The northern pike can attain massive sizes, especially in the vast, remote, and virtually unknown watersheds of Alaska’s Yukon River drainage. As pike angler Boris Popov says, “Nowhere else in North America can you truly pioneer an area where the odds of catching a 30-pound-plus pike are as good as anywhere in the world.”
Layers of gray hang in defiance of the promised sun. What there is of terra firma nearby exists as mere clumps of soggy earth, chaotically arranged between the myriad waters that stretch out like so many veins of life. Space is pronounced up here, the surrounding landscape as vast as the heavens that loom overhead.
The flat-bottomed riverboat softly sways on water so still one forgets there is any breeze at all. An angler’s arm arcs back for a final time, the rod loads in a deliberate forward stroke, and line sails into the crisp spring air, settling lazily on the undisturbed surface. He strips once, then twice; short, quick movements of his hand, as he fully descends into that murky realm between feeling and understanding that only anglers share. His eyes follow the inkling of a wake that trails the bulky fly, and the world grows dull.
There are other eyes following the streamer creation, for beneath the placid exterior lurks one of the planet’s fiercest ambush predators. Old Eskimo and Athabaskan lore recalls giant marauders willing to take on the largest of prey, even man. It’s in those haunted waters that the angler works his fly.
As he strips line and the surface ripples spread into a tailing V, the devilfish lies in wait. Like a tyrant it stalks these northern waters, its baleful golden eyes searching for that ideal opportunity to spring from the shallows in a lightning swift strike. Suddenly there is a swish of movement. Breathing stops, the water swirls, and the fly disappears in an explosion of sight and sound. The line snaps tight and the rod buckles as an angler and his quarry begin their timeless dance. It’s a scene of exhilaration, a battle waged against only the most rapacious of freshwater fish—a battle waged only when the hunter becomes the hunted.
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The northern pike has been harpooned with a much-maligned existence in Alaska, for many of the reasons that make it such a sought-after species in other regions of the world. Old Sourdoughs and commercial fishermen alike disdained the species. Tradition and life itself revolved around the Pacific salmon, and the pike, with its well-earned reputation as a piscivorous glutton, was viewed as a threat. It still is in many Alaskan eyes today.
This stealthy predator makes its living by vanishing into bottom structure and submerged weed beds and then simply waiting for its prey to swim by. With a powerful thrust of its tail, the pike will rocket from its hiding place to attack. Concentrating on larger forage, they will often swallow fish a third their own length, sometimes even attempting to eat prey over one-half their size or larger. This insatiable penchant to feed, coupled with the tremendous size mature specimens have been known to achieve, makes the pike an inviting target for sport fishers the world-over. It’s one case where the nature of the fish and the nature of the fisherman combine to form the perfect compliment to each other.
Northern pike are opportunistic, voracious feeders programmed to eliminate the weak. Their keen predatory disposition is matched with endowments perfectly suited for the job. Their coloring varies and often depends on the waters where the fish can be found, an evolutionary development that relates to their ability to conceal themselves. In clear water under a bright sun, their visual acuity is excellent, especially upward and to either side, which allows them to hold in concealment while scanning their territory for another victim. The inner ear and a long lateral line detect the slightest vibration, another advantage in locating prey. Once located, that prey doesn’t have a chance. A single, soft-rayed dorsal fin situated far back on the body works in conjunction with ventral and tail fins to provide incredible acceleration, aiding the slender, almost serpentine pike in both open-water pursuit and when attacking quarry from cover. After arriving at their destination, the pike employs the approximately 700 backward-slanting canine teeth that adorn its duck-billed jaws, tongue, gillrakers, and the roof of its mouth to grip and devour the overmatched prey.
Pike are known to travel extensively in search of food, and a single specimen will annually consume three to four times its body weight. Fish are the preferred fodder, and it really doesn’t matter which kind. They will feed on whitefish, suckers, Cisco, grayling, trout, juvenile salmon, and even other pike, as well as insects, frogs, mice, shrews, ducklings, and shore birds. The biggest pike have even been known to make a meal of larger animals such as the beaver and the muskrat.
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The pike (Esox lucius) enjoys a circumpolar range—from northern Italy and Spain to Scandinavia and from Ireland to the far eastern shores of Siberia. In North America, pike are home in northern freshwaters from Nebraska to the Arctic coast. It is the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the world and has obviously been around for some time. Esox is the old Latin name for pike and was used as early as Pliny, who wrote in Rome in the first century of the Common Era. Lucius likewise derives from the Latin, and probably evolved from the Greek lukos, “wolf,” an obvious allusion to the predatory habits of the fish. The common name is short for pike-fish, a reference to the long, pointed snout resembling the pike, an iron-tipped staff much used as a weapon since at least the thirteenth century.
