The pike predicament: How a fish creates thrills for anglers and headaches for habitat managers

Steamboat Springs — The predators become the prey when fishermen like Craig Preston cast into Stagecoach Reservoir southeast of Steamboat Springs. — The predators become the prey when fishermen like Craig Preston cast into Stagecoach Reservoir southeast of Steamboat Springs.

— The predators become the prey when fishermen like Craig Preston cast into Stagecoach Reservoir southeast of Steamboat Springs.

With four kids, a wife and two jobs, Preston, who lives in Hayden, does not get onto the water as much as he would like. Fishing is his passion though, and when at Stagecoach, he fishes for northern pike, a top-level predator that threatens Colorado fish habitats but is also a really fun fish to catch.

“I think it’s the big-fish allure,” Preston said. “The chance of catching that monster.”

And the big fish are definitely out there. The official state record pike was pulled out of Stagecoach in 2006 by Thornton resident Tim Bone, who was using Powerbait with the intention of catching trout. Instead, he hooked a pike at the Stagecoach inlet and began a 25-minute fight with the fish running out about 100 yards three times. The 30-pound, 11-ounce fish measured 46 1/2 inches with a 21 1/2-inch girth.

By comparison, the biggest pike Preston has ever caught out of Stagecoach was 39 inches and weighed 15 pounds.

“That’s a big one, not a huge one,” Preston said as he pulled his 1979 Lund fishing boat up to a grassy area along the shore, where he threw out his cast.

“About to get one right here though.”

Managing an invader

Below the surface, it can be a tough life at Stagecoach for the rainbow trout that are sought after by so many Colorado visitors. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Billy Atkinson, pike will feed on trout that are up to half the size of the pike.

The 800-acre reservoir came about with the completion of the Stagecoach dam in 1989, and today the park sees about 150,000 visitors annually.

Stagecoach originally was stocked with trout, but sometime in the early 1990s, it is thought a so-called bucket biologist illegally dumped pike into the reservoir.

“If you have one male and one female and they end up pulling off a spawn, that’s all you need,” Atkinson said.

With a 10-pound female capable of producing as many as 100,000 eggs, the pike population at Stagecoach grew.

“That’s a very difficult thing to manage,” Atkinson said.

While pike enthusiasts had a pristine body of water to fish now, the species had impacts throughout the Upper Colorado river system as pike spilled over the Stagecoach dams and unintentionally escaped from other Colorado water bodies.

Pike first got into the Yampa River when they escaped from Elkhead Reservoir northwest of Hayden in the late 1970s.

Today, federal and state resources are being used to manage the pike population and its impact on endangered fish at a cost of about $391,000 in 2014 for the Northwest Colorado region.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program began working to control the pike population in the Yampa River in 1999 in an effort to protect the endangered humpback chub, bonytail, razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow. The results have been mixed for areas downstream of Hayden.

“Our efforts so far in the rivers are fairly successful in terms of the number of pike removed, but persistence of our efforts in succeeding years has been unacceptable,” said Sherman Hebein, senior aquatic biologist for the Northwest Region.

“River-based population estimates show succeeding year populations are roughly equivalent to previous year estimates prior to removals,” Hebein said. “We believe that escapement of pike from reservoirs and recruitment from river-based populations brings the populations back to previous levels. We have been able to greatly reduce the size structure of reservoir populations by netting and electrofishing but have not been able to eradicate pike populations.”

In addition to the impacts on endangered species, the pike continue to feed on the trout stocked for anglers, which negatively can impact recreation. Stagecoach State Park thought that in the 1990s when the pike population exploded and decimated the stocked trout.

“The campgrounds at Stagecoach were empty,” Atkinson said.

Because pike retreat to cooler waters during the summer, Atkinson said there were no offshore fishing opportunities for the park’s visitors.

Efforts were made to return the reservoir into a trout fishery, but it came at a cost. Trout cannot reproduce in the still reservoir waters, so the lake is stocked every fall for those who pay for a Colorado fishing license.

To give the trout a chance at surviving, fish managers began stocking Stagecoach with larger fish, which cost more to raise. Currently, about 35,000 to 40,000 trout are dumped into the lake each year at an annual cost of about $60,000 paid for by fishing and hunting license fees.

Atkinson estimated that it is costing $500 in stocked trout to raise a single, unwanted pike to 40 inches.

If Atkinson did not stock Stagecoach with trout, he said the trout population would tank. The pike fishing would be good for a couple of years, he said, because the pike would be hungry with a dwindling trout population, but then they would start cannibalizing themselves.

It’s a predator-prey balancing act for Atkinson.

“Pike, they’re a fun sport fish, but here, they are a tough fish to manage in our system,” Atkinson said.

Before a pike population increase in 2011 after a massive snowmelt, the number of pike at Stagecoach longer than 14 inches was estimated to be 1,877 in 2003. Atkinson noted that the reservoir management was different then, and more recent data since has been collected to determine current population estimates, but that data is not yet available.

No catch limits

As the manager of Stagecoach State Park, Preston knows the Stagecoach waters well.

How Craig Preston pickles pike

The northern pike is a boney fish, which deters people from eating it. The best thing about this pickled pike recipe is you do not have to remove the bones from the filets because they dissolve in the brine solution. This recipe can be used with any fish.


