By Pat Miller
Despite the walleye population crash in Red Lake about 15 years ago, angling opportunities existed and anglers continued to troll the shorelines, plop bobbers near the weedbeds, and drill holes through the ice.
Instead of targeting walleyes, most of the anglers were searching for the giant crappies that were making bold headlines in fishing publications and receiving seemingly unlimited air time on outdoor television programs. While the crappie fishery was front-page news, however, a dedicated group of anglers was leaving their panfish rigs at home and were loading the boat with heavy-duty tackle.
“When the walleye numbers were extremely low in Upper Red Lake, some of the other species really took off,” said Andy Thompson, the Bemidji area acting fisheries supervisor. “There was the crappie boom, and there was a whitefish boom. And the northern pike also took off. The pike didn’t increase so much in numbers of fish, but they really grew like mad.
“And toward the end of the walleye closure, people noticed (the increased size) of the northern pike, and they started targeting the fish, especially during the summer,” he said.
Through the years, in an effort to protect the pike fishery, DNR officials have implemented a few different special northern pike regulations on Upper Red. Recent survey results, combined with public opinion, however, have led to a relaxation of the most recent slot restriction.
Starting this year, the regulation will allow three northern pike in possession, with a protected slot of 30 to 40 inches. Anglers will be permitted to keep just one fish over 40 inches.
The special regulation is identical to the one that governs Lake of the Woods.
“The regulation has been popular on Lake of the Woods and the northern pike fishery has held up,” Thompson said. “The regulation provides a good level of protection while allowing for a trophy fishery to exist.”
In 2008, DNR officials did a pike assessment on Upper Red and the numbers were astounding. Of the female pike sampled, 32% of them were over 36 inches and a whopping 10% stretched the tape past 40 inches. The assessment was repeated in 2009, and 9% of the females were over 40 inches.
“Those are unbelievable sizes,” said Tony Kennedy, Bemidji area DNR large lake specialist.
Creel surveys during the same period also revealed that the word was out on Upper Red’s trophy pike fishery, as 2,500 angling trips specifically targeting northern pike were taken during one summer.
“In the mid-2000s, while the walleye fishing was closed, there were lots of 40-plus (inch) northern pike in the lake and we heard rumblings of people keeping some of those fish,” Kennedy said.
Others in the fishing fraternity believed that too many anglers might be keeping too many of those trophy pike, so DNR officials held a meeting to listen to public angler concerns.
“During the meeting, we heard from anglers who wanted northern pike to eat, and we heard from others who wanted to protect the fish,” Kennedy said.
In an effort to address both desires, a 26-inch to 40-inch protected slot regulation was implemented in 2006. Some anglers, however, reportedly continued to keep fish over 40 inches and, after more public meetings, the upper end of the slot was increased to 44 inches in 2011.
“We had some people thinking 26 to 40 inches wasn’t restrictive enough and, through the public input, that group is who we heard from,” Thompson said. “So we went to the 26- to 44-inch protected slot.”
Despite the most restrictive northern pike regulation in the state, the pike population on Upper Red Lake has not maintained its percentage of trophy females from a decade ago. Since hitting that high-water mark of 10% of females over 40 inches in 2008, the numbers have dropped. In 2012, the percentage was 7.5 and in 2017 only 3.5% of the females were over 40 inches.
“Even though we had the most restrictive regulation in the state, we have seen the population of large northern pike declining, and that says that (the size potential of the pike) isn’t determined by harvest,” Kennedy said. “We also have been hearing that the slot is too restrictive, so we had another public meeting and even people who were for the 26- to 44-inch slot before, now were in favor of switching to the 30- to 40-inch slot.”
The surveys that showed a decrease in 40-inch pike also indicated a decline in the lake’s whitefish population. Creel surveys also show a lack of interest from anglers. Kennedy believes there is a correlation.
“In 2008, there was a whitefish boom and the northern pike were able to feed on them,” he said. “Now, the northern pike (size range) is stalling into the upper 30-inch range and it could be because of the lack of whitefish.”
Although the whitefish numbers remain relatively low, another fish species seems to be increasing in numbers.
“Right now there is a high population of goldeyes and there are several year-classes of them, up to 17 inches,” Kennedy said. “Goldeyes are a high-fat and high-energy food source and we may see a resurgence of larger northern pike in Upper Red Lake because of them feeding on the goldeyes.
“Back in the mid-2000s, it wasn’t uncommon for people to catch numbers of northern pike over 40 inches,” he continued. “There are still 43- and 44-inch fish that we net in our spring assessments. The lake can produce them and, hopefully, with the goldeyes (increasing in numbers), we can see that. Upper Red Lake is a great northern pike fishery, and we’re hoping to see more people take advantage of it. There aren’t many lakes in the state where you have a chance to catch a 40-inch northern pike. But Upper Red Lake is one of them.”