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For all the science and technology that has been applied to the sport of fishing, the primary allure of this primal pastime remains the mystery hidden in dark depths. With each cast, we reach with hook and line from within our imagination, out into a fluid reality that we can only pretend to understand.

No wonder truth is so notoriously slippery among fisher-folk.

We fish for stories, after all - the more improbable, the better. Imagination may never be bettered by truth, but the tension on that line is infinitely more interesting than the fillet in the freezer.

When I sat down in the bow seat of Victor fishing guide Jack Mauer's aluminum driftboat on a recent March morning, I knew I might be casting into a headwind, metaphorically anyway.

Actually, for this time of year, it was a pretty good day - sunny, unseasonably warm and still - for our intended quarry: northern pike.

Northern pike themselves seem to spring out of storybooks: ghastly looking creatures, bony and serpentine, clad in scaly, slimy, mottled-green skin, their large maws rimmed with needle-like teeth. Even their gills have teeth. They eat up to four times their own weight in a year, which is a lot for a fish that can grow to 3 feet or more in length. They'll dine on anything they can fit in their mouths, from their own offspring to birds.

Generally speaking, these so-called "freshwater barracuda" aren't entirely difficult to catch; the techniques for their enticement consist, in essence, of finding them when they're hungry, and feeding them something big, attached to hook and stout line.

The challenge, on this day, lay in our choice of waters: the Bitterroot River, one of western Montana's premiere coldwater fisheries. This is a river known far and wide as blue-ribbon trout water, a place where fish tales typically earn their poetry from the divergent narratives of dainty tippets tied to microscopic hooks, and the powerful, colorful, wary salmonids they pull ashore.

Though pike have long inhabited the Bitterroot, they are not native here. Moreover, the generally fast-moving, shallow river mostly lacks the warm, still water that northern pike need in order to spawn. Few fishermen bother to chase them here, or even know that they're here; those with an interest in catching pike tend to head downstream to the lower reaches of the Clark Fork River, or to the Flathead River.

Last week, I told a friend that I would be heading out to fish for pike on the Bitterroot.

"You're crazy," proclaimed my friend, who fishes often on those waters. "Even if there are pike in the Bitterroot, this is the wrong time of year for them."

Ah, but Jack said he'd had good luck fly-fishing for pike in the spring. He'd even told me of a recent near-miss with a largemouth bass on the river.

"No way," scoffed this friend. "There aren't bass in the Bitterroot."

***

We launched the boat around 11 a.m. from a small mud ramp east of Lolo. Fifteen minutes later, as we drifted circles around a large, slowly swirling backwater slightly upstream from the launch, I spotted a pike of about two feet in length slowly swimming away from our boat along the muddy river bottom.

"There, look!" I fairly shouted as I hurled my gaudy lure in its direction.

"Yep, that's a pike," said Mauer, standing behind me and craning his neck from his position at the oars. "Good sign."

The fish paid my offering no heed. Farther down the bank, as I cast toward the shallows, we spotted another relatively uncommon river denizen: an American mink, hopping along among the rip-rap.

An hour later, just after we passed through the fearsome stink cloud wafting from Lolo's malodorous sewage treatment plant, Mauer angled our craft into a small back channel of still water. Almost immediately, we saw a tell-tale mud cloud on the riverbottom, where a resting fish had spooked out. Then, another; and this time, I spotted the fish, a midsized pike, gliding quietly away. Mauer slowly rowed our boat up into the backwater as I cast a five-inch, red-and-white fly made of rabbit fur ahead of us.

No luck. We circled back down to the mouth of the backwater. Two more mud clouds in the exact same location told us that our quarry had returned, only to flee our approach again in the opposite direction. Looking downstream, I saw a pike, much larger this time - easily 30 inches - swimming away.

I cast my fly beyond it along the precipitous, boulder-strewn bank, let it sink, then began retrieving it in quick jerks separated by pauses.

***

Pat Saffel can't really say for sure how long ago northern pike arrived in the Bitterroot River. But he knows why they have stayed there. The regional fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Missoula, Saffel said these fierce and fearless torpedos have managed to sustain a sizeable population in the Missoula-area stretches of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers thanks to the ideal breeding flats in Milltown Reservoir.

