Let me tell you about my frenemy.
I’ve known him all my life. He’s always been hot-tempered and unruly in a boat. He tends to join me on most fishing trips — especially when uninvited.
Then, when I go out with the express purpose of enjoying some time with him, he’s completely unreliable. What a jerk, right?
People everywhere are under the illusion that he’s not a picky eater, but I’ve found that to be untrue when it matters.
He ruins my tackle routinely and gets everything slimy. What’s more, he seems to bite me more often than not when I’m near him.
Honestly, who does that?!
Though very well known, few call him by his proper name: Esox lucius. Ring a bell?
Known colloquially as “northern” (and increasingly as “pike”), the northern pike is a common resident of our lakes and rivers. Along with walleyes and panfish, it is one of the most-sought fish in Minnesota.
E. lucius are typically fast growing, especially in fertile environments. They quickly attain desirable sizes (perhaps 2-3 years) by eating everything from invertebrates to frogs to snakes and ducklings.
And fish — lots of fish.
Perhaps that’s why pike have a reputation for being indiscriminate about their meals — they have a heavy appetite to satisfy.
I can sympathize.
When northerns go on a feeding binge, it can be a good time for anglers. For that reason, one of my favorite things to do during the ice fishing season is to put out a couple tip-ups and wait.
Twenty years ago, a tip-up was a way to have another line down. If I was lucky, it might give me some action.
Eventually it got to the point that engaging in that hand-to-fin combat was more exciting than battling anything on a rod. Northerns, with their darting, hard-fighting nature are the most compelling fish to catch that way.
And in lakes where populations are healthy and you know there are big fish present, you never know what you’ll catch but it’s always a good time when flags start popping up.
Like low-stakes, high-payout roulette.
On the other hand, I’ve been to more than my share of lakes where it seems there is nothing but small pike—the dreaded “hammer handles.” It doesn’t get much more annoying than that.
While fishing from a boat, it feels like you can’t go five minutes without one of them clamping onto your lure and thrashing like an angry weasel. On ice, they bite off your jigs and harass your minnows to death.
All with no reasonable expectation that you’ll catch one big enough to keep.
Ugh, spare me.
The worst thing about it is that we anglers are probably to blame when the big ones are missing. After all, when a fish gets to be four or five pounds, we are the only predator it has left.
What many don’t know is that big northerns eat little northerns. In lakes where there aren’t enough of the bigger specimens, the little ones overrun the place and die off readily.
From what I understand, Minnesota’s three-tiered northern pike regulations are designed in part to rectify this.
In the north central zone, which is most of the state, the regulation is meant to encourage harvest of smaller fish, while allowing some the chance to grow big and play their proper role in the food chain.
In the southern zone, where fishing pressure is high, the minimum size limit is supposed to “increase pike abundance and improve the size of fish harvested.”
At the DNR Roundtable in June of 2022, state fisheries manager Brad Parsons was asked if the pike regulations are achieving the desired results. He said it would be some years before we really know, adding that likely not every lake will be transformed.
“I can’t tell you it’s gonna work everywhere,” he said.
I hold out hope that more lakes than not will attain more balanced size distributions. When I hear tales of what spearing was like in the ‘60s, or see pretty much any black and white photo of the northerns that used to be caught regularly, I dearly covet the chance to experience that.
Unless and until that happens, I’ll take what I can get.
One of my favorite catches of all time — of any species — happened in the BWCA, in January of 2021. I’d gone there for walleyes and to catch my first brook trout.
The first evening, just after dark, a large fish appeared on my sonar and eased toward my tiny jigging spoon. I thought perhaps the walleyes had turned on, and I was in the right place at the right time for once.
At the tap, I set the hook into what I thought was going to be the walleye of a lifetime, or my first eelpout.
It was neither.
I shone my headlamp down the hole as it neared the ice, and the side of a northern’s face filled the six-inch opening as it passed.
While I wasn’t looking for a new personal best, that’s what I got when I eased that 38-inch hog through the hole. After finding decent fishing for both walleyes and trout the next day, I remember it warmly as icing-on-the-icing on the cake.
And that’s how it often goes: northerns can make the trip worthwhile, even when you’re not after them.
Sometimes they save me from going home skunked. But I still don’t hold them too close to my heart.
Just on Thursday, I went to a lake I know to have a healthy, hungry population of northerns.
My goal was to spear one or two so we could have a couple meals this weekend. It was a long afternoon of sitting on that bucket.
True to form, my frenemy failed to show, and I went home with only a sore back.
Roy Heilman is an outdoorsman, writer, musician, and ethnic Minnesotan. His adventures take him all over the map, but he’s always home at neveragoosechase.com.
Let me tell you about my frenemy.