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Pikes

Note: This article first appeared in the November/December 1989 issue of The Conservationist magazine. Recently updated. Author- Eileen C. Stegemann. Second in a 14-part series describing the Freshwater Fishes of New York.

The Pike Of New York

Nicknamed "waterwolves," members of the pike family are well known for their predatory nature. Solitary fishes, lurking in the shadows to ambush their prey, pike have highly carnivorous habits which have generated hundreds of fish stories ranging from swimmers being bitten to a favorite pet being eaten while going for a swim. While most of these stories are just that - stories - some are not.

Pike are generally found in shallow, warm water areas near weed beds or other cover. They are easily distinguished from other fishes by their long, slender bodies and duck-shaped bills. Their large mouths contain needle-sharp teeth which are very effective in grasping and holding fish. Pike have forked tails and a single dorsal fin located far back on the body. Their green or brassy coloring allows them to blend in easily with a weedy environment.

As a group, pike are remarkably variable in size. On the smaller end of the scale, the redfin pickerel rarely attains a weight exceeding one pound, whereas the largest member of the family - muskellunge - is the largest freshwater game fish in New York State and may weigh more than 50 pounds. Regardless of the species, all pike are fast growers, with females growing faster and living longer than males.

Feeding Habits

Pike have voracious appetites. An adult pike is mostly piscivorous (fish eating), but it will also eat frogs, mice, ducks, and even muskrats. The pike's body shape, coloring, and eating methods are well suited to its predatory nature. The pike ambushes its prey, patiently waiting in the concealment of vegetation or near stumps for food to go by. Contorting its arrow-shaped body into a slight "Z," the pike springs forward to seize the unsuspecting prey sideways in its mouth, then retreats to cover before rotating the prey in its mouth and the swallowing it head first. A large portion of a pike's diet is spiny finned fish, and swallowing them head first ensures the collapse of the fins.

A pike generally prefers one large food item over several smaller items. Its large mouth enables it to eat larger fish and often it will grab a fish one-third to one-half its own length. If the pike cannot swallow the fish whole, it will sometimes swim around with the tail protruding from its mouth until the head is digested, allowing room to swallow more.

Spawning Habits

Pike reproduce (spawn) in the spring. They are random spawners, broadcasting their eggs and milt over vegetation or bottom debris in shallow marsh areas and in flood plains. Unlike some other fish, such as bass or bullheads, pike build no nests and give no parental care to the eggs or young. The highly adhesive eggs stick to whatever they land on. Eggs hatch after eight to 15 days and the young have to fend for themselves. Within three to four weeks, young pike develop their carnivorous habits and will even begin eating other young pike.

The pike's habit of spawning on flood plains can, at times, become a serious problem for its survival. Even slight decreases in the water level can result in the stranding and death of young. In certain areas, this factor limits the abundance of the species.

Fishing for Pike

Pike are among the most aggressive freshwater fish species available to anglers, readily striking both artificial lures and live bait. Pike fight hard when hooked and make a tasty meal. Fishing near weed beds, stumps, and dropoffs with spinners, spoons, plugs, and minnows often brings good results.

The larger members of the pike family, especially northern pike, muskellunge, and tiger muskellunge, provide good trophy fishing. But, whether you are ice fishing or fishing during midsummer, a heavy monofilament or wire leader is a worthwhile addition to your tackle. The pike's sharp teeth can easily cut through light monofilament line. To save fingers, anglers will also find it helpful to bring along needle-nosed pliers to extract a hook from a pike's mouth.

Six members of the pike family, some common, some not so common, are found in New York State's waters: chain pickerel, redfin pickerel, grass pickerel, northern pike, muskellunge, and tiger muskellunge. While many New Yorkers refer to walleye as "walleye pike" or "yellow pike," the walleye is actually a member of the perch family and so is not discussed here. Persons interested in finding more detailed descriptions for any member of the pike family can refer to the book, "The Inland Fishes of New York," by C. Lavett Smith.

Chain Pickerel

picture of chain pickerel
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The chain pickerel is widely distributed in lakes and rivers south of the Adirondacks and east of the Genesee River. A modest-sized fish, it averages one to two pounds in weight and 15 to 20 inches in length. Its fully scaled cheeks and gill covers distinguish it from the northern pike and muskellunge, while its large size and distinct chain link marks on its sides differentiate it from other pickerels. The chain pickerel is green to bronze in color, with eight sensory pores on the undersurface of the lower jaw and a conspicuous dark bar beneath each eye, which extends straight down or slightly forward.

