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051410 big pike
Ivan Keeney caught this record-setting pike at Smith Lake near Kalispell. Courtesy photo

Northern pike are vermin to Montana's formerly pristine trout waters.

But even native-minded coldwater fish biologists warmed to news of a fledgling fly fisherman who landed a record pike on April 30 at Smith Lake near Kalispell.

Ivan Keeney of Kalispell landed the fish with a rod, reel and line outfit that cost a measly $21.

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin-based Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame confirmed Keeney's 30-pound northern pike as a North American record in the fly-fishing category for 15-pound test line.

Most pike anglers use steel leaders to counter their quarry's notoriously sharp teeth. But the 28-year-old angler, who'd fished pike for years with spinning tackle, hooked the lunker in the edge of its mouth with a 4-inch perch-pattern streamer.

He managed to keep the leader from touching the pike's razor-sharp teeth as he played the fish for nearly an hour with an outmatched 5-6-weight rod.

Adding to the degree of difficulty: Keeney was fishing from a canoe.

"I was calling to some guys on a dock to bring me a net," he said in a telephone interview. "They said, ‘Nah, the fish isn't that big.'

"So I wrapped my coat around my hand and went into the mouth and gills. You should have heard them yelling when they saw me jerk that fish up and into my canoe."

The journey was just beginning.

"I drove about 100 miles to make sure my fish was weighed on a certified scale," he said. "The first grocery store had a table scale the size of a sheet of paper. My fish was 47 inches long. That didn't work."

The sport shop he called had a certified scale. But when he arrived, they realized it had not been certified for 2010.

Keeney has fished 400-acre Smith Lake for years. He said he hooked a 20-pound pike there with a spoon during the pike heydays after they flooded down from upstream around 1997 into what had been a standout perch fishery.

In a textbook fashion, the pike boomed in their new environment. News spread. Anglers depleted most big ones by around 2006, leaving the lake bustling with hammer-handles.

"Now it's pretty much pike eating other pike," Keeney said. "The taxidermist pulled three pike out of my pike's stomach. He's going to mount one hanging from the mouth of the big one."


Jim Vashro, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks regional fisheries manager, said everyone was surprised to find that such a big pike had survived the fishing pressure at Smith Lake.

"Ivan's fish could be 12 years old, one of the first fish to come into the lake," he said.

Someone illegally introduced northern pike to western Montana around 1953, Vashro said. (However, pike apparently are native at the edge of Glacier National Park in an isolated drainage that flows toward Hudson Bay.)

Bucket biology surged in the '70s. Today, pike swim in more than 60 Montana waters west of the Continental Divide.

"They're popular with a lot of anglers because they grow pretty fast, they're pretty exciting to catch and some people like to eat them," Vashro said.

Keeney said he can catch and release 30 or 40 pike on a good day at Smith Lake.

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"That's why I wanted to try fly fishing," he said. "Most of those are small 16-inchers, which are more fun on a fly rod."

Warmwater fishing, especially pike and perch fishing, accounts for 15 percent to 20 percent of the effort nowadays, Vashro said.

Indeed, news of Keeney's record pike has increased the pressure on Kalispell-area waters and store owners tell Keeney they're selling noticeably more pike tackle, even though his isn't the biggest northern pike hooked by an angler:

The all-tackle world record from Germany weighed 55 pounds.

Montana's all-tackle state record is a 37.5-pounder from Tongue River Reservoir in 1972.

Flathead River sloughs upstream from Flathead Lake produced the Kalispell region's largest pike, a 36.5-pounder taken about eight years ago.

Idaho's record, caught in Lake Coeur d'Alene in 2007, was less than 2 inches longer than Keeney's but weighed 9 pounds, 13 ounces heavier.

The late John Propp of Spokane, Wash., still holds the IGFA fly-rod 2-pound tippet record of 24 pounds, 3 ounces taken in the Northwest Territories in 1985.

But none of that matters to Keeney, a homebuilder who just recently plied fly-fishing skills on a little trout pond near his home.

"My fish is worth $600 to mount," he said. "It's a North American record."

As for those coldwater-hearted biologists: "Ivan's new cheap rod was cracking and not in the best shape after fighting that pike," Vashro said. "So we poked around and found one that upgraded him a little bit for his next big fish."


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