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Even small pike deserve praise as keepers

Small northern pike like this one are common on several area lakes. However, releasing larger fish are the key to increasing the size structure of northern pike. (Jason Durham / For the Enterprise)

Over the past few weeks, northern pike in the area have been quite active.

However, finding a large pike, one of brag-worthy proportion, isn't necessarily easy.

Although the Park Rapids area is noteworthy in terms of big northerns, it doesn't compare to trophy pike destinations such as glacial Canadian waters and a couple relatively close-by trophy havens like Red Lake and Lake of the Woods.

A big northern pike is undoubtedly relative to an anglers perception. In other words, for some people a pike of any size is worth a high-five and slap on the back. To others, it might mean a fish over 5, 10 or even 20 pounds.

In last Saturday's Gene Cirks Memorial Scholarship Tournament held on Lake Belle Taine, the 2010 champions, Phil Miller and Dave Zinniel, both from Park Rapids, entered some big bass, a walleye and three northerns that were above average for that particular body of water.

Though none of their northern pike were 5, 10, or 20 pounds, they did surpass the average 20.25" fish that has been so prevalent in the past few years on Lake Belle Taine. Some other lakes in the area share that same size structure, which is why the DNR has implemented experimental slot restrictions on several area lakes. It's not so much about increasing the overall population of northern pike, but is an intervention to increase the size of the toothy species.

Doug Kingsley, Park Rapids Area Fisheries Supervisor, admits that the average sized northern pike on certain bodies of water is smaller than some anglers would want. But at the same time, it's the practice of keeping larger northerns, those in the three to eight-pound range, that can adversely affect the spawning and growth of big fish.

Overharvest of larger northern pike can have a detrimental effect for years to follow, which is why some lakes have an experimental 24"-36" release range while others are deemed catch and release for all northerns under 40-inches. Once they hit that size, the fish aren't as competent at reproducing compared to medium sized pike. Yet landing a 40-inch or bigger pike is definitely an experience that every angler looks forward to.

Obviously if a large fish is caught and kept, it's no longer available to others. And when it comes to northern pike, a rather slow growing species, the best approach is to keep small fish so the bigger fish can pass on their genetics to future populations.

Some anglers might curse when a small northern is hooked, calling it a hammer-handle, slime-dart or snake, but even a small northern pike will typically feed two people.

And it is fun when a northern latches onto the business end of your fishing line with all its fury.

For a kid, catching any size northern pike is a stepping-stone experience. In fact, most of us can probably recall the first interaction with the species. The pungent, easily identifiable scent of a pike evokes memories from the past.