"Milltown was a recruitment source" - that's biologist-speak for "fish bordello" - "and then fish would flush out of the reservoir past the dam and supply the rivers around Missoula," said Saffel.

Of course, Milltown Reservoir is gone now, as is the dam. But northern pike can live more than 20 years. That means, theoretically, that northern pike could remain in Missoula-area rivers for a generation to come, even without a place to breed.

And chances are, they'll still find a few quiet backwaters along the river to have some nookie.

"I think they'll always be present in the rivers here," theorized Saffel. "Now they have to survive without the Milltown spawning area. So it's somewhat in question what the future will bring. But they're resilient."

***

No pike were harmed in the making of this story.

It is a fish story like so many, full of breathless accounts of gargantuan fish that only barely escaped the crafty ploys of a fisherman and his skilled oarsman. There was the smallish pike - a "hammer-handle," as pike aficionados would call it - that grabbed the tail of the fisherman's fly within plain sight of the boat, but avoided the sting of the hook and escaped. There was the three-footer that lazily twitched its enormous tail but once, and jetted away in a stagnant pool near Fort Missoula. More fish, maybe half a dozen, were sighted from the boat, but never turned to the fly.

As we drifted quietly through our day on the water, Mauer noted that he's known of pike in the Bitterroot ever since he moved to Victor in the mid-1980s. A former Midwestern bass fisherman, Mauer moved out here with the dream of becoming a trout fishing guide. Today, in his late 50s, he finds himself rowing toward retirement, fishing and guiding about 120 days a year, still hooked on fish.

Along the way, though, he has picked up an interest in catching those northern pike - a fish that many trout purists sniff at.

"People sometimes ask me, what are you fishing for pike for?" said Mauer. "But you evolve as an angler, especially when you do it a lot, and you want something a little different."

Mauer's interest in pike fishing came from that most basic fisherman's itch: bigger fish.

"I got the bug when I started seeing fish over three feet long in the river," he said. "I was like, OK, I want one of those."

These days, whenever he goes out trout fishing on the lower Bitterroot or Clark Fork, Mauer packs along a 9-weight saltwater fly rod - he prefers his Scott stick - with a sinking-tip line tied to a stout, hand-tied tapered leader of about 7 feet in length. To its end he attaches a foot-long piece of 85-pound test monofilament - protection against those sharp teeth - which in turn attaches to the fly.

Although he used to mostly fish with a blue-and-white pattern, Mauer isn't too particular about fly colors these days.

"I'm sure color does matter at times," he shrugged. "But it seems like the most important thing is just finding the fish and getting the fly in front of them in a way that irritates them enough to bite."

Mauer is quite sure the pike are having an impact on the native fish; after all, he's found those fish in the bellies of large pike, swallowed whole.

But that's not really why he fishes for pike.

"I don't have any illusion I'm going to get these fish out of here," he said. "They're probably here to stay at this point. But I enjoy doing what I can to keep them in check."

***

Back at that backwater near the Lolo sewage treatment plant, I lifted my waterlogged fly out of the water and cast again downstream as our boat slowly slid out into the mainstream current. I jerked the line twice. Bam! Something powerful grabbed it, bent my stout rod in half, and began stripping the line off my reel. The fish stayed low in the deep channel, every whip of its tail producing a strong tug on the line.

We struggled for a few moments before the fish began to lose its strength. I slowly brought it toward the boat. When it was about 10 feet away, it breached to the surface.

"Oh my God," I yelped, "it's a freakin' largemouth!"

Yes, I went fishing for northern pike in the Bitterroot, and instead I caught a largemouth bass - an even rarer interloper, a fish that can't really even spawn in this river, a creature that happily thrives in the tepid waters of the deep South.

"Our theory is that the bass are escapees from Lee Metcalf (Wildlife Refuge)," said Saffel when I asked him about my catch later. "There are other ponds in the area with them, and a whole system of ditches; so a few make it out to the river on occasion. They don't allow fishing at Lee Metcalf, so those fish have time to grow old and big."

Yes, friend, there are bass in the Bitterroot. And unlike so many tall tales, this fish story comes with pictures.

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, jnickell@missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.

 

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