It is the hope of taking a gigantic fish that keeps one fishing for northern pike. They have the quality of inspiring this hope—somewhere, under lily pads, over weed beds, in this dark hole or that river eddy, lurks leviathan. If only one keeps on trying, sooner or later the pike will come, if not on this cast, then on the next one, a sudden, broad-backed shadow, cold-eyed, swift, hungry, ferocious—and every inch a lady.
This last may come as a shock to some fishermen who have spent days and weeks on northern lakes and rivers in search of that one big fish, but the fact of the matter is that when it comes, it will not be the great-granddaddy of all northerns but the great-grandma. For the biggest pike are females; the males rarely exceed nine to 10 pounds in weight, while the ladies of the species will run five or more times that size. But, male or female, they are not difficult to catch when in a taking mood. Almost any moving lure, from pork rind to plugs, from flies to spoons and spinners will interest them. One fisherman was highly successful with a huge contrivance carved out of balsa wood, clothed in muskrat skin and provided with little paddle wheels to make a surface disturbance. The clumsiest cast will not frighten pike—in fact, a spoon landing with a good heavy splash usually serves to draw attention to itself.
Thus the hope of catching a really big northern is not, on the whole, unreasonable. Esox lucius, the common pike, is a fish circumpolar in distribution in the northern hemisphere. The North American record is a fish of 46 pounds 2 ounces, caught in 1940 by Peter Dubuc in Sacandaga Reservoir, New York. In 1941 a net-caught fish from Cree Lake in northern Saskatchewan was weighed at 45 pounds, and there are plenty of other well-founded stories which make it clear that present rod-caught records will not last.
Northern pike are bold fish. They like the sun as few other fish do. Often even a large female can be easily seen, lurking in weeds or openly basking in sandy bays. From above the surface of the water, her dark back open to the light, she seems not to hide at all. Down at her own level she is well hidden—by the motionless pose of her body, perfectly maintained by tiny fin movements, and by the mottling of her sides that is as deceptive as underwater shadows. A large pike rarely strikes from a distance of more than 10 to 12 feet, and she does so with a sharp rush of speed that is calculated to bring her exactly alongside the prey—bird, mammal or fish, perhaps her own grandchildren. There she is likely to pause, then turn abruptly to seize the chosen creature squarely across the body. The long, sharp teeth of the lower jaw hold her prey securely, and she waits out its struggles. When her victim finally is still, the pike turns it in her jaws, and the raking teeth of the tongue and vomer and palatines force it head foremost into her gullet.
A good big northern, grown far beyond her fellows, could be almost anywhere. Young northerns have the fastest growth of almost any freshwater fish. A big female produces more than 100,000 eggs, depositing them in weedy bays and marshes as soon as the ice breaks up to let the fish run in from the lake. The eggs hatch in seven to 15 days, depending on the water temperature, and in another three or four days when the yolk sac is absorbed they become tiny, free-swimming creatures about a quarter inch long. At that stage they are prey, not predators; not more than one or two in a thousand is likely to survive the two or three weeks they usually spend in the spawning marshes before migrating to the lake. The few that do survive the first year will be about 10 inches long in most United States waters, 18 inches long by the end of another year, 33 inches at 6 years, 40 inches at 9 years, from 40 to 47 inches at 10 to 13 years. In Lac La Ronge in Canada, on the 55th parallel, a 40-inch fish is likely to be 15 years old, a 46-inch fish perhaps 19 or 20.
Northerns grow fastest in the more southerly part of their range, so the logical place to look for a really big one should be south of the Canadian border. But southern waters are hard-fished, and though a female northern may grow to 20 pounds and 40 inches in 10 years there, she is not very likely to get a chance to do so. The most promising and exciting northern pike waters on the continent are in the far north, across northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where the lakes are innumerable. Some of them, like La Ronge, Reindeer, Cree, Wollaston and Athabaska, are very large. Few of them can be reached by road, and most of them have scarcely been fished at all. Northerns grow more slowly in these latitudes but, like trout, they live much longer as a result. Because hardly anyone has been fishing for them, the far-northern northerns are still swimming about in their old age, occasionally scaring the wits out of anglers, and from time to time making trophies of themselves.
Henry Weitzel of Cree Lake knows of a fish in a bay off Sand Island that is as big as a small canoe. Henry and his friend Martin Engman have lived on Cree for many years, and I would venture to say they are growing old there, except that they are ageless. Both are very good men to fish with. Henry knows his lake and his northerns as though they were kin. Cree is certainly one of the best of the northern pike lakes. It is big (350 square miles) and beautiful, with more than 500 islands, and beaches of pinkish sand. Its waters are clear and cold. Temperatures in the upper 30 or 40 feet rarely exceed 60�F. Thirty-pound northerns are caught there every year—a fish of 36� pounds was taken in 1958, and there is not the slightest doubt that bigger fish are in the lake than ever have been taken out of it by rod and line. I spent a cold and stormy midsummer day with Henry on Cree Lake, looking for a 20- or 30-pound northern.
"They're all coming out of the shallow water about now," Henry said as we started. "You've got to look for them off the rocky points—in the lake-trout spots. Better on a sunny day."
He was right about the rocky points. The fish were there, dozens of them—six-, eight-, 10-, 12-pounders, a few larger than that, but not 20 pounds.
Henry released them and scolded them: "Go away. We don't want you. You should have let your grandmother have it, but you're too stupid for that. You had to go and jump in ahead of her."