LITTLE FALLS -- When was the last time you pulled a really big northern pike from a small to medium-sized Minnesota lake? Really big means 20 pounds or heavier, and a small to medium-sized lake is 1,000 acres or less.
If you came of fishing age in the 1970s or later you probably have never landed a pike that big unless you were fishing in Canada. Some 20-pounders are taken from Mille Lacs, Leech and Lake of the Woods each year and lunkers are pulled from the Mississippi River as well, but the unfortunate fact is that our big lakes and rivers are the last refuge of lunker northern pike in most of Minnesota.
It wasn't always that way. Older fishermen recall when trophy pike were caught in lakes near Brainerd. The many mounts collecting dust on walls throughout Crow Wing County testify to a time when big northerns were more abundant.
What happened? Where have all the big pike gone?
Those were the days. Big northern pike were landed at high rates in the 1970s, when technology allowed anglers to locate deep-water structure more easily and speed trolling techniques were found to be effective. Now many of these same lakes are full of hammerhandle northerns, a situation the DNR would like to change with its new pike fishing recommendations.
Jim Lilienthal and Brady Becker, two DNR fisheries biologists in Little Falls, believe they have the answers. With Rod Pierce, a DNR fisheries biologist in Grand Rapids, they have studied the decline of Minnesota's big northern pike for several years. Their findings will be presented and solutions proposed when DNR fisheries managers gather for their annual meeting Sept. 12-14 at Itasca State Park. At a time when bag limits are being reviewed as a possible means of improving Minnesota's fishing the northern pike study reinforces the tenet that selective harvest is the key to restoring big northern pike.
Most anglers understand the importance of catch-and-release. Unfortunately that philosophy didn't gain widespread acceptance until the big pike were gone. Due to their aggressive nature pike are easily caught. When fish locators allowed anglers to pinpoint deep-water structure and speed-trolling became popular Minnesota's big pike were caught at an alarming rate -- and most were never returned to the water. Thirty pounders disappeared decades ago. Twenty pounders were culled from most smaller lakes by the mid-1970s. Today pike weighing more than 10 pounds are scarce in many lakes. Indeed, in some smaller lakes a 5-pound pike is tops, and that reflects a fishery in poor shape.
"How many times," Lilienthal said, "do you pick up the Outdoor News and look at the lake of the week and read, 'This lake has a good population of northern pike but they're mostly small.' That should send up a red flag. There are many lakes in my survey area where we used to find three pike per gill net in the sixties. Today those same lakes have 15 to 30 per gill net. That's not good."
Because northern pike are the top predator in most Minnesota lakes the lack of big individuals adversely affects the whole fishery. Big pike eat small pike. When big pike disappear the number of small pike explodes. The small pike then wipe out the perch, Minnesota's most common forage species. With fewer perch to feed on panfish fry the panfish population explodes and stunted fish are the result. Soon large numbers of small pike are cruising the lake in search of the few perch that still exist. Pike feed most efficiently on cigar-shaped prey that are 20 percent of their body length. When perch or tullibee aren't present the pike expend a lot of energy chasing down smaller prey and don't grow very fast. Stunted panfish don't help because northerns are reluctant feeders of round-shaped fish.
If the DNR stocks walleyes in a lake like this it can get very expensive, for walleyes are cigar-shaped and readily gobbled up by marauding pike. This lack of balance is present in too many Minnesota lakes. DNR fisheries didn't help matters when it unwittingly stocked northerns in some lakes in the 60s and 70s. At the time little was known about the carrying capacity of certain lakes and predator-prey relationships. The prevailing mentality was the more fish the better. Now Minnesota has more pike than at any time in history. But in this case high numbers are a negative.
"I like the way our fish populations looked back in the 1950s," Lilienthal said. "Then we had fewer pike, more perch and walleyes and some really nice bluegills. We've almost reversed that today. I would estimate that 50 percent of the lakes in my area have pike problems. There are lakes where almost all the northerns are under 24 inches. That's not a quality fishing lake."
Lilienthal fears that if anglers continue to harvest medium and large-sized northerns these unbalanced fish populations will remain. Becker points to an even worse scenario. He said there's evidence that northern pike in unbalanced lakes are reaching sexual maturity and spawning at earlier ages. "If a species has an advantage it will exploit it," Becker said. "It may well be an advantage to be a small pike. We can't say for sure that's the case, but sometimes that's how nature works."
The solution, then, is for anglers to keep small pike, especially those under 24 inches. That's what the DNR hopes anglers will do on 33 lakes in Morrison, Todd and Mille Lacs counties. Signs will be posted at boat landings with the following instructions: "This lake contains a high population of small northern pike. The DNR encourages you to harvest northern pike under 24 inches. By harvesting small northern pike you can help produce a healthier, more balanced fish community. Voluntary release of all northern pike over 24 inches is also encouraged. Large northern pike prey on small pike and help to reduce their numbers. Few fish over 24 inches currently reside in this lake."
The signs will be painted a bright color and posted in obvious places so anglers will notice them.
Lilienthal believes these recommendations will work if anglers abide by them. As evidence he points to Big Birch Lake in Todd County, where mandatory release of northern pike over 24 inches has been enforced since 1997. Already it appears Big Birch is regaining a balanced fish community.
"In our last survey the pike population was down from double digit numbers per gill net to five per gill net," Lilienthal said. "The walleyes were at 17 per gill net, two-and-a-half times higher than normal. The perch were at 40 per gill net. Those numbers are better than we expected. It seems to be happening more quickly than anticipated, but we're really pleased with what we're seeing."
The regulations will remain on Big Birch through 2008 and recently were implemented on nearby Big Swan Lake.
How about placing a statewide maximum size limit on northern pike? Lilienthal said pike populations vary so greatly from lake to lake that blanket regulations wouldn't work. For example, Mille Lacs anglers can keep northerns up to 26 inches long and that's fine because Mille Lacs has few northerns in relation to its size. In smaller lakes it takes considerably longer for pike to reach 26 inches. In southern Minnesota few lakes have good natural pike reproduction, though many have abundant prey. Those lakes also get more fishing pressure. So a regulation that works up north might not work down south.
Any discussion of slot or size limits for any species, be it pike or panfish, reveals the complexity of the issues facing today's fisheries managers. But when it comes to restoring big northern pike Lilienthal believes the DNR is on the right track.
"I think we can reasonably expect to get 20-pound pike back in most lakes," he said. "I say that because of my work with muskies. They eat the same forage and live as long. Thirty pounders are even possible but we would need even stricter regulations. Maybe no harvest or an extremely restrictive slot limit. Anglers will ultimately be the ones who make the decisions.
"People have lost sight of how much time it takes to replace a 15-pound northern or a 1-pound bluegill," Lilienthal continued. "You could raise three generations of 10-point bucks in the time it takes to grow a 1-pound bluegill. We're talking 12 years minimum. If anglers won't accept lower bag limits we must at least reduce the number of large panfish allowed. I hope anglers get beyond worrying about how many big fish they can take home. If you could take home the memory of catching an 11-inch bluegill or a northern pike over 15 pounds that's mind boggling."
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