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NFC: Blue Pike article for the website....


Blue Pike were once, during the first half of this century, probably the
best tasting, and definitely most commercially harvested fish in the
lower great lakes system. Chances were almost certain, that if you went
to a local restaurant for a Friday fish fry, you would be served blue
pike, not haddock. 

I had the opportunity to sit down and have an interesting discussion with
former Lake Ontario commercial fisherman Elton Jeffords of Youngstown,
NY, and former game warden Kimpton Vosburg was the head game warden in
this area from 1948 until 1979, and returned during the hunting seasons
from '83 to '89. We talked a lot about blue pike, some of which I'll
mention in this article, and several other subjects of interest in
Niagara River fishing history, which I'll write about in a future

According to Elton, it wasn't uncommon to buy a thousand pounds of fish
from hook and line fishermen in a day. With his gill nets, it was also
not uncommon to catch this many fish. This size of the holes in the gill
nets were carefully regulated and frequently checked by men, such as
Vosburg, so that only a certain size range of fish could be kept, thus
insuring the survival of a good spawning population of fish for future
harvest, and giving the smaller fish a chance to grow bigger. 

The last blue pike that Vosburg can recall being caught out of the
Niagara was in 1955 on the day that Marilyn Bell swam from
Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto for the Toronto Exposition. Of course, no
one blames Marilyn Bell for the disappearance of the blue pike. However,
several other reasons to blame do come up. Elton Jeffords believes that
over-fishing by the hook and line fishermen and the use of illegal sized
gill nets played a large role in finishing off the blue pike. 

In the December issue of the Niagara Anglers News and Views, I discussed
some of the history of the blue pike in our area, and some of the
possible reasons for its demise from the lower Great Lakes. I mentioned
that in recent years, there have been stories popping up about fishermen
claiming to catch authentic blue pike in recent time. In the article I
wrote about the follow-up of these stories being done by Dieter N. Busch
of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and some substantial information
which he has come up with. The following is a continuation of this story
and some information about the "blue pike suspect" contributed to the
USF&WS by NRAA member, Jerry Condren. 


Over the past few years, I've been hearing occasional stories from
fishermen of catching a blue pike while walleye fishing on Lake Ontario
and Lake Erie. Knowing that the blue pike is considered to be extinct,
these fishermen have let their catch go, believing that they may have
caught something extremely rare, and it would be right to give it a
chance to possibly spawn. Maybe one, or some of these were the real
thing. I've always had a slight glimmer of hope that maybe, out there in
the depths, there may still survive some blue pike. Whenever I mention
this around any more-experienced local fishermen, my hopes are quickly
lessened by doubt, or is it reality. 

According to former commercial fisherman Elton Jeffords and former game
warden Kimpton Vosburg, both men of vast experience in handling blue
pike, walleye can easily be mistaken for blue pike. Habitat and water
conditions, as well as scale shedding can make a walleye look almost just
a blue pike. The main way that they used to use to differentiate between
the two types of fish was they would lift up the second dorsal fin, and
if there were any yellow spots there, it was a yellow pike (walleye), not
a blue. 

Recently, I read an article in THE BUFFALO NEWS about Dieter N. Busch,
Chief Biologist at the Lower Great Lakes Fishery Resources Office of the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Amherst. Dieter has been investigating
reports of alleged blue pike being caught in several places in Ontario,
Canada and some reports of blue pike in Minnesota. 

In the article, it was mentioned that they are having a difficult time
getting DNA samples for the testing and using for identification purposes
from actual blue pike. It seems that the formaldehyde used in preserving
the original actual blue pike, which he has access to, destroys the DNA
in those specimens. The only source of actual blue pike DNA which they
have, according to the article, is attained by scraping the dried mucous
from the backs of the scales of old dried out specimens. 

