Monster Pike on Devils Lake
Right now there are a large number of exceptional northern pike in Dakota waters, mostly from the Missouri River system, lakes Oahe and Sakakawea, and Devils Lake. It’s the culmination of abundant water in recent years that created ideal spawning habitat for this great fish.
The LaFleur gang of Devils Lake, Nathan, Blake and dad Boyd, have developed into a one-group show of catching fish and letting ‘em go. And it’s not just a casual philosophy. Releasing these great fish is vital, they believe, to the future of the resource.
Witness the latest adventure when Nathan LaFleur left work in late afternoon on April 20, grabbed his fly rod and headed somewhere to a western shoreline on famous Devils Lake.
His goal was merely to find a limit of eater pike, fish under 30 inches. It didn’t work out quite that way. It’s customary for the LaFleur gang to release all pike over 30 inches as a matter of respect and preservation for the resource.
On his first cast with his heavy duty fly rod, laced with an imitation small white bass fly, he landed a pike of about 2 1/2 pounds. A good “eater”. The next cast would make history for the LaFleur gang, Devils Lake, northern pike and fly fishermen everywhere.
The hairy fly hit the water, sank a few inches and attracted the attention of a really big pike.
“The fly was only a couple inches below the surface,” LaFleur said, “and I saw her roll on it and eat it. I knew it was a big fish.”
LaFleur hollered to his brother that he’d made contact with a very large pike, but as is the custom, his brother shrugged it off.
“He made fun of me like he always does, and I said, ‘no really’,” LaFleur said. “Then he came down to take a look.”
The big fish exhibited typical pike rebellion, making powerful runs that were free of head-shaking, but allowing the angler to feel helpless in the wake of unmitigated fish power.
“It ran probably three times,” LaFleur said. “The runs were typical straight power runs where you can do nothing but hang on and hope the hook holds.”
The whole process took about 10 minutes, LaFleur said, and when the fish was beached the LaFleur brothers had nothing but amazement at its size.
Here’s where the story really gets interesting.
The LaFleurs were committed to releasing the fish, no matter how big it was, but they did want to get some measurements. They had to lag it to nearby level ground, where it topped out at and amazing 51 1/2 inches in length, with a girth of 22 inches.
A new North Dakota state record? Perhaps. Didn’t matter. The fish was to live.
Until then, Nathan LaFleur’s biggest pike was 41.5 inches, caught on a top-water fly last year. With the family’s fascination for large pike, opportunities for really big pike have been abundant.
“I’ve had plenty of opportunities at fish larger than that,” he said of the nearly 42-inch pike prior to the recent brute, “but that’s why they call it fishing. They don’t all make it to the boat. In Canada, we’ve got this fly presentation dialed in to the point where in three days of fishing we were able to get 44 pike over the 40-inch mark, the largest 46.5 inches. That speaks volumes how effective and fun fly fishing can be.”
Nathan LaFleur learned to fly fish while attending the University of Montana a decade ago. He didn’t achieve the excitement level of the trout anglers in the area and put the fly rod away for a time, until he moved back to Devils Lake in the spring of 2006.
“That spring the water was cold, fish had already spawned and there wasn’t a bite to be had,” he said. “I went home, wiped the dust off the fly rod case, went back to the ditch we were casting and there was no turning back. One fish after another. That night my brother and I found ourselves online ordering bigger fly rods, bigger flies.”
Of the recent 51 1/2-inch pike, LaFleur said, “I never thought for a moment to keep that fish, even if it might have been a state record. That’s not what it’s about. We had kids with us. I wanted to set an example of the importance of this great resource.”
Most intriguing to the angling brothers was the size of the jawbone.
“I’ve held a lot of 20-25 lb. pike,” he said. “This fish was in a far different class.”
Overall, Nathan LaFleur was most happy watching the fish vigorously swim away.
“It gave us that goodbye tail splash,” he said, the kind that puts water on your face.
“It was a great time for her to show up and get (caught and) released,” LaFleur said of the exceptional pike. “It’s a perfect example why we need to work harder to get fish like this released, to promote catch-and-release. We need to recognize their potential, that it’s much more than just food. It’s not about me. We’re fishing for tomorrow.”