Minnesota: 10,000 Lakes, Millions of Pike

My first “adventure” fishing trip far from home was a jaunt to the North Woods of Wisconsin with my grandparents. I was only six or seven years old. We caught plenty of panfish to eat, bluegills and bullheads like we have here at home, perch which were interesting, but just another panfish. Each afternoon, however, Grandma would head out on her own to catch a “northern.”

I had no idea what that was, other than it was a mysterious fish, no doubt huge, wicked, hard to catch and dangerous to be around. After a few days the score was Grandma zero, northern winning. On day four or five, however, I was standing on the boat dock harassing the mini-bluegills that swarmed underneath. I could see Grandma in the boat a couple hundred yards offshore and was transfixed when she sprang into action.

To a six-year-old it looked like an epic battle. Her rod bent double, the boat rocked, I could see splashes along side the boat and finally the net came out and the northern was hers.

I’d never seen such a creature. It was easily twice as long as any carp I’d occasionally glimpse in the Iroquois or ponds where I fished. It was easily three or four times larger than any bass I’d ever seen. And teeth - I suspected a northern could eat me or anything else in the lake if it wanted.

Of course, that night it was featured on our dinner menu. Of course, it was the best fish I’d ever eaten. First off, it’s not hard to beat out bullheads, but even if it had been tough and nasty, I’d still have thought it to be the best.

All Grandma and Grandpa ever called it was “northern.” It was years later (at least one or two) I learned the proper name was northern pike and it goes by just plain pike as often as it does northern.

It also has other colloquial names, often derogatory, if you live in the northlands where most every lake has a resident population of northern pike. I’ve heard them called slime-sticks, jackfish, snakes and hammer-handles. On a popularity level, anywhere north of Indiana or Illinois walleyes are held here (I’m holding my hand above my head), northerns are here (hand down around my knees) and only carp and suckers have room down below.

Northern pike don’t get much respect in most places, at least by local residents. I don’t know why. Most fishermen like to catch big fish. Most pike are bigger than most walleyes so the the chance of catching a large pike is much greater.

Most fishermen like to catch hard-fighting fish. Compared to walleyes, which have much the same spunk at the end of a fishing line as a wet sock, northerns are feisty when small and become brawlers when they are large.

Compared to walleyes on the table (after being in the frying pan) I’ll take a pike any day. Sure they have an extra set of Y-bones above the ribs. YouTube has 2210 videos showing how to cut them out of a filet. It’s not a secret only known to Ojibway guides any longer.

Northerns are wide spread across the upper Midwest, but the state of Minnesota is probably the northern pike capital of the US - though they’d rather be known for walleyes. Still, pike are now getting enough recognition, if not respect in Minnesota, to earn themselves a new set of regulations regarding catch and size limits for 2018. Anyone who wants to keep pike in Minnesota’s inland waters needs to take a close look at these regulations and be prepared to measure the pike they want to keep starting on the Saturday, May 12, fishing opener.

The new regulations was a response to concerns about the over-abundance of hammer-handle (snakes or slime-stick) pike in much of central to north-central Minnesota; the low numbers of pike present in southern Minnesota waters and a desire to protect large northerns in the northeastern triangle of the state.

Depending on where you fish (see zone maps) here are the new rules:

  • North-central: Daily limit of 10 northern pike, but not more than two pike longer than 26 inches; all from 22 to 26 inches must be released.

  • Northeast: Two pike per day limit; anglers must release all from 30 to 40 inches, with only one over 40 inches allowed in possession.

  • South: Two fish per day; minimum size 24 inches.