When Jacks Attack

One young girl in Drayton Valley got a shock when she was swimming in the area and had an encounter of the fishy kind. One of the pike in the lake bit her hand – while his motive was unclear, biologists from Environment and Parks sprang into action!

Taking the bait

Photos of the bite and a tooth collected during the incident were submitted as evidence in this case. The team determined this was probably a case of a northern pike (Esox Lucious) biting the swimmer’s hand – but needed to look deeper.

Investigators traveled to the pond in question and set their trap to catch their culprit. Two standard fisheries assessment gill-nets, 61 metre long mesh nets, were set up for two hours and the team angled throughout.

Almost immediately, biologist Bill Patterson, one of the team members, hooked a very active 61 cm pike. Based on the evidence they had, a tooth collected during the incident, the team identified this fish as the one that had bit the swimmer.

The pike was in the typical size and weight range for Alberta pike during mid-summer, and was not starving or otherwise in unusual condition. The pond is a gravel pit that is occasionally flooded and colonized by fish from the adjacent North Saskatchewan River, and probably has no self-sustaining fish population.

While there didn’t seem to be any evidence of malicious intent on the part of the fish and the incident was most likely a case of mistaken identity, the fish was captured and removed as a precaution.

Northern pike captured at pond.

Northern pike captured at pond.

The biting truth

Fish have teeth and spines. We have hooks and filletting knives. We usually win, but not always. Every Alberta fish biologist has spine scars from walleye and teeth scars from pike – it is a hazard of the job.

Pike will bite anything! This is true for most Alberta fish, especially northern fish. They live in a cold, low-productivity environment and can’t afford to pass up any potential prey item.

Luckily, Alberta doesn’t have poisonous fish, except for a tiny catfish down in the Milk River. The stonecat has a venom gland in their pectoral spines. When it bites, it hurts – kind of like a hornet sting. Few Alberta anglers ever catch one, but be cautious when flipping river rocks down at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Fishing and swimming in Alberta are no more dangerous than picking raspberries; very rarely you might get a scratch, but that is no reason to fear what’s living in the water.

Tipping the scales

Getting bitten while swimming is not anyone’s idea of fun, but it is actually a sign that the fish populations in the North Saskatchewan River are increasing in abundance and that is good news for the environment and for anglers.

Because northern fish are so aggressive, they are easy to catch. This aggressiveness is one of the reasons we have had overharvest and fish collapses in the past, and why catch-and-release and watershed-scale Recovery Rest Periods are so important to the recovery of these highly vulnerable fishes, including bull trout, Arctic grayling, cutthroat trout, walleye, and pike.

While river fish like walleye and pike are still not abundant enough for general harvest, biologists are working towards recovery so Indigenous and sport fishermen can once again eat river fish without risking the population numbers.

Reel advice

Rough handling of fish has the potential to hurt both you and your catch. Woolen or wet gloves can help get a grip on slippery fish. Even better, use long-nose pliers to grab the hook for quick release while the fish is still in the water and avoid the whole spine and sharp teeth issue.

Be a thoughtful angler. Barbless versus barbed hooks and single versus treble hooks are hot topics for many anglers. The science on these issues is clear – different hook types don’t substantially improve fish survival. However, depending on the day, the species and the aggressiveness of the fish, if the hooks are going down deep in the fish, use something different. Often, treble hooks are great for catching on the outside of the fish and release is quick and simple. Some days, a single jig-type hook is ideal for release. On other days, jigs tend to get swallowed and result in terrible release issues.

Remember, less handling means less chance of damage to your hand and the fish! People and fish are going to run into each other, especially when we invade their homes. While incidents like this can happen, they aren’t frequent and besides a little bit of discomfort, are generally harmless.

4 thoughts on “When Jacks Attack

  1. This story has given you a good opportunity to educate – well done! However, I do hope somebody ate the poor jackfish afterwards (even if it was only a cat) so that it didn’t lose its life in vain. In northern Manitoba we always used to eat jackfish.

  2. What a waste of manpower, including the time spent writing about it. I would rather see their time spent better understanding the fish populations of the North Sakatchewam River.

  3. Even a marauding grizzly often gets a second chance. Hope the little girl (victim) got the fillets. The discussion about hooking mortality provides some good examples but somebody forgot ‘BAIT’ which is often taken deeply, damages gills, and causes average mortalities of 25%. Have “Recovery Rest Periods” from angling, even catch & release, demonstrated recovery of trout or grayling populations anywhere in Alberta or is this just speculation, similar to anglers harvesting brook trout to save native trout? How about ‘recovery, rest periods’ from industry including hanging culverts, sediments and riparian destruction?

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