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Stalking Minnesota's Water Wolf

Stalking Minnesota's Water Wolf

The Land of 10,000 Lakes is loaded with bragging-sized walleyes and bass, but where are the wallhanger pike? (March 2008).

Photo by Greg Keefer

Even the old-timers will tell you that fishing is good these days.

Minnesota's walleye factories -- Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnibigoshish, Mille Lacs, Cass and Red lakes -- have never been better. Leech Lake is making a strong comeback and in our smaller bodies of water where stocking is prevalent, walleye numbers are high and fishing is good.

Bass fishing also gets a five-star rating from the anglers who appreciate this species. Largemouths seem to be bigger and more plentiful as milfoil takes over many lakes. Now anglers that have figured out how to fish in this thick vegetation seem to think of it more as a blessing than a curse.

Although pike numbers are high in most lakes, those old-timers are disappointed because there aren't many big ones swimming in the mix.

Professional angler and aquatic biologist Adam Johnson said we only have ourselves to blame for this predicament.

"When you harvest all the big fish, you don't have any left to catch," Johnson said. "Those pike take a long time to grow big and if you pluck all the nice fish before they get to trophy size, there won't be any for other anglers."

Johnson sees an end to this dilemma. Of the 250 lakes enforcing special regulations, almost a quarter of them are for growing bigger pike.

"There is still a long way to go before we'll know if these special regulations will produce big pike, but it is a good start," he said.

If Johnson had his way, there wouldn't be a harvest of any large pike.

"Even one per angler over a certain level can hinder the ability for some bodies of water to maintain enough bigger fish to put a dent in that hammer-handle population," Johnson said. "Anglers are just too smart these days and can target the bigger fish. But there are some lakes where all big pike must go back and it's those I'm keeping my eye on."

Are there still lakes in Minnesota where an angler has a better-than-average shot at catching a trophy-sized pike?

"You bet there is," Johnson said. "Muskie fishermen on Mille Lacs catch loads of huge pike when they're tossing those huge lures, and look at Red Lake and Lake of the Woods, even Winni. Did I mention the Boundary Waters?"

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of Johnson's favorite spots for big pike.

"Because there is very little fishing pressure on these lakes, that gives the pike an opportunity to grow big," he said. "If you time it right on some of the lakes in the BWCAW, you'll get into some of the best pike fishing of your life."

Johnson said although you're allowed to keep one pike over the slot limit on most special regulations lakes, if you want to maintain a great pike fishery, keep the smaller fish and throw the big ones back. Here are some lakes where you can practice.

Cass County

The great cabbage beds in Little Boy not only hold big muskies but huge pike as well. This is a situation where special regulations weren't enacted to produce bigger pike but to protect those already there.

"Wherever you have a popular muskie lake with a decent population of northern pike, those pike are going to get big," Johnson said. "Not only do they become conditioned by muskie anglers who catch and release them, but the smaller pike are gobbled up by the bigger fish, so there are fewer small fish."

The pike in Little Boy have seen every bait and lure there is, so Johnson said you have to think outside the box.

"Use some stuff they haven't seen before," he said. "Long plastic worms on a heavy jighead, big spoons or red-tailed chubs instead of sucker minnows. Show them something different and you'll get these conditioned fish to bite."

Beltrami County

Upper Red Lake has gone through an interesting evolutionary process in the past 15 or so years. Before the big-crappie discovery, the lake received little pressure from anglers who knew the walleye fishery had been beaten down by commercial fishing by the Red Lake tribe.

Then the crappies were discovered and the lake was packed all winter with ice-anglers filling their buckets with these huge panfish.

Thanks to heavy stocking by the Department of Natural Resources in conjunction with the Red Lake tribe, the walleye population made a rapid rebound and is open again for fishing.

Now that anglers are returning in heavy numbers to take advantage of the quality walleye fishing, they're discovering some huge pike in Red as well.

The upper part of the lake where non-tribal anglers may fish is a big sand bowl with little structure or vegetation. So, how do you find the pike? Troll big crankbaits and use sonar to search for schools of walleyes and perch. Pike prefer to stay close to their food and where there are perch and small walleyes, there are big pike. In this case, huge pike.

St. Louis County

Adam Johnson earned a degree in aquatic biology from Bemidji State University, an area he said is a bastion of big-pike lakes. He attributes the growth of big pike to the high quality of the forage base.

"Tullibees," Johnson said, "are a forage that results in faster growth rates and fatter fish.

"Tullibees, not being close to any major metropolitan areas add to the ability of some lakes to produce bigger pike."

He pointed out Prairie Lake as one of those lakes where you have the right conditions for big pike, including special regulations."Prairie Lake is kind of out in the middle of nowhere," he said. "Here's a lake with a big tullibee population -- the perfect big-pike forage base -- and good areas for spawning plus special regulations requiring anglers to release all pike over 30 inches and have only one pike in possession. That is how you get back to having big pike again. Set up restrictions like you have on Prairie Lake and soon there will be some huge fish swimming there."

Lake County


is one of the few lakes in or near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area that has special regulations concerning northern pike. It's easy to figure out why. The lake is popular with campers, many of whom want to keep what they catch. Those big pike are prime candidates for campers' cook stoves unless they are regulated with slot limits.

Trophy pike in Basswood are best found in the early spring and fall months. In the spring, the shallow water is still cool enough to attract forage and the big pike like the cooler temperatures in the bays where tullibees try to hide in the cabbage.

During the summer months, big pike move into deep water and suspend with the forage. These fish are nearly impossible to find let alone catch.

