The water in Bucci Pond exploded when Pete Kopischke set the hook in the jaw of the big northern pike, and then he realized why.
There were two fish.
"For a second I actually thought I might have caught two fish, but I couldn't understand how," Kopischke said. He didn't actually catch two fish at one time. Instead, the avid pike fisherman had hooked one half of a romantic couple, and the other northern pike was just as agitated as the one with Kopischke's streamer lodged firmly in its jaw.
Kopischke fought the female pike until his arm was sore -- nearly 15 minutes, and the male pike, which was not hooked, stayed nearby the entire time.
Kopischke and his fishing party were floating a section of the Yampa River that is commonly referred to as "Bucci Pond" but is actually a large slough outside the main current of the Yampa River. It's close to the point where Walton Creek flows into the Yampa River and is within the city limits.
"I fish that area all the time," Kopischke said. "I'm pretty hardcore."
From experience, Kopischke has learned that in April, standard fishing rules don't always apply. While anglers usually hit the river early and late in summer, the frigid water temperatures of April dictate fishing at midday.
"The magic hours between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. are when the fish seem to be the most active," Kopischke said.
The river at the Fifth Street Bridge has been just barely topping 50 degrees at the peak of its daily cycle this week, but is back in the low 40s every morning. The water flowing into the Yampa from Walton Creek is often 8 to 10 degrees colder, Kopischke said.
Kopischke was seeking big pike at midday April 7 when he hooked the pike. He was using a stiff eight-weight fly rod with 25-pound monofilament and a hand-tied Clouser minnow on the end of the line. The Clouser pattern is popular among saltwater anglers, but the chartreuse and white bucktail that make up the streamer's body also ignite strikes from freshwater pike.
"I cast into no more than 2 feet of water," Kopischke called. He was making 8- to 10-inch strips of his fly line when the fly's progress was halted, and the water erupted.
"She was definitely a female on her bed in a pre-spawn mode," Kopischke said. He is accustomed to large pike fighting hard for several minutes before he reels them close to his boat. Most pike, when they get their first glimpse of the human they are connected to, will make a strong run of 15 to 20 feet, Kopischke said. Sometimes they even repeat that performance. But Kopischke's 40-inch pike made run after run, once even taking the line part way up Walton Creek.
"Typically this time of year, you don't see that much action," Kopischke said. "This fish would not give up."
The most remarkable thing about the fight was the presence of the male pike, which Kopischke estimated to be between 30 and 35 inches long. It shadowed the movements of its mate while Kopischke fought her. When the larger pike was netted and in the boat, the second fish remained visible about 15 feet away, and stayed there while the angler revived the fish and released it. The last time Kopischke saw them, they were swimming side by side.
Kopischke noted that although most of the big pike he catches have been tagged by fisheries biologists, neither was tagged.
Kopischke keeps a scale marked on both his fly rod and his boat so he can obtain accurate estimates of the length of the fish he catches. He relies on experience to estimate their weight and feels confident his Yampa River pike weighed 20 pounds. The fish was almost as wide as it was deep and hard to grasp in one hand, he said.
A month from now, after it is done spawning, and after weeks without feeding, Kopischke estimates the fish will weigh 5 to 6 pounds less.
Unless the two pike have been caught and killed in the past week, he expects any angler has a shot at hooking them again before they enter full spawning mode and exhibit a trait known to anglers as "lockjaw."