In the far north fisherman have games for a lot things, but they save the worst ones for great northern pike.
"Snakes, that's what we call them," said Don Manych of The Pas, Manitoba, as we prepared for a day of walleye fishing on the frozen lakes and streams in his territory.
Or jackfish, or sometimes jacks, but never "great," never "northern" and never "pike."
Manitobans profess utter disdain for pike on grounds they are too hard to eat (bony), too easy to catch and too hungry. "They eat everything else in the lake." Manych said.
With that for background and warning, I wasn't prepared for what we saw as Manych and I rounded a point of land on Rocky Lake on his snowmobile.
We were geared up and ready to go, towing a sleigh full of holedigging gear, tackle, lunch and Red Devil wine. It was 10 beloz zero and a half-hour past dawn.
We made for a crude shack off Pickerel Point, so named because in the confusing scheme of things, wallege are called pickered by Manitobans. Around the hut were three spots, holes anglers had cut out in the open on pleasant days.
Each hole was surrounded by a pile of discarded northern pike, frozen and forgotten on the crisp show.
There must have been 50 in all, scattered and twisted in gruesome shapes. Ravens wheeled about in the clear sky, and the pike carcasses were torn, picked by the huge carrion birds.
"Those fish were caught yesterday," Manych said "If they'd been out here any longer the ravens would have cleaned them up by now."
There were no little-bitty fish --they ranged up to about 30 inches and five pounds. But to Manitobans, any jack is a bad jack. They regard pike the way we do crappie and bluegill --overpopulations that need to be weeded out.
It's the kind of weeding that can make for a whale of a day in an ice shack.
Manych popped the latch on the door to the little shack. Inside was an old steel wood stove and four icedover holes He set to work with the power drill, filling the eight-foot-square shack with racket and blue fumes. I gathered wood on shore.
Soon, we were warmly ensconced with a fire blazing. Shortly came the first tug on Manych's simple rig -- a foot-long pine stick, monofilament line, homemade lead jig and hooked minnow.
"Come on baby, come back," he whispered. He had the stick balanced between two fingers, and in seconds the business end dipped sharply again. He tossed the stick aside and yanked the fish, hand-over-hand, 10 feet up and out of the hole.
"Snake," he grumped -- a 20-inch great northern pike.
"That calls for a drink," Manych said, and we took pulls on the Red Devil. Then both our lines dipped at once and with great spirit we yanked two more great northerns from the clear, cold water.
In two hours, we had eight nice fish, the biggest about 26 inches and four pounds. There were no stunning fights, but the fish hit the minnows with sudden, satisfying slams that kept the anticipation level up and the day moving swiftly.
Later we moved, zipping through the woods on a skiddo trail to Atik Lake a mile away. We followed wolf tracks across the ice to a vacant fishing shack.
There was only about two feet of water under the deep ice, but even in the grassy shallows we managed to pull in three handsome pike in an hour's time.
Finally, to cap off the day, we headed down to the big lake, Clear-water the sparkling waters support the prize, deep-running fish of the north -- like trout.
We were too late. By the time we'd crossed the six miles of ice to Manych's elegant heated hut, the sun was almost down and we never got a bite.
Manych was disconsolate. By his standards, it was a total disaster -- 11 despised pike, not a single walleye or a trout. But it wasn't a day I'll soon forget.
Great northerns are wonderful prey and you don't have to travel 2,500 miles to fish for them if you're willing to wait a few months.
One of the great fish-management successes in our area has been the thriving population of pike in Rocky Gorge/Tridelphia, the twin Montgomery County reservoirs just north of Silver Spring on Rte. 29.
According to Clint Bowman, who knows Rocky Gorge as well as anyone, the pike are the first fish to spawn once the ice goes out. They don't feed well while spawning, but shortly afterward they go into voracious feeding frenzies to make up for lost time.
Sometime between mid-April and late May you should be able to clean up on pike in the shallows at the same time the bass will be moving in to spawn.
For the record, pike make fine eating, although it takes a little more work to fillet them because they have a subsidiary row of lateral bones.
Even here, in the extreme southern end of their range, pike have their detractors.
Bowman is bass man. "The pike are a nuisance," he says. "There's times you can't keep them off the hook."
That's a nuisance?
The biggest bass show in the area, the third-annual Northern Virginia Bass Exposition sponsored by the Potomac and National Capital Bassmasters clubs, will be held today.
The show runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Columbia Pike and Washington Boulevard, Arlington. Admission is $2.50 for adults, $1.50 for children.