Are you a trout fisherman? If so, I hope you savor every cast, every strike, every last fish you bring to the net between now and the day you lay down your rod for good. Enjoy these sleek, spirited gamefish that help make Montana one of the finest fishing destinations in the world. Because your children will be pike fishermen.
Thursday’s Missoulian featured an entertaining story by Joe Nickell, chronicling his guided float down the Bitterroot River to fish for pike. From the perspective of a fly fisherman attempting to hook one of these “freshwater barracudas” (as Joe aptly put it), it was well done. To this third generation Montana trout fisherman who is teaching the sport to his own son, the story pissed me off to no end.
It’s not the writer; it’s certainly not Joe’s guide, Bitterroot River master Jack Mauer; it’s not even the largemouth bass (say what?) they found in the river that chaps my hide. What really steams my olives is the northern pike, the flaming asshole of the aquatic world. With its surly underbite and rapacious appetite, this pugnacious intruder is laying waste to the trout population of Western Montana with such ruthless efficiency, it makes whirling disease look like a paper cut by comparison.
In his story, Nickell touches on the subject of the pike’s introduction to Montana waters, and Mauer even mentions that the imported predator is having a negative impact on trout populations in the Bitterroot. They didn’t go into detail, though; that wasn’t the focus of the article. But I can tell you from firsthand experience that these toothy eating machines are a big problem. Like cable television shows about jobs nobody wants, they seem to have multiplied over the last few years. Only the pike will not be replaced during the summer with reruns of “Ice Road Truckers.” Western Montana is lousy with pike. On the conservation scale, they’re at the complete opposite end from “endangered.” They’re on the end of the scale that says “They’re everywhere—there’s probably one or two of them in the room with you right now.”
My wife Barb and I were enjoying some time alone together on the Clearwater River’s four-mile canoe trail last summer. She lazily paddled in the back, while I lazily cast a small Panther Martin spinner from the front. It was a sunny, early summer afternoon and we were thoroughly digging the scenery, the quietude, and each other. Then I hooked a pike. I never got him into the boat, but it looked to be the size of a car bumper. He wound up towing us all the way into Seeley Lake, with Barb waterskiing behind the canoe for the last half-mile.
Like most trout fishermen, I’m disgusted with the so-called bucket biologists who have introduced the northern pike to our lakes and rivers that up to now have been crammed with trout. Yes, I’m aware that only the Westslope Cutthroat and the bull trout are true natives, but the addition of browns, brookies and rainbows just brought more fun to the party. Lake trout? Not so much. They’re also predacious, feasting on the fry of other, more neighborly trout. The lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush, or “spotted douche bag”) population in Flathead Lake has mushroomed to the point where the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes host an annual tournament, Mack Days, to encourage anglers to keep as many as 50 lake trout apiece every day for a month. No one I talked to had any hard numbers on the effect Mack Days has had on reducing the lake trout population, but once a non-native, predatory species is introduced, you can’t unring that bell. Just ask Sacagawea.
At least the lake trout looks like a trout. The northern pike (Esox lucius, literally “delicious stockings”) looks like a dragon that swallowed a fire extinguisher. We are talking about one repugnant beast, and it has an attitude to match. They just don’t belong here. In Montana, they are native only in the Saskatchewan River drainage in eastern Glacier Park. Marine biologists tend to agree that it was sometime in the 1950’s that the first pike were brought to western Montana waters, and my guess is that it was probably courtesy of some Schlitz-guzzling worm fisherman. Now they can be found in every single drainage west of the Divide. Same goes for the pike.
I spoke with Ladd Knotek of the Missoula office of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Dept., and his outlook for the containment of the spread of northern pike in Western Montana is downright grim.
“People don’t grasp the fact that once they’re in there, it’s impossible to get them out. And they’re there forever,” he said. You know, like herpes. Currently, the worst situation, pike-wise, seems to be the Clearwater River drainage and its chain of lakes stretching from Rainy Lake, north of Seeley, all the way down to Salmon Lake, just a few miles north of where the Clearwater dumps into the Blackfoot River. Salmon Lake, in fact, has become known more for pike than for trout. Native bull trout used to thrive in the lake, but the only bull trout that are found now are the juveniles in the bellies of the northern pike.
They’re also known as the American pike, the common pike, the slough shark, or the Rahm Emanuel of the sea. This crocodile-faced critter is a voracious predator that will eat anything that moves: fish, frogs, insects, ducklings, and very small moose. Interestingly, the only fish that seems to be safe from their massive, bristling jaws is the pumpkinseed fish. The pumpkinseed, which sounds like it was named by an interior decorator, is flat and round, like a bluegill, and if you’ve ever tried to take one off your hook, you know it has a stiff row of what feels like sewing needles along its back. Since the northern pike will eat any living thing from a deerfly to your neighbor’s cat, it can live without the pumpkinseed fish.
The very presence of northern pike in the Bitterroot River should send a chill down the spine of anyone who is interested in seeing Montana’s blue ribbon trout fisheries managed successfully. Any waterway that has backwaters and eddies, like the lower Bitterroot, will probably have pike, said Knotek. They’re able to spawn and thrive among the aquatic vegetation in the slower, warmer water. Thick weeds and underwater plants also provide cover so they can hang back and wait to lunge at their prey, like state troopers parked behind an overpass on the freeway.
Fishing derbies like Mack Days are not necessarily a good idea for managing the pike population, Knotek explained. It’s a paradox: if we try to encourage more anglers to fish for pike, in a few years they’ll be clamoring for a managed pike fishery, he said.
There is some hope, if Montana fishermen are willing to take some steps in the right direction. In some states, like Maine and California, where the northern pike is not native, fishermen are required to remove the heads of any pike they catch. I say let’s take it a step further, and put those heads on a small stake at the edge of the water, as a warning to other pike.
Also, pike can be easily damaged if handled. If you grab them with dry hands, you can wipe off the mucous on their skin that protects them from infection. Here’s an idea: if you land a pike, grab that thing with a sheet of 80-grit sandpaper. Then punch it in the face before you throw it in the bushes. Believe me, they have it coming.[Bookmark NewWest.net/BobWire and check frequently for the latest in, uh, outdoor adventure.]