Minnesota's greatly revamped northern pike regulations for 2018 encourage anglers in much of the state to catch and eat more small to middling-sized fish.

But when it comes to lunkers, there's extra encouragement along with new rules to advance the growing practice of catch and release.

Last week, the Department of Natural Resources expanded its fledgling catch-and-release record fish program by adding a category for northern pike. Anglers no longer have to keep and weigh a muskie, flathead catfish, lake sturgeon or northern pike to vie for a place in the state's record books.

"What do you do with a 45-inch northern anyway?'' asked Andrew Slette, the state catch-and-release record holder for muskie. "It's definitely a good program. You put it back so someone else can catch it."

Slette, an avid Otter Tail County fisherman from Hawley, Minn., earned statewide bragging rights when he landed a 56⅞ -inch muskie on Pelican Lake in June 2016. It was the first year of the program, but his record in the category still stands.

Mike "Cold Front" Kurre, who heads the agency's record fish program, said the new catch-and-release category adds excitement for catch-and-release devotees who previously thought they could never break a record. And the option remains to participate in the traditional category of records for all game species based on certified weight of kept fish.

Kurre and DNR fisheries staff member Al Stevens said the agency is considering further expansion of the program and possibly partnering with the nonprofit Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame to help with administration. But it's also possible the program would stand pat with four species categories, they said.

"We are investigating many options and it's in its infancy stage,'' Kurre said.

In the first two years, about 15 anglers submitted entries for consideration of catch-and-release state records. To be eligible for any state record, anglers must obtain a valid license and the fish must be caught in season. To apply for a catch-and-release record, anglers send one photo of the fish displayed alongside a measuring stick, ruler or tape; and one photo of the angler with the fish.

Happens in threes

DNR regional fisheries supervisor Chris Kavanaugh, who heads the agency's northern pike working group, said he has given hundreds of presentations on the state's new regulations. They take effect May 12 and apply only to inland waters.

In the new three-zone rule book for the toothy predators, the biggest change is in the biggest zone — one that incorporates waters north of the Twin Cities, excluding the Arrowhead Region. Anglers in this "North-Central Zone'' can keep a hardy limit of 10 northern pike, but not more than two pike longer than 26 inches. In addition, all North-Central northerns 22 to 26 inches in length must be released.

Kavanaugh said the 22- to-26-inch protected slot is designed to boost the size structure of northern pike in a region where lots of lakes are now dominated by smallish "hammer-handles.'' Those often-dense hammer-handle populations can stunt panfish populations and interfere with walleye stocking programs by eating up their babies.

Lots of small northerns can be harvested without damaging reproduction of the species. But by creating a slot limit, the protected northerns will grow and ultimately bolster a population of more enviable game fish 27 inches and longer.

"The real key is protecting 22- to 26-inch fish,'' Kavanaugh said. "We think this will move the needle on quality of pike'' in the state's largest fishing zone.

"In three to five years we'll start seeing more big ones,'' he added.

In the arrowhead-shaped "Northeast Zone," an area east of a line from Duluth to International Falls, regulations are designed to protect a region already known for high-quality pike fishing. Kavanaugh said there are lower densities of northern pike in the Northeast Zone, but the population is rich in good-sized fish spread across lakes that don't experience as much angling pressure as in the rest of the state.

In the northeast, anglers will be able to keep two pike. All northerns 30 to 40 inches must be released and only one over 40 inches is allowed in possession. DNR officials have said in the past that the rules are meant to preserve the region's reputation for trophy northern pike.

Kavanaugh said new regulations for the "Southern Zone'' are meant to increase low densities of northern pike in a region where the fish, while scarce, grow relatively fast. Under the rules, Southern Zone anglers may keep two pike as long as they are at least 24 inches in length. The approach also is meant to improve the size of fish harvested.

"I personally think we've landed in the right spot,'' Kavanaugh said.

To spear or not

When the northern pike working group considered new rules for winter spearing, it was guided by the practical reality that it's challenging for darkhouse occupants to accurately estimate a pike's length. Here are the new rules, by zone:

North-Central: Ten-fish bag with a 22- to 26-inch protected slot and only two can be longer than 26 inches. One fish can be within the slot, but then only one can be kept longer than 26 inches.

Northeast: Spearers can take two pike, but only one over 26 inches.

Southern: Two-fish bag, each with a minimum length of 24 inches.