In the shifting winds following last week’s warm up with a cool down to average temperatures, Camden’s rod was doubled over the hole cut into the melt-glazed ice. The drag gave as he pulled against the fish below and the rod arched to its max. With a couple of twists and turns the pike rolled up toward the bottom lip of the cylinder before unrolling and making one last dash before its pointy green nose headed in the right direction. I cleared the slush away from the hole and reached in, snaring the northern behind the head and lifting the three pound fish clear from the water.
“Wow, that’s my first northern,” Camden said as his cousins and I congratulated him before snapping a quick picture.
His smile lit up the gray light of early evening and the memory was one I banked to brighten any cloudy days in the future. The cement-like sensation of frozen slime on my red and chilly fingers and the unremovable scent that takes three or four good hand-washings to mask brought back hundreds more from days gone by. And as we headed home, I relayed a few tales of hammerhandles and snot rockets, slimers and forty-inch goliaths to the three boys who listened intently in the truck.
There were the northerns that patrolled the weedy shallows around the dock I grew up on in Detroit Lakes, chasing the occasional unfortunate bluegill or perch. And when the ice first left the channels northwest of Devils Lake, N.D., springtime spoons shook the rust from my arms and the dust from my reels as pike would pound nearly every offering my dad and I tossed into the waters streaming under the bridge near Church’s Ferry.
Dragnets of tip-ups on stocked sloughs around my hometown of Valley City produced five-to-eight pound pike in the winter seasons in the early 2000s, with “FLAG!” nearly becoming a four-letter word by the end of exhausting days of chasing fish across a hundred yard stretch of slick late-season ice.
Picking pike up in early summer while angling for walleyes provided excitement – particularly up to the moment we’d realize the fish wasn’t ol’ marble eyes. I remember my father retrieving a Rapala in the spot we dropped him off on shore as we sat in the canoe a few yards out working the breakline with jigs and minnows. With a whoop and a rock, my dad was on his back as a lightly hooked monster of a northern rocketed out of the shallows and shook the classic silver minnow from its mouth a matter of feet in front of the small grassy point where he lay laughing.
No matter where I travel in the northern tier, the opportunity and action of pike fishing has been prevalent. When I head south to warmer waters, the fight of those foreign fish whether in salt, brack or fresh water are often compared to that of our own water wolf. They bear a standard of sorts with their aggressive strikes and powerful drag-ripping runs that sets the bar for other species. Sure, some grow faster and larger on average, and some provide more rod-bending action, but not many; and one can’t argue against the pike’s adaptability. They populate ten acre waters of earthen-dammed farm ponds as easily as they roam the vast waters of sprawling Canadian shield lakes.
In the end, pike are the unsung heroes in our waters. They’re often the difference between a skunk and a memorable moment; ready, willing and able to bite and provide a surge of action. They’re exciting in any size for kids just looking to connect with some fun on the water, and they restore the youth in veteran anglers who might have lost focus on what’s really important when fishing. For all these reasons and more, pike are a great fish and a serve as the hallmark to the start of a great angling career, and as a reminder of why we fish…in our outdoors.