Dick Pinney's Guidelines: Good conditions for northern pike
We took a ride around Great Bay and its tidal tributaries before last week's thaw. There was ice cover in all the traditional fishing spots but in our estimation, not enough to get out on and fish for the famous saltwater smelt that have drawn such crowds. But we did get a surprise in finding 10 smelt shacks sitting on the ice off Emery's Sunset Farm on Greenland Bay, but no fishing activity there at that time.
Now, except for a few ice flows here and there and some very skimpy shore ice, the ice has gone and in our experience it's our guess that it will be too late to make up that well again. It's because the days are longer and the sun's rays will get stronger and water temperatures are above normal for this time of year.
We're writing this a few days before publication, but it looks like the freshwater ice will be able to harden back up and we should have quite a few weeks of good ice fishing. The places with enough snow cover should have good ice, as the snow provides insulation and protection from the sun.
In some of the Midwestern states, northern pike are treated like royalty among ice fishermen but for some reason they don't have a great following here in New Hampshire and Maine but a lot more enthusiasm for ice anglers in the rest of the New England states.
Through illegal stocking of some key waters, pike have spread out through a huge area in Maine and seem to be well established in our Connecticut River from the Moore Dam Reservoir southward. This is providing both ice and open water opportunities for more and more anglers.
In Maine, ice fishing for pike is picking up a lot of steam. Although still shunned by a lot of open water fishermen, it seems like this is the answer to a lot of ice anglers prayers. Where else can you have a chance at pulling a fish up to 20 pounds through the ice and often having catches of more than a dozen? Although northern pike pound-for-pound don't battle like a bass or salmon, they are no slouches and are capable of emptying a spool of line on your tip-up before you can get to it.
A majority of new anglers taking up pike fishing have not prepared their fishing gear for handling these toothy critters. Toothy is actually an understatement as they can cut through a conventional mono or fluorocarbon leader quite easily. Some have tried no-leader and just tying directly to their braided fishing line but most braids are not that resistant to cutting. And wire leaders are apt to prevent some of the more shy pike from taking your bait. My grandson, Nate Griffin, is quite the experienced pike-ice fisherman and tells me that using a heavier fluoro leader in 30 pound-test size seems to work well for him with very few cut-offs.
A big knock on "northerns," as they are oft referred to, is that they are very boney and don't fillet well. On the smaller ones we'll just fillet as usual and leave the skin on as we score the meat side with a sharp knife, cutting through the bones and making small squares by cutting in length and width. After dredging in flour we cook these skin side up and just eat the meat off the skin. The cooking process seems to melt the small pieces of bone. But you can't take this advice to the bank, as every once in a while we've found this doesn't work to our satisfaction.
If you have any skills in filleting fish, try this. Standing the fish on its belly, start a cut just behind the head and follow the backbone with the knife until you get to the dorsal fin. Then end the cut by turning your blade up. You'll have removed the fish's loins with skin on and a strip of tiny bone ends running down the middle of the two loins that are attached to the skin. Filet out each side of the line of bones producing to bone-free loins that are long and sort of round. Then fillet off the tail section by conventional methods, starting just behind the dorsal fin and ending at the tail fin. Skin these fillets and you'll have four nice boneless and skinless fillets.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.