Maine is world-famous for salmonid fly fishing opportunities, and understandably so. We’re blessed with clean, cold glacial lakes and strong forage fish populations. Difficult access to remote waterways helps preserve many northern fisheries by discouraging angling pressure. And Maine’s fly fishing heritage is strong, traced back to the five-pound brook trout of the Rangeley Lakes region more than a 100 years ago, also the creation of now famous fly patterns and the storied landlocked salmon of Sebago and Grand Lake Stream.
So when toothy northern pike were introduced illegally into the Belgrade Lakes system in the mid to late 1970s, their sudden presence in our state became one of great controversy.
After all, pike are ferocious eaters not native to Maine, with scary size-potential and a tendency to navigate into nearby waterways, immediately becoming top predator. Belgrade’s Long Pond, once considered one of the state’s premiere landlocked salmon fisheries, became a prime example of the destructive capabilities of northern pike. After the pike’s introduction, the thriving salmon population plummeted and never recovered.
Today pike inhabit more than 50 bodies of water in Maine, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. They’ve found their way into the Androscoggin River, Sebago Lake and the Kennebec. Anglers and biologists alike fear they’ll continue to move around, either by way of their own determination or by selfish, near-sighted anglers who want the fish established in their favorite fishing spot.
Most Maine anglers hold strong opinions about northern pike. Typically, they love them or hate them, want the state to manage a trophy fishery, or try to kill every pike possible. There is understandable paranoia among salmon and trout die-hards that pike will gain foothold in salmonid waters and generally wreak havoc.
Others believe that the water pike now inhabit — mostly of marginal water quality — can no longer support salmonids anyway, so why not manage a pike fishery in those places? What cannot be argued, though, is that northern pike in Maine present a unique, exciting opportunity for the open-minded fly fisherman.
Earlier this week I set out to find open water with an air of optimism that typically coincides with the start of the fishing season. (I tried to ignore a group of ice fisherman gathered on a local lake.) I found a sliver of open water on a river connecting two large lakes, both of which hold pike.
On the paddle to my favorite pike spot — a non-descript weedy patch of shallow water adjacent to a row of houses — I passed four bald eagles taking turns devouring a winter-kill deer on the shoreline. The ribcage was mostly bare, and the fat birds ignored my presence until I was a mere 30 yards away, sliding the canoe towards them as quietly as possible.
Near the fishing spot a half mile further, a woman from a shoreline home yelled to her dog, who I could see zig-zagging through thick woods directly away from her calls. Ice chunks floated past me, and I wondered if I was jumping the gun a bit: the water was frigid, and the fish would likely be sluggish. The bright afternoon sun, though, was my best ally, since springtime pike often float in shallows to warm themselves in the sun.
I stood up in my canoe (not recommended for a beginner) and peeled out some line from my 10-weight reel. I cast my fly as close to the shore as possible while the canoe drifted downstream. My fly darted through the water a few inches below the surface, undisturbed.
Too early, I thought again. Maybe the fish were still out in the lake. It was a late spring, after all. Still, I tried to enjoy the warm sunlight and the reflections on the open water.
I wondered if I should call it a day and then watched a large shadow form a foot behind my fly. I bumped the feathers forward and the pike sped up then paused, hovering a mere inch behind the fly. I stopped retrieving. As soon as the fly started to sink, the fish flared its gills and engulfed it a mere 15 feet from the canoe.
After a brief tussle, I released the fat seven pounder, removed the fly, and released it back into the icy water. I changed flies (pike teeth have a tendency to destroy feathers) and cast again. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, I landed six more, all about the same size. Each fish clobbered my fly in plain view in shallow water — images that are immediately imprinted in my memory.
In a few weeks I’ll start targeting trout and salmon, once the winter snowmelt flushes out to the ocean and the water temperatures warm up and insects start to hatch with consistency. Until then, I’ll be throwing big flies to northern pike in shallow water.
Ryan Brod is a Maine Guide, mental health crisis worker, and contributor to “The Drake” magazine. He co-produced the 2012 ice fishing documentary “HARDWATER.” Raised in the Belgrade Lakes region, he now lives in Portland.