Fishing opener: Anglers head to Lake Bemidji for pike, muskies, perch
BEMIDJI — A trend in many Minnesota lakes has been a decline in the number of large northern pike within a system and Lake Bemidji seems to have followed that pattern.
During the most recent Lake Bemidji survey which was conducted in 2012, Bemidji Area DNR Fisheries officials sampled 40 northern pike which ranged in size from 14 inches to 31 inches. The average fish among the 31 caught in the gill net was 23.59 inches while the mean length of the nine sampled from the trap nets was 19 inches. Only one fish reached 30 inches.
“In the 2012 spring survey we caught many northern pike but we didn’t see many large fish,” said Andy Thompson of the Bemidji Area DNR Fisheries office. “It seems that the large northern pike are not as prevalent as they have been. This has been a trend statewide and that is why special northern pike regulations have been put in place in certain lakes.”
For many lakes, the special northern pike regulation that seems to have the greatest potential for partially replacing small pike with larger fish is one that prohibits anglers from keeping pike between 24 and 36 inches. Numerous lakes in the Bemidji area are governed by this regulation, but no special regulation is in place on Lake Bemidji.
A few years ago the state politicians capped the number of state waters with special regulations at 100 and ruled that no new ones could be added. There is the possibility that Lake Bemidji’s northern pike population could benefit from a special regulation protecting the mid-range fish but there are no plans to implement such a rule. A special regulation also would not sit well with spear fishermen who enjoy spending time on Lake Bemidji.
“The management goal for northern pike is a combination of abundance and size,” Thompson said. “We don’t what more than seven northern pike per gill net and on Lake Bemidji we had about two per net during the 2012 survey. You want those low numbers because then the pike tend to grow faster and you can have larger fish.
“During the survey the average size was about three pounds and that’s pretty good,” Thompson continued. “But in our spring trap net assessment we didn’t see the larger fish that we hoped to see.”
Exactly why the pike were not larger is uncertain and DNR officials will continue to monitor the population.
“The northern pike that are in Lake Bemidji should have decent growth rates because of the relative low numbers but right now we’re not finding as many large northern pike as we have in the past,” Thompson said. “Northern pike management is difficult in Lake Bemidji because at this point we have no management options.”
The Lake Bemidji muskies are demonstrating the opposite situation in terms of their population.
“In the spring of 2013 we did a muskie assessment with live trap nets and we caught 140 muskies,” Thompson said. “Of those fish 22 percent were larger than 50 inches and 27 percent were larger than 48 inches. Muskie anglers love it when one-quarter of the population is larger than 48 inches.
“But the downside of the survey is that only eight percent of the muskies were smaller than 40 inches. When we did the survey in 1998 we found that over 50 percent of the muskies sampled were smaller than 40 inches.,” Thompson continued. “Those numbers showed that in 1998 we were seeing young muskies growing but now we seem to have the mature segment of the population that has reached maximum size in place. Muskies do tend to self limit their numbers and it appears that the larger muskies are having an impact on recruitment.”
A creel survey conducted last year seems to confirm that observation.
“Even the muskie anglers report declining overall catch rates,” Thompson said. “Declining catch rates could be because there are more anglers fishing for muskies but it could also be that the muskies are limiting themselves.”
Obtaining accurate data on a lake’s muskie population is difficult because the fish are elusive and trapping them is time consuming.
“It is hard to monitor muskies on a frequent basis,” Thompson said. “Surveying them takes time and we have many other muskie lakes in the area to monitor as well. The best way to monitor muskies is to catch them during spawning but there could be many non-spawning fish in the population that don’t come to the traps and, as a result, are not assessed. So there could be more smaller muskies in Lake Bemidji than we are seeing with our assessment process.”
The muskie is the largest game fish pursued by anglers on Lake Bemidji but in sheer numbers of fish caught the perch is the king of the lake.
“Perch attract the pressure, especially in the winter,” Thompson said. “I see many people keeping perch and during our 2013 creel survey we found that perch are being caught and kept by many anglers.
“All sizes are being caught and all sizes are being kept, including fish up to 14 inches. Despite the pressure the Lake Bemidji perch seem to be doing well.”
In the 2012 assessment DNR officials trapped 552 perch in their gill nets ranging in size from 5 inches to 11.46 inches. The average length was 7.22 inches but 68 were over nine inches.
“Perch have a tremendous capacity for reproduction and the populations can cycle on a regular basis,” Thompson said. “A strong year class of perch can provide forage for predators and good fishing for many years and that is fortunate because there is more interest from the anglers on the perch now than 30 years ago and people like to keep them.”
Every 10 years the Bemidji Area DNR Fisheries officials hope to conduct a creel survey on Lake Bemidji and the latest year-long study began last spring and ended in March. The results showed that Mother Nature had a major role in protecting the fish during the past year.
“Because of the late spring last year anglers didn’t get out early and the walleye bite was late,” Thompson said. “As a result, we documented fishing harvest on the low end of the range.
“And this winter we had all the snow fall on thin ice so the ice fishing season also began later than usual and that limited the fishing pressure and the harvest. On Lake Bemidji there was a notable lower overall catch of all species, except perch. Even though we had lower overall pressure on the perch compared to previous creel survey years the catch rates were better so perch fishing was pretty good.”
When anglers did launch their boats in Lake Bemidji they found fish and that trend should continue again this summer.
“Lake Bemidji keeps plugging along and that is a boon to the area,” Thompson said. “Lake Bemidji is an attraction that contributes to the area economy and recreation.
“Lake Bemidji is a major management focus for us and we are doing what we can to protect the water quality and habitat of the lake and its tributaries.”