It is Saturday and here I am slaving away writing a column for next Thursday’s paper. I am sitting on the deck of my cabin on Crystal and Lavon Lakes in the Thompson Chain of Lakes. It is about 70 degrees and sunny.
This morning I had to go out to do some data gathering for this column. I had the lake to myself and brought back a nice fat 13-inch rainbow and 17-inch kokanee for tonight’s dinner. Life at the lake is a tough assignment, but someone has to do it.
But this week I want to write about one of Montana’s lesser-known fish, Esox lucius. For those of you who are not into scientific names, you know this fish by its common name, the northern pike.
One of my favorite fishing magazines is In-Fisherman. It claims to be the “The World’s Foremost Authority on Freshwater Fishing.” Few would dispute that claim. The June issue featured the magazine’s Master Angler list of the largest trophy fish caught by anglers in North America. Most of these fish are photographed, measured and released. That is great sportsmanship.
Montana is well-known for world-class stream trout fishing for rainbow, brown and other trout species. But none of these Montana fish species made it on the In-Fisherman list of big fish and master anglers.
Only one Montana fish made this well-respected list. That was a 41-inch monster northern pike caught by a fisherman from Belgrade. That fish was caught in Smith Lake just west of Kalispell. That fish was not weighed, but was probably around 20 pounds.
An even larger 30-pound monster northern pike, 47 inches long, was caught in Smith Lake in 2010. That fish graces the wall in Snappy’s. A 36-pound northern pike was caught in the Lower Flathead River. Pike are now found in dozens of Western Montana lakes and streams.
Last week, a friend, Foster Swan, showed me a picture of himself with a 20-pound northern pike recently caught in Swan Lake. He estimated that fish was close to four feet long. What made that fish really special is that he was on a guided fishing trip that his sons gave him as a Father’s Day present. He was fishing with MoFisch Charters out of Lakeside. While MoFisch fishes a lot on Flathead Lake, the outfit also fishes other local lakes. Swan also caught this fish on his 75th birthday.
This large northern pike was caught on only a six-pound line without the normal steel leader used for these toothy pike. That was a trophy fish of a lifetime caught on a very special day. That fish was released back into Swan Lake.
If you think these pike are huge, much larger pike of 50 to 68 pounds have been caught in Germany and other Eastern Europe countries. Pike can grow very big!
What makes these local big fish an interesting story is that northern pike are almost an unmanaged fishery in this part of Montana. I know of dozens of local fishermen that specifically fish for pike. Pike tend to be easy to catch, fight like the devil and are good eating. In Smith Lake you can easily catch 20 to 30 small pike in a short afternoon of fishing. This is fun fishing.
Fishery managers tend to discriminate against this great fish because it is non-native and not in keeping with Montana’s trout emphasis. Whether you love them or hate them, they are here to stay, can never be eradicated and are a great sport fish.
In the eastern half of the United States, where pike are native and a revered fish, bag limits are only three to four fish per day and many lakes have slot limits to allow pike to grow old and big. In Western Montana the daily bag limit is 15 fish, which is an eradication-type limit. I know a lot of fishermen who would like to see Fish, Wildlife and Parks recognize the importance of northern pike as a great fish and begin quality management of this fine fish species.
Montana’s fabled stream trout fishery is almost entirely about catching non-native rainbows, non-native browns and non-native brook trout, so why not some non-native northern pike management?
Have a safe Fourth of July on your favorite lake or stream.