The pike family speices, habitats, characteristics, fishing methods.
Pikes are a family of predatory fish that include various forms of
Muskellunge. The shape and coloration of each species is similar, but their size varies greatly. The
Grass Pickerel and
Redfin Pickerel which seldom reach one foot in length, the
Chain Pickerel, the
Northern Pike and the
Muskellunge is the largest and fastest-growing freshwater game fish are native to North America. The northern pike is one of the few fish whose natural range includes both North America and Eurasia.
The Pike's torpedo-shaped body, with its large mouth, sharp teeth and massive eyes fit perfectly for ambush predation. Its olive-mottled skin blends in perfectly with shallow weeds, where it floats and waits for fish to pass by. It folds its body slightly, allowing it to spring forward at the blink of an eye. Favoring the larger fish, it snaps its massive jaws across the body of its prey and begins to work it around so it can swallow it head-first. With spiny- finned prey often being the target, swallowing head-first helps to fold the fins down for a more comfortable meal. Pike are popular with anglers for the great size some species attain and for their sporting fight. The Pike's attack is quick and sometimes indiscriminate. They will attack floating junk, hooked fish and even their own species, often take on larger prey than they can swallow. They swim around with the prey's tail sticking out of their mouths, until their digestive juices melt them down to a manageable size.
The pikes are fish with slender, cylindrical body. The pike family’s most distinctive characteristic is the long, flattened snout. The mouth is fitted with many strong, sharp teeth, and the forehead is like a bony plate. Pike have 1 dorsal fin that is placed far along the back, toward the tail, as is the opposing anal fin. The tail is forked, and may or may not be marked, according to the species. There is no adipose fin. Pike are built for their role as swift, aggressive predators.
The pikes are well-camouflaged to blend with their underwater surroundings. Markings and coloration vary among species, their concealment patterns ranging from oblique striping and broken horizontal bands to chain-link markings and beanlike spotting in light and dark tones. The pike family’s general coloration is green, from a dark yellow-green to olive-brown, with yellowish markings or shadings. The fins in some species are dull-red or orangish. The eye is large and yellow. The pike’s scales are cycloid, smooth, small and numerous, and embedded in a slimy mucous that makes the fish slick to the touch.
The pikes spawn in early spring, when water temperatures reach about 50 degrees. The pikes don’t build nests. Several males spawn with a female, the fertilized eggs scattering over underwater plants, dead vegetation and other organic debris, in shallow sections of the lake or stream. Eggs are sticky at first and adhere to vegetation and objects above the silty bottom. Staying out of the mud appears to be necessary for successful egg-hatching. Pike eggs are abandoned by the parents and hatch in 10 to 12 days. The fry, or just-hatched fish, have an adhesive organ at the top of the snout, with which they attach themselves to submerged plants. They remain “stuck” there for about a week, while their nourishing egg sac is absorbed. Until they are about two inches long, young pike eat aquatic invertebrates. Then they switch to the main source of food for the rest of their lives–fish.
Pike live in coolwater streams and large rivers,
lakes and ponds, big impoundments. All pike are associated with submerged vegetation, although Muskellunge also frequent rocky lake shoals. Pike are top-level predators in their habitat, living solitarily and feeding on other fish, plus any birds, small mammals, snakes and frogs that happen into the water. In crowded conditions, pike even eat one another. They feed by ambush, waiting motionless in concealing cover until their prey approaches. Then they lunge swiftly to grab it. Prey is taken at the midsection, and then shifted in the pike’s mouth and swallowed headfirst. Pike are sight-feeders and are active by day, even continuing to feed during winter months, which makes them available to ice anglers. The pikes grow fast, with the young of the larger species reaching 12 to 18 inches their first year. The females grow fastest, live longer and attain larger sizes than the males.
