Collapse of the pike

Like many Albertans, the first fish I ever caught was a pike. Mine came from Johnson’s Lake north of Brooks when I was 10 or 11; its head lashed to the handlebar, the seven pounder’s tail dragged in the dirt as I pedaled home to show mom.

Like many Albertans, the first fish I ever caught was a pike. Mine came from Johnson’s Lake north of Brooks when I was 10 or 11; its head lashed to the handlebar, the seven pounder’s tail dragged in the dirt as I pedaled home to show mom.

By the time I left Brooks at 17, for Edmonton and the U of A, I had caught more than a lifetime share of pike.

Some came from the Bow and Red Deer rivers, but the majority of my pike, one of 25 pounds, came from Lake Newell, or its outlet canals, all rutty, bumpy bike rides from home.

So, one of the greatest “I never thought I’d see the day” shocks of my life, more than 60 years later, is the recent news that we are probably going to see catch and release, a zero limit, imposed for Lake Newell pike when the 2014 fishing season starts on April 1, and that’s no April Fool.

No pike were caught during the Kiwanis Fish Derby on Newell last February, which did not surprise me, since the use of bait was banned, but area biologist Paul Christensen was alarmed enough to conduct a study.

What he concluded is that the Newell pike fishery has collapsed, and “it is likely Lake Newell will go catch and release for pike on April 1.” Already the Kiwanis have announced the cancellation of next month’s Lake Newell Derby.

What has caused the pike collapse? Newell is a huge man-made lake with many problems — mostly also man-made — that have been growing bigger over the years.

In my youth, you caught pike and the occasional jumbo lake whitefish on pike spoons, spinners and plugs; that, plus the occasional burbot was it for fish species.

Now there is a Newell fishery for walleyes that were deliberately introduced without, so far as I can find, any research being done on what effect the introduction of a population of large predators would have on the resident population of large predators, the pike.

There were no perch in Newell in my day and I am not aware of any official introductions. But perch are the favourite for illegal plantings by Alberta’s bait bucket biologists, which is probably how they got into Lake Newell.

A year ago, fishermen on the lake surprised biologists with reports that they were seeing blizzards, multimillions of stunted perch on their underwater camera screens, perch too small to be caught in the index nets the biologists use.

Many anglers blame commercial net fishing — mainly for whitefish — on Lake Newell for the astronomical recent increase in the perch population.

The theory is that the large commercial whitefish catch means thousands fewer whitefish to feed on perch eggs; ergo: millions more perch.

But in some Alberta lakes, perch are a major prey species of walleye and pike, but what do I know?

Certainly the cover painting of the latest edition of The Fishes of Alberta by Nelson and Paetz shows a pike about to swallow three perch.

What I do know is what my eyes tell me about habitat and fishery management mistakes relating to the biology of pike.

Pike do not spawn on river or lake beds, like walleyes do, but rather, sometimes even before the ice is out, in shallow, marshy reedy areas or flooded bays, where the eggs stick to the vegetation, and the young hatch and remain attached to the “tethered” yolk for a couple of weeks before swimming freely.

But many of the pike spawning areas I remember are gone and more are going, because of the “gentrification” of Newell’s shoreline to residential and cottage developments and the dredging, and rock filling, legal and mostly not, that always seems to be a byproduct of lakeshore living in Alberta.

What I fear has mostly caused Newell’s pike collapse is another manifestation of North America’s, and particularly Alberta’s, most egregious fishery management mistake: targeting the biggest and best breeders for harvest.

The effect of this on pike is particularly damaging, because the really big ones are almost always females.

For several years you have been permitted to keep one Lake Newell pike per day, provided it is more than 63 cm (two feet) long.

For far too long, I have been groaning every time I see yet another photo of an angler grinning and gripping a huge, dead Lake Newell pike.

Each of those huge, dead pike is likely a female and the thousands of eggs within her are also dead and lost forever to the lake and future fishermen.

You don’t see sane ranchers selling their best breeding stock for slaughter.

Why can’t Alberta’s fisheries managers get it that you must protect your biggest and best breeders?

Letting people keep and eat a few pike, provided they are under 63, maybe even under 46 cm, makes more sense, and Paul Christensen says there are still “small pike” in Lake Newell.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at bscam@telusplanet.net.

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