Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pike Podcast Follow-up

I wrote this last week just after I did the Orvis Podcast on spring pike fishing as a follow up.  I haven't had a chance to put it up until now. Let me know what you think.

Pike definitely move through this channel
Friday was as nice a day as you could ever ask for in the middle of March in Vermont. Low 50’s, lots of sun and some wind. It had been relatively warm for the past few days and I was hoping to find some pre-spawn pike staging to head into the wetlands of Otter Creek. I knew that if I timed it right I would finally get my first Esox of 2011. On top of that I had a great tip on a location that has given up some really nice pike this time of year. If I were to say that I was excited about getting out I would be making a gross understatement. Even though I knew it was a bit of a crap shoot, I was hopeful.

I got to the first spot, a nice backwater with a small channel connecting it to the river, just before noon. This time of the year it is not necessary to get up at the crack of dawn to get into pike. As a matter of fact it can be rather counterproductive.  With some nice sun to warm up the water the pike will become more active later in the day and that holds true for most of the springtime. I had my fingers crossed that those big ladies that were getting ready to lay their eggs wanted a meal before undergoing their reproductive tasks.  I had some freshly tied up bunny flies for the shallower water and some Clouser Half and Half’s to probe the deeper edges and drop offs near the main river. Deep and slow is the name of the game this time of year. A good dose of luck helps out too.
I worked that open water very well

The backwater was still mostly iced over but the channel connecting it was open and there was an arm of ice free water extending from the channel. I worked that open water for a good hour. I even tried out the ice to see if I could stand on it but since it was the consistency of a Slushy that wasn’t happening. I tried out both kinds of flies in several different colors. Changing the retrieve from a very slow crawl with the bunny bug to an unhurried strip/pause with the Half and Half didn’t make a difference either. The pike did not seem interested. I suspected that would be the order of the day, but it wasn’t going to stop me from trying.
Perfect spawning habitat

I drove along the river enjoying the warm spring sun stopping at likely spots. This watershed provides excellent habitat for pike because of spring flooding. For a long section of this river there are massive wetland complexes on either side of the river which allow the fish to spawn unimpeded. Pike require flooded areas with vegetation to spawn. Submerged vegetation, whether it is last year’s grasses that are now under water, new aquatic plant growth or even downed tree branches allow their adhesive eggs to stay up out of the muck on the bottom which will quickly suffocate them. Large females will be surrounded by several smaller males and can scatter up to 400,000 eggs. Every egg counts considering the massive predation rate on eggs and juvenile pike which is the reason that a very small percentage return as spawning adults.
Yes, that is a river.

Otter Creek in most places is no more than a hundred feet across and often much less than that, but this time of the year with snow melt, there are places it spills out of its bank and can reach nearly a mile wide. Water levels can be 6 or 8 feet above the low summer levels. It is truly a massive wetlands complex and fortunately, beyond some farming, it is relatively untouched. Channelization, wetland removal and preventing a meandering river from accessing its floodplain generally ends up causing greater problems for communities along the river. Along the Otter in the spring the only major problems are road closures and flooded farm fields because of the water levels.
Keep up the good work!

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been doing a great deal of work on Otter Creek wetlands. In the 1950’s and 60’s local farmers who had land that bordered the river often dug channels to help the surrounding wetlands to drain faster and leveled out the soil to make it easier to farm. The ditches could be as deep as 15 feet and would cause the water to flow rapidly back to the river. This was done in hopes of allowing those fields to dry out quickly so they could be used for crops, primarily corn. According to Ryan Crehan, the USF&WS project manager, recently a number of those farmers have decided that it was no longer cost effective to try to farm those lands because of increasing fuel prices and low yields.

One of the goals of the program is to allow Otter Creek to have a water regime similar to what it originally had. One of the ways this is accomplished is to try to fill some of the channels that were dug years ago. This causes longer retention of the water which promotes a healthier wetland complex in the area. One of the added benefits of having healthier wetlands systems is to help mitigate flooding. Otter Creek has typically has several high water events in a year. Wetlands are nature’s sponge and really help to buffer the impacts of severe flooding events. When water is retained in these swamps and marshes and slowly flows back into the main river it can help prevent flooding in communities downstream.
Flooded wetlands are critical for pike!

The surrounding wetlands are obviously of great benefit to pike. This is where they spawn and it supplies excellent rearing habitat for juvenile pike. They are able to find a variety food sources and grow quickly without the predators that they would face in the main river channel. One of the concerns that originally surrounded this program was the potential for adult or juvenile fish to get stuck in the wetlands. In some of the backwaters this problem was alleviated by putting in devices that allowed control of the water regime- water could be retained or allowed to drain as needed. The routine flooding that occurs in this watershed also helps allow the fish better access to the river as well.
Redfin pickerel... on this years hit list!

I kept moving around looking for those elusive, elongated predators. I checked all the normal spots, keeping watch in flooded areas for movement in the water.  Water was gushing through all the culverts I checked and I put flies into any slower pockets near them. Still nothing. I got to a spot where I have found more than a few willing participants in the past and despite having some ice still on it, I had some hope. A small pike-like fish darted out of cover and moved right past me, not more than 3 feet away. I could not make out what it was at first, but I was pretty happy to finally see something. Moving a few yards downstream I saw it again and this time I got a picture of it. It was small, perhaps 12 inches or so and pretty fat. I knew what it was this time. The short, blunt face gave it away- the littlest Esox- the redfin pickerel (Esox americanus).

I was pretty psyched. I knew that these small predators were documented further upstream but I wasn’t certain they were found where I was. A quick call to Shawn Good, a Vermont fisheries biologist, confirmed the species in the area. Awesome! My first redfin sighting and most likely a chubby, egg laden female on her way to join her larger cousins in the fields spawning. With any luck I will be able to catch one later this year. They are on my “to catch” list and are the only North American Esox species I have not caught. Yet.

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful. I hooked up with my buddy Wesley to check out some of the better downstream spots where the pike come up into. We mostly found those areas still covered in ice and what wasn’t covered in ice was the color of chocolate milk. The pike could be in there too, but there is no way to get at them.  We shot the bull and made plans to hit some of these spots later in the spring after the spawn was through. There are definitely some places that we both really want to hit up soon.

I drove home after the sun had set. I had a great day even though I never had a fish on. Any time I am able to spend time in such an amazing watershed, especially during something as fascinating as spring flooding, I am content.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this informative post Drew and good luck in you quest for the redfin pickerel.