Unleash the Beast–Esox on the Fly!
Fly fishing for pike, muskie, and pickerel are for some the pinnacle of the sport. They are aggressive, apex predator gamefish, and this makes them challenging but supremely rewarding fish to pursue with a fly rod.
Here, we will take a close look at this dynamic species and how to catch them.
In this article we’ll cover:
- The Esox Appeal
- Fly Fishing Gear | Using the Right Equipment
- Best Flies For Pike, Muskie & Pickerel
- Fishing Seasons
- Favorable Fishing Conditions
- Habitats and Environments
- Behaviors and Senses
- Spawning Habits
- Esox Diet
Let’s get into this!
Muskellunge, or muskie, the largest member of the Esox family, derives its name from the Ojibwe word maashkinoozhe, meaning great fish. These apex predators reach jaw-dropping lengths and weights, on record at six feet long and up to 70 pounds. They are capable of explosive strikes with their distinctively flat, bony heads and powerful jaws, lined with leader-cutting teeth. Often romanticized as “the fish of 10,000 casts,” Muskie on the fly are a true challenge and provide a fight like no other freshwater fish.
Northern pike, so named for their similar appearance to the medieval weapon, are close relatives of the muskie and resemble them in their features–torpedo-shaped body, and beak-like bony head. They don’t get as big as muskie but they provide excellent sport on a fly rod and are renowned for a challenging fight.
Chain pickerel are the smallest member of the Esox family mentioned within this article, and these fish can be found in a myriad of waterways, usually sharing space with bass and panfish. Their name derives from the distinct chain-like markings of their scales, and are just as fun to catch as their larger cousins, especially when using light fly tackle.
The appeal of catching these fish is not due solely to the fact that some of them can attain monstrous lengths and weights, but also in their aggressive manner of feeding, and the challenge that comes with being able to land one. Fishing for muskie and pike is a far cry from pursuing trout in small mountain streams, so if you’re looking to broaden your skill set as a fly fisher, consider targeting one of these exciting predators.
Proper Fly Fishing Gear For These Big Predators
Fishing for big predators requires specialized gear. Light tippet and invisible leaders are not as integral to fly fishing for muskie and pike as they are for trout. These fish, yes even small chains, can make quick work of lighter monofilament. They have powerful jaws and teeth that are sharp on both sides, meaning that they can easily take your fly and a trailing piece of leader with them as they blast off and flee when hooked.
Fly Fishing Rods For Pike & Muskie
For larger muskie and pike, you’re going to want a long fly rod with lots of backbone. Depending on which member of the Esox family you’re pursuing will determine what rod and line weight is appropriate. There is nothing more fun than pursuing chain pickerel on the same 5 wt you use for trout. However, bigger fish demand more from your rod. A 7 or 8 wt rod is generally a good starting point, but many Esox fishers use rods that are weighted for saltwater use to pursue these freshwater monsters.
Spey rods are often employed as well, because of their ability to throw less aerodynamic flies long distances. More length can mean more precision, and longer rods (nine feet and up) are very effective especially when fishing from a drift boat.
Fly Fishing Line
As always, match your line to your rod. Don’t over or under-load here, you want balance and consistency when casting to muskie and pike.
When choosing fly line that’s right for muskie and pike, keep in mind the conditions you’ll face in their home environments. A lot of Esox fishing is done in the Summer, so first, make sure that the fly line you choose can stand up to the heat. Coldwater lines will go limp when subjected to multiple days in the high nineties. Also, an effective additive to cut down on how dirty your fly line can become from repeated use on algae and less than clean water is a big plus. These fish can get super heavy, so make sure the fly line you choose is rated for how truly jaw-droppingly big these fish can get.
A sink tip line can get those articulated streamers down to where resting muskie and pike are laying in wait for their prey, and a shooting head will better enable you to make long casts from a drift boat. Floating line is great for mice and frog use, as well as for tossing less bulky streamers into weedy areas.
Fly Fishing Reel For Pike & Muskie
I often say that I have never encountered a fish that I couldn’t bring to the net with a click/pawl reel, and this is true. The juvenile tiger muskies I have caught and the ravenous chain pickerel that haunt the canals of my home were all brought to hand with a trout reel. However, for a big pike and an even bigger muskie, a trout reel will not suffice.
