Stone-cold killers cruise the waters of almost every Minnesota lake and river. We tell you where to find them. (March 2009)
Not only are they one of the toughest-fighting fish, northern pike are more eager to bite than other fish. Photo by Mitch Kezar/Windigo Images.
There are stone-cold killers cruising almost every Minnesota lake and river!
Northern pike, missile-shaped toothy critters, lie in wait for any prey unlucky enough to swim by. Pike are known cannibals and are so ravenous they'll consume fish nearly their same size.
Sounds pretty cool, huh?
Before cueing the theme music from Jaws, it should be noted that most Minnesota pike are pretty danged small.
Oh sure, that 20-inch pike is scary to your average baitfish, but it's nothing like those that once lurked the shadowy depths. There was a time decades ago when wheelbarrows were filled with those that had been caught, snared, harpooned, pitch forked and shot from lakes and rivers.
People would pull pike ranging from 3 to 5 feet out of the water, club them on the head -- if they hadn't already shot it in the head -- and put them on a meat pole. There are tons of old photographs showing these meat poles and the most impressive fish hanging are pike.
Pike used to be a maligned fish because people thought they decimated game fish populations. The limit was 25 pike a day, but cooler heads prevailed over time and northerns are once again regaining prestige as a trophy species.
Still, it's tough to find more than a handful of lakes around the state where a 40-inch or larger pike is a reality. Catch-and-release angling, along with regulations on specific bodies of water, has brought big pike back to Minnesota much to the delight of anglers.
Northern pike are plenty of fun to catch. Not only are they one of the toughest-fighting fish, they are more eager to bite than other fish. Ask any walleye or bass angler who has had a pike grab his line. While most of these catches are not praised, big pike have saved many a muskie angler's bad day.
More and more anglers are beginning to specifically target pike, but not like they once did. Meat poles and wheelbarrows have been replaced with cameras and fish cradles. Catch, photo and release has revived Minnesota's trophy pike fishery, and here are some of the top lakes to fish this year.
TURTLE RIVER CHAIN
Bemidji-area anglers are known for their love of chasing walleyes and muskies, but this is one of the best areas in the state for finding big-time northern pike. One of the best bodies of water in the area is the Turtle River chain, including Movil, Turtle River and Big Turtle lakes.
Near the town of Turtle River in southern Beltrami County, Turtle River Lake has a public access at the northwest end of the lake off County Road 21. It's a lake worth scouting ahead of time because of the way it snakes around. There are plenty of big pike hideouts and the best locations require some hunting.
The DNR's fisheries office in Bemidji has placed a special pike regulation on Turtle River requiring anglers to immediately release all pike measuring 24 to 36 inches, with only one over 36 inches allowed. This regulation, implemented in 2003, is intended to improve the quality of the pike population and help maintain a more balanced predator population. A long-term objective of the protected size regulation is to eventually shift populations from high densities of small pike to lower density populations of larger pike.
Turtle River Lake was at an advantage when the special regulation was implemented since pike numbers weren't abnormally high and some quality-sized pike still existed. There are signs that regulation is improving the size structure of pike with moderate increases in the number of pike in the 24- to 36-inch protected slot.
Bryan Sathre of Fathead Guide Service said this is one of his favorite lakes in the entire state and a sure-fire location for big pike. There are plenty of small, hammer-handle-sized pike, plus some 20-pound-plus monsters.
"When I have somebody in town who wants to catch a ton of good-sized pike, this is where I take them, and we do awesome," he said.
Early in the open-water season, a jig-and-shiner combination is tough to beat along the emerging weedlines. As the summer progresses, Sathre throws on his favorite crankbait and trolls along the weed edges or over the edges of mid-lake structure. Metallic colored Fireball jigs with a shiner hooked through the lips are also a lethal combination.
As far as colors are concerned, Sathre said metallic colors do just great on the chain whether with a jig or crankbait. A few good locations to find these pike include the point on the south basin near the language camp. Another is in the easternmost bay where a deep 50-foot hole edges up to a reed bed in 10 feet of water. "Those are both big-fish hangouts and must-fish locations," Sathre said.
For more information, contact www.VisitBemidji.com or call (800) 458-2223.
This is my favorite pike lake in the state and it's a good place to wet a line for walleyes, muskies, perch and a few other species. As good as the fishing is for many different kinds of fish, the average size of pike caught on Bemidji far surpasses other lakes around the state.
