FAIRBANKS — As he steered the 20-foot boat toward a fish trap that had been set in Harding Lake the day before, Klaus Wuttig couldn’t tell if it held any fish.
His partner and fellow sport fish biologist, Matt Albert, hopped out of the boat. It was his job to check.
“Anything?” Wuttig, a sport fish biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, asked as Albert pushed through the water in Gortex chest waders and checked the trap.
The sound of splashing northern pike answered the question before Albert, a fellow state biologist, could.
“Oh yeah,” Albert said as he began pulling the cumbersome hoop trap out of the water. “Four or five.”
The metal hoops clanged against the side of the boat as Albert tried to lift it out of the water and the pike thrashed in the net. Wuttig hopped out of the driver’s seat to give Albert a hand with the trap. They guided the pike into one end of the trap and wrestled it into the boat. Wuttig untied a net at the end of the trap and dumped five pike of assorted sizes into a large tub of water in the middle of the boat.
The pike looked like small torpedoes in the tub. Their green, snake-like bodies were mottled with white spots. Their huge mouths resembled those of crocodiles, complete with sharp teeth.
“They look pretty good, ” Wuttig said, examining the fish in the tub. “A lot of times at this time of year, two or three weeks after spawning, they can be pretty beat up because they go after each other when they’re spawning. It’s pretty rough on them.”
Pike are considered a scourge in most parts of Alaska because of their predatory nature. In fact, the department has been trying to eradicate pike populations in many lakes in Southcentral Alaska. Illegally planted by fishermen, they wiped out entire populations of rainbow trout and king salmon.
But that’s not the case in Harding Lake, where biologists would like nothing better than to resuscitate what used to be a flourishing pike fishery.
“That was our big pike fishery on the road system, and we’d like to get it back,” Brase said.
Desert of rock
Twenty years ago, 2,500-acre Harding Lake was the place to go if you were going to go pike fishing in the Interior, especially if you didn’t have a boat or plane.
It had a healthy population of northern pike and was relatively close — a 45-mile drive south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway. All you needed was a canoe and a pair of hip waders to catch big pike.
But then the water level started dropping, as if somebody had pulled a plug. Shallow, weedy shorelines, which for years had made perfect pike habitat, dried up. Nobody knows why the water level dropped, but biologists estimate that approximately 200 acres of pike spawning area has disappeared as the shoreline has receded.
“This all used to be under water,” Wuttig said, nodding toward a large, grassy area with trees growing up in it. “We used to set nets in there during the last assessment in the late 1990s.
“It used to be 200 feet of weed beds,” he said. “That’s all gone now. Now you look out here and see this desert of rock.”
Not surprisingly, the pike population plunged as the water dropped. In 1993, biologists estimated there were almost 3,800 pike that were 12 inches or bigger in Harding Lake. By 1999, the population was estimated at just 583 pike of that size.
“In the late ’90s, it took a nose dive,” Wuttig said.
The department responded by closing the lake to pike fishing in 2000. It has been closed ever since.
In recent years, state and federal agencies have been working to raise the water level in the lake to historic levels.
In 2007, the state used $400,000 in federal funds to build a diversion dam at a fork in Rogge Creek, a feeder creek about a mile and a half from the lake, to help steer more water into the lake.
The lake rose about a foot in the first two summers but has since dropped back down to what it was before the diversion project was installed. The state has asked to modify the structure to steer more water into the lake, Brase said.
Until the water level in the lake rises and creates more spawning areas for pike, there isn’t much biologists can do, Wuttig said.
“Pike are real fecund. It doesn’t take many big pike to produce enough eggs to maintain the population,” he said. “What’s critical is rearing habitat. They need weed beds because they need cover.
“The way they hunt is to hide and ambush stuff,” Wuttig said. “These pike love all this artificial structure (i.e. docks, boat houses, etc.) people have put in here because it’s the only cover in the lake anymore. Yesterday, I saw a beer can in the water and there was a pike behind it because that was cover.”
Recently, Wuttig and other biologists from the department spent six days doing a pike population assessment in Harding Lake. The goal is to figure out how many pike live there.
Biologists hop there will be enough pike to at least reopen it to catch-and-release fishing. Using a dozen hoop traps set up at strategic point around the lake, as well as fishing with rod and reel, biologists caught and tagged a total of 249 pike that were 18 inches or longer, the size at which pike are big enough to spawn.
Biologists will return in August and repeat the process to see how many tagged fish they catch compared to untagged fish, a percentage that will be used to calculate an overall population estimate.
“Just today we caught 20 and four of them had tags,” Wuttig said on the day I joined he and Albert to check the traps. “Twenty percent of the fish had tags in them; that doesn’t bode well.
“If we come back in August and catch 100 fish and see 20 tags, that’s not so good,” he said. “If we catch 100 fish and only see three or four tags, that’s good. The less tags we see in August, the better.”
According to a 2003 management plan for the lake, there have to be 1,000 pike bigger than 18 inches before the lake can be opened to catch-and-release fishing and 1,700 pike that size before a catch-and-keep fishery is considered. The state Board of Fisheries would have to approve either fishery.
Based on what biologists saw in the recent sample, and the fact that anglers who fish for lake trout and Arctic char haven’t reported catching a lot of pike, Brase said chances of the Harding Lake pike fishery reopening are slim.
“I am not optimistic,” Brase said. “If there were a lot of fish in there, people would be catching them when they’re fishing for lake trout and Arctic char, and I’d be hearing about it. If pike are out there, you can’t not catch them.”
Back on the boat, Albert pulled a fat pike out of the tub.
The fish already had a red spaghetti noodle-type tag sticking out of its back, meaning it had already been caught.
The pike’s wet, mottled skin glistened in the bright sun as Albert held it up to read the tag number. Its gaping mouth and beady eye gave it a prehistoric look.
“5925,” Albert said, reading the number on the tag to Wuttig to be recorded on a data sheet.
The biologist dunked the fish back in the tub as if it were a piece of laundry and pulled it out again, laying it flat on a measuring board.
“544,” Albert said, relaying the measurement in millimeters to Wuttig.
It was about 22 inches, a decent-sized pike but nothing to write home about. There are bigger fish in the lake.
One of the biologists, James Savereide, caught a 42-inch pike on a rod and reel during the recent survey, the biggest of the fish that biologists caught.
“There’s some big pike in here,” Albert said.
The fish are bigger on average now than they were in 1999, for whatever that’s worth, Wuttig said.
Each fish they catch over 18 inches gets a numbered tag stuck in its back. Biologists also clip the adipose fin on each fish. That way they know the fish has been caught before, even if it doesn’t have a tag.
With his work complete, Albert picked up the pike and dropped it over the side of the boat. It made a small splash and darted away.
If you’re a pike fishermen, here’s hoping they don’t catch it when they return with their nets in August.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.