We're blessed with an abundance of fish species in the North Country, from muskies to panfish and everything in between. One of the most popular species, other than brook trout, is the northern pike.
There has always been a lot of conjecture about how old a big northern pike might be. Some time ago I inquired about that subject, asking the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Bureau of Fisheries for some info on the likely age of a 40-inch northern. Essentially, at the time the agency didn't know of any data specific to NYS, due apparently to the fact that the scales on a northern are very difficult to read, and counting scale annuli is the preferred method for aging fish.
However, Kenneth Carlander's 1969 "Handbook of Freshwater Fishery Biology" has quite a bit of data worldwide, and looking at northern pike in the northern midwest (Wis., Minn.) would suggest a New York fish would have to be in the 12- to 15-year-old range to get to that size. In the southern U.S. they grow faster due to a longer growing season.
The record pike taken by Peter Dubuc in Great Sacandaga Lake (then Sacandaga Reservoir) was alleged to be only 10 years old. I don't know when or how that figure was arrived at but, though the potential exists, it is unlikely that a 10-year-old pike would be that large, especially in Northeast waters. That would equate to a really super growth rate.
In conclusion, the agency representative said, "Given that the Sacandaga has been around a while, I'd say go with the 12-15 year range." Still, the next time you latch on to a 40-inch northern, consider the fact that it has likely been swimming around the lake and avoiding anglers for at least a decade or more.
However, that does bring up one question about Dubuc's pike. He caught his 52.5-inch, 46 pound 2 ounce lunker pike in 1940, and the gates on the Conklingville Dam had been closed only since 1930, thereby creating Sacandaga Reservoir. Therefore, his fish was probably already big when the gates were closed 10 years earlier.
In any event, Sacandaga at the time was a virtual soup of nutrients, thanks to the area's previous life as swamp and farmland. Fish growth rates were impressive, so who knows? Was that northern really only 10 years old when Dubuc caught it? Maybe and maybe not; opinions vary.
I have my own opinion on the age of a Great Sacandaga 40-incher. While DEC thinks it might be 12 to 15 years of age, given the fact that nutrient levels in the lake have decreased substantially in the past four or five decades, and the fact that the lake is not as fertile as it used to be, growth rates are now slower, and I'd guess that a 40-inch pike in Great Sacandaga would now be closer to 20 or more years of age. It might take it that long to reach that length and weight.
CATCH AND RELEASE
That's why I heartily endorse "catch and release" fishing for big pike, as well as trout, regardless of the lake they in which might be caught, though the growth rates in some North Country lakes might be a bit faster.
It takes a number of years for a pike to get to 40 inches or better and it's almost a shame to keep one, unless you hope to get it mounted as a once-in-a-lifetime trophy. Otherwise, get the girth, length and weight, take as many photos as you can from different angles, then release it and let it provide sport for someone else. Hopefully they'll release it too.
My best wishes to all of you for a happy and safe Fourth of July, Independence Day holiday. This is arguably one of the big three for boating accidents, the others being Memorial Day and Labor Day. Operate your boat in a safe and responsible manner this weekend, as you should every day you're on the water, and don't forget the "Rules of the Road" for safe boating.
However you choose to spend the weekend, be it boating, swimming, hiking or at a picnic, please remember to do it safely. DWI and BWI laws will be strictly enforced and few things can take the luster off a long holiday with family and friends than a ticket for some traffic or boating infraction.
Vehicle or boating accidents are worse but let's hope that doesn't happen either. If you plan to enjoy a few libations this holiday, pick a non-drinking companion to drive your vehicle or operate your boat, provided they're qualified to do so. It's only a minor inconvenience but well worth it.