A large arbor reel, appropriately loaded with ample backing to accommodate huge, drag-singing runs is a must. You’ll want the quick line pickup when doing battle with a fish that can spool even a veteran fly fisher. A drag system is also useful when fishing for these big fish. Get something that can stand up to the stress of a twenty-minute-long fight with a muskie or pike.
Fly Selection Best Flies for Pike & Muskie
1. A Grey Mullet by Fly Fish
Learning this fly opens the door to numerous other bait fish imitations, so practice, practice, practice. Bait fish are the main forage of all Esox family members, and you’ll need to learn several different styles for pickier fish. Make sure that the hooks you’re using are rated for bigger game. Remember, 50+ inch muskie and heavy, wide pike are out there, and you’ll need a hook that will not straighten during the fight, but that can also pierce toothy, bony mouths full of cartilage. This is a great pattern, and you’re only limited by your material list.
2. A Bucktail Deceiver by Gunnar Brammer
If you tie flies for trout, odds are you have all the materials needed to tie this fly. In fact, this fly might already be in your box, as it works great for pres-spawn browns and rainbows. Size it up with a quality hook and you have a cracking good fly for muskie and pike. In trout size, it is more than effective for chains as well. Quality bucktail is plenty durable for toothy jaws, and this is an effective streamer that is easy to repeat. Tie twelve.
3. The Gamechanger by McFly Angler
This fly is possibly the best fly for the Esox family out there today. It’s right in the name, this fly has changed streamer fishing, and for the better. When tied correctly, the action on this articulated baitfish pattern is irresistible, not just to the Esox, but to any predatory fish. Blane Chocklett, the inventor of this fly, is a committed muskie fisherman, and his fly just gets the goods. Although the tie is complicated and requires specialized materials, the end result is worth it, and this fly is a potent weapon to bag any fish that eats other fish. McFly Angler has provided a great video on tying these. This fly is an absolute necessity in your box when fishing for big predators.
4. A Craft Fur Clouser by McFly Angler
Muskie (and pickerel) are all over the Susquehanna, so it would be impossible to round out this selection of predator flies without mentioning the Clouser Minnow. Developed for smallmouth on the Sussy, a sized-up version using craft fur works great for muskie. Simple to tie, relentlessly effective, and made for fly fishing rivers, this classic bait fish imitation is just as effective when the original material list is expanded. The old saying that “anything that eats minnows will eat a Clouser” is proven right again here, for bigger, more aggressive fish. An absolute must in your box.
The Best Pickerel Flies
A quick note on fly selection for Pickerel:
There are few flies that will work for pickerel, yet won’t work for pike or muskie. This has more to do with size and profile than anything else. Feel free to mix and match the flies in this section with sized-up versions for larger members of the Esox family.
1. An Articulated Bugger by McFly Angler
I have caught numerous large chain pickerel on your standard, classic wooly bugger. They are simply a great impressionistic baitfish pattern. However, adding a point of articulation often imparts your fly with that necessary action that will make it irresistible to a hungry chain. The addition of another hook also makes this fly doubly effective at piercing chain pickerel’s particularly tough jaws. Odds are you already know how to tie a bugger, but give this great tutorial from McFly a look, because these flies are deadly effective for chains, regardless of conditions or the season.
2. The STP Frog by Svend Diesel
I first encountered this fly while perusing the fly shop section of Cabela’s in Virginia. I had to buy a few, and I found this fly particularly effective in the Summer months for chain pickerel. In fact, by Fall, I had to retire my trusty brace of frogs I had acquired out of state because the chain pickerel had completely worn out the foam used in its construction. Tie this in trout size for pickerel, and in larger sizes for muskie and pike. This fly employs a weed guard, and this was extremely useful for me in pursuing pickerel because the waters they inhabit here in Central PA are full of debris, slime, algae, etc. Change the color combo and aesthetic of this frog fly and you’ve got an equally effective mouse. Svend Diesel is a great guy and his tutorials are streamlined and easy to follow.
