Northern Pike…Toothy, Bony, and Delicious
By: Michael Rogers
I must admit to zero experience with the Northern Pike as a child and not much more as an adult. As a casual angler, I’ve typically been more focused on species like salmon and halibut, and more rarely, on Grayling and trout. In my “middle youth”, I’ve decided to approach angling a little more seriously and when I heard stories of a decent population of pike in a nearby lake…I knew I had to figure it out. After seeing photos of these fine specimen on social media (Like the one below from Drifterz Paradise), the decision was made.
For those not familiar, Northern Pike (Esox lucius) are a relatively large predatory fish that inhabits northern latitudes. While Northern Pike tend to average somewhere in the 16-22 inch range, much larger fish are out there. The North American pike record is a 52-inch fish that tipped the scales at 49 pounds and pike in Europe tend to be considerably larger on average with a 69 pound pike caught in pre-war Leningrad in 1930. Fish over 40 inches or 15 pounds, while not exactly common, occur regularly and represents the minimum for a “Catch and Release” Trophy Certificate from Alaska Fish and Game. Our friend Rachel Conner caught one in the Susitna River system in the winter that was in this category, as the photo below shows.
Northern Pike tend to display a well-defined sexual dimorphism with females being significantly larger than males. Researchers report that any pike over 18 pounds is almost certainly a female and if pike conservation is a concern, should be released unharmed. In some lakes, Northern Pike have been illegally introduced and ADFG mandates that those pike are killed upon landing and not returned to the water so reading and understanding the regulations for your water are important.
Pike have one of the highest rates of egg production with one of the lowest rates of fry survival. Pike spawn in spring, just after ice out and it represents the most productive time for anglers to target pike. Males will typically arrive at the shallow breeding areas first and will remain after spawned females retreat to deeper waters. Once the water temperature reaches 43F, the spawn will begin and last approximately two to three weeks. Pike will return to the shallows in high summer, after the lily pads mature, but as solitary hunters rather than in a school.
It was during this spring spawning season that we pursued our local pike. It took several trips to find the pike and find the spawning area, but after we did…the pike did not disappoint. Pike are aggressive natured fish and will pursue almost anything smaller than they are. Productive baits were spinner baits, pixies, and soft swim baits that mimicked small fish. As a lateral line equipped apex predator, lures that are loud and flashy tend to encourage the most action in the spring season. Territorial and aggressive, pike tend to hit first and figure out what it is later.
While pike are almost exclusively predatory on other fish, in high summer they hunt among lily pad fields and eat frogs, mice, and even ducklings that they find at the edges. An acquaintance of mine has a favorite mouse lure that he swears is deadly on large pike on hot days. He simply pitches it onto a lily pad and pulls it off into the water. For the fly fisherman, a “baby bird” fly or top-water popper is the go-too tackle. Since pike have a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, a stout leader of wire or heavy mono is essential and a release device is a good idea for unhooking fish. A pike would have no qualms about closing on your finger and extracting a chunk.
Once we found the pike area, we pitched spinners and pixies on wire leaders on medium heavy spinning gear backed with 30lb braid- a fairly normal salmon rig. While it was overkill for the “hammer handles” we caught, it was well advised on the larger fish. We caught several mid sized fish in the 25 inch range we believed to be females that we released and retained several males that were destined for a fish fry. Pike did not disappoint when they struck a lure, the strike was hard and fast with no time to set the hook. It was as if you suddenly found yourself with a 10 pound fish at the end of your line, thrashing for all its worth- a far different experience from folks used to seeing “nibbles” at a bait and a slow take. Pike are capable, fast and strong and the effect was like hooking into a torpedo.
A lot of folks misunderstand pike anatomy and they have a reputation as a difficult fish to filet. Part of it is well deserved. Unlike a salmonid, they have a “Y-bone” structure and it results in conventional filets with a number of fine bones in them. A number of pike preparations, such as pickled pike, just turn the bones soft enough to eat. A number of filet techniques can yield boneless pieces, just be aware that it can be a bit fiddly. I found a good technique demonstrated on YouTube and it worked well for a rank amateur. Pike have a firm, white, flaky flesh that is incredibly mild flavored. From hearing reports, I expected a strong game fish taste but instead got a fish that tasted milder than any halibut I’ve had.
I’m sure pike can be fixed in any number of preparations, but for ours we chose a typical “fish and chips” style meal. We simply beer battered and deep fried them in peanut oil and served them with French fried potatoes and hushpuppies. The thin pieces cooked fast and the breading had the characteristic crunch while maintaining a moist interior. With some malt vinegar, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a better fish dinner in my life.
I’m already looking forward to July and creeping among the lily pads in my kayak in pursuit of these prehistoric predators.
A big pike swallowed a smaller (yet still large) tagged pike. Video courtesy of Savanna Van Diest