As you head out to open waters this spring fishing season and cast your line out into the cool waters of north central Minnesota, there’s a good chance of hooking a small northern pike. Officials say it may be in your best interest to keep a few of those rather than releasing them if you hope to one day land a lunker.
With liberalized regulations, anglers in the north central part of the state, which covers most of the state, can now have in their possession up to 10 pike. Sound crazy? It’s been this way since announced in 2018, yet many anglers may not know it or understand why.
The north-central zone has an overpopulation of small pike, according to the Minnesota DNR. The objectives are to allow more harvest of abundant small pike and shift population size structure to more medium-sized pike. So instead of catching a bunch of small pike, your odds should improve for catching larger pike -- desirable for those that like to keep or catch and release larger fish.
The north-central regulation zone starts on a line stretching roughly from Hastings to just south of the Twin Cities and over to Ortonville; and in the north from Duluth along U.S. Highway 53 until it reaches International Falls.
Area fishery supervisors throughout that region say this regulation was a big change for some but it was one of the more researched, and talked about strategies statewide to improve thousands of fisheries.
“It is a significant change and it's a change I think will help,” said Jim Wolters, Fergus Falls area fishery supervisor. He’s been working in fisheries for 27 years in Otter Tail County. “It probably won't help every lake.”
Wolters and area fishery supervisors Doug Kinglsey in Park Rapids and Nathan Olson in Detroit Lakes all agree that going into the third year of the new regulations, it’s just too early to say if the regulations are having the positive outcome anticipated.
“We’re thinking that it's going to be that eight to 10 years in our lakes,” Wolters said of the time needed to see a shift.
Kinglsey believes a fish in that 22-24 inch range could be around 4 years old in a lake like Fish Hook, just north of Park Rapids. Olson said the 30-36 inch pike that’s looked at as more of a trophy can be 6-7 years old. Fish grow faster in warmer climates and in habitats with less competition. The point is, it takes time to grow a large pike and it takes even longer to do so under the current circumstances of high competition in this region of the state.
The smaller pike do a number on perch and walleye fingerlings. By culling some of the smaller pike it not only takes some competition away from larger pike, it helps other fish populations like perch and walleye. So if you like catching walleye, it may be useful to you to keep some small pike.
In the north-central zone, anglers can keep 10 northern pike, but not more than two pike longer than 26 inches; and all from 22 to 26 inches must be released. Northern pike taken by spearing follow the same rules except one pike may be between 22 and 26 inches or two larger than 26 inches. Wolters says in some circles that’s considered the “oops fish” for those that perhaps misjudge a size of fish. But you only get one “oops” fish in spearing and in angling, all those must be promptly returned to the water.
The 22-inch size came up as the size many anglers said they would start keeping, Kingsley said. The regulation keeps anglers from eating up that desirable size range.
So far, staff say people have been following the regulation quite well, though Kingsley said there was about a 5% non-compliance rate where people were taking fish from the protected slot. Wolters said officers were letting some of those violations go early on as the regulation was brand new, but there’s little excuse for it entering into the third year. He adds that in the early 90s they tried liberalizing some lakes that had an abundance of small pike, but found that anglers were just taking liberal amounts of the larger pike.
Kingsley explained that much of the state is blessed with waters that provide good reproduction for pike. That’s not all great when things get out of balance.
“We’ve had some problems,” Kingsley said. “That’s compounded by taking the big and throwing back the small pike.”
Kingsley said pike are good at managing themselves in that the larger pike tend to cannibalize by eating the smaller pike. But removing those top predators sends the balance out of control.
Kingsley said the plan initially got pushback until they agreed that those spearing can take that one fish within the protected slot. Anglers also started to get hooked on the idea of it when the focus was on the goal of increased catches of larger pike.
East Otter Tail County Darkhouse and Angling Association president Wayne Leaderbrand said the darkhouse association fought to ensure those spearing could have that one fish included. They were thankful to get it, but Leaderbrand says most pike hunters he knows are still on either side of the fence -- either wanting to be able to take more of the larger pike or not concerned about it.
“For me, a guy can pickle them or we can some, so there is use for them,” Leaderbrand said referring to the small pike. Still he said most won’t take 10 pike due to the sheer amount of work to have to cut them all up. He said a couple good-sized pike are plenty for his family of three to enjoy a fish meal. He understands the idea, but doesn’t see pike populations as a major concern in his area of the state where he typically visits including the Leaf Lakes, and lakes surrounding Otter Tail Lake.
Wolters and Kingsley explained that there are numerous lakes in their areas that already have special regulations addressing pike populations. Otter Tail Lake is one of those, which says you have to throw back anything under 30 inches. Those lake specific regulations trump the zone regulations.
“I can see what they want to do -- empty some of these lakes of some of these hammer handles and try to get some of these bigger fish to grow,” Leaderbrand said. He feels the regulations may help some lakes but he’s less convinced that all lakes in the zone need the help. Officials agree that the regulations may not help every lake.
While results may not be seen in 10 years, it’s unclear when or if the regulations would be restructured. Fisheries staff say lakes are surveyed every three to five years and based on those surveys they may alter special regulations or perhaps the entire regional regulations.
Lakes like Blueberry near Menahga or West Battle Lake near Ottertail have had a special regulation since 2003 (all pike 24-36 inches must be released immediately, one over 36 inches and possession of three) and while the result has been positive, the regulation remains in effect. That special regulation was one of three for pike that year. At that time it was to be a 15-year evaluation period. It's now past that period, but the regulations have stuck.
Any proposed change for any regulations would again go through public input.
Wolters said what they’ve been able to see from those earlier regulations is a slice of the progress as they are seeing fewer numbers of small pike in the lakes in his area of Otter Tail County, however they lack the equipment needed to capture the pike over 36 inches. That is a number more likely to come in on creel surveys from anglers targeting those behemoths. A creel survey includes an interview of anglers.
What to do with them
These small pike also known as snakes, snot rockets or hammer handles, get their names from the hard hitting strikes at your bait and the long thin bodies that enable them to slip out of your hand. As these fish may not have huge standing in the fishing world, they can be a great way to get youngsters onto a good battle with the rod and reel. Leaderbrand said as was the case before, kids can enjoy catching the smaller fish. Parents should consider letting them keep some of them, too.
Don’t be fooled by their names as they are considered fine table fare especially when you take the time to take out the y-bones.
“I know guys that don’t even allow pike in their boat,” Wolters said. He adds that the state has more pike than walleye so people should take advantage of the resource.
The DNR offers a handy video about taking the y-bones out that can be viewed on the MN DNR pike page. But if that is too much work, Olson has found good recipes for simply grinding those small pike to the point where those small bones disappear and you are left with the main ingredient for tasty fish cakes.
Where to find them
Area fisheries staff weighed in on top places to find abundant small pike, including:
Nathan Olson’s top three hammer head lakes in Becker County:
Height of Land Lake (just of Hwy 34)
Waboose Lake (within the Tamarac Refuge off Hwy 143.
Toad Lake (also off of Hwy 34)
Jim Wolters’ top 3 snot rocket lakes in Otter Tail County:
East Battle Lake in the eastern part of the county,
Franklin Lake in the northwest part,
Swan Lake in the southern part.
Doug Kingsley’s best bet for small pike (he said it’s hard to pick just three:
Spirit Lake in Menahga, in northern Wadena County,
Lower Crow Wing Lakes (First, Second, Third) in southern Hubbard County,
Fish Hook, Portage or Potato Lakes just North of Park Rapids.