Upon reading this, I immediately recalled hearing about an actual frozen
blue pike caught and kept for the past twenty years by NRAA member, Jerry
Condren of Youngstown, NY. Outdoor columnist, Ken Sprenger also wrote
about this in his column in the Tonawanda News in March, 1993. I called
Dieter Busch up, and told him about this fish. He said that he would just
love to have that fish in his possession. I called Jerry Condren up and
he said that he would be happy to donate his fish for such an important
purpose. Thanks for your generous donation, Jerry! Jerry told me that he
caught the fish in Georgian Bay, about a mile west of the French River.
Jerry, who had extensive experience catching blue pike years ago,
immediately recognized the 15 inch fish as a blue pike and decided to
keep it. On the way back to the states from his fishing trip, Jerry ran
into an Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Officer who wanted to check
his catch. Upon seeing the fish, he commented that it was the first blue
pike that he had seen in a long time. That was back in 1976. 

I took the fish back to my house where I took pictures of it, being
careful to keep it out of the reach of my Labrador Retriever. After all,
I didn't want to follow him around with a baggie for two days collecting
DNA samples. 

I took the fish up the USFWS in Amherst where I was greeted by Dieter
Busch and outdoor columnist Ken Sprenger. We took the fish back into the
lab to examine it. Of course, being frozen for twenty years can take a
toll on the condition of a fish specimen. The eyes of the blue pike are
proportionately larger than those of the walleye. The eyes of this fish
looked proportionately larger. Dieter Busch said that the specimen looked
"very interesting", of course, drawing from his scientific objectivity,
and said that presently, we mush refer to it as a "blue-pike suspect".
Further testing will be required. 

So that's where the situation with "the fish" presently stands. I'll most
certainly keep you readers informed about any new developments. 


The present situation with "the fish" (that is, the blue pike suspect
donated by Jerry) as of this printing, is that it has been determined to
be a viable specimen. What this means is that the DNA of the fish has not
been damaged during its many years of being frozen, and thus the further
analysis may now continue in order to determine if the fish is the real
thing. So far, the evidence looks encouraging, but a you can imagine,
since this isn't the OJ trial, this takes time because of the nature of
this particular DNA determination, and cost restraints. In recent years,
there have been severe funding cuts to the US Fish and Wildlife Service,
so worthy programs such as this must suffer. DNA analysis is expensive. I
asked Dieter if the Niagara River Anglers Association could be of any
help. He said that the best thing that our members could do would be to
write to their federal government officials and urge them to restore some
of these funds. 

There have been reports of blue pike suspects being caught coming from
many places. Recently, Dieter gave a talk about this subject at the
meeting of the Southtowns Walleye Association. There were several
fishermen there who told of having caught blue pike out of Lake Erie. Of
course, as I wrote in our last issue, walleye can easily be mistaken for
blue pike. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we will be able to
get Dieter to come up to one of our membership meetings to give a similar
talk about this subject. He did express an interest in doing so. Dieter
reports of many blue pike suspects being caught in several other places
such as up in Ontario, the Spanish River, some lakes in Minnesota, and
even in Belgium. Possibly, some of the immigrants of the last century
sent some of these fish back to their homelands. 

What will the US Fish and Wildlife Service do if some authentic blue pike
are found? 

The reason for all this DNA testing is to eventually set up a DNA profile
of authentic blue pike in order to insure that fish caught are really the
authentic thing. As you can imagine, all of this will have to be done
under some very tight controls. So, if a real breeding pair of blue pike
are found, I'm sure that they will probably be handled something like
plutonium, or maybe the Ebola virus, in order to avoid any injury to our
contamination of the specimens. 

Could we of the NRAA raise and stock them? There are many bridges to
cross and along road to travel before that question can be seriously
answered. For one thing, there is no documentation of blue pike being
bred, raised and stocked, such as we do with the walleye, under
controlled conditions. At least none that I'm aware of. Blue pike were
known to spawn in deeper water than the walleye do. This fact helped
commercial fishermen, such as Elton Jeffords, know where to get the
better catches. 

We are now only in the middle of this story. It is somewhat of a suspense
story. The future could be either extremely rewarding, or disappointing.
I am optimistic, some are pessimistic. Scientists, such as those of USF&W
are objective and realistic, that's where the true substance of this
story will come from. But still, I am optimistic that someday the NRAA
will have a big wooden sign constructed that says, "NRAABLUE PIKE REARING

I'll let you know what's going on with this story in future issues. 

Mike Gillis 

Robert Rice
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