Northern pike are opportunistic, voracious feeders programmed to eliminate the weak, and their keen predatory disposition is matched with endowments perfectly suited for the job. Fish are the preferred fodder for pike, and it really doesn’t matter which kind. They will feed on whitefish, suckers, cisco, grayling, trout, juvenile salmon and even other pike, as well as insects, frogs, mice, shrews, ducklings and shore birds. The biggest pike have even been known to make a meal of larger animals such as the beaver and the muskrat, and a single specimen will annually consume three to four times its body weight. Pike, and trophy pike at that, are one of the prime angling highlights of the Yukon River area not far from Fairbanks.
It is known that most Alaska pike overwinter in the deep, slow waters of large rivers and lakes, as their shallower counterparts become depleted of oxygen. With the onset of the thaw, adult northerns migrate en masse from their deep-water winter retreats to take up positions in the shallow margins of lake shores, slow-moving streams, sloughs, and flooded areas of vegetation, where spawning commences. After completing their reproductive duties, the spent adult pike remain in the shallows for anywhere between one and four months and engage in a feeding frenzy. They are extremely vulnerable to anglers both during spawning and immediately afterward.
Pike that inhabit lower latitudes are quite predictable; they usually can be followed in their spring, summer, and fall migrations without much difficulty, especially the lake fish, which are primarily located by minding water temperature, as pike are very sensitive and move to remain within their limited comfort zone. However, the extreme water fluctuations from early snowmelt and the large amounts of forage available can combine to make Alaska’s pike more of a challenge to locate, especially since many populations are known to have expansive river ranges. Plus, the state’s relatively stable and cool water temperatures mean anglers can’t count on thermal stratification to narrow the possibilities.
To begin with, the spring angler should focus his attention in the shallows around weed beds. Typically, after a long, ice-covered winter season, the pike will migrate towards near-shore heat-gathering basins and bays for spawning. Also, don’t discount any oxbow lakes or flooded back channels on streams that host returns of Pacific salmon, as in Alaska, small baitfish can often merely be a compliment to the stronger, river-bred pike’s diet. After the spawning season ends sometime in early to mid-June, the larger fish will linger on the edge of deep water and heavy vegetation until freeze-up. Later in the year, when water temperatures do rise in some areas, particularly those with tannic waters, the bigger fish will again travel to find comfort. Look for a location where cool water flows into an isolated spot that allows it to collect (a lot of current will dissipate the influx of water and negate its effect). Specifically, backwater sloughs and in the glacial-green mix where slow-flowing streams empty into silty rivers are good places to begin.
The northern pike is indigenous to many of the waters near Fairbanks and has long been a favorite of Interior subsistence and sport anglers. Their native range extends from the Alaska Range north to the Arctic coast, from the Canadian border west to the Seward Peninsula, and from there southwest to the Bristol Bay drainages. Especially around the bountiful waters of the Tanana River and the sprawling reaches of the state’s two largest river systems, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, pike fishing can be outstanding, though logistics for fishing the species can be tricky. The best pike habitats are in low-lying floodplains, lakes and wetlands and are usually accessible only by plane or riverboat.
The Tanana is a major tributary of the Yukon that originates from meltwater draining off the ice fields and glaciers of the Wrangell Mountains. Since much of its nearly 500 miles is silty from the glacial influence, the bulk of the sport fishing potential is concentrated in upland tributaries and in the sloughs, lakes, and slower streams of the area’s flats. Some of the most prolific pike waters in the region are found in the Minto Flats, an 800-square-mile wetland complex in the Tolvana River drainage west of Fairbanks. Another productive drainage is that of the Kantishna River, which hosts abundant northern populations in East Twin, West Twin, Mucha, and Wein lakes. Lake Minchumina and many smaller waters, including more than a few within Denali National Park, are also noted producers, as is George Lake near Delta Junction, Fish Creek, and the oxbow lakes and sloughs of the Goodpaster Flats area.
Moving west from where the Tanana empties into the Yukon near Manley Hot Springs, one encounters phenomenal pike habitat nearly every step of the way. However, fishing such a massive and remote watershed is never easy or cheap. The mainstem Yukon doesn’t yield the extensive fly-fishing opportunities of its many clearwater tributary drainages, due to a turbid nature that’s especially prevalent in summer months. Throughout much of the drainage, anglers will also find the assistance of a knowledgeable guide indispensable, as potential pike water is more than abundant. The Yukon Flats, an expansive wetland between Circle and Stevens Village, is one such area, noted for its tens of thousands of interconnected lakes and slow-moving backwaters, many of which hold copious populations of pike. Farther downriver is the confluence with the Wild and Scenic Nowitna River. The surrounding wetlands within the Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge, which contains more than 14,000 lakes and small ponds, are yet another haven for significant numbers of northern pike. Also productive among central Yukon tributaries are the Melozitna and Tozitna river systems, the latter of which contains a profusion of whitefish for the pike to prey upon.
If possible, the Yukon River becomes even more remote and the pike fishing less charted in the next leg. The area between Galena and Holy Cross contains a few hundred miles of what seems to be the wildest portions of the river, with a multitude of tributaries and slow-moving creeks that offer pike possibilities. Near the end of this stretch, anglers can first encounter the Innoko River drainage, perhaps the greatest trophy pike producer among all of Alaska’s world-class habitat. An enormous lowland tributary of the Yukon with plenty of meandering, interconnected sloughs and lakes, the Innoko features a rich environment for northern pike: big, slow water and abundant cisco and whitefish populations. The Innoko’s major tributary, the Iditarod River, is itself nearly 350 miles long and is thought to be another phenomenal producer in an area already recognized as one of the world’s great pike locales. Pike over 20 pounds (and some much larger) are not irregular for either of these rivers.