BISMARCK The opportunities for pike fishermen in North Dakota can't get much better. Pike have been on the move in drainages filled with runoff from snow melt and spring rains which have created nearly three years of perfect spawning conditions. When vegetation becomes submerged, pike proliferation explodes.
Submerged vegetation makes ideal habitat for northern pike to lay their eggs. The same vegetation provides cover where young pike can avoid predators. A by-product of rising water is a boost to the food chain which provides young pike with plenty to eat. Lake Sakakawea's pike population has exploded. Pike are doing very well elsewhere as well, so much so that an increase in the daily limit from three to five is under consideration.
"We have a record number of pike lakes, ample moisture and an ample number of pike. There's so many young year classes, so many pike in many of our lakes that an opportunity exists for an increased limit," said Greg Power, N.D. Game and Fish Department fisheries chief. "This is a window of time and won't go on forever. Right now there's no reason why not. There's really no downside to taking advantage of what's out there now."
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - A hooked northern pike is brought to boatside. Will it be kept or released? An increase in North Dakota’s pike population may lead to more liberal pike limits in 2012.
Many anglers shun northern pike in favor of fishing for walleyes. Consequently, walleyes receive substantially more fishing pressure than pike. In fact, many anglers shun the state fish to the point where they won't allow them in their boat or livewells. Many label pike as "lure thieves" and say they prefer the taste of walleye.
"We'll be the first to recognize that," Power said. "To people who don't keep three, a five-fish limit won't mean anything."
Dedicated pike anglers thoroughly enjoy targeting the toothy and feisty gamefish. Many prefer the taste of pike over walleye. No matter what a fisherman's taste buds prefer, biologists say the time is now to take advantage of a bulging pike population.
"It's a unique opportunity," Power said. "In most states and provinces there's a lot of people and fewer and fewer natural resources supporting liberalization of something rather than making it more restrictive. The three fish limit is based on tradition as much as anything. It has been in place since 1955."
While increasing the daily pike limit may be meaningful to some fishermen, it is not likely to have a significant impact on the population. North Dakota pike anglers often catch many times their limit in a few hours of fishing. Catch-and-release is common among pike anglers who keep a few for the frying pan but prefer to put most back in the water and hunt for them another day.
The northern pike limit at Devils Lake, which hosts thousands of shore and boat and ice fishermen every year, has been five since 2000. Nevertheless, netting surveys show the pike population in Devils Lake is stronger than ever. More than fishing limits, it is habitat conditions that determines the number of pike in most bodies of water.
Even though there are many lakes where pike are caught and released by fishermen with regularity, there are some areas where the reverse may be true. According to Power, fishermen in the southeast portion of North Dakota are more likely to consume pike than fishermen elsewhere in the state.
"If we see problem areas develop we'll address them," Power said. "Sometimes it becomes self-regulating too. There's no intention on our end that this is forever."
The northern pike didn't become the state fish without ample reason. Many state lakes Lake Darling, Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe, Devils Lake to name a few, have turned out countless numbers of pike in the 20 pound class or larger in years past. Catches of monster pike have nearly disappeared in recent years but, with all the young pike currently swimming in state waters, it appears to be a certainty that good numbers of trophy-sized pike will once again be available for anglers in the years ahead.
"We may provide some protective measures for so-called trophy pike. We're still considering it, but not for this proclamation period," Power said. "There may be a need in a few years to implement a one-over regulation on some state waters."
Not all lakes can support trophy-sized pike. Sometimes pike become so abundant that their growth rate slows as they compete for a limited amount of forage. A general rule is that larger bodies of water will produce larger pike. Many pike in Lake Sakakawea, believed to be approaching three years old, are already solidly in the six- to eight- pound class. There's record numbers of smaller pike following them, carrying with them the possibility of returning that reservoir to its glory days when it was dubbed the "pike capital of the world."
The current fishing proclamation expires March 31, 2012. The new proclamation would cover two years from 2012 through early 2014. Changes to fishing regulations require legislative approval. A Game and Fish proposal to increase the pike limit will likely be brought to the state Legislature next year.