Brainerd Dispatch/Vince Meyer
McGREGOR - Some of the most sought-after northern pike in Minnesota are in Rice Lake, where they average a pound apiece.
How is a 1-pound pike prized here and considered a nuisance everywhere else?
Because the fish are stocked in pike-depleted waters elsewhere in Minnesota. Were it not for the prolific pike of Rice Lake, many Minnesota anglers would go a lot longer between bites.
This year pike from Rice Lake will be stocked in eight lakes in the eastern Twin Cities metropolitan area and near Waterville in southern Minnesota. Natural reproduction is poor in those lakes and without periodic stockings there wouldn't be enough pike to satisfy angler demand. Rice Lake has good spawning habitat and produces fish to spare.
Ten other lakes are scheduled to be stocked with perch taken from Rice Lake.
So on Dec. 9 at 9:30 a.m. a DNR truck from St. Paul rolled up to the outlet dam on Rice Lake. The truck had two large aerated tanks. Fisheries specialists Jim Levitt and Dave Gilbraith hopped out of the cab and said hello to Stan Van Epps, Kevin Martini and Greg Berg, all of the DNR fisheries office in Aitkin. Van Epps, Martini and Berg monitor the traps. Levitt and Gilbraith were here to pick up the fish and haul them to their destinations. It was their first trip of the season and hopes were high for a good take.
Berg and Martini went to work chipping ice from traps positioned Rice Lake's outlet dam. Pike swimming upstream to the Mississippi River are funneled into the traps, where their progress is stopped by wooden logs. There they remain until salvaged.
These northern pike were on their way out of Rice Lake in search of better oxygenated water when they were trapped at the outlet. A portion of Rice Lake freezes out every year.
Brainerd Dispatch/Vince Meyer
"It's nice when there's only a quarter inch of ice," Berg said as he worked the chisel. "Sometimes we have two or three inches out here."
When the ice was removed Berg and Martini got two dip nets and scooped pike from the traps. The fish were placed in pails, weighed, and released into the aerated tanks, where they would make the trip to McCarron Lake near St. Paul.
"Hey, you guys are good," Levitt called to Berg and Martini as the last pike was pulled from the traps. "We needed 125 for this lake and that's exactly what we got."
The entire operation took one hour. The 125 pike weighed 89 pounds combined.
"The run really hasn't started yet," Van Epps said as Levitt and Gilbraith drove off. "A lot of snow would help. The cold weather can freeze the lake down to where the fish can't get through."
The run is spurred by declining oxygen levels in 4,500-acre Rice Lake, which averages 2 feet deep and has a maximum depth of 8 feet. The lake doesn't freeze top to bottom, but by mid-winter it doesn't have enough oxygen to support fish, so the pike instinctively head upstream to the Mississippi River.
But despite the annual migration between river and lake, Van Epps said he believes most of the pike are native to the lake.
"We think by the size of the fish - they average a pound apiece - that they're not coming from the river, that they're being raised in the lake," Van Epps said.
Dave Gilbraith of the East Metro DNR office weighed a netful of pike at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge. On Dec. 9, Gilbraith and his partner, Jim Levitt, hauled 125 pike weighing 89 pounds to McCarron Lake in St. Paul, where they were stocked.Brainerd Dispatch/Vince Meyer
Traps are installed each year in October. The reclamation is usually done by Christmas, but this year it's running behind.
"It still hasn't picked up," Martini said of the pike run this past week. "We had about 100 pounds on Monday, but that was for three days. We had 158 pounds last Friday, but that was for the whole week."
Martini said the oxygen level in the lake last week was 5.5 parts per million. He checked it again this week and it had dropped to 3.8 parts per million.
"They'll move this week or early next week for sure," Martini predicted. "If they don't move before it runs out of oxygen they'll die. Once it gets into the twos (parts per million) they get stressed out."
Pike were first taken from Rice Lake in 1954. Reclamation became an annual event in 1960. At its peak 40,000 pounds of northern pike were pulled from the traps each year as part of a statewide stocking effort. Being voracious predators, it was thought that pike could eliminate stunted bluegills from other lakes. That idea was put to rest in the 1970s and reclamation sites dwindled. At one time Mandy Lake (also on Rice Lake NWR), Nelson Lake, Mud Lake and White Elk Lake were all pike reclamation sites. Today, only Rice Lake remains.
In recent years 20,000 pounds has been the average take, though this year 13,000 pounds will be collected. Perch are part of the reclamation project as well, and this year 4,000 pounds will be collected.
When the run peaks, DNR fisheries crews from St. Paul will make daily runs to the refuge.
VINCE MEYER, outdoors editor, can be reached at 855-5862
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