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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. The northern pike 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.

Northern Pike: A**holes of the Fishing World

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.

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  1. that’s a lot of crazy talk right there.

  2. “Pike are easily damaged”

    Surely you jest. It’s damn near impossible to kill them. I have no doubt that the first pike in western Montana must have hitchhiked over in the wheel well of a boat trailer. They live out of water like those Florida snake fish.

    I like the idea of removing their heads and pitting them on sticks.

    “Pike on pikes”

  3. HA! Pretty funny, Chuck. I remember fishing for something called grunts when I was a kid in Florida. They would actually grunt for an hour after you caught them. Once we even heard them grunt after we’d buried them next to my mom’s rose bushes. Now that was a tough fish.
    Thanks for reading.

  4. Jeff Foglesong Peters Creek Alaska

    We have the same issues in Alaska with those fish. The only way to deal with them is to catch and throw as many of those bastards on the bank as humanly possible. I suggest the same tactics to the trout bums of Montana. Death to the hammer handles.

  5. Jack fish or Canadian Carp as the locals call ’em in La Ronge, SK. I’ve caught some monsters up there and it was a blast, but I don’t eat carp.
    You are spot on here Bob, the Montana fishery you have will cease to exist in a few short years. The jacks will eat everything. I hope your Typhoid Mary fish biologist doesn’t infect Idaho with the same stupidity.

  6. now that’s funny right there.

  7. Yo Bob. There is a grunt that is native to Eastern Montana as well. The Freshwater Drum or Sheepshead. It too is on the decline due to invasive species.

    Lake trout catch from Flathead Lake has pretty much flatlined for the last few years at 40,000 to 50,000 fish. Biologists believe that it will take a minimum of 60,000 lake trout removed to have even a slight effect on the population. Lake trout populations in Flathead Lake continue to increase as evidenced by declining size and smaller size at maturity. Lake trout in the lake now outnumber native bull trout by 100:1. Angler pressure alone ain’t going to help our native fish.

  8. Lucky, that looks like the critter. I found that the one we fished for in an Escambia Bay backwater in Pensacola is the Black Drum. And I have to correct myself: we didn’t call them grunts, we called them croakers.
    We were catching 14-18″ croakers on pieces of shrimp. The guy at the shrimp shack would ask us if we were going to use the shrimp for bait for for food. We didn’t know why it mattered, but he told us bait was 50¢/lb, and food was 75¢/lb. (Yes, it was a long time ago.)

  9. All the while, MDFWP maintains a robust “warm-water fisheries program” in NW Montana. What do they have against wild trout? With no real laws to protect trout habitat, MDFWP goes with the political flow in Helena, which has always favored major industrial polluters.

  10. Bob, We used freshwater clams. Strip ’em outa the shell and hook ’em up. Here’s your chance. Fishin’ should be hot on the lower Milk right about now. Pick up a few “croakers” and your roses will be looking fine in no time.

  11. This has been one of the best reads I have ever came across.

    Although I think it worked in a reverse kind of way…All I can think about now is putting a trout on a hook and catching pike with his slimy exterior and flavorless interior.

  12. Boy will I get creamed but I love to fish for trout and Pike. Every spring we go to the chain lakes of Coeur D Alene and fish with smelt and herring on bobbers. The only way to get rid of them in a watershed is to catch them. With thousands going to Canada every year and their raising their fees to gouge us perhaps advertising the fact they are abundant and welcome those who like pike fishing to thin them out. Certainly rivers like the bitterroot and clearwater would not draw fishermen but the big lakes would and this is probably where the pike originated moving from the lakes to the rivers. Like them or not they are a fighter and if you have the know how to filet them properly the meat is excellent. At this time we are looking for property in the Flathead area to enjoy the pike fishing and lake trout. Fly fishing for them is increasing in popularity.The only way to get rid of them is catchem.

  13. Can’t we get creative here and make some money? How about a locavore cat food industry based on Northern Pike?

  14. Bob, you are just another yuppie outdoorsman who floods our rivers (like an invasive species yourself). To hell with Trout. I would rather catch a pike for several reasons. They fight harder, they taste better, and are prettier. I hope the pike eat all the browns and rainbows!

  15. I know when I look at Bob, the first thing that pops in to my mind is yuppie.

  16. Bravo, Bob!

  17. Give me a 9 foot 9 weight and a big leach pattern and I will catch Pike all day long. Better eaten, better fight when hooked up and Yuppie Trout Unlimited members hate them

    Enough Said!

  18. I’ve never eaten pike. How does it really taste?

  19. I hope the pike eat all of your non native trout species. That would be awesome. Pike are fantastic for eating when the Y bones are carefully cut out. Nice white flaky fillets that are awesome when fried in a beer batter.

    Wah I cant foul hook as many brownies when the mean old pike eat them. Boo hoo. I second the Yuppie comments. Get off your elitist high horse. You probably have more invasive species stuck to your waders. If trout are natives they should be better evolved to the environment and should have no problems.

  20. Too bad the pike were not on the native American menu in W. Montana. Judge Boldt would have given them half of them, and you had to wait until they caught their half. It only takes a decade of so and then there are not enough to justify a fishery. Or so the Washington crab, salmon, halibut and blackcod fishermen say.

    The bigger the predator, the sooner they get contaminated by PCBs, all sorts of carcinogens, and the fat contains a lengthy list of pesticides. Eat them and shorten your life. Or at least that is the common line from the nanny state.

    Overfishing is the reason the average maritime nation of the world is now focused on catching seafood, mainly fish, that once was not in the top 25 preferred species sought 100 years ago. A commercial pike season, with a good market for “wild” caught pike, would put a kink in their numbers and accretion of habitat use.

    Those grass carp that we see on the upper Mississippi River that are the threat to the Great Lakes invite thinking out of the box. Find an Asian market, take proper care of the fish, with IQF tunnels or good cooling aboard the boats, and you will soon be worried about their being “overfished.” And then there will be a by-catch issue, and the pike or carp fishermen will be accused of keeping or killing non-target species….

    But, the whole purpose of the Feds is to ensure that there is “species diversity” and to that end, we should not have any extractive industries on public land. I guess the pike are a solution, not a problem.

  21. I thought everyone was worried about wolves?

  22. Duh! Pike are to trout what wolves are to elk. It is just they are underwater, and there are no pike faeries looking through big optics to see them consume another salmonid. Maybe you should ask the Wilderness Society to have pike safaris to watch them kill other fish.

    When you introduce a new guy with a totally meat diet into the landscape, whether above water or below, things change, and not in ways the maintain the status quo.

    Learn how to hunt wolves, and fish for pike. They will limit your options to taking deer, elk, moose and trout. Man is a competitor in this deal. Someone else changed your life for you. Welcome to America and the tyranny of the voting urban majority.

  23. I just caught a 40lb. 2oz. Northern Pike in Idaho. We are known up here for our trout fishing. aside from catching the largest pike in the state (so far) I think I just gave several trout anglers a better chance of catching a fish or two for the next several years.

  24. I am going to have to agree with the whole “yuppie” thing. I like pike. They are fun to catch, great to eat and as for that comment earlier about pike being the underwater wolves, you don’t eat wolves.