Lore of the sawtooth.
That the hooks ripped out with its next mighty surge was absolutely brilliant (unless you ask Buford). For one thing, I wasn't thrilled about sharing that small deck with some flesh-rending, mythical kraken (did I mention I was a raw punk novice?). For another thing, our net seemed woefully inadequate, like a knife in a gunfight. From the net man's perspective, it seemed like a lose-lose proposition. Finally, that's the stuff fishing lore is made of: Record fish that ripped their way to freedom.
I know it's true, because I was there, but who else can believe it without a photo or home movie? Fishing lore reminds us of ghost stories. Fishermen will believe, suspending disbelief because they want it to be true. They want the carpenter, who takes one fishing trip each year, to battle dragons while they listen, drinking smoky Scotch in a smoky bar on a rainy night.
Pike were made for stories. Literary references to northern pike, which range throughout the northern hemisphere, date back to Roman times. Nearly 3,000 years ago, the story has it, some fawning party supplied an emperor of Rome with the skeleton of a 9-foot pike. (They failed to mention that it was cobbled together from the skeletons of three different pike). Izaak Walton wrote that Italian lakes were known, in his time, to contain the largest pike in the world, so it's hardly surprising that various methods for cooking pike can be found in ancient Roman literature.
The pike, that glaring tyrant of freshwater, is mentioned in mythology as well. In the Kalevala, an epic poem compiled from ancient Finnish folklore (often called the national epic of Finland), a mythical hero named Vainamoinen creates a stringed instrument called a kantele with the jawbone of a pike.
Francis Bacon wrote about pike prior to Walton in his treatise, History of Life and Death, mentioning that he believed pike lived longer than any other freshwater fish. Today we realize sturgeon outlive all other freshwater fish, some having been aged at about 120 years. Pike may live only 12 years or so in the southern end of their range, but tundra pike have been aged at over 30 years--still shorter by half than the life spans of lake trout in that region. Of course, the methods we use to age fish today remind me of this passage from The Compleat Angler: That pike "are bred ... of a weed called pickerel weed, unless learned Gesner be much mistaken, for he says, this weed and other glutinous matter, with the help of the sun's heat, in some particular months and some ponds, apted for it by nature, do become Pikes."
Feel free to laugh unless you're an outdoor writer, because this is how we're going to sound in 400 years. During the age of alchemy, when folks thought they could transform other elements into gold, the idea that weeds could transform into pike seemed perfectly acceptable.
The legend and lore of pike cannot be addressed without reference to The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike by the late Fred Buller, which chronicles much of the early literature in the search for the biggest pike known to exist. Legendary pike reported there top 96 pounds and include a 91.5-pound Irish monster supposedly taken by net in the late 1800s, but the largest, fairly well substantiated specimen remains the 4.8foot 67 pound behemoth caught in an abandoned stone quarry in Germany in 1983. The largest North American specimen to date (46 pounds 2 ounces) was taken from Great Sacandaga Lake, New York, in 1940.
But where do we draw the line between reality and lore? We want to believe the stories, but we know that a lot of them were told by Irishmen. Being part Irish, I realize we also need to know, realistically, how big pike really get. Which is why Jan Eggers, the knowledgeable "Pike Ferret," wrote The 100 Largest Pike In The World for In-Fisherman in March of 1991. He updates the list periodically because giant pike continue to be caught in Europe. In fact, when Eggers published his original list, the cutoff for making the list was 25-plus pounds. Now the cutoff is 40 pounds.
"A pike almost topping the North American record was caught just a few weeks ago," Eggers said over the phone. "It was caught the 4th of January by German pike fisherman Jochen Boettcher. Caught in the Peenestrom, a brackish water connected to the Baltic in the very north of Germany, it weighed 44.6 pounds. It was caught on a huge soft-plastic lure 50 centimeters (19.7 inches) long."
We wondered if the Ukraine or some other remote northern area had potential for giant pike, and asked Eggers where the biggest pike on earth can be found today. "From Russia, no new big pike waters are being discussed," he said. "They kill and eat every big fish they catch.
"Eastern block countries, as a rule, have very little catch-and-release regulation. Countries where pikes are released, like Holland, England, and Ireland, do have more really big pikes, and the number of 40-pounders from Holland is growing fast. Plus, a lot of the really big ones are not reported to the press.
"Switzerland is another good pike country. Just today I received news of a 46.2-pound pike caught by local angler Beat Jungo in the Schiffensee by trolling deadbait. The hottest new waters for big pikes include the southern part of the Baltic Sea, or the so-called Bodden, where the coasts of the former East Germany have a lot of shallow fjords with a low percentage of salt. Pike do very well there, as some of the photos I've sent you will attest.
"Also, trout-stocked reservoirs in England are producing 40-pounders now, and what they learned is quite simple: A pike of 50 centimeters that's knocked on the head will never become a pike over the dream limit of 100 centimeters, or 20 pounds."
Back to the Stories
In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer: "A good friend, Paul Endress, told me about fishing walleyes in a canoe one day. They were paddling when the canoe came to an abrupt halt and started rocking back and forth. A giant pike had grabbed their string of walleyes, tried to tear them loose, and threatened to capsize the canoe in the process." So, I asked Pyzer: Using a canoe as a flasher, with 5-pound walleyes for bait, could anybody actually break the North American record?
