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When it comes to food, fish aren't as picky as we think

"It's just a small one," the client sharing bow space in the boat remarked. I watched his rod tip and he was right; very little bend to the fishing rod and the small panfish or perch was coming in quite easily. No need to grab the net for this one, I thought.

But all of a sudden a shock came through the graphite rod, a jolt so powerful that the angler had to tighten his grasp to prevent the rod from going overboard. Something bigger had latched onto the small fish and now a battle ensued. After thirty seconds or so of fierce runs and wild head-shakes, the line gave way and neither fish was ever seen.

Most anglers probably have some recollection of an event similar to this true tale that took place last Tuesday morning on Potato Lake, but natural predation frequently occurs while anglers aren't around.

Later that same morning, another angler in the boat caught a nice northern, nearly 4 ½ pounds, which he elected to keep for dinner. Two smaller northern pike also went into the livewell.

After the morning of fishing concluded and the fillet knife emerged, the contents of each pike's belly was observed. The first had virtually nothing inside. No wonder it ate the fisherman's nightcrawler, an uncommon producer for northerns.

The second fish had a perch inside, about 4 inches long. But the larger pike was fat and had obviously eaten well. At first I thought the 8-inch long fish was another perch, but after close examination and the tell-tale features of a serrated gill-plate and teeth, I discovered it was actually a small walleye.

Although it would be nice to think that all fish only eat small, indigenous minnows that thrive within the numerous northern Minnesota lakes, it's also common to see larger fish, not to mention other creatures, eaten by larger predators.

After interviewing a local taxidermist last fall, I was surprised to hear that muskies sometimes have small turtles in their stomachs. Of course, the 2-pound muskrat he found inside a trophy muskie was yet another revelation.

Yet another interesting aspect of fish predation is cannibalism. Many species do feed upon their same species and many anglers who head to Canada reflect upon experiences where a large northern latched on to a small northern which was already hooked.

So how does this information apply to an angler heading out on a local lake this afternoon? First, don't dismiss the fish's desire for a large meal. Though a 3-inch minnow might seem awful big for catching fish, possibly similar in size to the fish you and I usually catch, an even larger 6-to-8-inch minnow is sometimes better for triggering reactions from medium to large sized fish. Using a larger minnow also eliminates smaller fish, such as perch, sunfish and small rock bass from bothering your presentation.

Second, artificial lures that have striking similarities to natural, yet smaller fish are another viable option. For instance, Salmo Lures, a company based in Poland, has a lure called the Pike, which is available with finishes resembling a small spotted or tiger muskie and a juvenile northern pike.

Yet keep in mind that it's illegal to use an actual fish as bait. Although the nice northern earlier this week had a small walleye in it's stomach, placing one on your hook for bait will result in a stiff fine.