Pickerel prefer quiet waters with heavy weed growth. They are among the first fishes to spawn after ice-out in spring (April-May). Mature adults migrate into swampy or marshy backwater areas to spread their adhesive eggs. Early spawning increases the young chain pickerels' chances of survival, because they are large enough to feed on the newly hatched young of other species.

Chain pickerel are favored game fish, especially when one is ice fishing. On light tackle, they are capable of explosive runs which test an angler's ability. Their meat is delicious, but quite bony. To eliminate problems with bones, the fillets can be ground and formed into fish patties.

Redfin Pickerel

picture of redfin pickerel
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Seldom reaching 13 inches in length, the redfin pickerel is the smallest of New York State's pikes. It is uncommon in the State, restricted to Long Island and eastern New York.

The redfin pickerel closely resembles the chain pickerel, but is smaller and chunkier. It is olive green to dark brown in color with wavy vertical bars on its sides and a dark eyebar beneath its eyes. There are eight sensory pores on the underside of the lower jaw and the dorsal fin is darkly pigmented orange to red, hence its suitable name "redfin."

The redfin pickerel occurs in weedy areas of sluggish streams and lakes and ponds. It is very tolerant of low oxygen conditions and can live in brackish waters, as well. Like the chain pickerel, it spawns in early spring (March-April) along grassy stream banks or in flooded backwaters.

Because redfin pickerel are small and similar to chain pickerel, anglers generally do not recognize these fish when hooked.

Grass Pickerel

picture of grass pickerel
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A subspecies of redfin pickerel, grass pickerel have a very spotty distribution in New York State. Grass pickerel are often mistaken for young northern pike, but can be distinguished by their fully scaled cheeks and gill covers. Like other pickerel, grass pickerel have eight sensory pores on the underside of the lower jaw and a distinct dark bar beneath each eye.

Grass pickerel prefer heavily vegetated areas of slow-moving streams, lakes, and ponds. They spawn at approximately the same time of year as redfins, usually in March or April. Spawning occurs in upstream sections of flooded streams and marshes where vegetation is plentiful.

Like redfin, grass pickerel are of little interest to New York State anglers.

Northern Pike

picture of northern pike
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Northern pike are among the State's most important sportfish. They are relatively easy to catch, can grow to over 40 pounds, and put up a good fight when hooked.

Northern pike are very adaptable and occur in a wide range of habitats. They are one of the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the world, and the only members of the pike family to occur in arctic environments. Northerns prefer weedy portions of rivers, ponds, and lakes, but large adults will often move offshore into deeper waters. In New York State, they occur primarily in the St. Lawrence, Upper Hudson River, Lake Champlain, and Finger Lakes drainages.

Northern pike can be distinguished from their cousins, the pickerels, by the scaleless lower half of the gill covers. Their bodies are dark green to brown with light bean-shaped spots. There is no distinct dark bar beneath the eye. The undersurface of the lower jaw has eight to 12 pores and there are often bright gold markings on both sides of the head. Northerns can grow to be quite large - the current New York State record is a 46-pound two-ounce monster taken from Great Sacandaga Lake back in 1940.

Northern pike spawn in April or May, normally just after ice-out. Like other pike, they migrate into flooded marshes to deposit their adhesive eggs.

Northerns are delicious to eat. Their meat is white and flaky, and because of their large size, their bones are more easily removed than those of pickerels. Northerns can be taken through the ice as well as in open water, and provide an important winter fishery. Ice derbies are common sporting events for these prize fish in many parts of the State.

Due to their predatory nature, rapid growth, and large size, northern pike help control populations of smaller fish species. By feeding on small fish, they prevent over population and stunting. In some parts of Europe, northerns are raised for food.

Muskellunge

picture of muskellunge
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The largest member of the pike family, the muskellunge, or musky, is also the largest freshwater game fish in New York State. It often grows to more than 40 pounds, and the current State record is a 69-pound 15-ounce giant taken from the St. Lawrence River.

Muskellunge generally live in cool lakes and large rivers, sometimes staying in moderately swift water. In New York State, two separate musky strains occur. The Great Lakes or St. Lawrence strain is found in the St. Lawrence River, the lower reaches of its major tributaries - the Grasses, Oswegatchie, and Raquette rivers - and the Upper Niagara River. The Ohio strain occurs in Chatauqua Lake, the Allegheny River and their major tributaries, and is also stocked into the Chazy River, a tributary of Lake Champlain.

