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Pike Through the Ice

In winter, Seeley Swan lakes freeze solid and attract scores of ice fishermen from all over. Salmon Lake has been particularly popular in recent years, where fishermen go after the northern pike, introduced illegally a number of years ago and a threat to other lake species as detailed by Suzanne Vernon for the Pathfinder in the article below. Above left is a view of Seeley Lake and trees draped in winter's delight. At right, a fisherman prepares his fishing hole, with nearby ice auger, at ice-covered Salmon Lake, while in the background a cross-country skier traverses the lake.

Pike Through the Ice

By Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
February, 1996

Fishermen started walking out onto the frozen surface of area lakes during the Christmas holiday, drilling holes through the ice and setting up baited lines at daybreak. Winter anglers are drawn to these waters from freeze-up to February, in search of trout, kokanee salmon, and northern pike.

Northern pike? They are new to the Clearwater drainage, and the mere mention of that toothy gamefish is sparking animated debate among local sportsmen.

Whether you love them or you hate them, northern pike appear to be here to stay. Their presence will affect the future of the sports fishery in the Clearwater Valley.

There are basically two schools of thought regarding the northern pike. On the one hand are the anglers who love the pike's fighting spirit, large size and flavorful meat. Opposing arguments come from those who despise the pike because of his reputation for ruining good trout and bass waters.

Gill net surveys conducted in the fall of 1995 by biologists with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks found northern pike in five Clearwater Valley lakes: Salmon, Placid, Seeley, Inez and Alva. Pike densities were highest in Salmon Lake and Lake Inez; pike were present, but scarce, in the other lakes, according to Rod Berg, fisheries biologist from Missoula.

The northern pike were illegally introduced, Berg explained, and could have been "bucketed" here as long as ten years ago. However, biologists didn't have proof that the pike were successfully invading local waters until recent years.

Last fall's gill net surveys showed "significant numbers" of pike in Salmon Lake and Lake Inez. They also showed an overall decline in salmonid populations (trout, kokanee and whitefish). In Salmon Lake, bull trout showed the highest decline.

"In 15 gill net sets in Salmon Lake, where we have historically always sampled bull trout, the only bull trout we found were juveniles in the stomachs of northern pike," Berg explained.

Northern pike can be ravenous predators. They are equipped with sharp teeth and powerful, alligator-like jaws. Given the opportunity, they will gorge themselves on all sizes of fish, leeches, frogs, and waterfowl.

In suitable habitat, pike will average about five pounds in size. They will grow considerably larger if they have an abundant food supply. A survey done about ten years ago in the slow-moving sloughs and backwaters of the Flathead Valley found northern pike weighing up to thirty pounds. They had been illegally introduced in the Flathead sometime before the 1960s.

Pike have apparently had an adequate food supply in Salmon Lake and Lake Inez. Fishermen have caught pike ranging in size from 12 to over 20 inches. However, Berg warns that the pike are in the process of "cleaning out" Salmon Lake of salmonids, and are upsetting the balance in both Salmon Lake and Lake Inez.

"Bull trout and westslope cutthroat have lived ecologically in balance with the system in the Clearwater drainage for many, many years. We don't feel that northern pike will have the ability to do that. They will eventually decline in size and condition because there isn't sufficient food to sustain them," Berg said.

In the meantime, while pike may be cleaning out the trout and kokanee in Salmon Lake, fishermen appear to be doing their best to clean out the pike. Last winter, a drive along Highway 83 near Salmon Lake provided evidence that the onslaught of fishermen might be equal to the onslaught of fish. By the time ice fishing season peaked in the Clearwater Valley last winter, a line-up of ice houses and fishermen covered a considerable distance along the west shore of Salmon Lake.

With eight or ten inches of steel leader above their hooks, winter anglers baited their lines, used a variety of jigs and plastic worms, and proceeded to go about the business of trying to hook a large northern and land him topside through a hole in the ice.

The debate about the worthiness of pike as a gamefish will continue as long as anglers keep illegally introducing northern pike into waters dear to trout and bass fishermen. These illegal introductions are forcing fisheries biologists to consider new management plans for the lakes in the Clearwater valley.

"In order to sustain a pike fishery, forage fish would need to be added to the system. To restore salmonid populations, we would have to control pike numbers. It would be challenging to find the means to do that in a large system such as the Clearwater drainage," Berg said.

Fishing for Pike....

Anglers can attract pike with cut bait or a variety of lures, jigs and plugs similar to those suitable for bass fishing. Eight to ten inches of steel leader is recommended, because the pike's sharp teeth will cut ordinary fishing line.

The peak seasons for pike fishing are spring and fall, when they are most active. However, they feed all winter and can be caught through the ice over weed beds in water ten to twenty feet deep. They generally like lakes, sloughs or slow moving water, and avoid strong currents.

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