Standing Up for Northern Pike

NO, it's not a muskie, but it's close...
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Standing Up for Northern Pike

Post by Fish-N-Fool » Thu Mar 10, 2016 6:28 pm

Not sure if this has ever been posted But I really liked this article.

By Bill Schneider

Somebody has to stand up for the beleaguered northern pike, the amazing game fish we love to hate. It might as well be me.

My fellow NewWestie, Bob Wire, is a great writer, and I almost always applaud his aggressive views on whatever subject strikes his fancy at particular moment–guns, health clubs, football, whatever. I like it. But not this week when Bob wrote a lengthy condemnation of one of my favorite game fish, the northern pike. You might want to read it first (click here) and then return here for my pushback.

Let’s start with a little disclosure. Even though I live in the heart of Trout Country and regularly hang out with Trout Unlimited types, I’m man enough to admit that I have, in fact, been observed fishing for pike, but not often enough. And I happen to believe the pike is a sleek, spirited game fish, if not the sleekest and most mean-spirited.

Can trout have anywhere near the attitude and appetite of this apex predator? Ha, only in my dreams! You’ll never see a trout take down a muskrat or coot, but a big pike can and does. You’ll never see a 20-inch trout try to eat a 15-inch trout, but a 30-inch pike will die trying to eat another 30-inch pike. That’s what you call predacious! That’s what makes pike fishing so great. They don’t gently slurp up a No. 20 PMD. They really attack every lure or fly like they haven’t eaten in a week. I’ve actually caught pike with a lemming-imitation fly that’d make any trout want its mommy.

But the truth is, I like all kinds of fishing, even trout fishing. That’s what makes my life a constant struggle with poverty. If I only liked trout fishing, I’d be rich, but I’d have missed out on some incredible pike fishing.

This means I have to be a two-boat angler–a motorboat for pike and walleye and a drift boat for trout, plus the endless array of gear needed for my lack of self-control and single-mindedness.

To be clear, I’m pro-pike, not anti-trout. I like trout, too. I spend many winter days out on the Missouri trying to outwit the smartest trout in the world with flies the size of grains of pepper, gently releasing them to grow bigger and even smarter and make more high IQ little trout.

When summer comes, though, and the rivers fill up with guide boats, I switch to my attention to walleye and pike. Regrettably, I have go up to Canada for pike, even though western Montana has some great pike habitat. Fisheries managers, spurred on by anglers like Bob who think fishing is another word for trout fishing, do everything they can to make sure western Montana doesn’t have fishable pike populations.

Unbelievably, we have no limit on the number taken or in possession, no size restrictions, and anglers can take pike with any method, even spearing. I’m surprised netting or explosives aren’t legal pike-killing methods. Probably the only reason they aren’t is the chance of collateral damage taking out a few of our precious trout. We encourage pike killing derbies, like those on Salmon Lake and Seeley Lake, and we have no ethics about taking the big breeders out of the population. Witness the amazing 44-inch mama caught this January in Seeley Lake. It’s a real crime to kill such a fish.

Up in northern Saskatchewan where I go each year, pike fishing is fantastic because the management is fantastic–mostly catch-and-release with barbless hooks. In most lakes, you can only keep one fish per day for lunch; all the rest–and that can be 50 fish per day–must be carefully handled and released. For trophy fish, it’s all CPR (Catch, Photograph, Release), and if you want to see your prize above the fireplace every day, you measure it for a replica mount before releasing it.

And that one fish you keep for lunch, well, it would be unforgivable to kill a big one. Instead, we take out a “luncher,” which is usually around 25 inches (4-6 pounds), enough to feed three people. Taking a few lunchers doesn’t hurt a pike population, and incidentally, pike caught in cold water such as we have in western Montana are, in my opinion, the best-eating freshwater fish.

Why so Evil?

In western Montana, pike are considered evil because they eat trout. I guess that makes eagles, ospreys, pelicans, mergansers, grebes, otters, mink, bears, and lots of other critters evil, too, right?

Let’s get a few facts straight. Northern pike are native to western Montana, albeit only in the Saskatchewan River System, but brook, brown, and rainbow trout are not native to Montana. Brook and brown trout are totally invasive species, and only one rare subspecies of rainbow, the redband rainbow of the Kootenai River System, is native to Montana. The rainbow trout we worship in the Bitterroot, Missouri, Madison and all the other famous trout rivers is just another evil invader.

