By DAVE ORRICK | St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's northern pike are in a predicament.
Large and trophy fish are disappearing, while medium-sized “eater” pike are increasingly taking a back seat to small fish often derided by anglers, according to state wildlife officials.
Regulations and angler practices aren't helping, they say.
Pike, which are at once loved, loathed and overlooked, are the focus of what will likely be a yearslong attempt by the Minnesota Department of Natural resources to preserve larger pike where possible and purge smaller ones where necessary.
Pike regulations have remained largely unchanged for more than half a century, and proposed changes are expected to be controversial among the angling public. Public hearings will be held, and it's possible the issue could end up before state lawmakers, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
Pike are the state's second-most-sought-after fish, according to surveys. And they're perhaps the most prolific; throw a stone into nearly any body of water in the northern two-thirds of the state and chances are pike are there and have been for 10,000 years.
Yet in terms of political clout, the pike lobby pales in comparison to that of the walleye, Minnesota's state fish, whose populations are often maintained through stocking in lakes where the fish doesn't reproduce naturally.
Among the DNR's ideas:
The agency wants to consider splitting the state into three or four northern pike zones, each with different regulations.
In some areas, DNR officials will push to prohibit keeping big fish, the ones generations of Minnesotans have prized for the dinner plate and sport fishermen revere for their fighting ability. In other areas, the agency will seek to encourage anglers to keep small pike, the ones traditionally scorned as boney “slimers” unfit for the table.
And in many areas, the fish most commonly kept, “eaters” of 24 inches to 28 inches or so, could be protected with tighter harvest regulations. In some areas, regulations might alternate between protecting fish one year and allowing anglers to keep them the next.
“I know people will not like the idea of complicated regulations, but pike management is truly not a case for one size fits all,” said Tim Goeman, the DNR's regional fisheries manager in Grand Rapids and a member of a DNR working group focusing on esox lucius, the northern pike, and its larger cousin, the muskellunge.
Current statewide pike regulations, three fish daily, not more than one over 30 inches, aren't working, according to Goeman and other DNR officials.
Large pike are disappearing while small ones are proliferating, often to the detriment of walleye.
The problems aren't novel, but research data, and public sentiment, have reached a tipping point, officials say.
In April, members of the DNR's pike working group met in St. Cloud and reached what Goeman called “a breakthrough.”
“We were able to show that our current regulations are not sustaining big pike,” he said. At issue is the daily limit of one fish over 30 inches. “That's too liberal,” Goeman said, citing DNR research that shows a steady decline of large pike between 30 and 40 inches and, in many waters, disappearance of trophies 40 inches or greater.
Large pike, generally defined as those longer than 30 inches, take a long time to grow.
Pike growth rates can vary widely, depending on water temperature, abundance of food and the density of fellow pike. But one example of a tagged 38-inch northern caught in 2011 was illuminating: It was tagged in 1996, when it measured 33 inches; it had taken 15 years to grow five inches.
The disappearance of large pike was one of the reasons why state lawmakers lowered the daily limit to three fish, down from 12 less than a decade earlier. That was in 1948.
The next change, and the only one statewide since, came in 1994, when the one-over-30 daily allowance was enacted.
For years, anglers seeking trophy pike bigger than 40 inches have looked toward Canada, but officials there are seeing stocks decline as well. In some parts of Ontario, regulations now require all pike longer than 29.5 inches be released, and officials are considering applying those rules to more waters.
“Guess what,” Goeman said, “that's probably where we need to be on our northern border lakes.”
But stringent protections might go beyond merely lakes capable of producing monsters.
“If anyone in this room wants to see a 10-pound pike 20 to 30 years from now, we need some radical change,” Goeman told his colleagues last month.
While large pike are disappearing, small ones are proliferating in many waters in central and north-central Minnesota, an area of heavily stocked walleye lakes.
Small pike are especially irksome to walleye fishermen, who for years have believed that when the DNR stocks small walleye, they're accomplishing little more than feeding the pike. On a number of waters, state data show an increasing abundance of pike smaller than 24 inches accompanied by a decreasing abundance of walleye.
