Northern Pike (Esox lucius)

Northern Pike (Esox lucius)

Malevolent-looking and spear shaped, the northern pike is the namesake member of the Esocidae family of pike. It is a worthy angling quarry, one that grows fairly large, fights well, and accommodates anglers frequently enough to be of substantial interest in the areas where it is found.


The northern pike has an elongated body and head. The snout is broad and flat, shaped somewhat like a duck bill. The jaws, the roof of the mouth, the tongue, and the gill rakers are armed with numerous sharp teeth that are constantly being replaced. A single soft-rayed dorsal fin is located far back on the body.

Male and female pike are similar in appearance, and both are variable in color. A fish from a clear stream or lake will usually be light green, whereas one from a dark slough or river will be considerably darker. The underparts are whitish or yellowish. The markings on the sides form irregular rows of yellow or gold spots. Pike with a silvery or blue color variation are occasionally encountered and are known as silver pike.

The northern pike can be distinguished from its relatives by three main features. Most noticeably, the greenish or yellowish sides of these fish are covered with lighter-colored kidney-shaped horizontal spots or streaks, whereas all other species have markings (spots, bars, stripes, or reticulations) that are darker than the background color.

Their markings are most likely to be confused with those of the chain pickerel. The second distinction is the scale pattern on the gill cover and the cheek. In the northern pike the cheek is fully scaled, but the bottom half of the gill cover is scaleless. In the larger muskellunge, both the bottom half of the gill cover and the bottom half of the cheek are scaleless.

In the smaller pickerel, the gill cover and the cheek are both fully scaled. The third distinctive feature is the number of pores under each side of the lower jaw; there are usually 5 in the northern pike (rarely 3, 4, or 6 on one side), 6 to 9 in the muskellunge (rarely 5 or 10 on one side), and 4 in smaller pickerel (occasionally 3 or 5 on one side only).


Pike are normally 16 to 30 inches long and weigh between 2 and 7 pounds. Females live longer and attain greater size than males. Pike up to 20 pounds are common in some Canadian and Alaskan rivers, lakes, and sloughs, and fish weighing up to 30 pounds and measuring 4 feet in length are possible. The North American record is a 46-pound, 2-ounce New York fish caught in 1940. The average life span is 7 to 10 years, but in slow-growing populations they may live up to 26 years.

Life history/Behavior

Northern pike spawn in the spring, moving into the heavily vegetated areas of lakes and rivers either just after ice out or, in some cases, prior to ice out. In many places they spawn in wetlands or marshes that will have little or no water later in the season. They are broadcast spawners, and the scattered eggs that fall to the bottom are adhesive.

They usually hatch in 12 to 14 days but do so later in much colder waters. In waters that also contain muskellunge, the two species may crossbreed naturally; this occurs rarely but can happen, as muskies spawn in the same or similar environs, although usually after pike.

Food and feeding habits

Pike are voracious and opportunistic predators from the time they are mere inches long. They are solitary, lurking near weeds or other cover to ambush prey. Their diet is composed almost entirely of fish, but it may occasionally include shorebirds, small ducks, muskrats, mice, frogs, and the like. In pike waters, it is common to find scarred fish that were grabbed by but escaped the large toothy maw of a pike. Pike feed most actively during the day and are heavily sight-oriented.

Other Names

pike, northern, jack, jackfish, snake, great northern pike, great northern pickerel, American pike, common pike, Great Lakes pike; Danish: gedde; Dutch: snoek; Finnish: hauki; French: brochet; German: hecht; Hungarian: csuka; Italian: luccio; Norwegian: gjedde; Portuguese: ÿlcio; Russian: shtschuka; Spanish: lucio; Swedish: gäddo.


The northern pike is densely distributed throughout Alaska, with the exception of the offshore islands, and widespread throughout Canada and the arctic islands above Hudson Bay, being conspicuously absent from the coastal plains (most of British Columbia and the Canadian Atlantic coast east of the St. Lawrence River).

In the United States, it is found south of Maine in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts (except along the coast) and in all the Great Lakes states (although it is largely absent from lower Michigan and Indiana), as well as west of the Great Lakes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and Montana. It has been widely introduced outside this native range, even into southern and western states.


Although classified by biologists as a coolwater species, the northern pike exists in diverse habitats. It is especially known to inhabit the weedy parts of rivers, ponds, and lakes, but it may be found in deeper,

open environs in waters without vegetation, or when the temperature gets too high in warm shallower areas. Warm shallow ponds and cold deep lakes both support pike, but large individuals have a preference for water that is in the mid-50°F range. Smaller fish are more likely to be in warm shallow water.