Msg 1 Posted: 01:46 PM 06/30/06 (CST)
For the Love of Pike |
The average size of Minnesota's northern pike has been on the wane for decades.
By Greg Breining
The Fifty Lakes store, eight miles north of Crosslake by the winding road that skirted Little Pine Lake, was a bit ramshackle even as a going concern, with groceries of indeterminate age up front, and a varied but not very complete selection of hardware in back. As a boy, I'd head to the corner devoted to fishing tackle, where, inevitably, my attention was drawn to a monstrous northern pike mounted on the wall. Even then, with yellowed fins, row upon row of needle teeth, and dusty greenish skin, it seemed ancient and frail. It must have been 4 feet long. It dwarfed the fish I had caught, and even the 10-pound pike my mother had landed. It was huge. Whatever happened to it once the store closed down? Sold? Busted up and thrown out? I have no idea, but it swims in my memory.
That pike belonged to the north woods of the early 20th century, an era that drew to a close in the early 1950s, when war-weary vacationers flocked north to fish and build lake cabins. I think of magazine covers of the time: Men fished from wooden rowboats, using bait-casting reels with brass gears that whirred as wooden plugs and brass spoons sailed over the lake.
The romance of the iconographic pike never faded. Through the years of my childhood, big pike adorned place mats and coasters, brochures and tourist maps. A massive pike slashing an airborne lure advertised the "brew that grew with the great Northwest."
And just a few years ago I saw this on television: A boat in the distance patrols the shore. A plug arches toward the camera. A voice: "Crow Wing, Minnesota, means big northern pike." Jaws and teeth flash, and soon a large fish is hauled aboard. Next scene: fillets, lemons, Old Milwaukee beer, and anglers rubbing their bloated guts as they sprawl on the deck of a lakeside lodge. "You know," says one, "it just doesn't get any better than this."
And that is the story of trophy pike in a nutshell - the romance, the myth, and now the sad demise. Where once swam monsters now swim "hammerhandles" and "snakes."
Pike have been in decline since the days of fedoras and Bass-Orenos. As evidence are records of a fishing contest sponsored by Fuller's Hardware Store and Tackle Shop in Park Rapids. Earl Fuller started the fishing contest in 1916. The contest awarded weekly and seasonal prizes for big fish, weighed to the nearest ounce, caught from more than 120 area lakes. Donald Olson and Paul Cunningham of the Department of Natural Resources studied contest records from 1930 through 1987113,845 entries, including 29,541 pike.
Entries of nearly all species grew smaller through the years, they found. The number of pike more than 9.5 pounds increased after World War II, as more people fished. But soon the number dropped, from a peak of nearly 300 in 1950 to about 100 in the late 1980s. Average weight also dropped dramatically, from 10.1 pounds in the 1930s to 6.8 pounds in the 1980s. The biggest entry, 29.4 pounds, dated to 1946.
What happened? What happened to big pike throughout Minnesota - too many trophies served with beer and lemons.
Leviathan Proportions. Pike may be tasty, but there's more to their appeal than that. They are big and exciting, and easier to find and catch than their close relative the muskie. Minnesota may be the walleye state, but pike are the most widespread game fish, occupying drainage ditches in the south and nearly every pond in the Boundary Waters. Wherever we fish, it is with the vague suspicion that a pike of leviathan proportions lurks in the depths beneath our lure, poised to strike like a thunderbolt.
Pike have the looks to play the heavy in the fishing drama - built long like a torpedo, with a slimy coating, flattened "duckbill," and underslung jaw. And, yes, those teeth.
The pike swims freshwater lakes and streams on both sides of the Atlantic. Its common namepike or pickerelrefers to an iron-tipped spear. The scientific name, Esox lucius, may have derived from the Latin for wolf. English writer Izaak Walton, in The Compleat Angler, published in 1653, begins his chapter on pike: "The mighty Luce or Pike is taken to be the tyrant, as the Salmon is the king, of the fresh water." Walton calls it "the fresh-water wolf" and tells of a man who led his mule to water: "A Pike bit his mule by the lips; to which the Pike hung so fast, that the mule drew him out of the water."
