A fisherman pulls a fish from the water on to the boat at sunset. (Dudarev Mikhail/123rf.com)

Pike: The ‘gator’ of the northern lakes

If you were a god or a mad scientist (or both) looking to create a primordial freshwater monster to strike terror into the hearts of fish, a pike would be a pretty good template to start with.

Northern Pike (Esox lucius) — which grow to ten or 15 pounds, with far larger fish reported — are a common, widespread species across the North. These powerful fish — sometimes called “Jackfish” — are long, muscular soft-rayed fish (meaning their fins have articulated bone structures). They have a well-developed dorsal fin positioned close to the tail, without an adipose fin (the small fin which is sometimes found behind the dorsal fin in other fish) and a long, beak-like mouth, the lower mandible of which juts out over the upper. They have thick, well-defined scales and are dark green to olive brown in colour with lighter-coloured spots and darker banding on the tail and fins.

Northern pike should not be confused with their larger, closely-related but southerly cousin, the muskellunge or ‘muskie’ (Esox masquinongy), although the two are so closely related that interbreeding is possible. That a hybrid between these two species is referred to as a “tiger muskellunge” speaks volumes about the nature of the pike family in general.

Pike are thought to be named after a type of medieval spear, for which the root is the Old French piquer — “to pierce” — which is a very accurate description of the way they move in the water. Unlike many other fish, says Environment Yukon fish biologist Cameron Sinclair, pike are “essentially sedentary” and are not designed for long distance or constant motion. Instead, they like to remain in a general area and — having a higher tolerance for warmer water, high carbon dioxide and lower oxygen levels than most other northern fish — that usually means shallow, weedy areas in lakes or the stiller, slow back-eddies of rivers, he says. Pike hunt and feed using an aggressive burst of speed, hurtling from a dead stop to a full-throttle attack and striking their target just like a spear.

Pike breed in the spring, congregating shortly after ice-off, Sinclair says. During spawning, females — which are often larger than their male counterparts — can be found swimming with courting males following behind.

Unlike many members of the Salmondae family, like lakers and grayling, pike display no nesting behaviour and do not make a redd, a kind of nest in the lake or river bottom. Instead, female pike simply release their eggs and males fertilize them in a cloud of semen, called milt. The eggs are sticky, which allows them to cling to the vegetation pike are so often found amongst, where they cling until they hatch.

How long this takes is “entirely dependent on water temperature” says Sinclair, with pike having a preference for warmer conditions, which is quite unusual among northern fish. At lower temperatures, it can take up to a month and a half to hatch but in warmer weather – say 20 C – baby pike begin to emerge as early as a week later. They grow very quickly, especially when food is readily available and are recognizable as small pike, not fingerlings, by the end of their first year.

Although they primarily dine on other fish, pike will take anything that gets close enough, including frogs, birds and small mammals — a popular southern pike lure is one that mimics a mouse’s tail or a frog’s hind legs, and many anglers swear by old bacon as a sure-catch bait. Once in their jaws, prey is unlikely to escape — pike possess multiple rows of extremely sharp teeth that set into their prey like a fishhook, allowing them to “grab and not let go,” says Sinclair.

This feeding tactic is not unlike that of alligators, and like alligators, pike will eat pretty much anything, which — along with their impressive size and tasty, firm white flesh — makes them a popular sport fish with anglers, Sinclair notes. They go after a wide variety of lures, including spoons, plugs and spinners, in part because they have such a varied diet which even includes cannibalizing smaller pike if other, easier prey is not available, Sinclair says.

Those wicked fish-smashing teeth are so sharp that pike can easily bite through monofilament line, even high-tensile, high quality stuff, and a savvy angler knows to use a long and heavy-strength leader when fishing for pike or risk losing their quarry when they turn and snap themselves free.

Likewise, those same muscles which help propel a pike forward after prey can break a line when a caught pike is being reeled in, especially if your drag — the tension on the line — is set too high. Many an angler has known the frustration of having a pike just about in the boat, only to lose it when the fish twists and lashes its whip-like body with tremendous force, snapping both lure and leader from the line and taking off with a splash and a furious explosion of speed.

Pike are from a “very old lineage” of fish, and still possess a floating “Y bone,” the original purpose of which — aside from making pike notoriously difficult to fillet — in predecessor ancestors is uncertain, says Sinclair.

Despite their war-like design, pike are living creatures and should be handled with the same care and respect as any other animal, whether an angler is practicing catch and release techniques or keeping them to eat. Even where permitted by regulations, treble hooks — those with three tines, which often come on purchased lures as a default — can cause unnecessary damage and suffering to smaller fish or fish that escape.

In this humble reporter (and very avid angler’s) opinion, a single-tined, barbless hook is a more honourable, humane and sporting choice, regardless of what regulations allow when fishing for pike in an area.

Recent studies have shown that fish definitely feel pain. As a 2018 article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, fish not only act in ways that demonstrates this capacity, but possess nocireceptors — designed to sense dangerous or harmful chemicals or environments and cause the body to respond — and produce the same opioid painkillers as mammals do when hurt.

Although their exact numbers in the territory are uncertain, pike populations are considered stable and healthy in the Yukon, Sinclair says. As an apex predator, pike can accumulate high levels of contaminants, such as mercury, but are generally safe and healthful to eat. Of note, though, is their propensity to accumulate parasites, such as tapeworms, but that’s nothing to be alarmed about, he notes — simply cook fresh pike to an internal temperature of 70 C or freeze them for seven days to kill any living wigglies.

For more information about angling for pike, consult fishing regulations for a lake near you at http://www.env.gov.yk.ca/hunting-fishing-trapping/fishingregulations.php.

Contact Lori Fox at editor@yukon-news.com