Nothing about an adult northern pike, from a mouthful of large canines and brushlike teeth, to an elongated body built for quick bursts of deadly speed, suggests a perilous upbringing.
Yet, studies indicate the crossing from egg to, say, a pike 2-3 inches in length that is able to escape most predators, isn’t a trouble-free summer swim through submerged vegetation. Of the thousands of eggs deposited by spawning females, the vast majority – 90-plus percent in some scenarios – never make it.
Northern pike eggs and newly hatched young are prey to a number of fish species, including other pike, aquatic insects, mammals and diving birds. Plus, there is always the chance of eggs left high and dry, stranded as water levels fall from shallow spawning areas.
Of course, there are always survivors and always will be. Native to the Northern Plains, northern pike, especially during the spring spawn, can swim great distances, negotiating no-named and big-named streams alike, before settling into waters that meet their needs.
“Northern pike were here long before us and they will be here long after we are gone,” said Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries chief. “Pike are survivors, big time predators that, when conditions are right, thrive in wetland complexes, with deep water refuge.”
North Dakota anglers and pike have a long history. For a time, they were the favored game fish. Seventy-plus years ago, news of a big northern caught by a shore angler made headlines. From the mid-1960s to early 1970s, Lake Sakakawea arguably featured some of the best pike fishing in the country, boasting of fish weighing more than 20 pounds.
Pike thrived in Sakakawea as waters backed up behind the newly constructed Garrison Dam, inundating mature trees, and untold acres and acres of brush and grasses, creating perfect spawning habitat for native northerns.
“The pike fishing in Sakakawea certainly wasn’t a secret as anglers in North Dakota, in surrounding states and elsewhere knew about it,” Power said.
Things changed sometime in the 1970s, as they so often do on the Northern Plains, as the rock substrate preferred by spawning walleye was washed clean of layers of sediment. As the lake went from weeds to rocks, Power said, the walleye population exploded.
“About that time, more and more anglers were getting boats, access was improved with new boat ramps and anglers started changing their tactics and targeting walleye,” Power said.
And they haven’t looked back. Year in and year out, the greatest amount of angler interest in North Dakota is focused on catching walleye. In 2013, for example, 81 percent of open water anglers said they most often fish for walleye, while 8 percent said they preferred pike. In 2006, the percentages were nearly the same, with anglers again preferring walleye.
“The beauty of fishing for pike is that you don’t need a boat or a bunch of fancy equipment, especially in spring when the fish move into shallow waters,” Power said. “Pike fishing is pretty basic and has always remained so. The red and white Dardevle used by grandpa is still very effective today.”
Grandpa, however, wouldn’t recognize the northern pike fishing opportunities to be had in the state today. “Thirty years ago, North Dakota had fewer than 100 lakes with mediocre expectations and success,” Power said. “Today, North Dakota has more than 200 lakes with pike, and many of those have record populations, with fish in the 5- to 10-pound range. Some fish are even larger.”
Unfortunately, Power said, these wonderful pike fishing opportunities have a shelf life. “The pike fishing should remain good for another couple years or more, barring some serious summer or winterkill,” he said. “However, without some phenomenal wet conditions in the next spring or two to again increase good spawning habitat, the good pike fishing opportunities we are experiencing today are on the clock.”
While Power said he doesn’t know where the interest for fishing for northern pike will be 10 years from now, he said there will likely remain an interest in catching trophy pike. “People want to catch big pike and in the next decade, more of those large fish will be there to be had,” he said.
It takes the right kind of environment, however, to grow big pike. And the list of North Dakota waters with the ability to produce really big fish isn’t long.
“Most North Dakota lakes have fathead minnows, which are wonderful for pike to grow that first year or two, but beyond that, they need bigger prey, bigger meals,” Power said.
Scott Gangl, Game and Fish Department fisheries management section leader, said in waters with a quality food source, a pike hatched in, say, April, will be 9-12 inches by fall. “Once they get to about 3 inches in length and are able to eat other fish, their growth really takes off,” he said. By the following fall under the same conditions, those same fish can measure in at 24 inches.
The bigger meals needed to grow bigger pike are typically found in North Dakota’s larger reservoirs, such as Lake Ashtabula, Lake Darling, lakes Sakakawea and Oahe, and so on. “A 10-pound pike isn’t going to get bigger by eating minnows, but it will by preying on white sucker, carp, buffalo, perch and walleye,” Power said. “These fish are fantastic predators and if the food source is available, they’ll take advantage of it.”
Pike Over Time
- 1932 – 19-pound, 8-ounce northern pike from Lake Metigoshe mentioned as the largest fish taken in the state that year.
- 1945 – 25-pound pike taken from the Red River near Grand Forks noted as the largest fish caught in North Dakota, although a similar size pike was taken from the Sheyenne River in 1942.
- 1950 – First attempt to take eggs from northern pike in North Dakota (Red River) unsuccessful.
- 1951 – First successful pike egg take in North Dakota from James River near Ludden.
- 1955 – North Dakota OUTDOORS states northern pike are the species of choice of North Dakota anglers.
- 1956 – Although historically present, northern pike first stocked into Devils Lake. This was the first time Devils Lake was stocked with a game fish species.
- 1959 – First northern pike weighing more than 20 pounds reported from Lake Sakakawea.
- 1960 – First year of the Game and Fish Department's Whopper Club. Pike qualifying weight set at 18 pounds.
- 1961 – Pike Whopper Club qualifying weight increased to 20 pounds as the number of Whopper pike from Lake Sakakawea was increasing rapidly.
- 1962 – First Game and Fish Department fish tagging project. About 700 pike tagged at Lake Ashtabula.
- 1963 – State record pike, 32 pounds, 6 ounces from Lake Sakakawea.
- 1968 – New state record pike, 37 pounds, 8 ounces from Lake Sakakawea. This record stands today. Until the early 1970s, Sakakawea featured some of the best pike fishing around. One highway sign even proclaimed it as "Pike Capitol of the Nation."
- 1969 – Northern pike named, by legislative resolution, as North Dakota's state fish.
- 1990s – Sakakawea and Lake Oahe's pike population expanded as a result of excellent spawning success, but then declined as drought conditions set in.
- 2001 – North Dakota's first darkhouse spearfishing season for northern pike and nongame fish species. Just 28 waters were open to spearing.
- 2009 – The boom and bust cycle of northern pike in lakes Sakakawea and Oahe came full circle as the number of young pike produced was the highest in more than 30 years.
- 2012 – North Dakota boasts a record number of more than 200 waters in the state that harbor northern pike.
- 2012 – Daily and possession limits on northern pike increased statewide to five and 10 respectively.
- 2012-13 – To further take advantage of record-setting pike populations, the entire state opened to darkhouse spearfishing, except the Red River and lakes with muskellunge.
- 2013 – Northern pike abundance in lakes Sakakawea and Oahe, as well as many of the state's smaller waters, is higher than ever.