By Nick Simonson
While attending school at the University of North Dakota during the long, deep winters that Grand Forks is well known for, it wasn’t strange to find me hovering over my vise in those early days of fly tying and lure crafting, trying to come up with new ideas to cast into the water. Over time, I learned that those three-inch flies of my first few tying seasons were but a bite for any pike over 20 inches and oftentimes my leader would come back snipped or snapped on the inhale in some early season foray. Now, at the end of this winter some 15 years down the road, free to fish the peak of spring pike runs by my recent return to the Peace Garden State, the opportunity to cast after pike is once again just around the corner and right out my back door.
With the building thoughts of future trips to familiar places, my memory returns to those early spring days from more than a decade ago where I stood on the abandoned train tracks and concrete bridges in the cold sunshine of early April. There I watched packs of small male pike patrol the edges of the gravel flat below, with the occasional large female creeping along just off the break. Her long-as-a-leg form was a subtle shift in the turbid darkness of the dingy run-off combination of melted snow and farm field dirt. Her slow meandering triggered an increase in my heart rate and the number of haphazard casts in front of her issued by the throng of us anglers lined up on shore. I’ve ripped streamers and jigs through the tiny backwaters still iced in along the banks of the Sheyenne River and had vicious repeat strikes nearly rend the rod from my hand. In the cold of the upcoming part of the calendar which says spring, but the weather and the ground cover might say “not quite,” is when pike fishing peaks, and due to the state’s unique year-round angling season, everyone can take advantage.
With the sheer number of northerns available on Devils Lake, recent documentations of huge fish patrolling the Missouri River system, and sleeper sloughs stocked with off-the-grid populations of pike statewide, excitement for the fast-approaching opportunities grows with each wrap of thread and stroking of feather and fur to get it to line up just right on the streamer taking shape in my vise. Such perfection over the cluttered tying desk will matter little when it hits the water, as sometimes in spring all that seems to be required is the streak of a lure – be it a spoon, jig, fly or collection of wired-together bottle caps – to trigger a strike from a pike. At least it looks good now. By May, if it and its brethren in the big box survive the spring gauntlet, it may just be a tangled mass of bent bucktail and shredded thread. Even then, the fish will still probably take to it.
Still looking for a forty-incher on the fly rod, I’ve amassed a selection of steel-ended leaders to hold the dozens of streamers tied up this winter. Laying practice casts out on the snow drifts behind my house, I’ve imagined the thrash and splash of a toothy take and refreshed my recollection of the powerful sideways strip hookset required to drive the point into the bony corner of a northern’s jaw. It’s coming back to me as fast as April’s first open waters are. Soon, the sensations will align: the flash of red bucktail in the water, the silver-green smash of an aggressive spring pike, and the chartreuse-and-white whir of a reel paying line and its respect to a run of a fish upriver. There’s no doubt I’m ready for the return to that perfect point in time in the perfect place for pike.