"Legitimately, it's hard to break 20," he said. "But it's really hard to break 30. It seems almost impossible to break 46 pounds. I don't think it will be done, but if it is, it will happen in some remote part of the Great Lakes or the Dakotas. The fish of the far north, as magnificent as those pike are, live in environs too cold to grow fish approaching 50 pounds. Dr. Pete Colby likes to say of those far-northern lakes that, 'They're bowls of distilled water sitting on granite.' By the time pike recover from spawning, they have only about six weeks of growing season left.
"I think it's one of the most unique records in North America," Pyzer continued. "It's like the Michael Jordan of pike. A 46-pounder is so far out of the ordinary that you want to question its validity. Yet, when you look at the same species growing to 50 or even 60-plus pounds in various places all over Europe, you know it's possible for that species to do it over here."
End of the Story?
My great uncle Leo told me stories when I was a little boy living in Michigan, of hooked pike that towed his wooden rowboat from one end of our local lake to the other, before crushing a hook or breaking a line. Fine stories, but hard to believe. When I was young I caught quite a few 10- to 15-pound pike in our lake, with relatively unsophisticated gear.
Last year my sister sent me a photo she found in the local paper's archives, of an angler standing over his catch from "our" lake, a catch that easily included a dozen pike over 20 pounds, the largest topping 26. That picture was taken in 1924. My great uncle actually carved a road into the wilderness surrounding that lake some 20 years prior to that. Looking at the photo my sister sent, who knows what lurked in that 500-acre lake when it was virgin? Today, anyone would be fortunate to catch a pike topping 8 pounds there.
The loss of giant pike in this and many other lakes is due to a two-pronged assault: Developmental and agricultural drainage of surrounding wetlands; and the lack of quality regulations protecting big pike, which play a critical role in maintaining the populations of almost every species of fish in any lake they inhabit.
Pike breed in wetlands. According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation website, Oneida Lake provides a perfect example of how pike populations have suffered from the removal of wetlands. Oneida was known for producing trophy pike in the early 20th century. By the late 1950s, business-as-usual development projects and agriculture had reduced Oneida's surrounding wetlands by more than half. The sloughs and semi-wetlands that pike require for spawning all but disappeared, as did the trophy pike. Pike populations continued to decline there until recent times, and Oneida remains a mere shadow of the pike fishery it once was.
According to one source, America has lost more than 50 percent of the wetlands that existed here in 1700. Loss of spawning habitat is rampant throughout North America, but it represents only one among dozens of threats. The list includes poaching, overharvest, pollution, and a glaring lack of courage and commitment, all of which leaves us with no cohesive, workable plan to rebuild and protect the pike fisheries we still have. If Europeans can successfully maintain catch-and-release regulations and ethics for big pike, why can't we?
Old pike stories become literature. Literature defines humanity. At what point did we decide that a new fast-food joint, an extra acre for corn, or a house right on the shoreline were all more important than the stories, and more dear to us than our relationship with Old Sawtooth?
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, has pursued big pike for more than four decades.
THE 20 BIGGEST PIKE ON EARTH (So Far) Captor Weight (pounds) Year 1. Wolfgang Hoffman 68.3 (netted) 1998 2. Arno Wilhelm 67.3 1983 3. Unknown 33.8 (found dead) 1990 4. Jorg Notzli 62.3 1979 5. J. Boylan 60.9 1948 6. J. Schirschew 60.51 1972 7. A. Bortolini 60.5 1992 8. Harder Jr 60.5 1975 9. V. Dobrovolny 59.84 1988 10. Fehmi Varli 58.5 1986 11. Mr. Damkjaer 58.4 1929 12. Frank Weissert 58.3 (found dead) 1983 13. M. Ubeleis 57.2 1980 14. Erwin Londer 57.2 1992 15. Jiri Blaha 55.88 1979 16. H. Schmidt 55 1975 17. commrcl. fisherman 55 1991 18. Lothar Louis 55 1986 19. Jorg Notzli 55 1981 20. Walter Specht 55 1967 Captor Country Location caught 1. Wolfgang Hoffman Germany Baltic Sea 2. Arno Wilhelm Germany gravel pit, Dannstadt 3. Unknown Austria Langsee 4. Jorg Notzli Switzerland Bieler Lake 5. J. Boylan Ireland Lough Derries 6. J. Schirschew USSR Omutinsk Reservoir 7. A. Bortolini Italy Po River 8. Harder Jr Austria Afritzer Lake 9. V. Dobrovolny Czechoslovakia Vanov Reservoir 10. Fehmi Varli Sweden Jarnafjarden 11. Mr. Damkjaer Denmark Grarup Lake 12. Frank Weissert Germany Baren Lake 13. M. Ubeleis Austria Irr Lake 14. Erwin Londer Austria Ossiacher Lake 15. Jiri Blaha Czechoslovakia Lipno Reservoir 16. H. Schmidt Germany Gunz Reservoir 17. commrcl. fisherman Germany Tegern Lake 18. Lothar Louis Germany gravel pit, Grefern 19. Jorg Notzli Switzerland Bieler Lake 20. Walter Specht Denmark lake near Kolding Note: Jan Eggers recently received a photo of a 27-kg (59.5-pound) pike from Attersee, Austria, and is investigating details.