Spawning pike emerge as waters warm
Will this be the weekend that centrifugal force from longer days and strong March sunshine pull Wisconsin out of the polar vortex?
Average early March temperatures are mid-30s in the daytime and mid-10s at night.
Did anybody see Bill Murray and Andie McDowell walking through Traxler Park last week? Are we all living “Groundhog Day?”
Weather outside might be stuck in an endless January loop, but subtle changes in fish physiology are taking place beneath the ice.
Northern pike are sliding toward Cherokee Marsh in Lake Mendota, Goodland Park in Lake Waubesa and a thousand other grassy areas across the state in preparation of spawning season.
Protecting these vulnerable fish is a primary reason gamefish seasons close on most waters between March 1 and the first Saturday in May. On waters with no closed season such as Lake Winnebago and the Mississippi and Wisconsin river systems, the very best pike fishing of the entire year is about to commence.
Most years we can access these fish from a boat or from shore with a long rod and standard open-water pike lures. This year, the pikester’s weapon of choice is a tip-up (where legal) all across Wisconsin.
Pike spawn when water temperatures reach about 45 degrees. Walleyes typically spawn when water temperatures reach 48 degrees—except on the lower Wisconsin River where walleye spawning can occur in just 45-degree water.
Although I’ve observed this behavior in Wisconsin River walleyes many times over the years, considerable passion for the marble-eyed fish has precluded similar observation of those big, green gators in this water.
Do pike spawn in weedy flats of Lake Wisconsin and similar habitat elsewhere in the system when water is colder than 45 degrees? They might.
Most folks dismiss early-spring, shallow-water splashing as carp activity. While this is often the case, pike exhibit similar behavior when spawning.
Several smaller males herd a big female pike into the weeds, where they bump against her flanks. Eggs are deposited on the grasses, are fertilized and attach to the vegetation.
Some years this piscatory ballet occurs when river levels are swollen with snowmelt. If river levels recede quickly, a year class is literally left behind high and dry.
That won’t happen this year. Most pike will spawn under the ice in southern Wisconsin in a couple of weeks.
How can water reach 45 degrees under the ice? Don’t underestimate the power of the sun, especially when its insistent rays are beaming down on shallow, dark-bottomed bays.
Ice floats on top of water. As snow melts, water levels rise. This pulls the ice away from shore, exacerbating the warmup in extreme shallows.
Pike only need a few inches of water under the still-thick ice to carry on the family name. This short water column makes fishing even easier for the tip-up angler.
Pike are primarily sight feeders, with binocular vision enabling them to hone in on a target in front of that evil green snout. When the water column is only a couple of feet, all targets are visible and subject to vicious attack.
Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.