Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: From Weakfish to Pike, Angler Reluctance is an Obstacle to Better Fishing

By Shawn Perich

Weakfish along the coastline of Long Island are far less abundant than they used to be. Once the primary attraction of saltwater anglers, their numbers have dwindled to the point where fisheries experts recommended a moratorium on commercial and recreational fishing in 2009 to give the stocks a chance to rebuild. But the moratorium never occurred.

In a post on One Angler’s Blog, Charles Witek asserts that political appointees to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission blocked the moratorium. They argued that not allowing anyone to keep weakfish would be a hardship for the fishing industry. One commissioner also opined that an angler ought to be able to take home a fish. So, even though the weakfish population was teetering on the brink of collapse, they allowed people to keep taking them home for dinner.

Witek writes that since 2009 the weakfish population has been supported by one strong year class. But if that year class doesn’t produce a successful spawn, the population will quickly return to rock-bottom levels. Because fisheries officials won’t take the steps necessary to allow weakfish numbers to recover, anglers will lose in the long run.

Witek asks, “How do you keep an industry going? Maybe by managing fish a little more cautiously, so that there are enough around that people will want to spend some time on the water catching them, rather mismanaging them so badly that catching one becomes…a ‘rare occasion.’” His viewpoint is one Minnesota anglers ought to ponder as the DNR looks for new ways to manage northern pike.

As reported in Minnesota Outdoor News last week, the DNR is considering moving away from the current statewide, “3 pike with only one over 30 inches” bag limit in favor of regulatory structure that breaks the state into southern, north-central and northeast zones, with different bag limits for each zone. Their hope is new rules will improve the size structure of a given lake’s pike population and allow more pike to reach assizes greater than about 24 inches—which is the size most anglers consider a keeper pike.

As just about every angler knows, many Minnesota lakes are infested with small pike, which anglers often call hammer handles. Too small to keep and often a pesky nuisance to anglers, hammer handles may also a negative effect on other fish species. Retired DNR fisheries manager Jim Lilienthal researched state fisheries assessments and found a strong correlation between small pike overabundance and diminished abundance of walleyes. He believes overabundant small pike may be limiting the effectiveness of state walleye stockings.

If average anglers become aware that more hammer handles means fewer walleyes, then the DNR may be able to find widespread support for changing pike regulations. This is important, because the only way to get rid of hammer handles is by leaving keeper-sized pike in the lake. Bigger pike eat small pike and, in a lake with a healthy fishery, pike-on-pike predation keeps the hammer handles in check. Without those keeper-sized pike to prey on them, hungry hammer handles run amok.

To date, Minnesota anglers haven’t really climbed on board the better pike management band wagon. Many of them like to keep and eat pike, especially the keeper-sized fish biologists say are necessary to keep hammer handle numbers in check. A few of them like to spear pike through the ice in winter. This latter group convinced the Legislature in 2010 to cap the number of lakes which could be managed with special pike regulations at 100. Given that you can’t address a widespread problem of too hammer-handle-dominated lakes without changing the fishing regulations that led to the problem in the first place, you might say that with their legislative action, spearers stuck themselves in the foot.

The first order of business to ridding state waters of overabundant hammer handles will be removing the legislative restriction on pike management. Given that hammer handles are limiting the returns on the state’s sizeable investment in walleye stocking, this ought to be an easy task. Then again, legislative action is never easy.

The second step will be convincing anglers that it is in their best interest to begin throwing back keeper-sized pike. This is where the rubber will meet the road. Until now, many anglers have been reluctant to do so. The challenge will be showing anglers how putting a pike on their dinner plate today leads to fewer walleye dinners in the future. It’s a simple concept: The pike you keep to eat is no longer eating small pike, which means there are more walleye-eating hammer handles in the lake.

Of course, not every lake has overabundant hammer handles. Perhaps part of the process for changing pike regulations should include identifying lakes where DNR fisheries assessments show healthy pike populations based upon the size range of pike and their abundance. Perhaps these lakes could serve as examples of what anglers may expect if hammer handle abundance is reduced in other lakes.

While it may not be up to the DNR to do so, maybe someone can find a way to convince anglers to keep hammer handles to eat. The biggest drawback to doing so is that removing the Y bone leaves you with small filets. It is unlikely that large numbers of anglers will begin making pickled fish or fish cakes out of hammer handles. A better approach would be to get anglers to regard hammer handles like panfish—producing small, but sweet filets.

Even so, we can expect there will be a vocal contingent of anglers who will argue that pike fishing is good enough as it is. They will counter any claims about hammer handle predation on walleyes and other fish with a call for “more science.” Bag limit proposals that restrict anglers from harvesting keeper-sized pike will be met with claims about the ill effects of such regulations on tourism and the fishing industry. They may even say such regulations will deter kids from going fishing. Quite likely, they’ll bring their complaints to the Legislature.

At any rate, we’ve heard it all before. And the problem with hammer handles remains. Somehow, we have to find a way to improve the size structure of pikes in lakes dominated by hammer handles. The DNR’s biologists may not have all of the answers, but they do know this: The present pike bag limit isn’t working.

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