Or could the lake — whose water quality and vegetation benefit from limited shoreline development — be returned to its more natural state, with fish across a broad spectrum of age and size structures, including older, bigger fish?
These many years later, the answer seems to be “yes.” And not just for northerns but for bluegills and crappies, too.
Of the 97 northern pike caught this winter from Hudson’s study lake, only seven hadn’t been caught previously. In fact, as a group, the 97 fish had been caught and released a total of 431 times.
And of those 97, a total of 24 measured 30 inches or longer — fish that had been caught over the course of their lives an average of 6.83 times apiece.
“Now think about how long it takes a fish to grow,’’ Hudson said. “A northern in our lake will take six years to reach 24 inches and nine years to reach 30 inches and weigh 7 or 8 pounds.
“So it becomes pretty obvious what happens if people keep not only the bigger fish, but the medium-sized fish, say 24- to 30-inch northerns. You end up with what we have in many Minnesota lakes: stunted fish.’’
Just then, another tip-up flag stood upright, and two of Hudson’s volunteer anglers for the day, Sam Hunter of Nevis, Minn., and Megan Malone of Menahga, Minn., raced in its direction.
Hunter is a DNR conservation officer and Malone an emergency medical technician. Both were enjoying some off-duty time helping Bayman and Hudson catch, measure, weigh and tag northern pike.
“Got it!’’ Malone said as she set the hook on yet another toothy fish.
This northern, once winched into the bright sunlight, proved small — and a rarity: It bore no tag; therefore, it hadn’t been caught before.
With a surgeon’s alacrity, Hudson quickly measured the fish, attached an ID tag to it and removed a scale from its side to determine its growth rate and age.
Then the fish was returned to the water, likely to be caught again. And again. And again.
Kingsley, the DNR fisheries manager, believes Hudson’s and Bayman’s research, along with similar studies, shows that the often-referenced Minnesota goal of returning bigger northern pike to state lakes is unlikely to occur, given current harvest regulations that allow anglers three northerns daily, with one over 30 inches.
“Depending on an individual lake and the fishing pressure it sustains, it’s possible its northern pike population can’t even sustain a regulation allowing anglers one fish greater than 24 inches a day,’’ he said.
Conversely, smaller “hammer-handle’’ northerns likely can be harvested from most lakes in quantities greater than three a day, if anglers could be convinced to do it.