Minnesota is an interesting state when looking at the diversity of its natural resources. In fact, the state has actually been divided into five separate distinct habitat zones.
They are the prairie zone, the prairie/forest transition zone, southeast forest zone, northern forest zone and a special area that encompasses the bulk of the state’s population called the metro/urbanization zone.
The state has intense agricultural activities over about a third of its total acres. The northern forest zone has very limited row crop production. Southeast Minnesota is bluff land county. The differences could fill one volume of an encyclopedia.
It is these vast differences that create challenges for wildlife agencies like the Minnesota DNR.
A very popular fish called the northern pike is one of those challenges. Many of the lakes in the northern part of the state have large pike populations. Because there are so many fish of this type in those traditional clear water lakes, they tend to grow slowly because of the intense competition for forage.
The very high pike numbers of smaller size are often called the hammer-handle kind. You can catch tons of too-small-to eat fish and a few large ones. One the other hand, with warmer water and a longer growing season, northern pike in southwest Minnesota lakes grow much faster.
These larger fish are the ones anglers keep, so it is very common for our lakes to have very low pike numbers overall. Pike can easily be fished out or at least severely fished down (meaning few fish remain) if a lake gets on a hot bite.
So, for years the pike limit was three and had no size restriction.
In an effort to provide better overall pike fishing satisfaction, and better overall size structures, the Minnesota DNR has made some pretty dramatic changes in the way pike populations are managed between these two very different types of water.
The state now has three distinct pike zones, and each has its own special regulations to try to better manage northerns based on the type of lake they reside. There are the north zone, north east zone and southern zone.
In the northeast zone the limit is two fish per day. All fish between 30-40 inches must be returned to the water. One fish over 40 inches is allowed so an angler can keep or mount a trophy northern.
So, the goal is for anglers to keep two fish under 30 inches. This allows more northerns to reach trophy size status.
In the northern zone where pike are over-abundant and very small, the anglers can keep 10 fish per day with two over 26 inches in length allowed, and all fish between 22-26 inches must be released. This is designed to eliminate the over-abundance of hammer-handles by removing large numbers of smaller fish, and as a result of less competition for forage the remaining fish will grow larger and faster. The problem with this is many anglers won’t keep a fish under 22 inches.
The southern zone where pike are not generally as plentiful and the one that are here grow fast, the limit is two fish over 24 inches. This is designed to limit pike harvest and allow some fish to grow to trophy size.
We are in the southern zone. It is easy to catch a fish with a tip up or hook and line and measure it. If it’s over 24 inches you keep it and if it’s under you let it go.
Spearing pike is a different story. How do you tell exactly how long a fish is when it’s seven feet away moving across the lake bottom? The answer is you don’t. Any fish that is on the border, you let swim away so you don’t end up in with a spear in a 23-inch illegal fish.
The rules are new in the last two years and many anglers are still not completely clear on what is and what’s not acceptable pike size. This is just a reminder to carry a tape measure when on the lake. The changes were way overdue and I am glad they are in place today.
Anglers will have to adapt to these efforts to better manage pike abundance and overall size structure. There is nothing that fights better than a 10-pound or larger pike. Hopefully with these new rules, all anglers will have more opportunities to tangle with more fish of that size.