Small pike aren't hard to hook, and the solution might be as simple as anglers simply keeping more if they're allowed to.
And if they want to.
“Most lakes have northern pike populations dominated by fish of a size that people aren't overly interested in catching or keeping,” DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said earlier this month.
On some lakes, the DNR already has laid down special regulations that allow hefty stringers of small pike, but the results have been mixed.
Critics have said the regulations make sense, but that small pike need a marketing campaign to be seen as food. Minnesotans generally prefer their fish fully filleted, and pike contain an extra set of bones, “Y-bones,” that many anglers don't want to be troubled with cutting around, or don't know how to.
Goeman said if anglers are to be persuaded to keep small fish, the DNR needs to lead a long-term campaign to change angler attitudes.
On the Bowstring Chain of lakes in Itasca County, where “hammer handles” rule, nine pike under 22 inches can be kept. It's taken years, residents there say, but attitudes are changing.
“Our guests do fish for the smaller pike,” said Bud Kitterman, owner of Anchor Inn Resort on Sand Lake, part of the chain fed by the Bowstring River. “We show them how to take the Y-bones out, and for Wednesday night fish fries we do a batch of northerns.”
Phil Thompson, president of the Sand Lake Property Owners Association, said he recently got one local “hardcore walleye fishermen” to acknowledge pike's tastiness on the plate. The group passes out recipes and encourages harvest of small pike in their newsletter.
“There's some fishermen who go out all day, and if you ask them, they say it's making a difference: The pike are getting bigger,” Thompson said.
Complaints about smaller pike aren't confined to pine-studded lakes.
In southern Minnesota, the only part of the state where pike are routinely stocked, the fish grow fast but die young. Too young, the DNR believes, and the result is angling pressure.
Raising trophy pike isn't an option in many southern waters, but Goeman said something needs to be done to let the fish reach eater sizes of roughly 25 inches to 29 inches.
One possibility is “pulse fishing,” in which harvest is allowed for a year or two and then restricted for a year or two to let fish grow again.
“You can do this and actually increase the total pounds of fish caught, but you catch fewer fish,” Goeman said.
He acknowledged that switching rules on a lake every few years is likely to meet resistance, but he said he believes anglers will support it. “I think the anglers of Minnesota are demanding that we do something about small pike.”
This isn't the DNR's first attempt to change pike rules.
In the late 1980s, the agency implemented “experimental regulations” for pike on 25 lakes. The list grew to 100, and angler outcry followed over the hodgepodge of rules. In 2010, lawmakers stripped the DNR of its authority to regulate pike differently on any additional lakes.
It was a bruising defeat for the agency, and this is the DNR's fresh attempt to address pike.
Rather than progressing lake by lake, the agency's new strategy will be to split the state into several zones.
“We haven't gotten to the point of drawing lines on a map,” Goeman said. “But we need to manage fish by region.” The diversity of habitat, water ecology and angling demands require different rules for different parts of the state, he argues.
Here's how it might work:
, An Arrowhead zone, perhaps north and east of U.S. 53, could focus on protecting larger fish by having a maximum size. Lakes in northeast Minnesota tend to be less productive, so a daily limit of two or three fish would be likely.
A southern zone, generally south of the Twin Cities, would feature pulse fishing as a way to increase harvest of fish people generally want. Larger fish could be protected as well.
A central zone, perhaps the rest of the state, would offer a liberalized limit on smaller pike, maybe six or more daily. But larger fish would need to be protected as well, so a maximum size would be warranted.
Within the zones, exceptions could be made. For example, waters like Lake of the Woods or Lake Mille Lacs, both capable of producing behemoth pike, might have special rules designed to grow trophy fish.
“We realize we can't have 200 lakes in a given county with different regulations,nobody wants that,” Goeman said. “But maybe 194 have the same rules and six are exceptions. If people want bigger fish, we can do this, and we can harvest fish. But things need to change for us to get there.”
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, www.twincities.com