It's getting tougher to find lunker northerns, but if you focus your assault on these waters this season, you will be surprised. (March 2006)
Hunting Minnesota's pike is more than just a clever play on words. It describes how anglers need to approach this elusive predator.
Northerns are the most widespread game fish in our state, but almost all of them are 24 inches or shorter. Pike are a very eager species to bite, but most Minnesotans who spend a lot of time on the water have yet to catch one over 30 inches. The reason is because pike in the 20- to 24-inch range are the highest proportion of fish caught, versus those released.
"The rule of thumb seems to be that if it's over 24 inches, it's coming out of the lake, and that makes it tough to grow big fish," said Rod Pierce, a fisheries research scientist in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Grand Rapids office.
The way to grow large pike is to have plenty of habitat and high-protein forage base, such as tullibees. Lakes with a large basin and cool-water forage base are best for growing big northerns, and all the lakes listed in this article fit that description. Also, all are located in the northern half of our state, which is where Minnesota's native pike population originated.
Pierce said that while lakes in northern Minnesota are well known for their pike production, there are a lot of lakes throughout the southern portion with big fish. The trouble comes with pinpointing these lakes.
"These lakes don't have good natural reproduction, but the ones that are produced grow fast, though they don't usually exceed 30 inches," Pierce said.
Managing Minnesota's pike is difficult because a lot of anglers consider it to be a second-class fish, said Bob Halvorson, president of the Minnesota Darkhouse & Angling Association. "Almost everybody in the state loves to catch or spear them, but not enough people seem to appreciate them," he said.
Both Pierce and Halvorson said the difficulty in managing northern populations is dealing with the diverse ways that people view pike. Some see the fishery as meant for catching mostly for consumption, while others see it as a fishery that should be totally protected once the fish reach a length of 24 inches. Still others feel that protected slots are critical, but are willing to yield a trophy fish for the wall over a set length.
Either way, there's a boatload of lakes in Minnesota where trophy pike can be found. These are some of the finest around.
UPPER RED LAKE
Jason Boser guides out of Upper Red Lake. Most of his clients go for the crappie fishing, but more are asking about the tremendous pike population.
"It's amazing how big these fish are on average," said Boser. "And they are getting bigger."
His average pike last year on Upper Red Lake was between 36 and 43 inches. "I'd like to see that average stay high, and the only way it will is if anglers throw back the big ones," Boser said.
When chasing bruiser pike on Upper Red, Boser does an equal mix of trolling and casting. Most anglers troll, but Boser said casting can be a great way to really work a weedbed that you know is holding fish that won't bite on a trolling pass.
The basin of the lake is large, and the northerns are usually scattered. Boser begins on either end of the Tamarack River or the Little River by Rogers. Big trolling and casting spoons are his favorite choice, with a special emphasis on fire-tiger. "I also like bucktails for casting but you can't beat a fire-tiger spoon," he said.
For more information, contact Boser at (218) 327-2191 or online at www.mnfishingpros.com.
While conducting population surveys in the spring of 2005, Pierce said they caught at least one male northern over 40 inches on Mille Lacs. That's a nice-sized pike, especially for a male that typically doesn't exceed 5 or 6 pounds. It shows that Mille Lacs has some of the highest trophy potential in our state. One factor leading to Mille Lacs' high-quality pike fishery is the presence of a healthy forage base and a lot of habitat, Pierce noted.
Kelly Deneen has been the assistant manager at Johnson's Portside for three years. She said almost all of the pike she catches, and hears about being caught, come from the famous north end.
I have fished that northern breakline quite a bit myself and had some tremendous pike catches over the years, including my first and second pike over 40 inches. On two trips, one in August and another in September, a total of eight pike were caught, and all were between 37 and 40 inches. Their weight varied only because some were chunkier than others.
Crankbaits and spoons seem to be the most productive, though it's difficult to judge which one will work better on any given day. Use both and try to figure out the pattern. Deneen said other good big-pike locations include Big Point and the South Twin Bay area.
Additional information can be had by calling the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council at 1-888-350-2692, or go to www.millelacs.com.
LAKE OF THE WOODS
This is another lake where Pierce reported at least one male netted over 40 inches, thus proving the trophy potential locked into the Lake of the Woods.