While well documented in the angling literature handed down through the ages, the pike is perhaps only recently beginning to gain serious attention as a gamefish in Alaska, and much remains to be learned about this hardy predator and the vast northern watersheds it inhabits.
It is known that most Alaska pike overwinter in the deep, slow waters of large rivers and lakes, as their shallower counterparts become depleted of oxygen. With the onset of the thaw, adult northerns migrate en masse from their deep-water winter retreats to take up positions in the shallow margins of lake shores, slow-moving streams, sloughs, and flooded areas of vegetation, where spawning commences. After completing their reproductive duties, the spent adult pike remain in the shallows for anywhere between one and four months and engage in a feeding frenzy. They are extremely vulnerable to anglers both during spawning and immediately afterward.
The robust nature of the northern pike is legendary. They’ve developed an almost uncanny ability to infiltrate new watersheds, which again contributes to the mantle of contempt that’s been bestowed upon the species by their many critics. During recent decades, pike populations have become established in streams south of the Alaska Range, most commonly through illegal transplants. Specifically, they can now be found prowling waters in and around Anchorage, on the Kenai Peninsula, and especially among the many slow-flowing sloughs and clearwater drainages of the Susitna River system. However, the pike is indigenous to much of Alaska and has long been a favorite of the Yupik people in Southwest and Interior subsistence and sport anglers. Their native range extends from the Alaska Range north to the Arctic coast, from the Canadian border west to the Seward Peninsula, and from there southwest to the Bristol Bay drainages. Other than a small, isolated population near Yakutat, a remnant of the last ice age, the pike is absent from Southeast.
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PIONEERING FOR PIKE IN THE LAST FRONTIER
Still virtually untapped, the northern pike fishery in Alaska is as filled with potential as it is immense. Millions of acres of prime habitat make the Last Frontier a prolific pike territory, and though tales of the quantities of fish that can be found might seem less than credible, it’s not just a numbers game. Larry Dahlberg, one of the world’s foremost anglers and an expert on pike behavior, has spent several summers in Alaska’s more northern latitudes exploring for monster fish, and he maintains, “The next world-record pike will come out of Alaska.”
Sport fishing for northerns hasn’t always been a popular topic for many Alaskans, and it still isn’t in several areas of the state. However, northern pike are an integral fish to their home waters of interior and western Alaska, where they have established a balance with other native species. One only has to look at an area like the lower Nushagak River to see this natural balance working perfectly, as a healthy pike population coexists with the hundreds of thousands of salmon that return annually to the waters of the Nush. They are not native to Southcentral, though, and northern pike are capable of rapidly altering the entire species complex of a watershed when they invade—or are illegally introduced—into a new environment.
As late as the 1950s, there were no pike present in upper Cook Inlet drainages. It’s now theorized that the species was able to gain a foothold in the Susitna River system through a series of illegal stockings, and by the 1997-1998 fishing seasons, the harvest of northerns from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley had surpassed that from the state’s interior areas, the previous leader and the region where the largest native pike populations can be found. As a whole, the Susitna drainage covers tens of thousands of square miles and contains innumerable shallow lakes, sloughs, and clearwater tributaries that are prime northern pike spawning and rearing habitat. The drainage is also a hotbed for salmon-chasing sport fishermen, who have a legitimate gripe with pike. Currently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that as many as 30,000 fewer adult salmon return to the Susitna drainage each year due to the illegal introduction of pike.
Unlike these Mat-Su watersheds, where pike have been documented in more than 80 lakes and 45 streams, not much is known about current populations on the Kenai Peninsula. However, a dead northern was found at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers in 2000, which was enough to make nearly every Alaskan angler’s heart skip a beat. The most recent discoveries have been made in several Anchorage area waters, though, where pike have been reported for over a decade and seem to have gained in strength. The ADF&G website (www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us) has a list of known and suspected Southcentral pike waters, as well as detailed directions to some of these lakes and streams.
As you move north and into the pike’s native range in Alaska, especially around the bountiful waters of the Tanana River and the sprawling reaches of the state’s two largest river systems, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, logistics become more difficult. The best pike habitats are in low-lying floodplains, lakes, and wetlands and are usually accessible only by plane or riverboat.
