Nathan Lafleur says it never entered his mind to keep the massive northern pike he caught Wednesday evening while fly fishing from shore along a shallow bay of Devils Lake.
Never mind the fact the fish had a 22-inch girth and measured 51½ inches, eclipsing the 48-inch length of the state record pike, which weighed 37 pounds, 8 ounces and was caught in 1968 on Lake Sakakawea.
Lafleur says he never weighed the pike, but online length-girth estimates put the fish in the ballpark of 39 pounds.
Lafleur, 33, said he was fishing with his brother, Blake, and friend Chad Greening when he hooked the pike on the second cast.
The big pike hit a streamer on a fly rod rigged with 10 weight line, a 2-foot chunk of 50-pound mono, 4 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon line and a light Tyger Wire brand leader.
Given the choice, Lafleur says he prefers fly fishing over spinning gear.
“That is probably my favorite way to fish,” he said. “My equivalent for fly fishing vs. conventional tackle would be from rifle hunting to bow hunting. Once you do that and experience it, that’s all you want.”
Lafleur says he watched the big pike hit the streamer just a couple of inches under the water.
“I knew it was a big fish,” he said. “I’ve caught a lot of pike that are 20-25 pounds, and I knew it was a big one until I saw her come by shore, and we figured out how big she actually was.”
Even better, Lafleur says, his 3½-year-old nephew and Greening’s young son were on hand to experience the catch.
“We had kids with us, which is awesome to be able to share that with them,” Lafleur said, adding the battle lasted five to 10 minutes.
“We put a tape measure on her, and she was 51½ inches — by far the biggest pike my brother, dad and I had seen on Devils Lake,” Lafleur said.
After a couple of photos, Lafleur sent the big fish on her way.
“She kicked away out of my hands and splashed me when she left,” he said.
Big pike are a passion for the Lafleur brothers and their dad, Boyd, and they advocate the practice of catch-and-release.
“To me, the catch-and-release thing is what’s so important,” Nathan Lafleur said. “That fish never could have made 51½ inches if it didn’t get to make 40 and didn’t get to make 43.
“Throwing those fish back is what I want people to understand and to develop and not exploit the fishery we have here.”
Besides, he said, smaller pike taste far better than a big fish.
Photos of Lafleur’s big pike circulated like wildfire on social media. That might have come as a mild surprise, Lafleur says, but at the same time, he said he’s happy to see other people share photos of the catch if it helps promote the importance of releasing big pike.
As for the pike’s potential state record status, Lafleur says that doesn’t matter to him.
“There’s no better time for this fish to show up as we’re trying to get people educated and pushing for tighter regulations on our big pike population because I see too many of them cleaned on a yearly basis,” Lafleur said.
“It’s a special fish for the state — especially for our lake, for Devils Lake,” he added. “It’s phenomenal for the area, and all the attention it’s getting is certainly good.”
Lafleur says he’s made trips to Manitoba the past six years targeting big pike and only has seen a couple of fish in the 50-inch class.
He’d never caught one until Wednesday, when he broke the 50-inch mark basically in his backyard.
“It’s a pretty hard feeling to explain,” he said. “To catch a fish like that on Devils Lake where I grew up and fished my whole life. It’s special.”