Mike Kinsella of Border View Lodge is aware of the trophy potential on Lake of the Woods, and he sees plenty of pike over 40 inches caught each summer. "Last year, we had a lot pulled out in the 46-inch range," he said. Most of these big fish are returned to the lake, Kinsella said, though a few are kept from time to time -- mainly those over 40 inches.
He said that in the spring, Baudette Bay and Four Mile Bay and into the creeks are the best locations around. The area by North Point where the Rainy River flows is another good spring location, as is the Angle Inlet area.
"Anywhere up along the river along any of the weedbeds is a good location. But once the water warms up, try to get up on the rock reefs. But be prepared to catch them in a variety of depths," Kinsella said.
"In the summer, try trolling up and down the river along the ends of the docks, which is in 18 to 20 of water and provides a great hideout for some big ones," he added.
To learn more, contact the Lake of the Woods Chamber of Commerce at www.lakeofthewoodsmn.com, or call 1-800-382-FISH. To contact Kinsella at Border View Lodge, call 1-800-PRO-FISH.
Huge Lake Kabetogama, in Voyageurs National Park along the Canadian border, has perhaps one of the best pike populations both for quality and quantity. Phil Hart of the Gateway Store on Highway 53 should know, because his store is a stopping point for most of the guides and anglers who spend time on "Kabe."
Hart said the routine for most visitors to Kabetogama is to troll spoons near the surface where they catch an abundance of 2- to 4-pound northerns. Those fish are fun to catch, but there are much bigger ones lurking about. For pike in the 7- to 8-pound range, live bait is the way to go, specifically light northern sucker minnows. For pike in the 8- to 12-pound range, big artificials are best.
"The biggest ones come in the spring on opening weekend while they are walleye fishing, but both are in the same areas, feeding on small baitfish," Hart said.
Once the midsummer season sets in, the northerns settle into their deep-water sanctuaries adjacent to shallow weedy bays.
"Find the 12-foot mark nearby a 30- to 45-foot hole and you have found one of these sanctuaries," said Hart. "There are seven holes on the lake like that."
Timing it so that you are on the water just as a storm is closing in can be the best time here. Even when the weather is perfect, using electronics to monitor the movement of these pike can prove helpful.
"If you see them begin migrating in from 30 feet, hang on, because the bite is about to begin," said Hart.
For more info, contact the Kabetogama Lake Association at 1-800-524-9085 or go to www.kabetogama.com. Hart can be reached at the Gateway Store on U.S. Hwy 53 and County Road 122, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border.
Lake Winnibigoshish is a tough lake to fish for big pike, but it's worth an attempt because there are still some giants lurking the depths.
Boser guides clients here, and said a 30-inch-plus pike on Winnie is a big fish these days, though there are bigger ones around.
Targeting lunker pike in the spring can be tough because they are mixed in with the walleyes and perch, chasing shiners on the flats. Once the seasons change and midsummer is in high gear, Boser said the weedbeds and the deep humps in the middle of the lake become great locations. "The big ones hang out there and along the mudflats down deep," he said.
A lot of these huge pike are accidentally hooked -- and often lost -- by walleye anglers dragging live bait along the humps. But tie on a large jig-and-minnow rig, and a big pike will most likely bite.
The best time to target the big pike is when the tullibees move into the weeds around late July and early August. These areas, Boser said, are very accessible for casting spoons and large crankbaits.
For more information, contact Boser at (218) 327-2191 or online at www.mnfishingpros.com. Lodging information can be found on the Lake Winnie Resort Area's Web site at www.lakewinnie.net.
Boser said that Pokegama is a sleeper lake for big northerns, and with a 30-inch pike being almost guaranteed, sleeping is the last thing an angler should be caught doing. "There are just some beautiful pike on Pokegama, and it seems like we catch a 30-incher every time," Boser said.
The pike on Pokegama are most commonly found in the 19- to 20-foot range on the deep weedlines, deep rocky points and along the long breaks. A 1/4-ounce jig tipped with a large minnow is best when fishing these locations. To prevent its being bitten off, Boser recommends using a 20-pound-test monofilament leader on a 1/4-ounce jig.