In the Finnish epic poem Kalevala, the hero Vainamoinen sails his boat into "the shoulders of a pike, backbone of the water-dog." The blacksmith Ilmarinen:
struck down at the monster,
Slashing down beneath the vessel,
But the sword crashed into fragments,
Yet the pike paid no attention.
Facts alone are impressive enough. The record Minnesota pike, caught from Basswood Lake in 1929, weighed 45 pounds, 12 ounces. The U.S. record fish, from New York in 1940, weighed 46-2. The world angling record, from the Czech Republic, stands at 55-15. Undocumented fish caught by other means include a 58-pounder from Denmark, and even larger from Russia and elsewhere in Europe.
Quick Acceleration. Wherever it lives, the pike is an ambush predator, waiting motionless at middepths until prey swims near. Its underbite suggests it is built to strike upward toward prey. A pike is not nearly as fast as, say, a salmon; but like a dragster, it is specialized for quick acceleration. Its body is flexible enough to bend into a deep striking shape, and its body is 55 to 60 percent muscle by weight. At the right moment, the pike draws into a C or S bend and lunges forward, striking the center of mass of the prey at 5 to 10 miles per hour. That may not sound fast, but the strikefrom beginning of bend to fatal blowtakes 0.1 to 0.2 seconds. Even a blind pike can catch fish, using its lateral-line sense alone to detect swimming vibrations.
The pike's tongue and palate are lined with backward-slanting teeth to grip, while long teeth in the lower jaw pierce. A pike's tooth, with pointed tip and knifelike edge, is superbly shaped not just for catching fish, but also for cutting line and slashing careless fingers.
A pike doesn't waste its weaponry on morsels, but often eats fish up to a third its length. A 53-pound Irish pike was discovered with a 30-inch salmon in its stomach.
Modern Myths. Because of their formidable demeanor, pike continue to be subject to myths. For one, they are viewed as wildly destructive of other fish. In truth, large pike are never numerous enough to have much effect.
Another myth: Pike are hard to catch during summer "dog days" because their teeth fall out. Their teeth do fall out, but not all at once. They are continually replaced. So why are pike so hard to catch in summer? The answer is the key to why pike grow big in some lakes but not in others.
Young pike abound in shallow, weedy bays. And there they stay much of the year. But pike larger than about 6 pounds lose weight in water warmer than about 75 degrees. To flourish, they must escape to cool, well-oxygenated water with abundant forage such as the delectable, soft-finned deepwater fish known as tullibees or ciscoes. "As a northern gets larger, it needs cooler and cooler water," says Pete Jacobson, DNR fisheries biologist.
Jacobson analyzed age and growth data from more than 3,700 pike sampled during 112 lake surveys in 1990 to understand why some lakes grow trophies and others never do.
"You need some cool oxygenated waterdeep enough and cool enough for tullibee to survive," he says. "Only lakes with the best water quality have sufficient oxygen in the deep parts of the lake for tullibee to survive." While yellow perch and suckers make suitable pike prey, "lakes that had ciscoes produced trophy northern pike at a rate four times greater than lakes that didn't have ciscoes."
Pike need one more thing to grow bigprotection from anglers. Pike are eager strikers. Left to their own, they soon commit suicide at the point of a hook. In the old days, many lakes were far off the beaten path, accessible only by a leaky rowboat someone had dragged through the woods and stashed by the shore. Today, thanks to public accesses and ubiquitous lake homes, anglers run rampant. According to one DNR study of 11 lakes in Itasca, Aitkin, and Beltrami counties, summer anglers killed 30 percent of the pike over 20 inches, and winter spearers finished off another 11 percent. Despite low fishing pressure on one Ontario lake (a mere half-hour of angling per acre per season), anglers caught 50 percent of the annual production of adult northern pike.
"That's kind of a Minnesota legacy - the big pike over the bar," remarks Rod Pierce, DNR fisheries research biologist and author of the DNR mortality study. "But you must severely limit the harvest to get some fish up to that size."
