For decades, anglers caught perch, pickerel and smallmouth bass in the shallow waters of Pushaw Lake, situated between the towns of Glenburn, Orono, Old Town and Hudson.
But times have changed. Pushaw is now recognized as a place to catch northern pike. The voracious nonnative fish, which can grow to be quite large, were first discovered there in 2003 after being introduced into the lake illegally.
Now more anglers are heading to Pushaw specifically to pursue the pike that are thriving in the lake and its tributaries.
“Pushaw is currently producing pike on the average size of 30 to 40-plus inches. Some of the larger pike have weighed 16 to 20 pounds,” said Rob Jenkins of Hudson, who has been fishing there his entire life and lives 200 yards from the lake.
Jenkins views the growing pike population as a positive development.
“Pushaw has evolved into a go-to lake for pike fishing over the past 10 years,” he said.
The potential thrill of catching big pike at Pushaw has created a buzz, one that is luring more anglers to the lake. At the same time, the dominant species is being blamed for killing or displacing other fish species and animals, and the traffic they are bringing to the lake can be an annoyance to the people who live and recreate there.
The pike are thriving in the shallow, weedy waters of Pushaw, and word has spread among anglers about the opportunity to catch them, said Kevin Dunham, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife fisheries biologist for Region F.
“I think probably the effect pike has had on Pushaw is not necessarily the biological composition of the lake itself but the switch from a warm water, pickerel/white perch fishery to the pike is now more attractive to many anglers, and it’s created quite a following,” Dunham said.
Dunham said that if the department were to perform a creel survey, which records anglers’ efforts — including what species was targeted and caught, and how much time was spent fishing — it likely would find that a significantly higher number are targeting pike these days.
Region F fisheries biologist Kevin Gallant said seasoned pike anglers in the right spots can catch several in a day at Pushaw, but that the average angler might only land one or two, if any.
“A fair number of those fish are 10-plus pounds, but most seem to be in the 4-to-6-pound range,” Gallant said.
Northern pike are not desirable. They have now been illegally introduced into 39 different lakes and ponds across the state.
“It is an apex predator. It’s at the top of the food chain,” said Francis Brautigam, fisheries and hatcheries director for DIF&W. They are more problematic on smaller bodies of water than larger ones.
The state is not actively managing the Pushaw Lake fishery through study or intervention. Nonetheless, biologists who understand the pike’s habits have for years taken an interest in the presence of the fish there.
From 2006 to 2019, the department killed pike by annual trap netting in and around Pushaw. It did so in collaboration with the Maine Department of Marine Resources and with help from the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
The intent was not to eradicate the fish, which it admitted would be impossible, but to reduce their numbers and monitor their behavior and progress. There was concern about whether pike might move in large numbers into the Penobscot River, home of the state’s largest annual run of endangered Atlantic salmon, and other waters.
The state’s most recent trap netting effort in 2019 found that female pike averaged 27 inches long and 5.6 pounds, while males averaged 23 inches and 3 pounds.
Pushaw, which covers 4,680 acres, appears to be undergoing several ecosystem changes. Even as pike began taking over, largemouth bass and black crappie subsequently were stocked illegally in Pushaw. In 2012, the state began stocking sea-run alewives in the lake in the hope of re-establishing them after the removal of the Great Works and Veazie Dams in the Penobscot.
People who fish or live on and around Pushaw have mixed thoughts on the value of pike in the lake. Some anglers herald the changes they have brought.
Douglas Thompson of Holden enjoys catching pike on the lake so much that he started the Pushaw Lake Pike Facebook page, which has more than 2,100 members.
“After catching a 40-inch pike I wanted to share pictures and be able to communicate with others who fish pike to get and share fishing techniques,” Thompson said.
Ethan Coffey of Bangor said he spends most of his time chasing brook trout elsewhere, but admits the pike and the convenience of getting to Pushaw make it worthwhile.
“Pike are the only reason I (and most of my buddies) even bother fishing Pushaw,” Coffey said. “[It is] one hell of a rush pulling a 10-plus-pound fish up from an 8-inch hole.”
A new wave of Pushaw Lake anglers, including from across Maine and New England, is aware of the pike potential and are fishing there. More fishing traffic on the lake is viewed by some as an economic boost to the area as anglers patronize convenience stores, bait shops and other businesses as part of their visit.
But having more people on the lake — on the ice and in boats — trying to cash in on the pike craze isn’t a welcome development for some residents.
“Many do not want the added traffic or buzz the pike boom has created on the lake,” Jenkins said.
Some longtime Pushaw anglers also aren’t thrilled with the way the scales have been tipped in favor of pike, which grow quickly and are the largest fish in the lake.
“It honestly makes me cringe every time I see someone release a huge pike they caught to catch another day, because I know that pike will eat anything it can swallow,” said David Baker, a lifelong Pushaw resident who fears the fishery will suffer in the long run.
Anglers say other fish that were once plentiful in Pushaw are now more difficult to catch. While detractors report fewer smallmouth bass, others are worried about predation of young birds such as loons and ducks by pike.
“It takes a lot longer to catch fish depending on the area in the lake. [It] used to be better fishing in my own opinion,” said Bryant Arnold of Glenburn, who previously enjoyed more action targeting perch and bass.
People with an environmental focus also are worried where else the pike might wind up, and what impact they could have on other waters.
Even so, the allure of latching onto a huge pike is likely to entice more curious anglers to visit the lake.
“I love ice fishing, but most of all I like fishing for big fish,” said Nikki Ward of Old Town, who grew up camping at Pushaw and sees the joy her children get from the experience.
“I have been ice fishing for four years now, and that is how I spend my weekends and days off,” she said.