Pike Ice Fishing Tips | How Long Can Pike Survive Out of Water?

Woman ice fishing holding pike

Want a Picture of That Pike? How Long Is Too Long Out of Water?

I’ve heard people say thirty seconds, I’ve heard a minute, but who’s to say who’s the fish expert, anyways?  Unless you’re a marine biologist, chances are you’ve always just gone by whatever your fishing role models taught you.  Most would agree that “as little time as possible” is the right amount of time for a fish you plan to catch and release.  Ice fishing or not.  But consider the following scenario, which may resonate with a past experiences or two:

Just when you were about to call it a day and pack up your ice fishing gear, the flag pops on your tip up that otherwise sat dormant all morning long.  As slow as the day has been, you’re skeptical this lake even has any fish in it…but sure enough, the post is spinning rapidly as something attempts to spool your lineYou execute perfectly and commence to pulling up what feels like an Oldsmobile.  Congratulations – you finally hooked up with that trophy pike you’ve been hunting for years, and better yet, YOU LAND IT. Ice fishing tip up with Hopslam

Amidst the adrenaline rush, you feverishly bark at your buddy to “grab the camera!” while you fumble for some long nose pliers to remove the treble hook lodged soundly in the giant’s mouth.  No luck – good thing you remembered your jaw spreaders All the while, you can’t believe you caught this fish.  With the hook eventually out, you’re ready to hoist up the pig of a fish to secure photographic evidence and, more importantly, bragging rights amongst your peers.  But wait, you hesitate – better get a measurement first … …

… forty-two inches! Holy S**t.  OK, finally you pose for a picture with the trophy Jack.  OK, one more picture. Beauty.  At last, you’re ready to honorably release the bested beast back into the icy water.  It’s sluggish.  You start to panic a bit, but fortunately, she swims away ever so slowly to be caught again someday. So you hope.

There are many reasons that people fish, but catching a trophy, not matter the species, is something that drives a lot of us.  We’ve all had, or hope to have such memorable encounters.  Especially ice fishing.  But in the excitement of it all, it can be easy to lose track of how long the fish has been out of water.

Catch-and-release angling, practiced either voluntarily or by regulation, is important to ensure healthy fish populations for generations to come.  But catch-and-release doesn’t necessarily equal catch-and-survive.  We don’t know for sure what happens when a tired-out pike swims away after a hard-fought ice fishing battle.  Or do we?

A look at the research:

Arlinghaus et al Fig 6It may seem like common sense, but some anglers seem to be ignorant to the fact that it’s important to get a fish back in the water in a timely fashion.  And for any skeptics, there is plenty of research which has studied the consequences of handling pike and other species.  We know that after an exhaustive battle, it takes fish on average 8-12 hours to fully recover.  As for the fish that don’t make it, studies have shown that multiple factors including hooking-related injuries (particularly in the gills), handling time, and the overall stress sustained during a catch-and-release encounter can lead to fish death.

So this still begs the question – how long is too long?

Researchers in Canada caught pike from Lake Opinicon for a study published in 2009 to answer this question.  They used artificial, treble hooked lures both casting and trolling, standardized “playing time” to 60 seconds, and used a rubber net to reduce handling injuries.  They studied the recovery and behavior of fish with and without up to an additional 300 seconds (representing worst-case scenario extended unhooking/picture time, etc) of exposure to air after being caught.  The pike were tracked for three weeks afterward.

The Results

They discovered a few different things.  First, reeling in for 60 seconds was definitely long enough time to physiologically exhaust a pike.  Next, none of the pike, including those exposed to air for 300 seconds, died during that period.  However, these pike did exhibit a major stress response compared to the control fish.  In fact, the pike exposed to air for 300 seconds did not begin to move again for more than 15 minutes on average.  Not surprisingly, these pike also didn’t swim away very far within the first hour and spent most of their time resting.  They remarkably, though, were back to their normal selves within a few hours.

What can we conclude?

For those of you wondering, this study was actually done during the month of May, and the water temperature was around 60 degrees.  Also of note, the average size of these pike was pretty small, averaging only about 20 inches.  These are certainly factors to consider.

The take home point?  Pike are tough fish and, under at least these circumstances, handled being out of water for a whopping 5 minutes.  BUT, extended periods of time exposed to air isn’t without consequences and doesn’t change the fact that we should all make a concerted effort to minimize pike air-time exposure.  You should especially make an effort if you have to fight a fish for longer than a minute before netting it.  And remember that whole not moving for 15 minutes thing?  Yeah, you might need to be patient and help that pike out for a while until she’s ready to swim away.

Again, I am not suggesting you should take your merry time with a fish out of water.  Rather, aim to have 5 minutes be the worst-case scenario, absolute maximum time that you handle a pike out of the water whether ice fishing or not, and hopefully, they’ll be no worse off in the end.

Tight lines.
Arlinghaus, R., Klefoth, T., Cooke, S. J., Gingerich, A., & Suski, C. (2009). Physiological and behavioural consequences of catch-and-release angling on northern pike (Esox lucius L.). Fisheries Research, 97(3), 223-233. DOI: 10.1016/j.fishres.2009.02.005


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