Northern pike

Northern pike

The northern pike (known as the pike in Britain), Esox lucius, is a species of carnivorous fish of the genus Esox (the pikes). They are typical of brackish and freshwaters of the northern hemisphere (i.e. holarctic in distribution). They are also known by the literal translation of their Latin name, "water wolf".

Geographic distribution

E. lucius is found throughout the northern hemisphere, including Russia, , Europe and North America. It is even found in brackish water of the Baltic sea.

Within North America, there are northern pike populations in Minnesota, Michigan, Maryland, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Illinois, eastern New York, Idaho, northern New England, most of Canada (though pike are rare in British Columbia and east coast provinces), Alaska, the Ohio Valley, the upper Mississippi River and its tributaries, the Great Lakes Basin and surrounding states, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. They are also stocked in, or have been introduced to, some western lakes and reservoirs for angling purposes, although this practice often threatens other species of fish such as trout and salmon, causing government agencies to exterminate the pike by poisoning lakes.


Northern pike are most often olive, shading into yellow to white along the belly. The flank is marked with short, light barlike spots and there are a few to many dark spots on the fins. The lower half of the gill cover lacks scales and they have large sensory pores on their head and on the underside of the lower jaw which are part of the lateral line system. Unlike the similar-looking and closely related muskellunge, the northern pike has light markings on a dark body background and fewer than six sensory pores on the underside of each side of the lower jaw.

Pike grow to a relatively large size; lengths of and weights of 25 kg (55 pounds) are not unheard of. The heaviest specimen known so far was caught in an abandoned stone quarry, in Germany, in 1983. She (the majority of all pikes over 8 kg (18 pounds) are females) was long and weighed 31 kg (67 pounds). The longest pike ever recorded was 152 cm (60 in) long and weighed 28 kg (61 pounds). Historic reports of giant pike, caught in nets in Ireland in the late 1800s, of 41 to 42 kg (89 to 92 pounds), were researched by Fred Buller and published in "The Doomsday Book of Mammoth Pike". The British Isles have not managed to produce much in the way of giant pike in the last 50 years and as a result there is substantial doubt surrounding those earlier claims. Currently, the IGFA recognizes a 26 kg (55 pound) pike caught by Lothar Louis in Lake of Grefeern, Germany, on 16 Oct, 1986 as the all-tackle world record northern pike. Northern pike in North America seldom reach the size of their European counterparts; one of the largest specimens known was a 21 kg (46 pound, 2 ounce) specimen from New York state. It was caught in Great Sacandaga Lake on September 15, 1940 by Peter Dubuc. There are reports of far larger pike, but these are either misidentifications of the pike's larger relative the muskellunge, or simply have not been properly documented and belong in the realm of legend.

Alternate forms

Northern pike occasionally breed with muskellunge to produce the hybrid commonly known as the tiger muskellunge (Esox masquinongy x lucius or Esox lucius x masquinongy , depending on the gender of each of the contributing species). In the hybrids, the males are almost invariably sterile although the females are sometimes fertile. Another form of northern pike, the silver pike, is not a subspecies but rather a mutation that occurs in scattered populations. Silver pike, sometimes called silver muskellunge, lack the rows of spots and appear silver, white, or silvery-blue in color. (Craig, 1).


Pike are found in sluggish streams and shallow, weedy places in lakes, as well as in cold, clear, rocky waters. Pike are typical ambush predators; they lie in wait for prey, holding perfectly still for long periods and then exhibit remarkable acceleration as they strike. The fish has a distinctive habit of catching its prey sideways in the mouth, killing or immobilising it with its sharp teeth, and then turning the prey lengthwise to swallow it. It eats mainly fish, but on occasion water voles and ducklings have also been known to fall prey to pike. Pike will aggressively strike at any fish in the vicinity, even at other pike. Young pike have been found dead from choking on a pike of a similar size. Northern pike also feed on frogs, insects and leeches. It has often been suggested that pike optimally forage on prey that are from 25 to 35% of their body length.

