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Minnesota DNR breaks down northern pike regulations

Representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources provided insight on northern pike regulations across the state on Wednesday, Nov. 30, via a webinar.

N. Pike 1
Elliot Blanchette of Evansville showed off his ice fishing abilities by catching this northern pike on Lake Freeborn with a sucker minnow in 2017.
Echo Press file photo.
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DOUGLAS COUNTY — Representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources provided insight on northern pike regulations across the state on Wednesday, Nov. 30, via a webinar.

"It's one of the easiest fish to catch because it so willingly bites lures or bait," the DNR's website says.

Bethany Bethke, a research scientist out of the DNR's Duluth office, started the webinar with a history of northern pike regulations before going into current regulations by a tri-zone system.

Pike, a "mid to top level predator," are native to Minnesota and feed off other fish. Mostly yellow perch and sunfish but they will consume crayfish as well. They tend to spawn on vegetation. Bethke said it is an "important habitat component" for them. Although it varies between lakes and seasons, they are a "shallow habitat user."

"Which makes them fun for someone like me who likes to hang around the weed line where you can catch anything, and usually a pike will pop out in that mix," Bethke added. "They are pretty aggressive."

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Although pike generally stays within the 20 to 30-inch range in terms of length, the state record was set in 1929 when a 45-pounder was caught. Bethke said last year, on the same lake (which remained unnamed), an angler set a catch-and-release record with a 46-incher.

Minnesota northern pike zones. (Courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)
Minnesota northern pike zones. (Courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)

For the longest time, there was one statewide regulation. A limit of three pike with one over 30 inches.

The first regulations were set in 1948 under the Harry S. Truman administration with a limit of three pike. It wasn't until 1994 during the Bill Clinton administration that they changed again. A one over 30 inches clause was added.

Bethke says in the 1990s and 2000s, lakes began developing unique regulations to control the population. As the number of lakes with their own regulations began to increase over the years, however, the DNR decided to limit the number of lakes with special regulations to 100 in an effort to manage pike populations from a broader level. The more lakes with special regulations, the more complicated it became.

In 2018 the DNR broke the state into three zones — the Northeast Zone, the North-Central Zone, and the Southern Zone — due to different growth behaviors among pike across the state.

North Central Zone

A "complicated" area, according to Bethke, goes "from Hastings to just south of the Twin Cities over to Ortonville; and north from Duluth along U.S. Highway 53 to International Falls."

Here, pike grow slower which creates a high density of "small pike." To help the population structure shift to more medium to large-sized pike, the DNR implemented the regulation of a limit of 10 but no more than two longer than 26 inches.

"We want to make sure people can take advantage of what's there. There's really no reason not to take small fish if you want to because there are plenty of them. So we increased the bag limit to 10," Bethke said. "The idea being, if we protect some of those medium-sized pike, we can provide some more opportunity for harvest of quality fish."

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According to the DNR website, "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."

Bethke explained the reason for the difference for spearers is that it can be hard to judge the size of the pike when spearing.

Northeast Zone

Also known as the "arrowhead" has a lower density of pike but grow larger because there are fewer fishing pressures due to fewer anglers and more lakes. To maintain harvest and protect the already existing larger fish, there is a two-pike limit and only one over 40 inches.

"There's no harvest between 30 to 40 inches," Bethke said. "Dark house spearers have the same bag limit, but their size limit is different. You can have one fish over 26 inches."

Southern Zone

Pike grow faster here but are less abundant and tend to have a shorter life span. To increase the catch of larger pike and protect young pike, both anglers and spearers are limited to two with a minimum size of 24 inches.

"The theory being at 24 inches they've had a chance to reproduce and they're ready to be taken if an angler wants," said Bethke. "Another theory is that if you have larger pike in the system, they can keep smaller pike in check. There is cannibalism in these populations. Big pike will eat small pike... Restoring large pike where they've been lost, we can maybe make a little bit of a dent in that small pike (population)."

Bethke says a study by Tyler Ahrenstorff, a research scientist out of the Brainerd office, found that smaller and younger pike in more dense populations strain the population of older pike and also other species of fish like walleye because they consume a majority of the shared food source like perch.

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"For a myriad of reasons, whether it's just wanting to catch quality fish or worried about other fish in the populations, it's better if you can get densities of pike down," Bethke says. "Walleye stocking works better when you have lower numbers of pike."

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Zone enforcement complications

Bethke says that although the three zonal regulations are better than one statewide regulation, the population types do not perfectly follow the created zone lines as they are separated by highway routes. This is so it's easier for anglers to distinguish where the zones are. She said this makes enforcement complicated, however.

"In theory, you could go out in the Southern Zone in the morning and harvest a 24-inch fish legally and go back out to a lake in the North Central Zone and harvest nine 20-inch fish and you would within your legal harvest," Bethke said. "If you're someone who's along one of those zone boundary lines, it's a little bit complicated what's allowed and what's not."

To protect yourself, she recommends contacting a local conservation officer and keeping the head and tail of the fish intact and labeled during transportation.

Results

The current zoning regulations went into effect in 2018. So far, using data collected by fisheries management staff across the state who are specifically targeting pike in certain "length groups" in each zone, has not seen any huge changes.

Brekke
Mark Brekke of Elbow Lake holds up his 4.675 pound northern that won him the 2015 Alexandria Sertoma Club Ice Fishing Challenge on a Saturday afternoon.
Echo Press file photo

Bethke says this isn't surprising as pike generally have longer lifespans.

"We kind of knew that it was probably going to take a little bit of time for populations to respond to these regulations," said Bethke. "We're planning to have a more thorough evaluation summary of the data at the 10-year mark, so in about 2028."

She added that the zonal regulations are an "experiment."

If you go fishing

The DNR recommends using tip-ups as a fun, easy and effective way to capture pike. Its website includes a LakeFinder tool , "which contains fish population information for more than 4,500 fishing lakes."

They are olive green in color with reddish fins, short white bar-like spots on the sides and a white underbelly. They have sharp backward-facing teeth which is why the DNR recommends using needle-nose pliers to remove hooks from its mouth rather than fingers.

They are ambush predators that prefer sucker minnows and large shiners.

Fish above shallow vegetated areas as this is where they tend to spawn and hide from their prey.

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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