The northern pike’s distribution is circumpolar–it lives in the Northern Hemisphere from North America to Europe and Asia. Large, streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The mouth has rows of sharp, caninelike teeth, that are lost and replaced throughout the year. The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The color ranges from yellow-olive green to brown, shading to whitish undersides with light bean-shaped spots on its sides and usually the dorsal, anal and tail fins. Only the top half of the cheeks and gill covers have scales. Underneath the lower jaw are no more than 12 sensory black spots. The fins usually have yellow, orange or red coloring.
Northern pike favor shallow, heavily vegetated sections of lakes, ponds,
rivers and streams, especially in pools and backwaters, where there is weed growth. They are usually not found in as little water depth as the Chain Pickerel. Northerns are clearwater and coolwater fish, prefer rocky sections of colder, deeper waters. During the heat of summer they retire to deeper, cooler water during bright midday, and they are active in shallower water when the sky is overcast or the sun is low. They tend to stick to shallow waters, but will move to deeper sections as they grow. In large lakes they tend to stick to bays or marshy areas. They are highly tolerant of water conditions.
Most spawning northern pike are 3 to 5 years old. Northerns spawn very early in spring, when water temperatures are from 40 to 53 degrees, just after ice-out. Spawning pike migrate to flooded marshes or shallow, weedy backwaters. From 3,000 to 120,000 adhesive eggs broadcasting randomly, during daylight hours, over plants and organic debris thta will hatch in about 2 weeks. Young pike remain attached to the plant stems until the yolk sac is absorbed. No parental care is given to the eggs or fry. Because pike spawn so early, their young are large enough to consume newly hatched suckers and other fish that appear later in the spring.
At first, young pike eat tiny underwater invertebrates, but within two weeks they are large enough to begin their lifelong role as fish-eaters. Northerns are one of our fastest growing fish, reaching six to 12 inches or more their first year, where there is sufficient food. They feed only during the day, hunt by ambush and take not only fish, but frogs and tadpoles, birds, muskrats, mice, crayfish, leeches and large aquatic insects. Active all winter, northerns can be caught by ice fishermen, especially with large live bait. Norther pike are considered to be the tastiest of the pike we have here. They are relatively easy to hook, and present a decent challenge to reel in.
Chain pickerel are the most abundant and widely distributed member of pike family. They are also the most often caught, biting the angler’s bait or lure readily. The chain pickerel’s original range was Atlantic and Gulf Coast tributaries, but the fish has been introduced elsewhere. Streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened long snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The distance from the tip of the nose to the front of the eye is greater than the distance from the back of the eye to the end of the gill cover.The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The color ranges from green-yellow or olive-brown to yellow-green and has a distinct chain-link pattern on its sides. The gill covers (opercle) and cheeks are fully scaled. A dark line runs from the eye to the lower jaw. Underneath the lower jaw are 8 sensory spots. The belly is white. A dark mark, like a clown’s painted tear, appears below each eye. The fins are unmarked and pale.
Chain pickerel live in and around weedbeds and sunken stumps and logs in natural
lakes, swampy ponds and manmade impoundments. They can also be found in the sluggish parts of clear streams and in the naturally acidic, tannin-stained waters that drain boggy wetlands. Chain pickerel are commonly shallow-water dwellers with abundant vegetation, but they can live in deep lakes, slow-moving creeks and rivers, or the backwaters of lakes. They don’t travel far from their selected home areas, and they tolerate a wide temperature range. Chain pickerel are solitary predators, feasting on fish, which they stalk through the underwater weedbeds, as well as crayfish, large aquatic insects, frogs and other small animal life that gets into the water. They feed during the day, especially at dawn and dusk, and are active through the winter, under the ice, so they can be caught by ice anglers.
Chain pickerel spawn for about 1 week in early spring, when water temperatures are in the high 40s to low 50s in swampy, marshy or flooded areas. Chain pickerel can spawn in the fall, but the survival rate of eggs and young is very low. The sticky eggs, 6,000 to 8,000 typically deposited by each female, are scattered over underwater weeds. Just-hatched chain pickerel fry attach themselves to plant stems during the absorption of the yolk sac. Young chain pickerel eat aquatic insects and crustaceans, and are eaten by larger fish. As they grow, chain pickerel increasingly consume fish, which become the mainstay of their diet. Chain pickerel have been known to hybridize in the wild with redfin pickerel, because their spawning site choices and breeding times overlap.