3. Less Mess Morrish Mouse by tightlinevideo
Everyone needs a mouse in their box, regardless of what species of fish you’re after. This simplified Morrish Mouse is more beginner-friendly, with less focus on building a tightly stacked deer hair body. Impressionistic but effective, this pattern works great for mimicking any small mammal caught in nervous waters. In the Summer months, right before dark, this pattern is super effective.
Best Time of Year to Fly Fish For Muskie, Pike & Pickerel
- During the Spring, mature female muskie get active when the water warms up, and begin feeding heavily to get ready to spawn. It is at this time that large specimens can be caught. Their range expands with their appetite, and they can begin moving great distances to find food and to return to prime spawning grounds. The males seem to take a little extra time to shake off their winter metabolism, but late Spring is a good time to fish for hungry males who are awake and hungry.
- Summer is primetime for Muskie. The warmer water means that they now have a veritable buffet of different baitfish to hunt down, as well as a variety of large terrestrials and yes, even birds and mammals if they’re large enough to devour them. This is the time when noisy topwater flies, mice, and the like do well on these fish and can be one of the most rewarding times to pursue them.
- Fall is when muskie begin to slow down. They can tell the water’s about to get colder and will hold next to places with latent warmth from the sun, like rock piles and large lay-downs. Simply put, these big fish will be where the remaining forage is, mainly bait fish. As Fall progresses closer to Winter, it is not unheard of for big muskie to feed on whatever’s left–even small crayfish.
- Winter slows down the metabolism of this fish, and it is difficult to entice them to strike on anything artificial. There is a small opportunity to catch a muskie on the move while they hurriedly engage in pre-spawn migration, but this is the most challenging season to hook up with a muskie.
- Spring means that pike are on the move to get ready to spawn, and while the females are hard to take before laying their eggs, they become ravenous after the deed is done. Late Spring gives way to males ready to eat and get to spawning as well. Target weed beds, rocky outcroppings, and confluences with a lot of gravel.
- Summer is a great time to fish for pike on a fly rod. This is the season when explosive top-water takes prevalent, and when many pike has moved to shallower water to patrol weed beds and inlets where baitfish will start appearing. Take advantage of the pike’s ambush-predator mentality during this time. There’s also usually plenty of mammal life to elicit aggressive evening strikes. Mice, rats, frogs, and even small birds are all at the mercy of the pike during this time and they are unafraid of attacking anything they see as easy, noisy, food.
- Even though the water temperatures are changing as we move into the Fall, pike are stubborn, territorial fish and will usually occupy some of their same summer haunts, sometimes until very early Winter. Weed beds are still a great place to search for them because they usually maintain a decent population of baitfish well into the fall.
- Wintertime usually always produces monster pike through the ice, but as far as fly fishing goes, you’ll need to go super low and super slow to entice a pike to strike when it’s super cold.
- Spring is a great time to start fishing for chain pickerel, but you will find that there is not really a bad time to fish for these little wolves of the water. Spring means bait fish and insect life begin to stir and hatch, and when the water hits 50 degrees F, these fish regain their appetite and begin to feed opportunistically while they get ready to spawn..
- Summer is when I’ve had the best luck fishing for pickerel. This is when they’ll take bigger streamers and smaller topwater flies. With Summer comes a host of new prey that pickerel can choose from and they become food aggressive while hunting the weed beds and structure that was so important during the spawn.
- Fall is when things slow down a bit, but pickerel will stay put where they can still ambush forage. Wherever the main forage is during the Fall months will most likely be where the pickerel still are. They don’t lose much of their energetic feeding behavior, and I have had luck with topwater flies even into late Fall.
- Winter. As long as the canal or stream you’re fishing for pickerel isn’t covered in ice, you can still fly fish for these guys with great effect even when there’s snow on the ground. They lose a lot of that energy, and won’t chase a fly as far or as long as in the other months of the year, but they will still eat. When I have been striking out on trout in the cold winter months and need to wash the skunk away, I always make a few stops at my favorite pickerel haunts to try my luck. They are frequently caught under the ice as well.
Favorable Fishing Conditions
Muskie evolved for river conditions–large areas to patrol their home range, and tons of baitfish and other forage. The Susquehanna River has had a healthy population of muskie for a long while, and it is because that waterway checks the aforementioned boxes every year. Slightly choppy, windy days with light rain can make predators more aggressive and less detail-oriented, and that means good muskie fishing.
