Rainbow on the Bitterroot River
(Photo by Merle Ann Loman)
Fly fishing the Bitterroot River in the fall is fantastic. The weather changes dramatically during the day giving stellar lightshows and the fall hatches mean you will probably see fish noses and fins in select places. As the trout work the hatch, It is definitely a challenge to have targets to throw to. The fun part is trying to pick out which rise form is the biggest trout. By this time of year the trout have seen just about everything but a good presentation. In other words they are very educated but still feeding consistently. The flat smooth water where you find them feeding makes it even more difficult to execute a convincing presentation and drift. Proper selection of dry-flies and tippet are essential.
Give yourself plenty of time to concentrate on certain areas. On the Bitterroot River, there are many pods of feeding fish giving the amateur angler lots of chances to work on technique. If you put the fish down with bad casts, just row back up and wait. Chances are, they will begin feeding in a similar place again. If you don’t want to row up-river, keep going to the next pod. You can see them feeding as you float down the river. Very cool.
Jack Mauer with a Northern Pike (Photo by Merle Ann Loman)
Want a change of pace? Bring along a 9 weight rod and a box of colorful streamers. As you fish for trout and you come upon a backwater of slow water with significant drop-off next to it, you might consider changing your arsenal to a heavier rod and a very large bright streamer. You have just come into northern pike habitat and they are a HEAVY fish. If you throw the streamer at the drop-off, let it sink and then retrieve it in frequent jerking motions, you will likely tick-off a pike. When a pike hits the fly, you have a fight on your hands. Pike are non-native and predatory so catching them and getting them out of the river is a good thing. The pike in the photo to the right had a whole fish in its stomach. See the slideshow for pictures of the fish. It isn’t pretty.
This pike was about 33 inches long and a tremendous fighter. As Jack caught it, another boat approached from behind. You could hear them cheering Jack on as he worked at bringing the fish into the boat. He thought about getting to shore and landing it there, but it was netted from the boat, barely fitting the net.
Cutthroat trout (Photo by Merle Ann Loman)
This particular day was about 50 degrees with a slight breeze and overcast. The sun and clouds created unbelievable light shows. Even though this autumn hasn’t produced as many colors and hues as usual, the rainbows and even the gray cast of the aspen have been beautiful. Besides amazing scenery, birds provided entertainment. While looking down the river at pods of fish feeding, beyond and on the curve was an Osprey looking for its dinner. It flew in a tighter circle, dove straight down and made a huge splash. As it came out of the water, there was a sparkle as the sun hit the fish in its talons – probably a whitefish. A few minutes later an eagle soared down the river, passed over the boat and continued downstream. Near the take-out, a Belted Kingfisher played the bank. They are a funny looking bird with a shaggy crest or topknot.
Jack Mauer fishes for a living, but what does he do on his day off? He gets up early and goes fishing for Northern Pike. His favorite spot is a section in the lower Bitterroot (exact location is undisclosed at this writing). For this short but productive float, he has permission to put in on private land and takes out at the next public access point. I get invited along for many reasons: photography, dog handler for our 6 month old Chesapeake puppy, and last but not least, rower of the boat when we get to pike territory.
Northern Pike, or pike, or northerns, are native to Montana but only in the Saskatchewan River drainage on the east side of Glacier Park. They have been illegally introduced in many areas and are now present in every drainage west of the Divide. A highly piscivorous animal, they feed on fish and also eat other vertebrates such as frogs. Northern pike threaten native game and non game fish in the area and popular sport fish like rainbow and brown trout.
With a long skinny head they have large teeth on the side of their mouth, and rows of many small teeth inside their mouth. They don’t chew their food, they just swallow it whole. Characteristics of the pike are: light markings on a darker green body, lower half of the cheek completely scaled; five or fewer pores on each side of the underside of the jaw; and rounded tail tips.
Pike especially like lakes and reservoirs, but on the Bitterroot River they are found in the warmer, slower water. Weeds are used for camouflage while hiding and waiting for food to float or swim by. They tend to live in water which is less than 15 feet deep, near a backwater area and close to shore. A submerged log in about 7 feet of water is another prime hang out spot for Pike. Because the Bitterroot is Jack’s home river, he has located the buckets of water where the pike are and can row directly to them.
When fishing for northerns, it might be a good idea to use a steel leader (a short piece of steel line). The pike’s sharp teeth will cut easily through most fishing regular fishing line. Jack uses an 85 pound test hard monofilament tippet with a very bright streamer that has 2 hooks.
The idea of the streamer is to try to imitate the features of baitfish and minnows, which are what pike naturally feed upon. Since Pike seek their prey by sight, it is important for the streamer to move, so active artificial movement or live bait movement is very important. Anchor the boat above the holding water so you can cast to the bottom end of the bucket and retrieve your line through it and past the pike. Jack fished both deep (with a streamer that sinks and swims) and more on the surface (with a streamer/fly that didn’t sink as well). In both cases, he casts out about 60 feet or more, hopefully beyond the pikes position. Then he retrieves his line with a subtle jerking motion and some pauses in between twitches. The goal is to attract the attention of the pike and make it think his streamer is injured prey. Sometimes after hooking a pike, he saw other pike chasing it to the boat looking for their own meal.
After hooking and reeling in the pike, Jack uses a huge pair of needle nosed pliers to get his streamer and hook out of that nasty looking mouth.
Unlike fishing for trout, you want a bright day to fish for pike. If the water is smooth, meaning not much wind, and the sun is at an angle instead of right above you, you can see this distinctive fish in the water. This might be obvious, but sighting a pike makes it much easier to cast to.
Small northern pike remain in shallow weedy water through much of the year. In mid-summer, forage reaches peak abundance and the fish remain active. Large northern pike move deeper as summer progresses and water temperatures warm, seeking oxygenated water of 65 degrees or cooler. Large northern pike become lethargic in warm water, eating little and sometimes losing weight. For these reasons northern pike fishing falls off in warmer weather.
Jack has more time to fish for pike, and in addition on the lower Bitterroot River there is often the opportunity for good trico fishing. It makes for a great day with a wide variety of fishing styles, i.e. fishing a No. 18-20 trico dry fly on 6X tippet versus a larger, flashy streamer with 85 test monofilament tippet and a heavier rod.
Northern Pike are exceptionally good to eat, with firm, white flesh. The bigger fish are easier to bone and except for one troublesome Y-shaped bone, the Pike is relatively easy to filet. You can serve it many ways including grilled, fried, and baked using whatever seasonings and sauces you like. Jack isn’t much of a fish eater but he has a number of friends that like to eat the pike so he gives them away. That is a win/win for the trout in the river and his friends.
This aggressive and voracious fish attacks the lures or flies and puts up a great fight making the catching a thrill. Northern pike can grow to nearly 40 pounds in Montana and provide an outstanding sport and food fish in the appropriate waters. Pike are caught not only for sport but also to help get them out of inappropriate waters. Because of their voracious fish-eating habits they can literally eliminate their food supply in only a few years, leaving a population of terminally-stunted “hammerhandles.” This is why widespread illegal pike introductions in western Montana have become a fishery manager’s nightmare. So, go ahead, get out there, harvest a few pike and help Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks with removal of unwanted populations!