Surrounded by the city of Bemidji, there are six public accesses covering almost every portion of the lake. Because there aren't many places to hide from the wind, the best plan is to watch the weather and be sure to launch on the side of the lake the wind isn't blowing. Once on the lake, it's easy to get into top-notch pike fishing waters.
I've caught monster pike on Bemidji while throwing huge baits for muskies, but I've also caught them using live-bait rigs for walleyes. Both tactics can be relied upon depending on your fishing style.
The live-bait route works great throughout the open-water season, as the weedline runs from the shallows out deep. In the spring, you'll be fishing shallow, but by July, don't overlook the edge of the weeds in 12 to 18 feet of water. A slingshot sinker with a fluorocarbon leader and No. 4 hook tipped with the biggest redtail minnow you can find is a deadly tactic.
Artificials work throughout the year as well but are best in late summer and during the fall bite. Crankbaits are always good along with muskie-sized Suicks, bucktails, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits. Perch-colored lures, particularly those more on t
he yellow side, have far outperformed other colors in my experience. Natural-colored lures, including the blue and silver or black and silver combinations, also work quite well.
If you've never fished Lake Bemidji in late summer or fall, you have no idea what lush, green cabbage beds look like. Almost the entire perimeter of the lake is full of this leafy weed that seems to draw pike like a magnet. The best spots are the outside edge where pike can sit inside the cabbage and ambush prey swimming by, preferably the prey at the end of your line.
For more information, contact www.VisitBemidji.com or call (800) 458-2223.
UPPER RED LAKE
Upper Red Lake is the biggest puddle in the entire state, but only part of it is open to anglers who are not members of the Red Lake band of Chippewa Indians. The boundary is not always well marked on maps and the actual boundary is not a true north-south line. To simplify, it is recommended that anglers stay east of the longitudinal coordinate of 94° 43´ 12.0Ë W. to ensure they are on state waters.
The main landing is on the east side of the lake right off Highway 72 by Waskish. While only part of the lake is open to angling, Sathre said they are some of the most productive acres of water anywhere in the state. The crappie and walleye bites have long been talked about, but it's the pike bite that has many anglers salivating.
"Upper Red is a beautiful lake for plenty of 40-inch and larger northerns," Sathre said. He urged anglers to practice catch-and-release so this fantastic trophy fishery can continue.
Sathre likened pike fishing on Upper Red to muskie fishing for the catch-and-release ethic but also with tackle, rods and reels. These big girls will bust your regular tackle, so bring the muskie gear so you can wrestle one in, photograph it, then release it.
Casting bionic bucktails to the shore or dragging a jig and shiner in the northeastern portion of the state is always effective as is the area around Tamarac. Because this is such a large lake, base your fishing locations on the wind. When the wind is blowing gently, the windswept shore can be great. When the wind is dangerous, head to safe water because there are plenty of pike to be caught while staying safe rather than risk it.
For more information, contact www.upperredlakeassn.com.
LAKE MILLE LACS
The big pond is another terrific multi-species lake where big pike usually take a back seat to other fish. This lack of attention has helped grow some massive pike and makes it one of the best lakes for a shot at a 40-inch or larger pike. The DNR's 2007 lake survey produced 43 pike, 14 longer than 30 inches and 22 in the 25- to 29-inch range. That's a huge average and a good enough excuse to leave the walleye rig at home in favor of more heavy equipment.
Mille Lacs is an easy lake to access with other anglers being the main difficulty in getting where you want. If the public access parking lots are full, go to one of the many resorts and marinas and pay a minimal charge to launch your boat. There are big pike to be had throughout the lake, so wherever you end up launching from there's a good shot at a nice pike.
Anglers have worn grooves in the sand along the northeastern corner of the lake, but there are still plenty of big pike making it worth fishing. The edge of the sand is a great location, but search for fragments of cabbage for the best pike waters. The bays on the south and west ends are targeted heavily by muskie anglers but hold plenty of pike.
Nearly all of Mille Lacs is good pike fishing water and the parts you don't hear much about are some of the best. That's plenty of water, but the best things to look for are healthy weedbeds and abundant food sources. There aren't tons of huge weedbeds in Mille Lacs, but there are some adjacent to deep water. As far as food sources are concerned, there were plenty last summer. While it made fishing a challenge, the pike were very chunky and will with luck stay that way this year. A great way to cover tons of water is trolling spoons, crankbaits or even jerkbaits.
