Northern Pike - Ontario, Canada

One of the reasons I love living in Argentina is the variety of freshwater fish here. But there is one species of fish that I often miss and will soon be able to enjoy again for a week in late June when I take my son fishing for Northern Pike in Ontario, Canada. While others only go after certain kinds of fish, I’m pretty much “fish agnostic”… I’ll try to catch just about anything under the water that has a good fight in it.

As I’ve said in the past, I believe it is always to good thing to review what we think we know about anything having to do with fishing, because we (or at least I) usually learn something new in the process. Let’s start with what most of us already know…

Esox Lucius

Pike, a freshwater fish. The pike has a long, greenish body with lighter or darker markings on the sides. The long, pointed head ends in a snout shaped like a duck’s bill. With its sharp teeth it preys on smaller fish and other small animals, such as frogs and ducklings. Yes, cute cuddly little ducklings. I’ve never actually found a little yellow quacker in the belly of a pike, but it has been mentioned. Since they hunt in the shallows near the coastline, just about anything is fair game.

Northern Pike

The northern pike, or “jackfish”, is the species most popular as a game fish and I’ve read that it is also extensively fished commercially. But if so, it certainly isn’t as common on a restaurant menu as so many other fish and if you ask me, fresh out of the water is the best time to eat pike. They really are delicious. (But only keep what you’re going to eat.)

Although native to Europe and northern Asia, it is common in Canada and the northern United States, including Alaska. The northern pike is olive green on its back, shading to almost white underneath, with light spots on its sides and fins. It may be four feet (1.2 m) long, and may weigh 45 pounds (20 kg) or more.

Pickerel

Small species of pikes are known as pickerels, a name once given only to the young of the northern pike. Sometimes we call the little ones “hammer handles” or “snakes”, but I don’t think those names will get into the science books.

The redfin pickerel weighs about one pound (0.45 kg) and is grayish green with dark bars across its sides. It is native to Ontario and the eastern and central United States south to the Gulf Coast states, and has been introduced into Washington. The grass pickerel, known also as the mud pickerel, is a subspecies of the redfin pickerel, which it resembles. It is found in the eastern United States from Maine to Florida. The chain pickerel, named for the dark, chainlike markings on its sides, can weigh nine pounds (4 kg) or more. It is found from the St. Lawrence River to the lower Mississippi Valley.

Lurking Muskie

Pikes belong to the family Esocidae. The northern pike is Esox lucius; redfin pickerel, E. americanus; grass pickerel, E. a. vermiculatus; chain pickerel, E. niger; muskellunge, E. masquinongy.

The muskellunge is the largest pike. It is found in Canada and the United States, and is highly prized as a game fish. For me as a kid the “Muskie” was sort of the mystical giant that I always hoped I’d catch on one of our family trips and then be paraded around like a hero. The elders would talk about the unusually advanced fishing skills I displayed at my age. I would become a family fishing legend…

Methods

Fly fishing – OF COURSE!!

Pike on the fly

Other effective methods for catching this hard-fighting fish include dead baits, live baits and lure fishing.

“Spot fishing” is a lot of fun. When you are fortunate to have very clear waters, cruise the coastline and see if you can spot a pike. With the sun in your face (on the other side of the pike) you may not be seen and you can toss your fly or lure beyond the pike to watch him attack as you’re bait works by. You can have a lot of fun and enjoy a real adrenaline rush!

Spot Fishing

A practice known as ‘gut hooking’ was previously widely used in catching pike. Upon taking the bait the pike will hold it for a short time in its mouth as it moves off. The pike will then, usually, turn the bait in its mouth so that it sits in alignment with the pike’s throat to ease swallowing.

It is recommended that you set the hook early so that the fish doesn’t have a chance to try and swallow the lure. Setting the hook once it is half down the fish’s throat or  ‘gut hooking’ will normally kill or seriously injure the fish.

Handling

Pike can easily be damaged when handled since they are not as robust as their reputation would suggest. The “slime’ on their body actually protects them in the water and takes a long time to regenerate. Try to minimize the loss of that protective coating.

Since pike have numerous sharp teeth it is wise to take extreme care when unhooking the pike. The use of a wet leather gauntlet and surgical forceps to remove hooks is highly recommended if you are fond of your digits.

Proper Handling

If practicing catch and release fishing, care for the pike should be the pike angler’s utmost concern. The formerly recommended practice of grasping a pike by its eye sockets resulted in countless released pike that quickly died from inability to see prey any longer.

The current recommended method of grasping pike is to close the hand firmly over the gill covers, and to make the period of handling the pike as short as possible before release. Grabbing the pike by the gill covers is not feasible when the pikes are very big (if you should be so lucky), but it is easy to handle the pike by inserting the fingers at the bottom of the gill opening and grabbing the lower jaw. Big pike should also be supported at the belly. When a pike is held this way it is also easier to keep the mouth open to unleash the hooks. Many fishers now use special grips to grab the pikes front lower jaw, which can add to the safety of the anglers because of the danger imposed by the hooks of the lure or tackle and the teeth of the pike.

Pike are pretty famous for throwing “temper tantrums” once in the boat. They seem to be calm and then suddenly throw a fit, wildly fighting to get free. Be very careful that you have a good grip or you might end up with a treble hook through you finger as I did. Not fun having that pulled back out.

Other methods of catching and handing pike which are now frowned upon are the gaff and the gag. The gaff is a metal hook on the end of a pole used to hook through the fish’s body in place of a more humane landing net. A gag is a device for holding open the pike’s mouth whilst unhooking. These are now illegal as they put a huge amount of pressure on a pike’s jaw thus causing irreparable damage.

Mythology and Curious Trivia

Volga River Pike

Russian mythology holds that the pike is one of several forms assumed by evil water spirits called vodyanoy, and a ravenous mythical pike is traditionally blamed for decimating the fish population in the Sheksna River.

“You like Pikeski?”

Russian fairy tales, on the other hand, also tell about an old wise pike that can fulfill wishes of the one who catches it, if its catcher releases it back into its habitat. (Russian Catch and Release – guess they didn’t release many – or maybe they did.)

Putín! Putón!

Speaking of Russians. Vladimir Putin supposedly likes to fish. I’m not sure I’m very fond of his fishing dress code however. You think he could afford a nice fishing shirt and vest. Perhaps they don’t have Cabella’s over there.

Catching a 10 kg pike, “kymppihauki”, is considered as “earning one’s spurs” as a master fisherman in Finland. Those crazy Fins… Who’s gonna wear spurs in a boat…

Perhaps the word comes from the sound the fisherman makes after he’s celebrated with too many adult beverages…or looking at that picture of Putin for too long…  kymppi-HAUKI!!

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