These fish are ambush predators, so they will find structures with light current and lay in wait for their prey. Good visibility and a clear day allow muskie to make adequate use of both their vision and their advanced lateral-line system to take prey. Always find a way to fish structure and steep drop-offs, even if that means augmenting your fly selection to heavier bugs.
The super warm days of summer are often cited to be great days to pursue muskie but keep in mind their preference for resting in slightly cooler water. Muskie love eating yellow perch, suckers, and creek chub, so key in on the areas that you know have heavy recurring populations of these fish. Large spillways and dams can create good feeding conditions for muskie as well, so keep these locations in mind when deciding on a place to look for these powerful fish.
Muskie are active at night, due in part to their advanced and sensitive lateral line. A full moon and calmer waters mean that you might be in for the fight of your life on a fly rod when throwing loud, rattling, water-pushing flies.
Consider getting acquainted with the barometer on your weather app, because it just might help you find some monster pike that are ready to feed. Unlike muskie, pike tends to swim a little deeper when it starts to rain and the water gets choppy. However, after said pressure system is over, baitfish tend to get more active, in turn making all the predators more active as well, and pike are apex predators. With a slightly less advanced lateral line than muskie, pike rely more on their eyes to determine, track, and eat their prey, so clear days with good sunlight are a boon for pike fishing.
Clear mornings and moonlight twilight seem to make pike patrol their ranges with more aggression, and while possible, it is rare to get these beasts to strike late at night with little ambient light.
I will say again, there’s no bad time or conditions to fish for chains. These fish are a downsized version of their massive cousins with the same greedy nature and ego. I have had just as much luck fishing for “slime darts” on cold winter days with a flurry as I have on a clear summer’s day. Take note of the natural forage, and imitate it as closely as you can.
Topwater strikes will come in late Spring and early Summer when big bugs and small mammals are more apt to become trapped in steep canals and bigger creeks. Take advantage of these visually oriented ambush foragers and use drastically gaudy colors (when you can’t quite figure out what the natural is).
Habitats and Environments
Classified by biologists as ‘cool-water fish,’ Muskie populate numerous freshwater rivers and lakes in the Northeast US, Canada, and throughout the Great Lakes region. Ideally, this fish prefers water temperatures of 67-72 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is rare to find them in any waterway whose max temperature does not exceed 68 degrees.
Muskie take up residence near weed edges, rocky outcroppings, and sharp drop-offs into deeper pools to rest and wait to ambush their prey. Muskie will develop ‘ranges’ in water they feel comfortable in and patrol these ranges for food when conditions are right. Muskie like weeds, structure, and good spots to rest between their patrols that require the least amount of energy to reside in.
This aggressive fighter inhabits a range greater than any other freshwater gamefish, and though they prefer temperate regions, they can be found in numerous different waterways. Lakes, streams, rivers and more can all hold pike. They enjoy laying in sluggish places and at confluences with deep drop-offs. Heavy vegetation is a plus, and weedbeds, lily pads, and debris filled water all are attractive homes for pike.
A 67-72 degree temperature range is preferred by pike, but as they exceed weights of 5 pounds these temperature preferences change, and pike can survive colder, harsher water.
Chain pickerel inhabit a wide range of waterways all the way from Florida up to the northeast USA and Canada. These smaller pike-fish can inhabit both fresh and brackish water, and are about equally as aggressive in warm water as they are in cool water.
Shallow areas with lots of structure, including docks and piers, are preferred by pickerel, and they love weeds and weed beds that allow them to ambush smaller baitfish.
Behavior and Senses
While Muskie can sometimes be gregarious, or social to the point of forming small groups in distinctive territories/conditions, they are usually solitary loners that seek out home ‘ranges’ of water that they feel comfortable enough to both rest and feed in. There are two times of the year, however, when muskie move around considerably, and that is during the Spring, to reach suitable spawning grounds, and in the middle of Fall, when they commence heavy feeding to tide them over for Winter. Muskie are oxygen sensitive, and they need cool, oxygen-rich water to live comfortably and feed often.
