The northern pike: How to catch them and why they have become so controversial

Growing up as a fifth-generation Routt County native, Cody Lujan fell in love with fishing at a young age and has since traveled all over the country fishing and guiding. Above all, Lujan loves fishing with his children and advocates all anglers to fish with their families.

Lujan is a conservationist who has a passion for northern pike while maintaining a concern for native fish recoveries in the lower Yampa River. He looks to find a balance between recreation and appropriate conservation so Routt County residents and visitors can enjoy more trophy pike fishing.

Pike were originally brought to Colorado as a way to lower the white sucker population and were stocked at Elk Head Reservoir in the late 1970s. The pike eventually escaped Elk Head Reservoir and then proliferated and migrated throughout the Yampa Valley river system. They were also illegally introduced to Stagecoach Reservoir in the 1990s.

Pike spawn at a very young age and because of this, the population quickly grew throughout the valley, lowering the populations of fish native to the area. Pike will eat anything in front of them, including dead fish, other smaller pike and trout.

When opening up their stomachs, Lujan has seen pikes filled with all sorts of fish but has personally seen mostly crayfish in their guts.

Having fished pike for many years in town, Lujan has become an expert in reeling them in. He says the best time to catch pike is in the early spring during spawning season when the fish are at their largest size.

They then bulk back up throughout the summer and put the pounds back on in late August through October.

Lujan’s preferred method for catching pike is using streamer patterns. He fishes with an 80-pound saltwater fluoro tippet because he has been bitten off numerous times on 40-pound tippets.

The head of a pike reeled in by local angler Cody Lujan. Northern pike were introduced to Stagecoach Reservoir illegally in the 1990s and are a known invasive species, but will remain in the waters with no easy pathway for removal.

Pike can be difficult fish to catch and Lujan says timing is everything when setting the hook.

“If you set the hook too early when you see them flare their gills and start turning to hit the fly by the side, you are going to miss the strike,” Lujan said.

Sometimes, if you are really still, pike will swim up to a fly right at your feet and stay stationary in front of you. Lujan suggests working the fly around the fish to get them agitated to the point where they will eventually go for the bite.

Lujan also has suggestions for situations when pike follow the fly but don’t bite.

“I’ll reel it in, take a couple minutes and swap out the fly pattern, typically just the color to mix it up a little bit,” Lujan said. “I’ll let that fish rest for a few minutes and then I’ll throw back out. A lot of times I’ve caught that fish that was interested but just not in that color of the fly.”

After reeling them in, Lujan recommends putting the fish back in the water, but to eat them if you do decide to kill them. It is illegal to kill a pike and leave it on the banks.

Conversely, Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Bill Atkinson encourages local anglers to harvest pike.

“Pike are not something we can manage to enhance in this basin,” Atkinson said. “We’re doing a lot to keep them under control because of the documented impacts on native species, specifically the (threatened and endangered) species downstream.”

Atkinson is in charge of re-stocking Stagecoach Reservoir with trout and says he puts in 33,000 trout per year. It can cost as much as $35,000 to do so because he has to raise the trout in a hatchery until they are large enough to be somewhat ignored by pike.

Atkinson points out that while he appreciates the enthusiasm of all anglers, his job is to accommodate to the majority interest. Most people in this area look to fish for rainbow trout, so that is his number one priority.

Lujan acknowledges how impactful pike can be and hopes to one day assist in finding a way to accommodate all anglers in the best way possible, but says there are still many question marks to finding the answers.

“We have these giant trophy game fish in our waters that are so fun to catch, yet so detrimental to native fish species in the lower Yampa River,” Lujan said. “Where is the middle line? Can there be a middle line? How do we move forward from where we are today?”