Right now, across Earth’s northern-most latitudes, water wolves are stirring. Even while ice cover still encases many lakes, this spectacular freshwater predator is already on the prowl. As Esox lucius migrates en masse into shallow bays, river backwaters and sloughs, however, it’s procreation rather than predation that propels their journey.
Standing at the mouths of these same shallow bays, renowned freshwater photographer Bill Lindner doesn’t have to wait long to witness the earliest spring spawning movements of northern pike. For decades, via scuba mask and underwater camera, Lindner has filmed and documented the remarkable, rarely-seen behaviors of pike and countless other fish. Chances are, if you’ve marveled at an underwater photograph in any of the top freshwater fishing publications, you’ve seen Lindner’s work. Likewise, you’ve almost certainly seen Lindner’s underwater video material, some of the most compelling freshwater footage ever recorded, much of it captured via Aqua-Vu underwater cameras.
This day in early April, Lindner is filming pods of pike, as they assemble at the tiny opening between a large Minnesota lake and a shallow backwater slough, where fish will shortly begin to spawn. “Even when there’s just a small clearing of open water at the mouth of a creek and the rest of the lake is ice-covered,” Lindner observes, “I’ve watched sizeable pods of small male pike begin their investigation of spawning zones. A few days later, like this year, we’ll see a major movement of big 10- to 20-pound females start to appear. Soon, the fish begin to mingle and divide themselves into spawning groups. Usually, each big female is accompanied and courted by two or three much smaller males.”
To document the yearly ceremony, Lindner attaches an Aqua-Vu HD10i Pro camera to the end of a telescopic painters pole, quietly probing the shallows haunted by pike. “Usually we can stand on shore or use a pair of waders and get right up next to these shallow fish,” notes Lindner. “The pike are spooky, but if you take your time and avoid disturbing the area, you can capture some spectacular underwater behaviors. The color and light-gathering properties of the Aqua-Vu lens yields some spectacular footage, while the viewscreen shows you a live picture right on site. That’s a big advantage over GoPro style cameras.”
High-definition underwater optics help unlock the mysterious habits of northern pike.
Interestingly, while pike begin their prespawn migration when water temps still range in the mid to upper 30s (Fahrenheit), biological research indicates that actual spawning often peaks between 50- and 64-degrees in secluded backwater areas that warm quickly when subjected to powerful midday sunshine. Simultaneously, main lake areas may still be ice covered or may still harbor water temperatures in the low 40s during this phase. While the prespawn staging period can last up to a few weeks, spawning itself may span from four days to three weeks, depending on local weather patterns. Peak spawning typically occurs between 2pm and 6pm when water temp reaches its daily peak. Studies have also shown that, like salmon, pike exhibit spawning-site fidelity, returning to the same locales spring after spring.
Broadcasting her eggs around vegetation in approximately 2-feet of water, each female pike may spawn twice a day, eggs fertilized by one to five attending males. Spawning does not occur on a nest, rather egg masses drift and collect on strands of vegetation, such as elodea, stonewort and milfoil, as well as emergent plant stems of sedges and reed canary grass. Farmers have even reported spawning pike and pike eggs adhering to flooded, broken hay bales in inundated fields and drainage ditches.
Most female northern pike produce between 15,000 and 75,000 eggs, though the largest specimens can yield in excess of 200,000 eggs. Research indicates that while pike typically mature at age four, excessive angler harvest of large fish often induce pike to mature as early as age-1, which can quickly produce an overabundance of small or stunted fish incapable of growing to trophy proportions.
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“When you sit and watch the miraculous, fascinating process of spawning and comprehend the rarity of these spectacular spawning females,” says Lindner, “it’s hard to imagine killing even a single one of these fish.
“Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to witness and capture some astonishing underwater fish behavior: including spawning walleyes, pike and muskies, low-light movements of crappies, the gang-feeding habits of smallmouth bass and so much more,” Lindner recalls. “Each time, I come away with a greater appreciation of all the amazing spectacles and rituals happening below the surface. A lot of anglers never get to see what’s really happening below, but with an Aqua-Vu, they can.”