Similar in appearance to northern pike, muskellunge differ by having scales only on the upper half of both the cheeks and gill covers, and 12 to 18 sensory pores on the undersurface of the lower jaw. Although actual body color ranges from barred to spotted to plain, muskies always have a light background with dark markings, just the reverse of the northern pike. Muskellunge are extremely rapid growers, reaching ten to 12 inches in length by the time they are eight month old. Like other pike, females grow faster and larger than males, explaining why most trophy muskies are female.

Muskellunge have similar spawning habits to other pike, spawning in mid to late spring. Muskies generally spawn slightly later than northern pike, and in waters where the two species occur together, later spawning puts them at a disadvantage. The earlier-hatching young northerns will eat young muskellunge.

Because of their large size and rarity, muskellunge are held in high regard. Their unpredictable nature fascinates people. It can take an experienced musky angler as much as 50 hours of fishing to catch one of these giants. A large musky has tremendous strength and may take up to one hour to land. Although muskellunge are tasty, most anglers now practice "catch and release" to help ensure the future of limited populations.

Tiger Muskellunge

picture of tiger muskellunge
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Tiger muskellunge are a hybrid cross between northern pike and muskellunge. While they occasionally occur naturally, most tiger muskellunge found in New York State's waters have been stocked. First introduced by DEC in 1967 to provide "trophy" fishing, today the hardy hybrid is found in more than 50 waters across the State. The larger waters - the Mohawk River, Otisco Lake, Canadarago Lake, and the Susquehanna River - produce a number of trophy catches a year.

In appearance, the tiger musky is a real cross between its two parents. Tigers have the cheek and gill cover scale pattern of northern pike, but the barred dark body markings on a light background like the muskellunge. Averaging 24 to 38 inches, adult tiger muskellunge are larger than northern pike, but smaller than muskellunge. Tigers are extremely rapid growers, growing more quickly than either parent during the first two years of life.

Since tiger muskies are sterile hybrids, no successful spawning takes place. Tiger muskellunge are more easily raised in hatcheries than either parent. They readily feed on commercial fish food pellets and can be reared efficiently in great numbers. While the hybrid cross works either way, New York State hatcheries have traditionally used female muskellunge and male northerns for the stocking program.

Tiger muskellunge are important game fish actively sought by many anglers. Typically less difficult to catch than musky but more difficult than northerns, they add a unique quality to warmwater fishing.

Pike and People

Historically, many of New York State's wetland areas were drained or filled to provide locations for residential and industrial development. Since wetlands provide essential spawning grounds for pike, draining and filling have reduced pike populations in certain areas.

The story of Oneida Lake is a good example of how the once-random removal of New York State's wetlands hurt pike's populations. In the early 1900s, Oneida Lake had great northern pike and pickerel fishing. The lake contained vast beds of emergent and submergent vegetation, and the two species flourished. By the late 1950s, however, most of these wetlands had been drained for agriculture or filled for urban development and the fishery completely changed. Deprived of their spawning grounds, the northern pike and pickerel populations declined.

Today, the value of wetlands is realized and steps are taken to protect important wetland areas. While wetland area boundaries are constantly changing and development is acceptable in some areas, DEC reviews and monitors permits for development to ensure that important wetland areas are preserved. On the St. Lawrence River, DEC has denied applications for certain development plans when wetlands were identified as important nursery grounds for muskellunge. Through continued review and monitoring, it is possible to ensure a proper balance is kept between human development and fish habitat needs throughout the State.

Scientific Names

Many species of fish look alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. In addition, many types of fish have different common names in different parts of the country. To distinguish one organism from another, biologists give each a scientific name that is unique to that organism. The names are derived from the Latin language and consist of genus and a species. The genus name is listed first and is capitalized. The species comes second and is in lower case. Both the genus and species are either underlined or italicized when written. While several organisms in the same "family" share a common genus name (like family members sharing a last name), they have different species names. Occasionally, two members of a family are so similar that one is considered a subspecies of the other. In these cases, the organisms are given two species names. Here are the common and scientific names of New York State's pike:

Scientific Names of Fish Species
Common Name Scientific Name
Chain Pickerel Esox niger
Redfin Pickerel Esox americanus americanus
Grass Pickerel Esox americanus vermiculatus
Northern Pike Esox lucius
Muskellunge Esox masquinongy
Tiger Muskellunge Esox lucius cross Esox masquinongy

More about Pikes:

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