Northern pike are on the verge of eating themselves out of house and home
What is the most aggressive, hardest-hitting, easiest to attract, slimiest, and most exciting fish in Minnesota? Here are a few nicknames if you’re still not sure: jack, hammer handle, snake, gator, water wolf, and the list goes on. Have you guessed it yet? The answer is the northern pike (Esox lucius)! The northern pike’s native range extends across the northern hemisphere. Yes, you read that correctly; in addition to North America, pike also call Asia and Europe home. They are found in creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes throughout their range.
Northern Pike Populations in Minnesota
In my home state, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) is attempting to balance supporting the sportfishing community and maintaining a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Northern pike are on the verge of eating themselves out of house and home in most of Minnesota. Because the population of small northern pike is reaching an unhealthy threshold for the state’s freshwater ecosystems, the MNDNR has taken an aggressive approach to managing this assertive fish. Their goal is to ensure continued access to sportfishing while maintaining high-quality aquatic ecosystems.
Northern Pike Eat Baitfish
A small pike is under twenty-two inches and about two years old, depending on several environmental variables. These fish are young, active, and aggressive. They are a blast to catch and the perfect size for pickling. So, why is their existence so bad? Minnesota simply has too many of them.
First, pike eat baitfish. They prey upon small sport fish you are likely familiar with. This includes walleye, crappie, sunfish, bass, muskellunge, perch, and other northern pike. Due to the overpopulation of small, hungry pike, the lack of available food in their habitat negatively impacts larger walleye. It also impacts large and smallmouth bass, muskellunge, catfish, and all the other predator species, too. The decrease in food availability stunts the growth of all the fish living in a lake afflicted with large numbers of small pike.
Pike Eat the Small Fish, Anglers Eat the Large Fish
Second, northern pike are eating the majority of the baitfish and smaller sport fish. This leaves fisheries with adult fish that, once caught, do not get released. Take sunfish, for example. Northern pike and other predators are eating too many small sunfish. Anglers are catching and eating all the large sunfish. Over time, there are not enough young fish to replace the older, bigger fish. To stop anglers from taking all the big sunfish, the MNDNR established a possession limit of twenty sunfish. The limit change is intended to ensure that a 6-inch sunfish today will be a 10-inch sunfish in the future. This imbalance between younger and older populations is slowly starting to happen with all the species of fish in Minnesota, including northern pike.
The sport-angling community has a key role to play in the success of the MNDNR’s program. In general, anglers are taught to let little fish go so they can grow bigger and can be caught again. In general, this approach works, but the situation with northern pike requires a shift in mindset. To help pike and their habitat, we need to start keeping northern pike that are less than 22 inches. Catching a 40-inch northern is an amazing experience. However, anglers need to catch and keep all the little ones they can to help with this problem. The MNDNR is changing limits to encourage new practices, too.
Northern Pike Possession Limit History
Since 1948, the possession limit in Minnesota for northern pike has been three. To maximize the amount of meat anglers bring home, they often keep the three biggest fish caught and throw the smaller fish back. However, fishing has become significantly easier in the last 70 years. Fishing poles and reels are better; they cast further, handle more weight, have adjustable drag settings, and so much more. Today, fishing boats are fast and can handle all types of weather and water conditions. The amount of public water access has increased with paved roads and cement boat landings. Technology like sonar has completely changed fishing. Today, it’s easy to access lakes and time on the water is spent more efficiently. With a significant increase in angler’s ease of access and technology, a three-fish limit isn’t logical.
Northern Pike Limits in Minnesota Today
In 2018, the MNDNR changed the possession limit from three to ten northern pike in most of the state. In the state’s North Central Zone, the daily bag limit of northern pike smaller than 22 inches is ten. A bag limit can also hold no more than two fish larger than 26 inches and eight under 22 inches. This still equals 10 total fish.
The map below is from the MNDNR fishing regulations book. The three zones on this map are specific to the northern pike. These zones were decided by certain factors. This includes population growth rate, the growth rate of individual fish, and fishing pressure from anglers. The North Central Zone is the zone most affected by high fishing pressure and high population growth. However, lower individual fish growth has led to the overpopulation of small northern pike. This justifies the recent change in the possession limit of ten northern pike under 22 inches.
The objective for northern pike in Minnesota is to keep a healthy population of large (27+ inches) fish. This keeps both the anglers happy and ecosystems healthy. This objective will maintain the existing population in the northeastern part of the state. In the North Central Zone, it will reduce the number of northern pike smaller than 22 inches. In the Southern Zone, the objective is to increase numbers while maintaining good-sized pike. MNDNR information officer David Schueller explains, “Ten one-pound northerns will eat more than one 10-pound northern will eat.” Reducing the smaller, more aggressive pike population allows all fish to grow to a more targetable size.
Next time you consider coming to Minnesota to fish for walleye, rethink your strategy and consider targeting northern pike. From the initial hook set, to the fight, to the fillet, they will not disappoint. Remember to take a picture of the big ones, release them, and keep the small ones. The fillets from pike less than 22 inches are still quite large. They produce quality white meat ideal for cooking or pickling.
With luck, this new regulation on northern pike will have a positive impact. Hopefully, the result will be a rebalancing of the freshwater ecosystems of Minnesota. In a few years, anglers will be able to enjoy both 10-inch sunfish and 10-pound water wolves.
Jackson McDowell is a hunter, angler, gatherer, and conservationist. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Biology. Since graduating in 2016, his work has primarily been in restoring, planting, and managing land in Minnesota to its natural habitats. His heart and soul are rooted in nature.