Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Are pike zones part of angling’s future?

Brooklyn Park, Minn. — Minnesota fisheries officials continue to move toward a new era in pike regulations in the state, one that would resemble management of some game species, complete with zones and corresponding rules.

Those rules would vary for areas of the state identified as the south, north-central, and northeast zones, each location with unique challenges pertaining to pike.

At last week’s DNR Roundtable event in Brooklyn Park, Gary Barnard, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Bemidji and a member of the department’s Esocid (northern pike and muskellunge) Technical Committee, told attendees a three-zone structure isn’t a “complex idea,” and that it’s actually simpler than special regulations for individual lakes.

It also could be beneficial to other fish species, and could result in some cases in larger northerns.

Right now, according to Barnard, state regulations – a three-fish pike bag, with one over 30 inches allowed in possession – “are doing very little to protect northern pike quality.”

Surveys have indicated that anglers tend to keep pike once they reach 24 inches; the preferred size is about 27 inches. Hooking a 30-inch pike is rare, and the odds are much lower of getting a second one of that size. Therefore, the “one-over-30” language does little to affect harvest, Barnard said.

Based on a number of factors and considerations, here’s how  potential zones might break down.

• South: A minimum length of 22 or 24 inches, a two-fish bag, and supplemental pike stocking.
• North-central: A 10-fish bag limit, with a 22- to 26-inch protected slot. Only two fish allowed in the bag over 26 inches.
• Northeast: No harvest of northern pike over 30 inches, and a two-fish bag.

Barnard said earlier this week such a shift in pike management probably is at least a year away, should the agency continue that direction.

The DNR’s given some consideration to what would constitute boundaries between the zones, but will continue discussions on the matter.

A map showing the catches of northern pike in DNR survey nets gives a pretty good indication where boundaries would be, according to Barnard. But, of course, there would be exceptions. Those exceptions would be good places to implement limited lake-specific special regulations, he said.

“Ultimately, we want to have the ability to use  special regulations where (a specific lake) doesn’t fit,” Barnard said.

DNR officials say there are distinct differences between pike populations throughout Minnesota. Rule changes were sparked, in part, by the fact that many lakes in what would be the north-central zone have high numbers of small pike, fish that can deplete the perch forage base and gobble up walleyes stocked in some locations.

In those lakes, the problems regarding overabundant pike aren’t new revelations.

“They’ve been around a long time,” Barnard said. “We’ve been losing big fish since the ’40s and ’50s.”

He said it’s been a gradual shift over time.

“It’s not getting any worse,” he adds. “But it’s about as bad as it can be.”

In the northeast, fishing pressure is lighter, but northern pike are slower-growing. Large northerns, defined by the DNR as those 30 to 40 inches long, remain in some of those systems; the suggested regulation might keep it that way.

“If you’re gonna do it (the regulation), you have to do it while you still have large pike,” Barnard said.

The northern pike population is classified generally in these moderately productive northeastern lakes as a low-density group with good growth and survival. Recruitment is moderate; exploitation (angler harvest) is low to moderate.

Move south and west of this part of the state and pike-management challenges quickly change. The lakes in this north-central area frequently see high recruitment of northern pike and high-density populations. Growth often is slow, the result of high fish density. Fishing pressure varies between moderate and high. Most harvest is targeted at “medium” northerns – those 22 to 30 inches – that typically are efficient at trimming by eating the smaller of a lake’s pike.

Few fish in these lakes make it to the “large” category, Barnard said.

What should be done? According to the DNR, the number of small pike in these lakes must be reduced, and the number of large pike increased. In general, improved size structure – and perhaps subsequent greater balance – is the goal.

One obvious option is to increase the bag limit on small pike under 22 inches.

But, Barnard said, expanded bags “have not been as effective as we’d like. They have not been effective on their own in shifting size distribution.”

Protection of “medium” northerns must be part of the solution, according to the DNR. Upon examination of data, Barnard said department officials believe they’ve found a “sweet spot” regarding a protected slot: 22 to 26 inches. They also proposed a bag limit of 10 northerns, while allowing two fish over 26 inches in that bag limit – a tradeoff, of sorts, for leaving be those fish within the protected slot.

With that slot, too, there’s expected to be more fish that grow to beyond 26 inches, most likely the female pike.

Proceeding south: The issues for many southern lakes include both low abundance and low recruitment. That said, if they’re there, they’ll grow up fast in the nutrient-rich lakes of the south. There’s typically high fishing pressure (fewer lakes, in general), but low angler catch rates. What they do catch, though, anglers tend to keep.

Objectives, Barnard said, are to increase pike abundance and improve harvest opportunities.

How? Stocking might be a start, but it’s important to have a minimum length limit that will allow fish to remain in lakes longer and to take advantage of that early fast growth. If all goes according to plan, southern anglers could be harvesting fewer, but larger, pike.

Results no doubt would vary, and expectations not met in all cases, but here’s what DNR fish folks think the regulations could bring to the respective areas of the state:
In the south, they would expect “almost immediate results (larger fish for harvest within a year or two).” In the north-central zone, a gradual and moderate shift in size distribution. They say it could take “considerable time to push pike through the protected slot for improved harvest opportunity.” In the northeast, they expect no noticeable improvement – that existing quality should be maintained.

While the DNR has discussed zone management of pike for some time now, it’s shifted its focus somewhat, according to Barnard. For a while, the primary focus was getting big pike into certain waters, and “maybe we weren’t focusing enough on the value of medium-sized pike in that north-central (area),” he said. Also, there’s been recently more consideration given to the “consumptive” fisher.

Consumptive use of northerns is a concern of some people, including Tim Spreck, director of government relations for the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. Spreck said the MDAA continues to monitor the progress of a possible pike zone plan.

Length-based regulations for northerns, he said, “have been problematic for spear fishermen.”

If the DNR finalizes a recommendation, Spreck said, that plan would be examined by the MDAA and its chapter members.

“Then we’ll see if we can support it,” he said.

Spreck said last year about 18,500 spearing endorsements were sold with fishing licenses.

Barnard said more public involvement is needed to move the plan forward. 

“We’re thinking it will take a year, and maybe we’ll have something by the next (legislative) session,” he said. “It’s a big move and a bit of a complicated move.”

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