For the past 15 years the state of Minnesota has been conducting a study on 23 lakes in the state to see if special regulations designed to protect some northern pike from harvest would help maintain or even increase the number of large northern pike in those waters.
Due to their aggressive nature, pike are vulnerable to overharvest. Very few fish in state waters survive the 10 years or so it takes for them to reach 35 inches and trophy size fish measuring 40 inches or more are extremely rare. Test net results show the vast majority of pike now found in the state are less than 20 inches in length and very abundant—as many as 800 pike per 100 acres of water. And pike 24 inches and larger? Only 60 fish per 100 acres of water!
A long-running big fish contest run by Fuller’s Hardware Store in Park Rapids, Minnesota, documented the decline of big pike in the state. Back in the 1930s, the average fish entering in the contest weighed 10.1 pounds; by the 1980s the average size had dropped to just 6.8 pounds. Amazingly, 29,541 big pike were entered in the contest during over a period of almost 60 years that ended in 1987.
Harvesting smaller pike, in most cases, would benefit fisheries overrun with runts, yet few anglers are willing to keep them, so the big pike take the brunt of the angling pressure. Te state estimates that 20 percent of the large pike available are harvested each year.
As a fan of giant pike (a 40-incher makes my knees wobble!), I support the state’s mission to increase the number of large pike. For one, a healthy population of large predator pike helps keep populations of small pike and stunted panfish in check, improving age and size structures in those waters. Also, the more big fish there are in a system, the better the odds of me catching a couple!
Minnesota used two slot limits, one requiring all pike from 20 to 30 inches to be released and the other targeting fish from 22 to 30 inches. Of the five test lakes, three showed increased numbers of larger pike during the 1989 to 2003 study. In one study lake, the percent of pike more than 20 inches increased from 7 percent of the population to 39 percent during the study period.
Results in other study lakes helped the state to determine that special regulations that reduce pike harvest do help grow more big pike. That’s exciting to know because it gives fisheries managers and anglers a powerful tool---knowledge---to help us better manage our fisheries.
Minnesota is still a great destination for trophy pike. A few years back on famed Red Lake, two of us short-line trolling Black Bomber Long-As landed 12 measuring 35 inches or longer (the biggest a strapping 44 inchers) in just three hours. With top end potential like that releasing big fish is easy.
-- Steve Pennaz, NAFC Executive Director