The Tanana is actually a major tributary of the Yukon and originates from meltwater draining off immense glaciers in the Wrangell Mountains. Since much of its nearly 500 miles is silty from the glacial influence, the bulk of the sport fishing potential is concentrated in upland tributaries and in the sloughs, lakes, and slower streams of the area’s flats. Some of the most prolific pike waters in the region are found in the Minto Flats, an 800-square-mile wetland complex in the Tolvana River drainage west of Fairbanks. Another productive drainage is that of the Kantishna River, which hosts abundant northern populations in East Twin, West Twin, Mucha, and Wein lakes. Lake Minchumina and many smaller waters, including more than a few within Denali National Park, are also noted producers, as is George Lake near Delta Junction, Fish Creek, and the oxbow lakes and sloughs of the Goodpaster Flats area.
Moving west from where the Tanana empties into the Yukon near Manley Hot Springs, one encounters phenomenal pike habitat nearly every step of the way. Boris Popov, who has a self-proclaimed passion for pike fishing, has chased the toothy predators throughout the U.S., Canada, Russia, and Germany. Over the last decade he has focused primarily on the Yukon River and its tributaries, however, and maintains that conquering the logistics of fishing such a massive and remote watershed remains the most daunting task. “Getting to the Yukon is never easy, or cheap,” Popov explains. “If one wants to fish the upper river, a flight to Fairbanks with a connection to Manley Hot Springs is fairly routine. >From there one can slide down the Tanana River and in a few hours be fishing the Yukon, making it as far as Galena in a few days time.” The main stem of the Yukon itself doesn’t yield the extensive sport fishing opportunities of its many clearwater tributary drainages, due to a turbid nature that’s especially prevalent in summer months. Popov added his belief that a knowledgeable, effective guide is a must for success in this river system, as the number of likely looking watersheds can be astronomical.
The Yukon Flats, an expansive wetland between Circle and Stevens Village, is one such area, noted for its tens of thousands of interconnected lakes and slow-moving backwaters, many of which hold copious populations of pike. Farther downriver is the confluence with the Wild and Scenic Nowitna River. The surrounding wetlands within the Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge, which contains more than 14,000 lakes and small ponds, are yet another haven for significant numbers of northern pike. Also productive among central Yukon tributaries are the Melozitna and Tozitna river systems, the latter of which contains a profusion of whitefish for the pike to prey upon.
If possible, the Yukon River becomes even more remote and the pike fishing less charted in the next leg. As Popov explained, “In the area between Galena and Holy Cross you have a few hundred miles of what seems to be the wildest portion of the river, with a multitude of rivers and slow-moving creeks that offer pike possibilities.” Near the end of this stretch, anglers can first encounter the Innoko River drainage, perhaps the greatest trophy pike producer among all of Alaska’s world-class habitat. An enormous lowland tributary of the Yukon with plenty of meandering, interconnected sloughs and lakes, the Innoko features a rich environment for northern pike: big, slow water and abundant Cisco and whitefish populations. The Innoko’s major tributary, the Iditarod River, is itself nearly 350 miles long and is thought to be another phenomenal producer in an area already recognized as one of the world’s great pike locales. Popov cements that reputation. “It was in this area we experienced one of our most memorable ‘pike frenzies,’ when four people stood at the bow of the boat, made four simultaneous casts, and caught four pike—all over 20 pounds and all on video for the skeptics.”
Continuing toward the coast leads one into a broad, isolated delta where the two largest rivers in the Last Frontier spill their waters within 200 miles of each other. It is one of the planet’s great wetland habitats and as a sport fishery, remains nearly unexplored. “The Yukon River below Holy Cross to the Yukon Delta is an enormous question mark,” agrees Popov, “but an exciting one. Even a quick look at a map will yield thousands of lakes and rivers that cry out as pike habitat.” At least two drainages in the area—the Wild and Scenic Andreafsky north of the village of St. Mary’s and the Anvik—are known to contain good to great pike fishing opportunities. “Locals do tell of large pike being taken here,” Popov said. “But very little, if any serious sport fishing has taken place.” It’s his intention to change that. “In 2003 we’re embarking on a ‘pike hike,’ a dedicated two-week exploratory trip from Holy Cross to St. Mary’s. I anticipate we’ll find pockets of fantastic pike fishing interspersed with hours of bone-rattling river travel and frustration from too much or too little water, fuel scarcities, and the Alaska climate.”
