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On the trail of the great northern pike

July 1, 1993

On the trail of the great northern pike

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

“They are mere machines for the assimilation of other organisms.”—George Brown Goode, Natural History of Useful Aquatic Animals, 1884

With the coming of spring this year, I have resolved to fulfill a long-time goal: to catch a great northern pike in the state of Illinois. The closest I have come to accomplishing this angling feat was to watch a fisherman hook and land one from the Kishwaukee River where it flows through Bauman Park. I have caught this denizen of lakes and rivers in France, Alaska, and Canada, but never in my adopted state.

Few, if any, with the exception of man and the pike’s close relative, the muskellunge, on the face of the earth have a greater appetite than that of the great northern pike. It is a voracious feeder and will devour any vertebrate animal it can cram down its cavernous mouth, including birds and mammals.

Years ago, I spent about two weeks at the small village of Galena, Alaska, halfway between Fairbanks and Nome on the Yukon River. A small Air Force base was located at Galena, and a lieutenant whose room I was sharing offered to take me fishing one evening. We were to seek the beautiful, trout-like arctic grayling, so we equipped ourselves with fly rods and streamer flies, which resemble small fish. We had caught two of the elusive grayling when I placed a cast into a weed bed along the shoreline. Something struck the fly immediately and bent my rod almost in half before I recovered and was able to let out line. After about 30 minutes of touch-and-go battling the fish, I was able to bring it close enough to the boat to see that I had hooked a great northern pike. Another half hour passed before I was able to bring the fish in to be netted. It measured 35 inches in length and weighed an estimated 12 to 13 pounds. The nylon leader on my fly line tested at about 8 pounds.

We turned the pike over to the mess sergeant, who in civilian life had been a chef on the Great Northern Railroad. His dining car had featured great northern pike. We watched the sergeant carefully clean and filet my fish and were stunned when he examined the contents of the stomach and found three partially digested ducklings. To say the least, after days of routine military fare, the delicious baked filet of Yukon River pike was most welcome.

Most fishermen have a fondness for the pike because it readily strikes artificial lures and wages a determined battle. It will dive into the depths when impaled on the barb of a hook and frequently lay quietly on the bottom. The angler gets the impression he has hooked into a log or other obstruction until, suddenly, the fish lunges forward, zigzagging around in a chaotic manner and using its heft to try to break the line.

Some biologists believe the pike will strike almost anything that resembles an animal because of its relatively small brain, but others believe it is so insatiable because it fears no living thing. The mouth of the pike is lined with a set of fierce teeth that are replaced as they break off or decay. About the only predators the northern has, other than larger pike, are muskies, and humans armed with rods, reels, and alluring baits.

The northern pike may be distinguished from its first cousin the muskellunge by the fact it has scales on the lower gill covers and a rounded tail, pelvic and pectoral fins. The muskie lacks scales on the lower gill covers and has pointed fins. The markings on the sides of the two species are somewhat different but variable. Sometimes a pike crosses with a muskie and a hybrid known as a tiger muskellunge is produced, combining the anatomical features of its parents. Tigers are sterile and cannot reproduce due to a chromosomal imbalance. A mutant great northern known as the silver pike occurs in some Wisconsin lakes and is rare. It is silver or gray in color but has the other distinguishing features of the species.

A real “fish story” concerns a pike weighing 550 pounds and 19 feet in length that was supposedly caught in Germany in 1497 and preserved in the cathedral of Manheim. Subsequent investigation showed the specimen to be a hoax as it contained the vertebrae of several different fish. But the Manheim Hoax has fueled numerous rumors of gigantic pike lurking in some body of water just waiting to be caught. The record for the pike in the United States is held by a 46-pounder caught in a reservoir in New York in 1940.

When landing a pike without a net, do not attempt to retrieve it from the water by grasping the lower lip as you would with a bass. A mangled hand will result. Some veteran pike anglers suggest inserting your fingers into the eyes of the pike to lift it into the boat, but others equip themselves with a small club or pacifier to administer the coup de grace while the fish is still in the water.

I am going to haunt the Rock, Kishwaukee, and Sugar Rivers this spring in the hope of hooking and landing a pike. If I am not successful, well, there is always next year.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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