Muskie are apex predators, and when they’ve reached adulthood, the only real predators they have are humans and very large birds of prey. They go about feeding by way of ambush, and their powerful jaws and teeth make very quick work of the other fish they feed on. Muskies have poor olfactory senses (nowhere near as developed as, say, a bass), but they do have sensitive vision, with keen eyes that use ‘stereo vision.’ A muskie’s field of vision resembles an ‘opposite triangle,’ expanding horizontally outward from its beak. This is why muskies sometimes can’t track a fly right under their nose. In the right conditions, muskie can see color very well. They rely on available light, with no biological adjustment (like how our eyes can adjust to low or bright light).
A Muskie has a very developed and sensitive lateral line, and muskie possess seven sensory pores on each side of their heads. Muskie will use these pores, filled in with hairs that sense movement and vibration in water, to hunt their ranges, and also to hunt at night.
Northern pike are aggressive and solitary loners. They are cannibalistic and will feed on their own kind as soon as they are able especially in cooler climates with less baitfish forage. Safe hiding places from other pike are imperative for adolescents. This means shallow weed beds and riffles are likely hiding spots, especially for juveniles. In the Spring pike will move to the shallows to spawn, but remain fiercely territorial throughout the rest of the year. This behavior comes from the fact that other larger pike will often steal food from the smaller ones. Juvenile pike uses ambush foraging to secure themselves food while maintaining safety from their larger brethren. A pike’s ‘range’ is directly linked to how long and heavy they are, with bigger ones patrolling larger ranges.
Pike’s biggest threat besides humans are other pike, and this is what makes them so territorial and aggressive. Their olfactory system is more advanced than the muskie, but not by much, and they too are visual feeders with the same binocular line of sight that their bigger cousins possess. Pike possess the same distinctive mouth pores on their lower jaw that muskie have, but not as many. There are six pores on each side of the head, which affords them an effective lateral-line system for hunting, although not quite as fine-tuned as a muskie’s. They rarely hunt at night, if at all.
Chain pickerel are energetic fighters, and they are able to tolerate less satisfactory conditions than their relatives. Able to subsist in warm, brackish water with less oxygen content means they often share the same waterways with bass. These fish exhibit a wide range of behavior that is dependent upon the particular climate and water conditions of their home waters, meaning that pickerel in the Carolinas have unique behavior to those in Maine. They are ambush foragers who thrive in weedy, muddy canals and deeper creeks.
Chain pickerel are visual feeders like pike and muskie, but they do have an effective lateral line, with four mouth pores on either side of the head. Since pickerel usually inhabit smaller water than their cousins, they often make great use of their range of vision, finding contrast and bright colors particularly tantalizing. Some say that chain pickerel exhibits the most energy and best fight out of the whole Esox family.
Muskie can move considerable distances to reach prime spawning grounds to lay eggs. By February and until March, as water temperatures begin to rise, female muskie begin to voraciously feed so that they can muster the energy to produce eggs and venture to a safe place to lay them, usually the same place they were laid the previous year.
When the males reach maturity, roughly between 3 and four years of age, they will attempt to spawn as soon as the water reaches roughly between 49-59 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperature is what will determine the time of year, but generally, most muskie spawn in April, and the first spawn can last anywhere from 10-14 days. Large females (40 pounds and up) can lay anywhere from 18,000 to 200,000 eggs.
Males seek out actively laying females and deposit their seminal fluid next to them simultaneously, fertilizing the eggs as they sink to the bottom of the spawning ground. The female will take her leave and find a safe spot to recuperate after laying her eggs but will be back to feeding within a week or so. The males hang around the spawning site for a short time, but not for too long, meaning the freshly fertilized eggs are left to develop off of the yolk sac and begin fending for themselves, eating plankton and eventually small aquatic life, and then baitfish. Larger muskie sometimes spawn once more, roughly two weeks after the first spawn.
Northern pike get the urge to spawn in colder water than muskie (40-50 degrees F), usually in March or April. They prefer places that are filled with vegetation or structures for their eggs to stick to, hoping that the structure will provide shelter from other adult pike. Shallow areas with little current and lots of plant life are preferred.