Another presentation that works in midsummer is lead-core trolling along the thermocline, which tends to be found 50 to 60 feet down.
"Smelt are the major prey source on Pokegama, and if you get a 8- to 10-inch slim-bodied crankbait down that far, you'll catch some huge northerns," Boser said.
You can find additional information at www.grandmn.com or by calling the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-GRANDMN.
Dandy pike are found on Vermilion, and while some anglers pursue them exclusively, most anglers focus on muskies, walleyes, and smallmouth and largemouth bass.
Northerns well over 40 inches are caught on Vermilion, and Mike McClain of the Lake Vermilion Trading Company chases them as often as possible. His summer work at a resort limits his angling time, so he chooses to focus on pike -- with an occasional outing for walleyes.
Last summer was a particularly good year for McClain, with several pike catches over 45 inches. He recommended fishing in the Black Bay area around the Partridge River. Legion Bay is another good spot, as well as Muskego Point and the nearby bay.
McClain said the big pike are up shallow once the fishing opener comes around, and they tend to stay shallow well into the summer.
"You can find them anywhere from 4 to 13 feet of water, lying up in the weedbeds," McClain said.
The pike on Vermilion are weed-oriented, McClain said, until fall when the weeds begin dying off, and then northerns begin to relate to rocks. During the day, an angler would do best trolling or casting big spoons. In the clearer water, silver spoons are best, while in the more stained water, copper and gold-colored spoons are best. Once the sun goes down, put away the spoons and take out the plugs and topwater lures.
For more information, go to www.lakevermilion.com, as well as www.lakevermiliontradingco.com. You can also call 1-877-666-6052.
I was born and raised in Minneapolis, though I didn't really and truly discover the big-fish potential of metro lakes until I was an adult. I grew up fishing in the Boundary Waters and Brainerd Lakes area -- home to some massive pike lakes. But some of the most consistent pike fishing I've had has been on Lake Calhoun in the Twin Cities metro area.
I have yet to catch a pike from Calhoun that was shorter than 24 inches, and my average catch hovers right around 30 inches. The biggest pike I've caught throughout the spring and summer months have come out of the southeast corner between the large south beach and th
e fishing pier. In these locations, deep-running crank-baits are the best bet. The pike tend to relate to the thermocline as well as the sharp breaks. Located right offshore near some public restrooms is a hidden dropoff, where a school of big pike tend to hole up throughout the summer. Work the area well enough and you're sure to catch at least a few pike in the upper 20s or lower 30s.
Like all Minneapolis city lakes, there is a restriction on gasoline-powered motors, so make sure your trolling motor battery is fully charged before hitting the water. There is only one public access on Calhoun, and parking can be difficult after 8 a.m. But the action is worth enduring these "hardships."
Check out the Minneapolis Tourism Office at www.minneapolis.org, or call 1-800-491-6176.
In the land of over 10,000 lakes, there may actually be a "Sleeper Lake," but this term refers to those pike lakes around Minnesota where monsters lurk but nobody wants to share the spot for fear of the lake being inundated with anglers.
Listing it like this is no cop-out. Plenty of lake fisheries officials and anglers were willing to share their secret spots but preferred to keep them from being printed.
"There are a few tremendous pike lakes with monster pike in them, but if I give you their names, I'll have people beating down my door," said Tim Brastrup, the DNR's fisheries manager for the Brainerd Lakes area.
Contact a local fisheries office and they'll share what they know. But be prepared to promise to keep it to yourself.
Finding a lake with lunker northerns is hard to come by these days, though the DNR is working to increase the number of lakes where pike over 30 inches are commonplace, not a rarity. They have put into place some statewide and lake-specific size restrictions with the intention of growing larger Esox. A statewide restriction allows anglers only one fish over 30 inches each day, though many find that still too liberal.
Pierce said the best way to find a quality northern lake near you is to check the fishing regulations and find the nearest lake with pike restrictions. "These lakes have been targeted for these regulations because they have good-sized pike populations that we'd like to continue getting larger."
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A big pike takes a lot of time to grow. Keep a few less than 24 inches and put the rest back. If you catch one for the wall, have a fiberglass reproduction made, and then brag that the fish is still swimming in that nameless lake.