■ 5 pounds of fish, chunked

■ 2 1/2 cups of canning salt

■ 1 gallon of bottled water

■ White vinegar

■ 1 onion cut into pieces

In a plastic container dissolve the 2 1/2 cups of salt in the gallon of bottled water and add chunked fish. Refrigerate for 48 to 72 hours. Remove fish and rinse in cold water. Cover fish with white vinegar for 24 hours and refrigerate.

Remove fish from vinegar and pack in jars with pieces of onion. Cover with the following solution:

■ 1 quart distilled vinegar

■ 5 1/2 cups sugar

■ 5 teaspoons of pickling spice

■ 1 cup dry white wine

Bring all ingredients except the dry wine to a boil. When solution has cooled, add the dry white wine and cover fish. Seal with lids that have been scalded. Refrigerate at least one day before eating.

“The pike should be done spawning,” he said in June. “They’ve gone through the recovery process and should start to get active as the water temperature warms up and hopefully are feeding fairly aggressively.”

It is not long before Preston lands his first pike.

“Take as many as you want,” Preston said. “There is no limit. We didn’t put them in here, so we don’t want them in here.”

At Stagecoach State Park, Preston and his team face challenges. They continually have to educate people to keep their dogs on leash, and fishermen are encouraged to take home the invasive pike.

There is not a catch limit for pike at Stagecoach, but pike are not a generally sought-after fish for eating. Preston encouraged people to take them, even if it is for feeding their cats.

With Preston’s catch, he plans to make a batch of pickled pike.

“Pickled pike is delicious,” Preston said.

That is not the plan for the 23-inch walleye Preston caught on an ensuing cast. It is the other predator that is not supposed to be in Stagecoach.

“We don’t have to pickle that one,” Preston said. “You’re going in the frying pan.”

Fishermen are not encouraged to simply throw the pike onto the shore to die, Preston said. It would be wasting wildlife, and technically, a ticketable offense.

According to Parks and Wildlife officials, they are working to potentially modify some of the regulations at Stagecoach to liberalize and incentivize the taking of pike.

More drastic management techniques have been implemented to help control pike populations elsewhere.

At the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam in Utah, a “catch-and-kill” rule went into effect last year. Pike in the Yampa River are to blame for the Green River population.

Beginning in 2008 at Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling, a $20 bounty was offered for each pike caught. The bounty still is being offered.

It also is possible to chemically treat and kill off an entire fish population and start over. Atkinson talked through the complexities of such an undertaking.

At Stagecoach, for example, an environmental impact study would have to be completed because of nearby federal lands. The reservoir would need to be drained partially, which could mean the water might have to be purchased from the owners who pay to store it in Stagecoach. They also would have to worry about pike that are upstream from the reservoir.

Parks and Wildlife estimated such a project would cost well upwards of $100,000.

“So many things come into play with a large-scale treatment like that,” Atkinson said.

Plus, there is no guarantee that the pike will not re-establish themselves in the lake.

When pike escape

Except for those harvested for purposes such as disease research, pike is not removed from Stagecoach by Parks and Wildlife staff.

Atkinson will catch pike in nets — upwards of 40 at a time — or stun them with electricity so he can tag and release them. This year, he tagged about 500 to study how many actually escape the reservoir.

The study is part of an agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which regulate, own and operate the dam.

The data from the study will help Parks and Wildlife make decisions about the pike population.

“We are not ready at this time to significantly alter our management at Stagecoach Reservoir, but that time may come in the near future,” said Hebein, Atkinson’s supervisor.

Downstream from Stagecoach, the pike are removed from Lake Catamount and the Yampa River and moved to water bodies in the Front Range that are suitable and where the pike are sought after by sport fishermen.

Throughout the years, Atkinson said he has removed about 13,000 pike from Catamount.

Along with trout habitat improvements, pike management tactics, Atkinson said, have paid dividends downstream toward Steamboat Springs and Hayden, where the trout population is flourishing in the Yampa River.

“This town supports three fly fishing shops with guides that are on the river every day,” Atkinson said.

Veteran Steamboat Flyfisher guide Paul Russell is happy to see the business.

“I like pike fishing, but I’d rather have our natural specimen,” he said. “Most people that come to the mountains, they want to catch trout. Not pike.”

Robert Bolger, another guide at the shop, said they will occasionally offer pike trips, and he is one of the many who are going after the record.

“They are an extremely fun fish to catch on the fly,” he said.

Chasing the record

At Stagecoach reservoir after a busy July Fourth holiday weekend, South Routt County resident Tripp Blalock was fishing for trout with his stepchildren Quinn and Bailey Miles.

“All I’ve ever caught is rainbow trout out here, and they’re pretty big by the shoreline,” he said.

Bailey was unaware of the monster pike that lurk below the water and was surprised to hear about the record fish.

“That’s as big as my little sister,” she said.

That same evening, Thornton resident Russell Richardson arrived to camp with friends and fish for pike.

“We like to fish for pike for the fun of it, but most people hate them here because they eat the trout,” Richardson said. “I don’t know how many pike are in here, but I know there are some pike in here.”

Back on the water, Preston still was hoping to top Tim Bone’s trophy fish.

“I feel like there is probably a state record out there,” he said.

Atkinson is not so sure.

“I didn’t net it this year,” he said. “I think it’s going to be tough, but it is possible.” ■