A voracious predator, the muskellunge is one of the largest and fastest-growing fish. The muskellunge’s original North American range was the St. Lawrence River, throughout the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay, and the Mississippi River basin, but it has been widely propagated and stocked elsewhere for sport fishing. Large, streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flat ducklike snout with many strong, sharp teeth. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. Their dorsal and anal fin are rounded and opposite each other set so far back toward the tail that the fish is almost missile-shaped. The color ranges from light greenish gray or yellow-green to olive-brown or silvery often with dark bars on its sides and usually the dorsal, anal and tail fins. The fins are greenish cream to brownish orange, with dark blotches. Only the top half of the cheeks and gill covers have scales (it helps to distinguish it from the Northern Pike). A dark line runs from the eye to the lower jaw. Underneath the lower jaw are at least 6 to 9 pores, tiny sensory openings, beneath each side of its jaw sensory spots (northern pike has 5 or less pores). There is no dark teardrop mark below the eye, like
Chain Pickerel have.
Muskies are coolwater fish, found in clear natural lakes, reservoirs and
rivers. They prefer slow-moving river segments and heavily vegetated sections of large lakes that have plenty of aquatic weed growth, which the musky uses for cover and which attracts its prey. They tend to stick to shallow waters, but will move to deeper sections as they grow. Tolerant of warmer temperatures, but these fish stick to cooler waters than other Pike. They also associate with rocky or boulder-strewn shoals. Muskies use a restricted home range, rarely moving from their summer feeding areas, with the large ones often remaining in one pool. Muskellunge are solitary, territorial predators, very aggressive and will even attack and eat one another. Their main diet is fish, but they will take what opportunity gives them, including snakes, frogs, muskrats, mice and waterbirds.
Muskies are sexually mature at about 3 years old and a little over 20 inches long. Muskies spawn in the spring, after the northern pike, when water temperatures are in the high 50s to high 60s. They spawn at night in shallow water in swampy or marshy areas, often just six to 12 inches deep. As the male and female swim over the spawning site, which usually features underwater stumps and logs on a muck bottom, the eggs are released to fall as they will. Female muskies 25 to 53 inches long produce 22,000 to 180,000 eggs. The adhesive eggs hatch in eight to 14 days, and as is usual for the pike family, the fry attach themselves to sunken debris as they absorb their egg sacs.
Mortality of fry is high, because fish eat the vulnerable musky young. When muskies are about four days old, they turn the tables, and begin eating fish. On that diet they can grow to one foot long in only four months. Females grow faster than males, and all muskies grow best in the early summer and fall, when water temperatures reach about 68 degrees. The adults tend to return to the same spawning locations each year.
The redfin, along with the Grass Pickerel, is the smallest member of the pike family, growing to 12 inches at most. The redfin’s native range is along the Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to Florida. In the Gulf Coast and southeast states, it mixes and interbreeds with the grass pickerel. With few exceptions, the two fish are similar in appearance. Streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened, short and broad snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The color ranges from olive-brown or greenish gray to dark olive-bronze or yellowish-green and a wavy-line or wormy-looking lighter pattern on its sides as a series of vertical, irregular bars. The fins are unspotted and have a red tint to them, providing its common name. The gill covers and cheeks are fully scaled. A dark line runs from the eye to the lower jaw. Underneath the lower jaw are 8 sensory spots. Due to a similar appearance, they are often mistaken for the Chain pickerel.
Redfin pickerel inhabit the weedy, abundant vegetation shallows of slow-moving streams, slow-moving creeks, lakes and ponds. They are usually found over a soft, mud bottom, redfin pickerel prefer the water itself to be clear. Pike can live in naturally acidic water. They can tolerate swampy waters with low oxygen content and brackish waters, where fresh water and ocean salt water mix.