Pike don’t lay all their eggs in one spot like muskie, and sometimes lay them in an unorthodox, random manner in water that they feel comfortable in. The males, even more solitary than muskie, become slightly more social during the spawning period and can be seen following the females around, encouraging them to lay their eggs so they can finish the job and get back to patrolling their ranges and eating. The females don’t eat much in the pre-spawn, but after laying their eggs they regain their voracious appetite and begin feeding on whatever they can after during the post-spawn. The eggs hatch quickly, and pike are known to be able to gain length and weight quickly in their first year of life. They feed on nymphs and other insects until their teeth and fins develop, enabling them to move up the food chain and begin to target bait fish fry.
Chain pickerel spawn when the temperature hits about fifty degrees. They deposit their eggs in long, stringy ribbons all along structures or weed beds, and the adhesive nature of their eggs helps them stay in place and not become a floating snack to a panfish or bass.
Chain pickerel often already inhabit waterways with minimal flow, so a focus is put on getting their egg deposits onto logs, sticks and other structures where they’ll stay put. Chain pickerel make no attempt to guard their eggs, with both the male and female departing immediately after spawning.
Chain pickerel are very opportunistic and will take food pre and post-spawn. Usually living in very food-competitive waters, there’s no real-time a chain pickerel can’t be convinced to eat.
Juveniles will feed on small insects while their fins, jaws, and teeth develop, however, we need to understand that every member of the Esox family is at their core a very sophisticated predator. Once they reach a certain size, they have very little to fear in the water. Large birds of prey and humans become their only predators, with the occasional large catfish sometimes getting lucky with some of the less adept adolescent Esox.
Baitfish comprise most of the Esox diet. It stands to reason that southern chain pickerel have a different bait fish diet than northern pike in Maine. However, there are some similarities in the Esox diet regardless of region. These fish can all consume prey up to ⅔ their weight and length. This means that even smaller muskie, pike, and pickerel can still consume and devour bigger baitfish. Their main tactic is to wait for an ambush and chomp down on bait fish that they can not swallow outright. They will hold their catch firmly in their powerful jaws, between sharp, long canines, and only when it is dead or considerably weakened, will they attempt to swallow it headfirst. All of the Esox seem to eat in this way, making even spiky fish like perch an easy meal, as swallowing them headfirst will slick back their protective dorsal spines. Suckers, small carp, creek chubs and sadly, yes, even trout, are even easier prey. They are soft fish with generally smaller scales, and they go down easy.
Still, when food is scarce, muskie and pike who are used to more substantial bait fish meals will eat smaller prey. There are numerous reports of giant muskies being found with stomachs full of crayfish in the winter months. Despite their size and aggression, these fish remain opportunistic feeders their whole lives. Their opportunistic nature is what makes them vicious cannibals in some waters, and this is especially true of northern pike. These fish do not differentiate family from foe, and will readily feed on their brothers and sisters from the same clutch of eggs that they themselves hatched from.
Mammals are on the menu for these predators as well. Rats, mice, shrews, and other small mammals that are less than adept at swimming can find themselves in serious danger flapping about in waterways populated by Esox. Big beetles and moths that can’t fly after becoming waterlogged will also quickly be snapped up by juvenile muskie and pike, and most any pickerels. Frogs too are a favorite protein-rich snack for these fish. I fish a canal for chain pickerel specifically and this body of water always has a large amount of baby ducks present in the Spring. While I have never witnessed a chain pickerel attack these ducklings, on one clear morning in June, I was able to witness a juvenile chain pickerel, probably about ten inches, actively tracking the slower ducklings swimming in a line behind their mother. It was an amazing sight to see, and I know if that pickerel had been considerably bigger, the slower paddling ducklings on the end of the line could have been in real trouble from this fish.
Enjoy these incredible topwater fly takes from some nasty pike by Fly TV if you dare…
Reeling it in
This article has covered all the bases for a novice to get dialed into what it takes to fish for the Esox family. This impressive family of fish is supremely challenging, but simultaneously extremely rewarding, to pursue on a fly rod.
If you are a committed trout fisher, I implore you to consider targeting these fish as the Summer comes and the water warms up. Each year, they provide a fun, challenging experience on the fly rod, and I truly feel as though the techniques and gear necessary to fish for these ancient, apex predators will round out your ‘fly fishing toolbox,’ making you an all-around better angler should you ever move to fishing salt, or in environments that are foreign to your home waters.
Stay safe out there, and as always, tight lines!