Taken by Wagonloads. It's astounding, really, how little has been done to protect large northern pike, even as the muskie has become the poster fish of catch and release.
According to a 1941 article in The Conservation Volunteer, "Frequent reports from old residents indicate that northern pike were taken by wagonloads from the streams during the spawning runs and were killed with pitchforks, spears, guns, or otherwise destroyed as they appeared from under the ice in the early spring."
A daily limit of 25 pike in the 1920s was gradually whittled by 1948 to three, where it has remained to this day.
As it became apparent that big pike were becoming rarer, DNR fisheries managers took an interest in reversing the trend, Pierce says. "There's a contingent of people in the state interested in going out and catching some big pike."
Some, but not enough. After putting stricter regulations on a few experimental lakes, the DNR floated a proposal in 2001 to protect all northern pike 24 inches to 40 inches statewide. Many anglers hated the idea of not being able to keep fish in this protected slot.
"There's a wide range of values in the way people view northerns," says Steve Hirsch, assistant director of DNR Fisheries. "Some look at them as a trophy fish like muskies, and others view them as a food fish like walleyes. That makes it a difficult fish to manage for."
So the DNR took a different tack. Area fisheries managers compiled a list of lakes capable of growing large pike, based on past surveys. Then the agency proposed protective regulations on lakes best suited to growing large pike. Significant public opposition took a lake out of the running, Pierce says, because even a little cheating on the limits would render them ineffective.
New Rules. Beginning in May 2003, special regulations will take effect on 66 lakes and one stream to limit the harvest of medium-sized pike in hopes of growing real trophies. The new rules include:
24-inch to 36-inch protected slot, daily and possession limit of three outside this protected slot, with only one pike larger than 36 inches. The slot affects lakes with abundant spawning where keeping small pike might aid the growth of larger pike.
30-inch minimum on some lakes, daily and possession limit of one fish. This minimum applies to lakes with low to medium populations of pike that can grow fairly large.
40-inch minimum on nine lakes with the greatest potential to grow large fish. (A 40-inch fish weighs 15 pounds or more.)
The lakes lie as far south as Carver County, but most are in central and northern Minnesota.
Pierce says he's confident the new regulations can eventually help to grow trophies. "We're expecting it to be a long-term process," he says. "It takes some time to get fish up to these sizes. We're looking at a minimum of 10 to 15 years of evaluations."
Considering more than 50 years have passed since the era of the big pike drew slowly to a close, 10 years would be a bargain. If fishing is a ritual of hopefulness and surprise, of summoning the über spirit of a lake from the shroud of deep shadow, there is no better fish to pursue than the pike.
Best Bets to Catch Big Pike
Some lakes still produce trophy pike. Here are a half dozen of Minnesota's best, according to DNR research biologist Rod Pierce.
Mille Lacs, 132,516 acres, 42-foot maximum depth, 24-inch to 36-inch protected slot (pike in this range must be released immediately). In 2000, 42 percent of pike sampled were longer than 29 inches. Call 218-927-3751.
Lake of the Woods, 950,400 acres, 38-foot maximum depth, 30-inch to 40-inch protected slot. In 2001, 39 percent of pike sampled were longer than 29 inches. Call 218-634-2522.
Upper Red Lake, 107,832 acres, 18-foot maximum depth. No special regulations for pike because most of the lake is subject to tribal fisheries. In 2001, 25 percent of pike sampled were longer than 29 inches. Call 218-755-2974.
Vermilion, 40,557 acres, 76-foot maximum depth, 24-inch to 36-inch protected slot. In 2001, 12 percent of pike sampled were longer than 29 inches. Call 218-753-2580.
Basswood, 22,722 acres, 111-foot maximum depth, 24-inch to 36-inch protected slot. In 1996, 7 percent of pike sampled were longer than 29 inches. Call 218-753-2580.
Leech, 111,527 acres, 150-foot maximum depth, still being considered for special pike regulations. In 2001, 2 percent of pike sampled were longer than 29 inches. Call 218-547-1683.
Dude ,should this have gone into articles?
IF IT'S WET...IT'S CATCH'N FISH