It seems almost everything about Big John Bowen is big. He stands 6 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 320 pounds. He has a big voice and big hands and a gentle but definitely big personality.

And Big John Bowen likes to catch big fish. Big bass. Big northern pike. Even big bluegills. So it might be surprising that one of his favorite places to fish is little Lester Lake in Hubbard County in north-central Minnesota.

Early one morning this past fall, Bowen threw his 12-foot boat into the back of his pickup truck, stowed an electric trolling motor, and headed to the lake, not far from the resort that he and his wife, Kim, own and operate.

At about 70 acres, Lester Lake is one of those places that most anglers drive past at 60 mph on their way to big lakes like Leech, Winnibigoshish, or nearby Kabekona. Lester Lake and hundreds of acres of rolling hills around it opened to the public in 2010, after the state acquired the undeveloped, privately owned property.

Roughly a mile long and a quarter-mile across at its widest, the lake is surrounded by a mixed forest of paper birch, red maple, oak, pine, and aspen on the high land and lots of black ash, white cedar, alder, and sedge meadows in the low spots. The forest is a special place, with rare orchids and insects and a diverse population of native upland and wetland plants and animals. A DNR scientific and natural area and a DNR aquatic management area protect the land and the lake.

It's what's in the water that Bowen and I were focused on. We hadn't moved 100 yards out from the landing when he had his first fish on—a scrappy northern pike.

"Just a little guy. But they fight big," Bowen said as he gently let the fish slide out of his hand and back into the lake. "Before this opened up to the public, everybody just called this the Pike Pond. It's always had a ton of pike in it."

We cruised across the lake and then up the far shore, casting and chatting along the way but quietly enough to pass within 20 feet of a great blue heron fishing for its breakfast. We were the only people on the lake on this crisp but sunny morning under an azure sky with a few wisps of high cirrus clouds.

"I can't think of any place I'd rather be right—whoa, got another one!" Bowen exclaimed.

"Double!" I bellowed, as I tagged into a fish at the same time. Both were small pike, but the action was fast for a while.

Lester Lake holds bluegills too, some that weigh in at more than a pound. We didn't catch any that large on this trip, but Bowen has in the past. Sample netting done by the Department of Natural Resources also shows they are there.

"I've had people out here with me swear they had a big bass on. And then up comes a big bull bluegill, and they just about have a heart attack," Bowen said.

To be sure, the lake is home to largemouth bass, including some monsters like one we saw jump clear out of the water and shake Bowen's lure. "That was what we are looking for! Only we want to see it a little closer," Bowen said with a laugh, shrugging off the loss of a trophy fish.

Catch and release.

It's not as if we could have kept the big bass anyhow. That's because Lester is the only one of Minnesota's 11,842 lakes with a mandatory catch-and-release regulation for all fish caught, no matter their size or species. Given Lester's small size, catch and release was the best way to protect the lake's big bluegills and bass when the lake moved from private to public access, said Doug Kingsley, DNR area fisheries supervisor.

"We knew the lake had a very good fish population when we took it on, and some good-sized fish, and we wanted to keep it that way," Kingsley told us at the boat landing. "It's not something we're going to do on a lot of lakes. But we've had really good support for catch and release here."

If you come to Lester, leave the big bass boat at home. The access road is narrow, winding through an old red pine plantation. The landing is carry-down only, and it can be boggy and wet. Canoes and kayaks are perfect. So are small rowboats like Bowen's. And no outboard motors, either, because only electric trolling motors are allowed.

"That really keeps a special flavor to this place. Just listen," Bowen ordered.

All I could hear was the splash of his lure as it hit the water, followed by the whir of his reel.

We were casting mostly spinner baits for pike and bass into the relatively clear but tea-colored water. The spring-fed lake has some 40-foot-deep holes but is shallow in most areas near shore, and that's where we caught most of our fish, near beds of emergent aquatic plants. Cattails line parts of the shoreline. Some fallen timber lurks below the waterline, probably a remnant of when beavers dammed the outlet and the lake rose a bit.