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TARGETING THE ULTIMATE HUNTER
Pike that inhabit lower latitudes are quite predictable; they usually can be followed in their spring, summer, and fall migrations without much difficulty, especially the lake fish. One key is water temperature, as pike are very sensitive and move to remain within their limited comfort zone. Another is the pike’s love of a good meal. For example, a typical Hexagenia hatch in the summer will bring smaller pelagic fish into the shallows to feed on the insects. The pike in turn follow and target the baitfish. As Larry Dahlberg explains, though, the extreme water fluctuations from early snowmelt and the large amounts of forage available can combine to make Alaska’s northerns more of a challenge to locate. “The transient nature of Alaska pike makes them unique; they follow the food and subtle temperature changes in many major river systems. Couple that with the fact there is such tremendous spawning habitat in the spring with the high water and their river range is expansive.” Boris Popov agrees. “I love to fish and I love to hunt,” says Popov, “but what I love most is when I can hunt for fish. The pursuit of trophy Alaska northern pike requires, actually it necessitates, that you hunt for them.”
To begin with, the spring angler should focus his attention in the shallows around weed beds. Typically, the pike will migrate towards near-shore heat-gathering basins and bays for the spawning season. The darker bottom in these areas is often significantly warmer than the surrounding cooler and deeper water. Also, don’t discount any oxbow lakes or flooded back channels on salmon streams, as in Alaska, small baitfish can often merely be a compliment to the stronger, river-bred pike’s diet.
After the spawning season ends sometime in early to mid-June, the larger fish will linger on the edge of deep water and heavy vegetation until freeze-up. However, Dahlberg explains that because of the Far North’s relatively stable cold water, anglers must remain mobile. “In Alaska, water fluctuation is more important than temperature. The pike move around a lot, so location is everything.” Later in the year, when water temperatures do rise, the bigger fish will again travel to find comfort. Look for a location where cool water flows into an isolated spot that allows it to collect (a lot of current will dissipate the fresh influx of water and negate its effect). Specifically, backwater sloughs and in the glacial-green mix where slow-flowing streams empty into silty rivers are good places to begin.
Dahlberg explained that he uses a systematic approach to find pike in unknown water, and then he concentrates his efforts there. This method is similar to fishing for steelhead in the big rivers of the Pacific Northwest, where an angler will create an imaginary grid over the river and cast a searching pattern to each section until the fish are located. Lure selection and presentation can be fine-tuned after the fish have been found.
Still, even veteran pike anglers can find themselves grasping for answers when searching for the water wolf on some of Alaska’s more remote waterways. “As we expanded our exploration of the Yukon/Innoko area in the early 1990s, we slowly began to understand how truly unique this pike fishery is,” remembered Popov. “It demanded a different approach, and it demanded patience, because of the fickle nature of these rivers and because they encompass such a huge area. In my frequent conversations with Alaska fish biologists, the consensus was that there just was no consensus, that the pike fishing could be fabulous or nonexistent in certain vast reaches of the Yukon watershed. No one really knew, or knows today.”
But that’s part of the allure of chasing these sleek predators: the unknown. From the literature of antiquity to legends passed on in the dancing hues of a smoldering campfire, what is fact and what is myth seems to blur when it comes to northern pike. There is no universally accepted world-record pike, and almost no one will even attempt to argue that the standing Alaska record, a 38.5-pound hammerhead taken in 1991, is the largest pike caught in the Last Frontier. The last year alone has produced several unauthenticated reports, dimensions, and photographs of supposed bigger fish. As Larry Dahlberg, Boris Popov, and countless tales from Alaska’s fraternity of anglers—ancient and modern—attest, the monster pike are out there, prowling just beneath the surface of waters both known and unknown. For some, to chase them is to forge a living bond with the wild, with the past, and if justice reigns, with the future as well. These adventuresome few will inevitably find themselves alone one gray Alaskan morning, drifting on some secluded waterway a hundred miles from nowhere, hardly daring to breathe as a streamer settles onto the surface, and wondering just for a moment if what they hunt might not also be hunting them.
The author would like to thank Larry Dahlberg, Boris Popov, and Fish Alaska technical editor Tony Weaver for relating their wealth of pike knowledge and angling experience, which aided immeasurably in the completion of this article.
Troy Letherman is the editor of Fish Alaska magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org