Importance to humans

Although generally acknowledged as a "sporting" quarry, most anglers release pike they have caught because the flesh is considered bony, especially due to the substantial (epipleural) "Y-bones". However, the larger fish are more easily filleted, and pike have a long and distinguished history in cuisine and are popular fare in Europe. Historical references to cooking pike go as far back as the Romans. The flesh is white and mild-tasting. Fishing for pike is said to be very exciting with their aggressive hits and aerial acrobatics. Pike are among the largest freshwater fish.

Because of their prolific nature and their aggressiveness as predators, laws have been enacted in some places to help stop the spread of northern pike outside of their native range. For instance, in the State of Maine, anglers are required, by law, to remove the head from a pike once it has been caught. In Alaska pike are native north and west of the Alaska Range, but have been illegally introduced to the south central Alaska by game fishermen. In south central Alaska there is no limit in most areas. Pike, while loved by some, are seen as a threat to native wild stocks of salmon.

Elsewhere, notably in the British Isles, pike are highly-prized as a sporting fish and they are returned alive to the water in order to safeguard future sport and maintain the balance of a fishery. The Pike Anglers Club has campaigned to preserve pike since 1977, arguing that the removal of pike from waters can lead to an explosion of smaller fish, which is damaging to both the sport fishery and the environment.

Sport fishing

Pike angling is becoming an increasingly popular pastime in the UK and Europe. Effective methods for catching this hard fighting fish include dead baits, lure fishing, and jerk baiting. They are prized as game fish for their determined fighting and have been food fish since ancient times.

Lake fishing for pike from the shore is especially effective during springtime, at which stage the big pike move into the shallows to spawn in weedy areas, and later many remain there to feed on other spawning coarse fish species to regain their condition after spawning. Smaller jack pike often remain in the shallows for their own protection, and for the small fish food available there. For the hot summer period and during non-active phases the larger female pike tend to retire to deeper water and/or places of better cover. This gives the boat angler good fishing during the summer and winter seasons. Trolling (towing a lure or bait behind a moving boat) is a popular technique.

The use of float tubes have become a very popular way of fishing for pike on small to medium size stillwaters. Fly fishing for pike is another recently developing way of catching these fish, and the float tube is now recognised as an especially suitable water craft for pike flyfishing.

In recent decades more and more pike are released back to the water after catching (catch and release). But they can easily be damaged when handled. Handling those fish with dry hands can easily damage their mucous covered skin and possibly lead to their death from infections. Since they have very sharp and numerous teeth, care is required in unhooking a pike. It is recommended that barbless trebles are used when angling for this species as it simplifies unhooking. Unhooking should be accomplished using long forceps—30 cm artery clamps are ideal. The pike should be kept out of the water for the minimum amount of time possible, and should be given some time to recover before being weighed and photographed.

In Finland, catching a kymppihauki, a pike weighing at least 10 kilograms, is considered the qualification as a master fisherman.


The northern pike gets its name from its resemblance to the pole-weapon known as the pike (from the Middle English for pointed). The genus name, Esox, comes from the Greek and Celtic for "big fish" and "salmon" (see Esox: Name). Various other unofficial trivial names are: American pike, common pike, great northern pike, Great Lakes pike, grass pike, slough shark, snake, northern, and jackfish. Numerous other names can be found in Field Museum Zool. Leaflet Number 9.

See also


  • Broughton, Bruno. "A Review of the Scientific Basis for Pike Culls" N.p., 2000.
  • Craig, John F. ed. Pike: Biology and Exploitation. Chapman & Hall, London. 1996 pp. 1.
  • Eddy S, Surber T. Northern Game Fishes Univ. of Michigan Press, 1943.
  • La Monte Fancesca. North American Game Fishes Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1950 pp. 126.
  • Weed Alfred C. Pike, Pickerel, and Muskellunge. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Dept. of Zoology, Leaflet No. 9, 52 pp., 8 plates.

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