Sebago Lake Pike
By Roberta Scruggs
Created May 20 2008 - 9:19am
There's always hope. Or so they say. But northern pike will test the limits of that proverb at Sebago Lake.
Everybody's talking about the 17.5-pound, 41-inch pike Eliot Stanley of Casco landed at Sebago in early May. The Press Herald ran a classic big fish/happy fisherman picture, but the headline read: "Northern Pike spreading fear."
Why fear? Pike, which aren't native to Maine, can wreak havoc on native fish and Sebago's fishing is vital to the economy. The lake is a legendary salmon fishery, home of the onetime world record (and still state record) landlocked salmon, a 22.5-pounder caught Sept. 12, 1907. Sebago's salmon already are struggling against an enormous togue population. To add insult to injury, Stanley's pike had a 13-inch salmon in its stomach.
Pike have legends too, including pike that lived 200 years, weighed more than 100 pounds and pulled unsuspecting mules or milkmaids to watery graves. (The official world record is a 55-pound, 1-ounce fish captured in Germany in 1986.)
In recent years, though, the tall tales have turned into horror stories, such as the $37 million of poison poured into Lake Davis in California since pike arrived in 1994. Officials aren't even sure if they got them all. And Lake Davis is only 4,000 acres. Sebago is 28,771 acres, the deepest lake in Maine and the water supply for about 200,000 people.
In the evolutionary struggle, pike have real advantages. They spawn as soon as the ice is out, earlier than most fish. Unlike salmon, which feed almost exclusively on smelt, pike will eat anything, including each other. Some compare pike to sharks in their single-minded pursuit of prey. As one fishery text primly put it: "Food selection by species is not apparent . . . Pike will eat virtually any living vertebrate available to them within the size range they can engulf."
A 1959 study of a Manitoba lake calculated that in one year 2,594 northern pike consumed 112.5 tons of brown trout and a smaller amount of perch. Another study estimated pike ate 1.5 million waterfowl a year on a single wildlife refuge in Michigan, even though fish still were their main item of food. Pike also zero in quickly on stocked fish, such as salmon and trout.
No one knows when the first illegal stocking took place in Maine, but large pike began to show up in the Belgrades (North Pond, Great Pond, Messalonskee Lake and Long Pond) in the early 1980s. You can blame "bucket biologists" - fishermen who conduct private stocking programs without regard to the consequences - for their presence now in about 20 waters. The first pike appeared in 2003 at Sebago, which has plenty of good spawning habitat in its shallows and marshes.
If you're wondering why anyone would move this "eating machine" around, it's because many anglers love them. Pike not only are good fighting and eating fish, but they're the answer to the old fisherman's prayer: "Lord, let me catch a fish so big that even I won't have to lie about it."
In the 1990s, ice fishermen broke the Maine pike record nearly every year until Lance Bolduc of Skowhegan snagged the current record-holder at North Pond on March 24, 1998. When he hauled it in, Bolduc dropped to his knees and gasped, "Look at the size of that fish." It weighed 31 pounds, 2 ounces, and stretched 44 inches.
With its razor-sharp teeth, it looked just "like a large alligator" to Mike Remmers, Bolduc's fishing buddy. "All I could think of was, `Geez, I don't know if I'd ever want to be in the water with one of those,'" Remmers said then. "I bet if its mouth were wide open, you could get the top of your head in it. It was just huge."
Pike have revitalized fishing in waters like Great Pond and Sabattus Pond, but not at Long Pond, once one of the state's premier salmon fisheries. During the 1980s, 100 vehicles would jam the parking lot and spill out on nearby roads as spring fishermen caught salmon up to 8 pounds. Then the pike took hold, salmon dwindled and the few survivors were slashed and scarred from pike attacks. Long Pond's example makes Eliot Stanley's big Sebago pike look even scarier.
But the most chilling tale comes from California's Lake Davis. On May 15, folks celebrated what they can only hope is a victory. California fish and game officials spent $16.7 million last September to poison all the lake's fish - again - in an effort to eradicate pike, which were illegally introduced in 1994. They spent $20 million on poison in 1997, but the poison spread further than planned, killing every fish for five miles downstream and destroying the water supply in nearby Portola. A judge later awarded $20 million in fees and fines, including more than $9 million to damaged businesses and sickened residents.
And it didn't even work. So far, the pike in Lake Davis have survived everything from netting to bombing. Other suggestions included harnessing lightning and electrocuting the pike ("We actually looked into it.") and throwing pike-eating frogs in the lake (the frogs wouldn't bite). Officials say only time will tell if the latest poisoning has eradicated pike, but it did produce nearly 50,000 pounds of dead fish. The dead pike (6 percent) greatly outnumbered the dead trout (1 percent). More than 80 percent of the dead fish were bullheads (aka hornpout in Maine).
The next step is the release of a million trout during the 2008 fishing season. "Now it will be a trophy-fishing lake again," an optimistic angler told a Reno reporter. "I just pray that no one puts pike in there again."
Well, there's always hope. Or so they say.