Oh, by the way, just in case you haven’t heard, big trout eat little trout. Plus, rainbow trout hybridize with cutthroat trout and consequently, through genetic pollution, may have had a greater negative impact on native cutthroat populations than pike have.

In river environments like the Clark Fork, Flathead or Bitterroot, the varied habitat allows pike and trout co-exist. Pike concentrate in the backwaters and eddies; trout prefer moving water. When paths cross, the water wolf often has a nice trout dinner because, like it or not, the pike is on top of the aquatic food chain.

That’s the way it goes in nature, you know, eat or be eaten. Case in point: How it’s going for the coyote now that the wolf is back? Northern pike dominate a lake because they’re the superior species. (Ditto for lake trout, incidentally.)

Here’s something my friend Bob needs to put in his pipe and smoke. If trout aficionados were really serious about restoring native species, they’d be pushing to poison browns and rainbows out of our blue ribbon streams and bring back cutthroats. Until they do that, I say lay off the hatred for the northern pike. Personally, I’d never support such insanity, nor do I advise holding your breath until it happens, but such a proposal sure would show the true colors.

Trout Guys Don’t Know What They’re Missing

Through the years, I’ve managed to convince a few trout guys to try fly fishing for pike, and guess what, they can’t get enough of it. Early season sight fishing for pike in a shallow bay with a streamer or watching a big pike wallop a popper, well, that’s as good as fishing gets.

Truth is, I’d rather fly fish for pike than trout. Perhaps the only reason I still fish for trout at all is because I can’t fish for pike without driving a thousand miles.

Even in excellent pike habitat in western Montana, you can blind cast all day without a single hook-up. I used to have decent success for pike on the Flathead River and in Swan Lake and Whitefish Lake, but over-consumption by pike anglers is decimating those populations. On Salmon Lake and Seeley Lake, also productive pike waters, anglers continue to kill the big pike, which may soon lead to stunted populations. We’re already close to having nothing but “hammer handles” in those lakes.

Hello, pike anglers, the only fish that eats a small pike is a big pike, and when those little pikers do all the breeding, they aren’t likely to produce too many 40-inchers. If we want pike populations and the size of the fish to increase in western Montana, we have to step up and voluntarily manage the resource ourselves. Take home a luncher here and there, but carefully release all big pike.

Want a Tough Job?

I sympathize with native species biologists. I know they have to do what they have to do, but every day, they face a stiff headwind. What species do Montana anglers really want? Browns and rainbows, pike and walleye, smallmouth bass, lake whitefish, and lake trout–all wicked non-indigenous invaders. Meanwhile, many anglers display disinterest at best for native species like bull trout and cutthroat trout because they aren’t nearly as attractive as game fish.

I understand these biologists are charged with preserving the greater good, saving as much natural diversity as possible. They’re job isn’t to make and keep anglers happy. Nonetheless, they still face that political headwind every morning.

Most anglers out on Swan Lake and Whitefish Lake, for example, are after pike, not cutthroat or bull trout. Most anglers out on Canyon Ferry Reservoir are after walleye, not the hatchery-brewed rainbows. Most anglers on Flathead Lake are after lake trout or lake whitefish, not bull trout.

Back to the story in the Missoulian that set Bob off on his anti-pike tirade, well, guess what? The author and his guide fished all day and couldn’t catch a single pike. What does that say? That pike have taken over the Bitterroot River and eaten all the trout. Hardly. To me, it says the river has a few pike lurking in the backwaters peacefully co-existing with all those non-native salmonids.

I do agree with Bob on one point, his disgust with bucket biologists. I wish we’d never had any illegal introductions, but we did! So, now we deal with the reality. Keep in mind that fisheries biologists, not drunken worm fishermen, introduced rainbow and brown trout into our waterways and doomed a lot of native cutthroat populations.

In sum, let’s cool the pike bashing and have a reality check. Pike are where they are, illegally or naturally spread through many western Montana watersheds. We can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube. So, let’s manage this incredible game fish instead of trying to keep the populations as low as possible. I find it humorous that fisheries biologists fear managing this natural resource because they might create more excitement and enthusiasm (translate; political pressure) for pike fishing. To this, I say, ha! It’s way too late.

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Re: Standing Up for Northern Pike

Post by Lucius » Thu Mar 10, 2016 8:18 pm

I liked that article and even made a comment on it back in 2014. Good Article and I glad there are other pike lovers out there.

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