In the fall, the tullibees return to the cabbage to spawn and the huge pike follow right behind feeding heavily and once again are prime targets for anglers. The lucky thing for the pike is when they are most vulnerable, there are fewer anglers there. The peak months for camping in the BWCAW are June, July and August. The peak time for big pike to be caught is from opener to the first of June and October when there are few campers in this wilderness area.

St. Louis County

"You can't expect to catch a lot of fish if big fish are what you're after," Adam Johnson said, referring to anglers whose goal is catching plenty of big fish. "It's an unrealistic option because there are typically fewer of a species in a lake where you find trophy-class fish and that means fewer bites."

Johnson uses Lake Kabetogama as an example."Here's a big lake in northern Minnesota with a tremendous fishery for big pike, but you may only get five or six bites a day whether you're trolling big crankbaits on the rockpiles or tossing big bucktail spinnerbaits in the cabbage."

Johnson said downsizing your lure may not result in more bites because the numbers are just not there.

"Some lakes have a lot of pike," he said, "and most of those fish are smaller. Some lakes have some big pike but not many smaller ones. Those lakes won't produce a lot of hammer-handle-sized fish and that's good, because if there were a lot of smaller fish there, you wouldn't find the big ones."

Johnson said not to worry about big pike taking time to bite because it's amazing how many big smallmouth bass and walleyes are attracted to a deep-diving crankbait over the rocks or spinnerbaits in the weeds.

"But when the pike hits, you know it," he said. "There are some big ones in "Kab" and they like to rip the rod right out of your hands."

Lake of the Woods County

Around opening day, anglers flood out of Wheelers Gap at the mouth of Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River to fish for walleyes on the big lake. The few pike fishermen that are "in the know" stay in the river because those huge pike that migrated into the river to spawn are still there. There are vast swaths of cabbage on both sides of the river channel loaded with huge northern pike.

During the summer months, a few pike will still be in the river, but they are fewer and the big ones are harder to find. This is when it's a good idea to book a cabin on Oak Island and fish the Northwest Angle for big pike.

Muskies like to hang around the rockpiles, so look for northerns in the bays and cuts near vegetation.

The pike are huge that you find up at "The Angle" and they have seen all the big lures that are commonly thrown by the muskie anglers. Negate that conditioning by being more creative when it comes to lure selection.

Mille Lacs/Aitkin County

Muskie, muskie, muskie, that's all anyone seems to talk about anymore when it comes to the pike fishing on Mille Lacs. It's because there are some huge muskies being caught there. While this shadows the big pike that are still being caught with some regularity from the lake, that's all right. For a while, there was too much talk of the big pike biting well on Mille Lacs and the extra fishing pressure seemed to have an adverse affect on the size structure in this lake.

"It's always the fishing pressure," Johnson said. "Anglers take a lot of big fish and the smaller fish multiply to take up that space. It's a simple formula."

There are special regulations on the lake and Johnson sees the increase in muskie fishing pressure being a good thing when it comes to growing bigger pike because those conditioned northern pike will be less likely to bite on a marginal presentation, even one that consists of live bait.

"Everyone thinks that if you put a piece of live bait in front of a fish it will eat it," Johnson said. "That's not true. If a pike had been caught and released on a sucker minnow hanging off a thick steel leader, it won't hit that again.

"If a pike gets stung once or twice with a bucktail or spinnerbait," continued Johnson, "a flashy lure will go ignored. Pike are aggressive, but the bigger northerns are bigger because they are smarter, conditioned fish."

There are some big pike in Mille Lacs still, and more growing bigger because they have to be released. Now, you just have to find something they'll bite on.

<farm LAKE
Lake County

Farm Lake is right on the cusp of the BWCAW and you can access the wilderness area quite easily from this lake. Some who stay at one of the resorts on the lake use Farm as a hop-off point to get to spots in the wilderness on day trips or as they look for some quality walleye fishing in the Kawishiwi River. If it's big pike you're after, your best bet is to stay right on Farm Lake.There are some great cabbage beds on the north end of the lake where there are some narrow sections between shorelines and some shallower bays.

There is no motor restriction on Farm Lake, but if you want to slip through the channel into South Farm, you will be in the BWCAW and restricted to 25 horsepower on your motor.

White Iron and Garden lakes surround Farm Lake and they, along with South Farm, all have the potential of producing some huge pike. Just stick to the cabbage.

Otter Tail County

"Not many anglers fish Otter Tail for pike," according to Johnson, "because it's a textbook walleye lake. There aren't a lot of pike there, so these fishermen don't know what to do to catch them."

If you hook a pike in Otter Tail, your odds it's a big fish are high. "It's finding them that's the problem," Johnson said.

Johnson likes to troll in situations like this. Since the pike aren't heavily pressured, many options are on the table. Big crankbaits, spinnerbaits, in-line spinners and spoons are all good choices.

"Early in the season, I troll spinnerbaits in the shallows," Johnson said. "Wherever there is some grass or rubble, there will be perch and that means pike.

"In the summer, it's all about the deeper diving crankbaits," Johnson explained. "Breaklines or transition lines where you find some perch on the sonar -- those are the best spots."

Johnson said that on a lake like Otter Tail you just have to cover ground quickly and don't spend too much time in one place. Big pike spread out, so where you got one doesn't mean there's another there.

On some lakes, the special regulations are working well. On others, there doesn't seem to be much change. It looks like there is not one formula that works for all lakes, but we big-pike fanatics just need to have some options to chase a trophy so we won't have to long for those good old days.

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