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Some of Us Think Northern Pike are Tops

While row-trolling alone on a Northwoods lake a few dawns ago, I briefly wondered what I’d say if Jesus settled into the coxswain’s seat and asked:


“OK, Baldy, I’ll let you catch a 10-pound walleye or a 20-pound northern pike between now and sunset. You have 5 seconds to decide, or you catch neither. What’ll it be?”


I’d respond: “Well, the 20-pound pike, of course. Now, what’s my bonus when cashing in the unused 4.5 seconds?”


Why Jesus would ask such a question, I don’t know. He already knows everything.


But I’ve loved northern pike since catching a 4-pounder on a crappie minnow with a Zebco 202 spin-casting reel in grade school. I loved pike even more years later after learning how to remove the Y-bones from their upper fillets before cooking them.


Besides, I caught a 10-pound walleye on the Fox River a few years ago, and its mount hangs above our fireplace. Not only that, but I never feel guilty about keeping and eating a pike, a scorn you risk when catching a big muskie or even a “hawg” walleye, depending on who’s nosing around the boat landing.


Plus, I’ve often wanted to “Pepsi-challenge” a table of blindfolded fish-eating snobs who dismiss northern pike, call them “slimers,” and claim they’re unfit for the neighbor’s cat. In my taste-test I’d serve pike and walleye side by side, cooked and presented the same way, and assault the taste-testers’ palates with dogfish (bowfin) for wrong answers.


OK. So maybe I’m defensive about pike. But I admire them. They’ll fight you all the way to the boat, pause while you net them, and then resume thrashing, flailing and fiercely flopping once aboard. They’ll sometimes fight so viciously inside the boat that you see blood, forcing you to pause and assess if it’s you or them who’s hit.


In addition, I respect the pike’s cold indifference to the spotlight. Unlike bass or walleyes, you’ll never see pike posing for selfies on weigh-in stages, let alone have tournaments named for them, and their likeness printed on banners outside the media tent.


One must respect such disinterest from a fish so international in its range. Northerns are circumpolar in the northern hemisphere’s brackish and freshwater habitats north of the 40th parallel. In other words, you’ll find them around the globe from Alaska to Russia, and as far south as a line from Reno, Nevada, to Pennsylvania’s southern border.


Plus, they’re just a nasty, territorial, mean-spirited, cool-looking fish that eats baby ducks and swimming mice without apology. Even their name, “pike,” has fierce roots, being that it resembles a pike; the heavy, long-shafted spear European infantrymen used from the Middle Ages till the 18th century.


In fact, northern pike are so spiteful that other fish avoid their feces because it contains “alarm” pheromones. I pause here to attribute my source: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That detail implies fish are naturally attracted to feces left by other fish species, but I found no rankings of fish feces most favored by other fish.


Pike also feel no obligation to make humans prosperous. The F&WS reports many people have tried and failed to rear northern pike in captivity for food and profit. But pike never cooperate. Unlike trout, salmon, catfish, bluegills, tilapia, yellow perch and many other submissive species, northern pike would rather starve than live on fish farms. They simply won’t eat artificial foods when held in captivity.


That’s fascinating, given that northerns are the one fish that strikes when everything else ignores your lures and baits. No one ever accuses walleyes of ensuring you go home with fish.


Granted, the pike doing that kind of striking are usually small “hammer handles,” but not always. Sometimes the biggest pike smash baits just about the time you’re convinced the DNR removed everything from your fishing hole. I wonder if that’s what happened when J.A. Rahn caught Wisconsin’s record pike in August 1952, a 38-pound, 45½-inch brute on Lake Puckaway in Green Lake County.


I’m sure someone somewhere disputes the weight, length and legitimacy of Rahn’s big-pike record. After all, someone always doubts fishing records, especially those set many decades ago. But barring overwhelming evidence, such records stand until defeated by bigger fish.


Or bigger liars, such as Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who posed with a large northern pike six years ago that, to my untrained eyes, looked to weigh about 18 pounds. Putin apparently caught the pike while fishing in Siberia, and the Kremlin claimed it weighed over 20 kilograms, or 44 pounds, minimum. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he witnessed the weigh-in, and insisted the pike weighed 46 pounds.


A fisheries expert in the United Kingdom, Dr. Bruno Broughton, was skeptical when studying pictures of Putin’s pike. “It’s certainly a large pike, and President Putin can be justifiably proud of catching it,” he said. “However, the fish probably measures about 34 to 36 inches and could, at most, weigh 20 pounds.”


Broughton went on to say a 44- to 46-pound pike would measure at least 48 inches, and more likely, over 50 inches. The world record is a 55-pound pike caught in Germany in 1986.


All that makes me wonder if I answered my imaginary question from Jesus too quickly. Maybe I should have paused thoughtfully and asked, “How about making my pike bigger than Putin’s”?


I can hear Jesus’ reply: “OK, 20 pounds it is.”


Northern pike are an aggressive, territorial, fine-tasting fish that live above the 40th parallel worldwide, which in the U.S. is basically everything north of a line from Reno, Nevada, to southern Pennsylvania. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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