For more information on the Mille Lacs Area, visit www.millelacs.com or call (888) 350-2692.
St. Louis County
Northeastern Minnesota's cold, deep lakes are some of the best pike waters around. Many of the lakes in the Boundary Waters hold the biggest pike in the state, and other big bodies of water up in this area hold tons of pike. One that is often overlooked is Pelican Lake located near the town of Orr. With five public accesses on the lake, there isn't much difficulty getting to the area you want to target. Most are around Orr, but there is a landing on the far northwestern corner of the lake.
It doesn't mean anybody fishes on Pelican, but like some of the other lakes we've highlighted, the fishing pressure is directed at other species. With 11,500 acres of water and five different locations to get on the lake, there needs to be plenty of cooperation and sharing of the best locations.
While other anglers fight over the topwater, pike anglers can celebrate the fact that the entire lake is full of big pike. The DNR fisheries office found an interesting mix of pike from those over 30 inches to those around 20. It means there is a ton of pike and there's tension among anglers.
With so many pike in the lake, anglers should feel free to keep their limit of smaller legal-sized fish to eat for lunch. Toss on a small crankbait and cast around a weedline or use a simple jig and minnow.
For more information, go online to www.pelicanlakeresorts.com or call (800) 777-4690.
Crow Wing County
Upper and Lower Mission lakes are two great bodies of water around Merrifield in central Minnesota. The lakes both receive a fair amount of fishing pressure but nothing like the larger, more popular lakes located nearby. As far as pike are concerned, Lower Mission Lake is an average lake with plenty of smaller pike. Upper Mission is a much better choice for serious pike anglers. Each lake has a separate landing with the Upper Lake landing found off County Road 109.
On the upper lake, the DNR fisheries staff found a ton of northern pike ranging from 19 to 38 inches with a 26-inch average. Three fish were longer than 3 feet, but overall there was a very good distribution of pike. Upper Mission is a good lake for numbers and there's a very decent shot at catching a trophy pushing that 40-inch mark.
There really aren't any secrets for finding pike on either lake other than cruise the weedlines with some of the same tactics mentioned for other lakes. Don't be afraid to use electronics over the middle portion of the lakes to look for schools of baitfish and roaming pike. Often if you find these away from the weedlines, the baitfish schools are big and the pike lurking behind are the largest in the lake.
For more informatio
n, go online to www.explorebrainerdlakes.com or call (800) 450-2838.
OTTER TAIL LAKE
Otter Tail County
It's really no secret that a good fishing lake is often home to a variety of game species. Most lakes that offer good walleye fishing also offer good pike fishing. That fact holds very true on Otter Tail Lake, which is a tremendous walleye fishery and a strong pike fishery.
The thing about pike fishing on Otter Tail is that hardly anybody does it. Oh sure, plenty of pike are caught by walleye anglers by accident, but most of those pike are released creating a virtually untapped trophy fishery. The DNR fisheries office in Fergus Falls said there's a good chance of catching a pike over 30 inches on Otter Tail.
They are so confident that they enacted a protected length limit for pike that requires all fish less than 30 inches be released immediately. This will only help to improve this trophy pike fishery. Catch, photo and release is extra critical on Otter Tail because pike have limited spawning grounds. Access to Otter Tail can be made on the north side, east side and west side. With so much water to cover, plan your attack before launching. Of course, in the summertime when the lake is full of boaters and anglers, put your boat in at the least crowded landing.
Otter Tail is loaded with structure and the top pike locations are points and flats located near the main-lake break, especially near those deep breaks. Much of Otter Tail is shallow, and smaller pike will be in the weeds, while larger pike are cruising the deep weed edges. Most anglers stay away from the main basin of the lake, but search for schools of baitfish and troll crankbaits in the area to pick up large roaming pike.
For more information, go to www.ottertailcountry.com or call (800) 423-4571.
ST. OLAF LAKE
This 90-acre lake is unique. Most pike lakes are located north of Mille Lacs, but St. Olaf is closer to Iowa.
Anglers shouldn't flock to St. Olaf Lake for pike fishing, but they should definitely consider fishing it, thanks to a viable population of mature, quality-sized pike.
There is a 30-inch minimum size, but if anglers practice strict catch-and-release fishing, the chances at a trophy remain high. On such a small lake, the best advantage anglers have is they can eliminate a lot of water fast.
Olaf is located south of Waseca and Owatonnamoff County Road 8/21 and is accessible by a public landing at the north end of the lake.