Redfin pickerel spawn in spring, when the water temperature reaches about 50 degrees in swampy, marshy or flooded areas, upstream. The sticky eggs are randomly broadcast in the shallows over underwater vegetation and other organic debris. The eggs, which hatch in about 2 weeks, receive no parental care. The redfin unlike larger pikes, does not include fish as a primary part of its diet. They feed on small crustaceans, crayfish, aquatic insects and other invertebrates. Pike reproduce early in order to avoid predation of their young and to give them a jump-start on growth. By the time other fish species hatch, young Pickerel are already hunting. The small size of redfin pickerel, as well as their restricted shallow-water habitat, may be why so few fish are on their menu.
The grass pickerel subspecies could be mistaken for the Redfin Pickerel, if their ranges were not so distinct. The grass pickerel is distributed throughout the Mississippi River watershed. The redfin is an East Coast fish. Streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened, but not quite duck-billed snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. Grass pickerel have a black bar beneath the eyes, which trails slightly backward. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body with no markings. The color ranges from olive-brown or grey to yellowish-green and has a distinct chain-link pattern on its sides. The gill covers and cheeks are scaled (not like Northern Pike or Muskellunge). A dark line runs from the eye to the lower jaw. Underneath the lower jaw are 8 sensory spots. Dusky streaks that curve and tend to be vertical. The streaks may look like bars or just shadowy, wandering lines.
Grass pickerel live in the marshy areas of lakes and ponds, as well as in slow-flowing sections or backwaters of clear streams. They are usually found in and around dense, rooted aquatic vegetation over a soft, silt bottom, in shallow waters with abundant vegetation, often small, slow-moving creeks and ponds with tolerant of warmer waters.
Grass pickerel scatter their adhesive eggs over underwater plants, in swampy, marshy or flooded areas, upstream, when water temperatures in the spring rise to the low 50s, generally April. They may also spawn in the fall, but the survival of the fry is probably very low, and they may occasionally hybridize with northern pike. With its small size, the grass pickerel eats few fish, but feasts instead on invertebrates, aquatic insects, crayfish and other crustaceans. Pike reproduce early in order to avoid predation of their young and to give them a jump-start on growth. By the time other fish species hatch, young Pickerel are already hunting. Using seasonal flood plains for spawning usually leads to large numbers of juveniles becoming stranded and dying as the water recedes.
The tiger muskellunge, or tiger musky, is the result of crossbreeding the male
Northern Pike with the female
Muskellunge under fish culture conditions, although hybrids do occasionally occur in the wild. They are hardier and faster-growing than their purebred parents, and they respond better to hatchery-raising. Large, streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened, but not quite duck-billed snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The general color is dark gray-green on the back, a lighter green on the sides, with dark, equally spaced side bars on its sides and spots on the dorsal, anal and tail fins (like the Muskellunge). The belly is off-white. The dorsal, caudal and anal fins are spotted or streaked with reddish-brown hue to them. Only upper two-thirds of the the cheeks and gill covers have scales (like the Northern Pike). Underneath the lower jaw are roughly 6 to 14 sensory pores.
The tiger musky is stocked in suitable waters, large reservoirs and rivers. It tends to be more of a wanderer than its parents, moving about in its home waters. Heavily vegetated sections of large lakes and of slow-moving river segments. They tend to stick to shallow waters, but will move to deeper sections as they grow. Tolerant of warmer temperatures, but stick to relatively cooler waters than other Pike.
As a hybrids species, the male Tiger musky is sterile, so natural reproduction among individuals does not occur. One way to distinguish Northern Pike from
Muskellunge is by checking the scales on the cheek and gill cover. On the northern, the cheek is fully scaled, but only the upper half of the opercle, or gill cover, is scaled. Another way to differentiate the fish is to count the pores, tiny sensory openings, along the underside of the jaw. In northerns, there are 4 or 5 pores on each side; muskellunge have 6 to 9 pores on a side.