Trophy Northern Pike Population On The Rise In South Dakota

May 21, 2014

By NICK LOWREY | Capital Journal

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Lake Oahe is experiencing a renaissance at least as far as northern pike angler Dale Lebeda is concerned.

Thanks in large part to a severe drought and the resulting drop in the reservoir's water levels in the mid-2000s, followed by the eventual refilling of the lake, northern pike numbers like most other fish species numbers have sky rocketed.

And that's just great for Lebeda, who would rather fish for big pike than anything else.

The entire reservoir benefited when Oahe's water levels began to rise again around 2007, said Game, Fish and Parks fisheries biologist Mark Fincel. Pike benefited more than most, he said, because unlike walleye and bass, they spawn by laying eggs on submerged structures such as trees.

“They need that cover to lay their skeins on,” Fincel said.

The rising waters covered Lake Oahe's shorelines that had become overgrown with everything from willow trees to prairie grass. That led to an explosion of productivity in the lake because nutrients from plant material broke down into the lake. Freshly hatched fish had more plankton to eat so more survived.

The year 2009 was an especially good year for productivity and resulted in one of the largest year classes of several fish species the lake had seen in more than a decade.

For walleyes the boom was quickly over shadowed. The floods of 2011 flushed millions of rainbow smelt downstream, which in turn led to a die off of larger fish and slowed the growth of smaller fish. While there are still big walleyes in Oahe, there aren't nearly as many as there used to be.

Northern pike, on the other hand, have done quite well in Oahe. So well, in fact, that anglers are regularly catching fish up to and over 20 pounds.

For anglers like Lebeda, who grew up fishing for pike in the 60s and 70s near his family home in Presho, it's a revolution of nearly unprecedented proportions.

“I just love northern fishing. I'm passionate about it,” Lebeda said. “I'm willing to spend hours, I'm willing to spend two or three days just to get northern bait.”

The early 1980s saw a similar, if not better, pike boom, Lebeda said. He caught the biggest fish of his life then, a 27 pound pike. And the only difference between the 80s and today, Lebeda said, is the rainbow smelt population.

“I never thought we'd see another run like that,” he said. “Like it is right now.”

Their numbers have been so high that a spring pike fishing tournament was founded last year. The tournament is invitational but over 100 people participated this year. Two teams caught fish weighing over 20 pounds.

“I would say it's been incredible in the last two to five years,” said Greg Goodman, co-founder of the Pike Masters Invitational Championship.

Goodman and his friend and tournament co-founder Willie Gloe grew up fishing for pike on the Missouri River with their fathers.

“Basically, Willie and I have been pike fishing since we could hold a fishing pole,” Goodman said.

Spring is traditionally the time to catch pike. It's a big draw Goodman said because as pike spawn in shallow near-shore waters and the bigger fish become more exposed to anglers. It can also be done without a boat. In fact, most of the anglers in his tournament, including him, fished from shore.

“Why would you go to Canada,” Goodman said. “The entire shore of the lake is public.”

Big fish need a lot of calories to survive. For predatory fish, like pike, calories come from fat. Smelt, which have a high fat content that makes them ideal trophy fish food had large populations in the 80s that gave fish a big advantage over today.

This time around, the pike are feeding on other game fish like perch, crappie, bass and walleye as well as the odd lake herring. Those fish don't have the same fat content as smelt, so the fish aren't getting as big around as they did in the 80s.

That's not necessarily a bad thing though, Lebeda said. Instead of growing fat, the fish are growing long.

The potential there is incredible, Lebeda said. All it could take is a good spawning year for smelt and Lake Oahe could see pike the likes of which would make any die hard Canadian pike hunter have a heart attack, he said.

“I can see money to be made out there if they can protect the trophy northerns on Lake Oahe,” Lebeda said. “Lake Oahe could be another Lake of the Woods.”

Lebeda said he dreams of seeing Oahe become the trophy pike destination he knows it could be. All that's needed, he said, is a little bit more regulation from the G, F&P and for anglers to buy in a little more.

“We need a few more trophy fisheries,” Lebeda said. “Honestly, if you had a trophy fishery on Oahe you'd bring money into this community.”

Admittedly, pike anglers, like Lebeda are a rare breed. He and a few of his close friends and family have developed something of an obsession over the years.

“My number one goal is to catch a fish over 30 pounds,” Lebeda said. “It's just a treat to go out and catch those big northerns and release them.”

To that end, he has researched pike and pike fishing methods from Europe, where pike up to 40 and 50 pounds are seen regularly.

Lebeda has found during his research that, because pike only really thrive in cold water, the biggest fish can usually only be found in about 40 feet of water. And when those fish eat, they generally take one big meal at a time, instead of constantly feeding, Lebeda said. Consequently, he's been known to travel 400 miles just for good pike bait. Usually, that means fresh suckers ranging in size from 10 to 12 inches.

“One rule of thumb is big bait, big fish,” Lebeda said.

That pattern is generally true through both summer and winter, Lebeda said. Which means a dedicated fisherman can still catch trophy sized pike, if they're willing to go through the extra work. Though, he said most of his success has been through the ice in winter.

“Artificials work pretty well in the mid-summer but you've got to get down deep,” Lebeda said.

Pike often get a bad rap from some walleye anglers and a lot of fishermen see them as nothing more than big, ugly slime balls that eat walleye. Pike definitely do eat walleye from time to time, Fincel said, but not enough to have too much impact on the population and certainly not enough to deserve the treatment pike often get from walleye anglers.

“We have seen walleye with scars during tagging,” Fincel said. “In any system you have that.”

As far as Lebeda is concerned, there's enough room in the lake for both species.

“They can say what they want, but they're never going to convince me to believe that northerns will hurt the walleye,” he said.

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Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, www.capjournal.com