dry line and if I can't find any interested Sharks, I'll try a little deeper with a medium sink line. My first time fly-fishing Wabamun was with a good friend of mine in his canoe. Due to what I guess was some wishful thinking, I brought only my floating line, a lot of poppers and only a couple of un-weighted streamers. There was a decent chop on the water so my top water flies were not going to do it for me this day. I tied on a streamer but I couldn't get it down to where the Slough Sharks were as they were sitting in between four and six feet of water so I borrowed a fly off of Joe. He tied up some streamers using large barbell eyes and after I tied one on, I was soon into fish as well. This taught me a valuable lesson. Don't take Pike for granted. Yes, some days they'll eat anything you throw at them but other days you may have to work hard for them and coming prepared for all situations is just as important when fishing for Slough Sharks as it is when fishing for Trout.
It was several weeks later when I finally got a chance at Slough Sharks on top water flies. I hadn't had the opportunity to toss the poppers at the Wabamun Pike while in the tube yet because of the choppy water on all my previous trips but I knew this calm spring day, was going to be my day. I walked with my tube over my shoulder and made my way to the mouth of the warm water discharge channel. Once again, I did my clown impression and got my finned feet into the donut. I made my way out not even 10ft when I felt the current taking me away. I worked my way toward the edge of the channel and dug my fins into the bottom. It was only about two feet deep here and with my fins dug in I knew I wasn't going anywhere, although I did have to struggle somewhat to stay in position. The edge of the channel dropped off quickly to maybe 8ft and it's along this drop-off that I made my first cast. Unlike Jack Fish Lake, I didn't see any wake before the Pike hit the popper. It was simply an all out ambush. It scared me at first; the explosion was just as I remembered it at Jack Fish Lake but this was no two pound Pike. I didn't actually weigh it but I'd guestimated this Pike at about six or seven pounds. At first the fight was intense, the Slough Shark pulled line off my reel like string coming off a yo-yo. Then it rested and it felt almost as if pulling in a log off the bottom of the lake. I got it close to the tube and it decided to go for another run. Four more times like this and I finally got it to the tube. Thank the Lord I didn't forget my Jaw spreaders because if I were faced with the choice of either sticking my hand in that mouth with all those teeth or cutting the wire leader, I'd have lost a lot of flies that day. The action for the remainder of the morning wasn't as good as the year before at Jack Fish Lake but Pike were bigger. I managed to land six Slough Sharks with my biggest around eight pounds and my smallest at four. All the strikes were explosive, almost frightening. And the rush I got will not soon be forgotten. To this day I still haven't caught that Slough Shark over 20lbs but I'm working on it. A project like this has no deadline and I don't mind gaining the experience. I don't fish for Northern Pike any where near as much as I fish for trout but every spring I do look forward to windless days at Wabamun and Slough Sharks on the fly. ~ Doc
About the author:Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner/guide of Edmonton Float Tube Adventures, owner of the information web site Fly Fishing Edmonton and editor/publisher of the information web site Float Tube Fly Fishing.
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