Weeks before the first sprouts of spring, trout anglers start itching for the water. But even before ice-out, another hardy game fish is getting active.
To many anglers, northern pike, muskellunge and pickerel are summer fare sometimes caught incidentally while targeting bass, walleye or something else. But in a cool water survival strategy that dates to the last ice age, and maybe further, members of the pike family spawn earlier than most of their competitors. That gives their offspring an advantage -- they often prey on the young of later-spawning fish.
The early spawning runs offer anglers early fishing opportunities.
"There aren't a lot of people who fish for them this time of year, but they're there," said Ed Vaccari of Tackle Unlimited in Jefferson Hills. He supplies gear to clients who target pike in mid-March on Sewickley Creek, a large tributary of the lower Youghiogheny River.
Jerry O'Donnell of O'Donnell's Sports Supplies in Portersville sells shiners to anglers who fish for northerns in the Muddy Creek shallows near Lake Arthur.
"Just after ice-out when it starts warming up they start moving up there to spawn," he said.
They're called "northerns" for a reason. Pike are circumpolar, one of a few fish species living in the northern hemisphere throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Native to Lake Erie and the Allegheny River watershed, Southwest Pennsylvania marks the southern tip of their range with populations in the Youghiogheny River and reservoir. Northerns originally stocked decades ago live in six Somerset and Bedford county impoundments. They reproduce well; there's little need for stocking.
Pike are the first game fish to spawn when the water reaches 40 to 45 degrees and daily hours of light trigger reproductive behaviors. They like shallow, leafy lakes and the deep pools and backwaters of rivers and large streams.
"They're one of the few fishes that are more active over the winter," said Fish and Boat Commission district fisheries manager Rick Lorson. "A lot are caught through late-season ice, and their temperature tolerance leads to the early timing of the spawn."
This year's unusually long, cold winter has thrown that timing off.
"The water's not even approaching 40 degrees," said Lorson. "Most everything is still ice covered, so [spawning] is a little bit behind. They'll start moving when the ice starts coming off. Biologically they are heading toward the spawning mode now."
Northerns are one of the fastest growing fish in Pennsylvania. When food is plentiful they can reach 6 to 12 inches or more in their first year. At about 14 inches they reach sexual maturity. In closed lakes they spawn in 6 to 12 feet, in rivers and creeks they prefer 3 to 6 feet -- always in areas with lots of vegetation. Broadcast spawners, females produce 3,000 to 120,000 adhesive eggs, which attach to plant stems where they are fertilized by the males. The eggs hatch in about two weeks. Curiously, newly hatched pike remain stuck to the plant stems until they absorb the yolk sac. The adults provide no protection for the young.
"Pike do not feed much during a spawning run, which can last a couple of weeks depending on the weather," said Lorson. "Anglers aren't targeting them during the spawn. The pre-spawn and post-spawn is when they catch them."
Bucktail spinners, jigs and spinner baits work. So do shiners and other live minnows, all fished deep.
"Use big minnows, 3- to 5-inch shiners under a bobber," said O'Donnell. "They catch them on spoons, too. Most guys fish from shore."
Muskies spawn a little later when water temperatures touch the high 50s.
Chain pickerel tend to run in April. It's not clear how the smallest member of the pike family got here. The pickerel's original range was Atlantic and Gulf Coast tributaries. It is native to Eastern Pennsylvania river systems.
In summer and fall there's a lot of voluntary catch and release of pike-family fish by conservation-minded anglers. Those pulled through the ice are often killed. Lorson said spring angling pressure is negligible.
"There are some people who follow the pike this time of year, but not a lot," he said. "The season was opened to year-round fishing in 2007. Based on our information it was determined that fishing during that time was not having a serious impact on population. All it does is allow more angling opportunities."
John Hayes: email@example.com.