Northern Pike: freshwater fighters
Posted on 11 March 2016
Garrison Reese, left, and Jackson Reese hold a pike caught on Swan Lake. David Reese photo
Dave Reese, Montana Living
There's one species of fish in Montana that has a love/hate relationship with anglers.
Northern pike. The name alone conjures up images of slashing teeth, long slimy bodies and a head like a crocodile. Bring one of these creatures into the boat and you'd better be loaded for bear. They'll tear nets, dump tackle boxes and make a general mess of things if you're not careful. Thick gloves are recommended for prying your lure out of their mouths.
After a day of fighting these bruisers on a northwest Montana lake, a friend of mine said something I'll never forget: "Pike really don't die until they're in the frying pan." Amen to that, brother. I've had the creatures squirm after being in an iced-down cooler for two days on a camping trip. That's the hate part of the relationship.
Despite their ominous appearance and brutish fight, Northern Pike are the tastiest fish for eating. Their white, flaky meat cooks to a light delicacy with hardly any fishy taste, like a trout or salmon. I compare pike to a cod or halibut in terms of taste. That's the love part of the relationship.
While trout populations still beckon the fly angler, pike are becoming more of an attraction in parts of Montana, where you simply can't catch any other species that's as large and as accessible as Northerns. Sure, you can go after lake trout, but to go after the really big ones you need specialized downrigging equipment. For pike, a 1/16th oz. jig with rubber Mister Twister tail will do the trick. Of course, no pike in its right mind can resist a tasty offering of smelt.
Since northern pike were illegally introduced into Lake Sherburne in Glacier National Park in the early 1950s, the predator fish have become a popular fishery in Montana's rivers and lakes.
After the ice breaks on the rivers, lakes and sloughs, pike begin to spawn and become more active when the water temperature hits about 45 degrees.
When the temperature does pick up again, the pike will be found in the shallow, weedy bays of rivers, lakes and sloughs.
The pike has become so predominant that the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks lists 56 Flathead pike-inhabited waters.
On the lower Flathead River, Dixon slough, Buffalo Bridge slough and Agency slough also harbor pike populations. Fishermen note: a tribal permit is needed to fish these waters, and the main Flathead below Kerr Dam is closed to motor boats until June 30.
Keys to catching pike now are putting out smelt on a treble hook (making sure you hang it horizontally), jigging with Mister Twister Tails, or pulling a spoon or spinner past the weed edges, where the pike ambush passing prey.
Red and white daredevils are popular for nailing the pike, as are small Mepps and minnow imitations. Glen Prestegaard of Whitefish, who caught a 38-pound, 47 1/4-inch northern pike in the Whitefish river near downtown Whitefish, said his tool of choice is a 1/8-ounce rooster tail, which he pulls in slowly next to the weeds.
(The state record for pike is 37 pounds, eight ounces, but Prestegaard said he never had his fish officially weighed.)
Later in the season, around mid June, try fishing with a topwater plug, a tactic that can make for exciting action.
Once you have landed a pike, the fun in the kitchen begins.
Prestegaard said his favorite way of cooking the pike is to filet them, then bread and fry the filets in vegetable oil.
With a limit of 15 fish per day, with no size limitations, the DFWP is making an effort to reduce the pike populations. The limit was "originally meant to wipe them out," said Jim Vashro of the Region One office of the DFWP, "but we're not going to wipe them out with fishing."
Although the pike were introduced illegally and they are blamed for the demise of many other fisheries, Vashro said the fishery is welcome "other than the fact that they're out of control.
"All we want people to do is quit moving them."
Despite the reputation of Esox Lucius for being a bully of the streams and lakes, trout and salmon fishermen shouldn't worry that their fisheries are in danger.
According to Vashro, pike feed mainly on forage fish and only 10 percent or less of their diet includes trout or salmon.
But, with their large mouths and razor-like teeth, the pike have become known as the bullies of the waters. They feed on anything from fish to baby ducks. Biologists even found a full-grown muskrat in a pike's stomach.