In the upper Midwest, large pike are on the decline
Any angler who has fished for bass, walleye, or even panfish in the upper Midwest knows the routine of jigging or swimming a plastic worm along a weed line for largemouth. You feel a familiar tap, tap, tap on the other end and you set the hook. What happens next? Nothing. You can’t even feel the weight of the jig. You’ve got a pike to blame.
Or maybe you’ve trolled a crankbait along a breakline for walleyes and bam! Then, nothing, not even the weight of that $10 crankbait. Ouch. At some point you realize tossing a $10 bill into the water is about as productive as catching a walleye. It’s difficult to put up with the constant bite-offs from those &%#%@ hammer handle pike.
The Upper Midwest is Losing Big Pike
Across their entire range, northern pike are the apex predator in any lake or stream they inhabit. While other predators like walleye, bass, and musky are often found in these same systems, pike rule the roost.
However, pike populations across most of their range aren’t what they used to be. In many cases, lake-dwelling pike are consistently smaller but more abundant than their river-dwelling relatives. Consequently, many aquatic systems that were dependent on low numbers of large pike are out of balance.
Declines in Pike Quality
The relative ease with which they can be caught, their fighting ability, and the fact that they are excellent table fare have made pike a popular target for anglers. This is particularly true for larger fish. However, the decline in large pike, in addition to meaning fewer large predators in aquatic systems, also means there are fewer opportunities for anglers to enjoy these fish.
The decline in northern pike quality began across the upper Midwest in the 1950s. Fishing contest records from the Fuller Tackle Shop in Park Rapids, Minnesota, were analyzed by Don Olson and Paul Cunningham, two researchers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Their work demonstrated this decline.
Pike Ecology is Complicated
Largely attributed to angling, these declines in large pike numbers present a difficult situation for fisheries managers. Large fish tend to control the abundance, or in this case, overabundance, of smaller fish in a system. In fact, small pike can at times make up the bulk of the diet of larger fish. Cannibalism is alive and well in the fish world.
The removal of large pike also causes a shift in what size smaller pike become sexually mature. In lakes with good numbers of large pike, sexual maturity occurs when fish reach 5 or 6 years of age or older. However, in lakes without big pike, spawning might occur from fish as young as 2 or 3 years of age. Once fish begin to put their energy into growth for reproduction (gonadal growth), less energy gets channeled into the growth of other tissue (somatic growth). That’s how we end up with ‘hammer handles.’
Usually, there are a lot more young fish in a population. Since those young fish are now spawning in even greater numbers and producing even more offspring, the problem is continually compounding itself. Add in nearly 30 years of above-average rainfall across the upper Midwest, which has produced exceptional spawning habitat, the cycle seems impossible to break. Since 16-to-20-inch pike are far less desirable to anglers and they have few natural predators, wildlife managers have very few options in trying to reverse the situation.
Ecological Impacts of Small Pike
From an ecological standpoint, an overpopulation of small pike is also problematic. These fish prefer long, slender prey. Yellow perch are among their favorites; therefore, it isn’t surprising that yellow perch populations are also declining in quality across much of the upper Midwest. Still, scientists can’t draw a direct link between the increases in smaller pike and the decreases in quality perch. Remember, correlation does not equal causation.
Another interesting ecological twist that happens when pike populations become dominated by smaller fish is a decline in bluegill size. Biologists hypothesize that this may be due to a lack of predation on small bluegill by yellow perch (ice fishing tip: a small jig or jigging spoon that resembles bluegill can be deadly on yellow perch), resulting in more bluegill and slower growth. There is also added competition between small perch and bluegill for zooplankton, which again slows the growth of both species.
Managers Respond to Ecological Shifts
In both Wisconsin and Minnesota, fisheries managers responded to these ecological shifts. They attempted to protect and boost the numbers of large pike. Through reduced bag limits or high minimum size limits, or a combination of both, managers support the growth of large pike. Both states have had success in increasing the average maximum size of pike in lakes with reduced bags and size limits. However, once pike reach those size limits, they are often harvested. For example, when there is a minimum size limit on a series of lakes, the average maximum size of pike increased from about 26 inches to just over 30 inches. In subsequent years, they didn’t get any bigger. This indicates that anglers were cropping off those bigger pike as soon as they were legal to harvest.
Fish to Eat
Minnesota allows and encourages anglers in some parts of the state to keep up to 10 pike that are 22” or smaller. These fish are often less desirable to anglers, mainly due to the presence of “Y” bones, and the misconception that they are overly difficult to clean. However, a quick internet search can provide tutorials on a variety of methods to fillet pike without bones. They also make excellent pickled fish and as demonstrated in this recipe, are excellent as poor man’s lobster. The firm nature of their fillet makes it excellent table fare. It’s on par with (or in my opinion, better) than walleye.
For anglers interested in providing good nutritious food in a sustainable manner, pike are tough to beat. In many ways, they’re the perfect target for members of the Hunt to Eat community. They’re generally abundant within their range, are among the easiest fish to catch, and they taste great!
You can do your part in sustaining quality pike populations. For example, you can release big pike and keep those smaller fish for a fish fry to share with friends. You can also set some aside for a pickled treat. Keep all that up, and perhaps you’ll even catch a few walleyes or bass on those expensive lures you’ve been losing to “hammer handles.”
Jeff Reed (he/him/his) has been working in fisheries management and research for over 35 years. He’s an avid fly fisherman and bird and big game hunter. He currently lives in Minnesota, the land of the Anishinaabe and Dakota, with his wife and Labrador, Shadow.