Biological wealth.

Lester Lake's outlet, named Sucker Branch Creek, flows clean and clear into Lake Kabekona less than a mile away.

"It's not just protected as a good fishing lake," Kingsley noted. "Protecting the land around Lester Lake is going to help protect the water quality in Kabekona and beyond."

The lake property had been for sale for years when, in 2007, the DNR made a thorough assessment and biological survey of the land. The agency couldn't come to terms on a purchase price with the property's owner, a Walker businessman. There was word that the owner was considering a housing development that would ring the lake. But the DNR's ecological evaluation confirmed the land around the lake held a wealth of biodiversity—from virgin stands of old-growth white cedar to 62 bird species and 82 plant species, including the very tiny, very rare white adder's-mouth orchid. The Minnesota Biological Survey concluded the area should receive "the highest level of protection available."

MBS ecologists and other DNR staff continue to find new treasures on annual treks. "It's an amazing place to go for a walk in the woods because there is so much diversity there, especially the wetland species," says Christine Herwig, DNR regional nongame wildlife specialist. She rattles off a list of birds including blue and green herons, kingfishers, swamp sparrows, woodcock, woodpeckers, and warblers. "There's a pretty good migration of ring-necked ducks in the fall," she adds.

Part of the charm of the Lester Lake property, Herwig notes, is that it has both upland and lowland habitats, including sandy forest openings that are home to a rare tiger beetle.

"I saw my very first mink frog at Lester Lake," she says. "You don't have to go very far to see a lot of different things. And that's a pretty good clue why it rated so high to be protected as an SNA."

Push to protect.

As the DNR was documenting the ecological value of the property, residents and cabin owners on Lake Kabekona, who had formed the Kabekona Lake Foundation, decided to make a push to have the land protected. They joined with the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which secured an option to purchase and then organized a financing package to seal the nearly $1.5 million deal that the owner eventually agreed to.

"It sits inside our Upper Mississippi Headwaters focus area, which is an effort to protect the larger watershed," says Bob McGillivray, senior program manager for the Trust for Public Land in Minnesota. "There's also the connectivity of habitat. Lester Lake tied together parts of the Paul Bunyan State Forest. … To be able to protect an entire lake at once, that's pretty rare.

"Part of our goal at TPL is to connect people to the land, places people can be out in the wild," McGillivray adds. "And Lester Lake really does that."

The team effort, McGillivray says, is a model for how 21st-century conservation projects can work—a blend of local support, nonprofit expertise, public and private funding, and state management that creates lasting protection and public access. Some 114 members of the Kabekona Lake Foundation donated $60,000 in critical local seed money. The glue that bound the deal together was grants from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The council decides how to spend money from the state's Outdoor Heritage Fund, created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Partners included the DNR Scientific and Natural Areas Program, the Trust for Public Land, DNR Fisheries, and the DNR Reinvest in Minnesota critical habitat match program.

State law requires local approval for any new scientific and natural area designation, and the Hubbard County board granted it with a unanimous vote.

"We knew the property was for sale, and everybody agreed they didn't want to see it developed. It's such a special place," says Luther Nervig, Kabekona Lake Foundation president. "If that property was developed, it would have changed the whole character of the Kabekona area."

Nervig, 72, of Wadena, has been coming to Kabekona since he was 6 weeks old. Lester Lake, not far from his family's cabin, has always held a strong attraction for him. "There were No Trespassing signs up all over and a locked gate on the little road," he says. Nervig has taken many memorable trips to the lake since the gate came down and the SNA signs went up. His nephews ice fish there in the winter.

"It's one of those places to go, not just to catch fish—and there are some very big fish—but to get away from civilization for a little bit," Nervig says. "It feels like you're up in the wilderness. And it's going to stay that way."