Fish Facts: Northern Pike (Esox lucius)

Blog reader Todd Van Dyke caught this beauty in Quetico Provencial Park in northwestern Ontario.
Photo by Kyle Riddle

The northern pike (Esox lucius) goes by a variety of names across its range in the U.S. and Canada—from “gator” to “water wolf” to “snot rocket”—reflecting both its popularity as a game fish and the low esteem many anglers hold for its inelegant appearance. Its unmatched aggression and omnivorous tastes (see the video at the bottom of the post) make the pike an ideal quarry for fly fishers, who seek the toothy predators in shallow water. A true ambush hunter, the pike lies in wait for prey species to come into range, and then uses its remarkable ability to accelerate from a standstill over a short distance to attack. The sight of a big pike rocketing out of the reeds to intercept a fly is a big part of the fun.

Range and Life History
Esox lucius is native throughout the northern hemisphere—including North America, Europe, and Russia—with some notable exceptions. For instance, the species is native to all of Alaska, except south and East of the Alaska Range, and they are also rare in British Columbia and the Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada. Pike have been widely introduced outside their range, for better or worse, by both legitimate fisheries managers and “bucket biologists.”

Because they are such voracious predators, stocked pike can destroy populations of native fish. For instance, many lakes in Alaska once known for trophy rainbow trout now hold few or any trout and are home to pike. To combat further incursions, there is no limit on pike in the south-central region of the Last Frontier, and several states require anglers to kill any pike they land.

Western Alaska is known to produce monsters over 50 inches.
Photo by Cinda Howard

Pike generally inhabit freshwater lakes and rivers of all sizes, and they move into weedy shallows to spawn in spring. Pike have a strong homing behavior and do not stray far from their hunting grounds. To help ambush prey, they often hide along the edges of weedbeds, although larger specimens are often found in more open water. In rivers, pike can also be found around logjams and in fallen timber. As water temperatures climb in summer, the fish move to deeper water, where they are less available to fly fishers. Because of its low salinity, the Baltic Sea in northern Europe is home to a brackish-water population of large pike.

During the springtime spawn, the males arrive first, followed by larger females. The males then remain after the females have headed back to deeper water. Young pike suffer extremely high mortality, often the result of cannibalism: only about five percent of hatchlings survive long enough to reach three inches long. It takes a year for the fish to reach sexual maturity, and full life expectancy ranges from 5 to 30 years, depending on habitat and food availability.

The Amur pike, from the Far East, is also known as the black-spotted pike.
Photo via Wikipedia

Family Affair
The Esox genus encompasses all the pikes, pickerels, and muskellunge; there is no relation to the “walleye pike” or the pikeminnow. There are two other pike species: the Amur pike (Esox reichertii), native to the border region between Russia and China in far eastern Asia, and the southern pike (Esox cisalpinus), found in central and northern Italy. Long believed to be just a color variation of Esox lucius, the southern pike was determined to be a separate species in 2011. Northern pike will also interbreed with muskellunge, creating “tiger muskellunge.” Although most tiger muskies are bred in hatcheries, the hybrid will occur naturally where pike have been introduced to musky waters. Male tiger muskies are sterile, while females will often breed with pike.

Trophy of Kings
When pike populations are too high, stunting can occur, resulting in a lake full of “hammer handles”—short, skinny fish. But under the right condition, northerns can grow to monstrous sizes. The current IGFA all-tackle record is a 55-pound, 1-ounce giant caught by Lothar Louis in Germany’s Lake of Grefeern in 1986, although reports of larger fish abound. The North American all-tackle record was caught in 1940 by angler Peter Dubuc, who reeled in a 46-pound, 2-ounce pike from New York’s Sacandaga Lake. The largest northern pike ever caught on a fly was 36 pounds.

Click here for a two-part podcast on fly-fishing for pike.

Long, undulating flies draw strikes from pike looking to ambush baitfish.
Photo by Paul Moinester

Flies with Sound and Fury
Because pike will eat everything from baitfish to mice to ducklings, you could make the argument that your fly pattern doesn’t matter. But because the fish are visual predators who also use their lateral line to locate prey, pike aficionados argue that motion and color can be very important to success. A favorite of Alaskan guides, a simple chartreuse rabbit strip lashed to a hook and stripped erratically offers both enticing, slinky action and attention-attracting contrast to the natural surroundings. It also does a good job of imitating the kinds of soft jerkbaits that hardware anglers find so effective. When you need to present flies lower in the water column, bright baitfish patterns with dumbbell eyes and long tails can pull big pike from the depths. Watching pike smash surface patterns is exciting, and a Dahlberg Diver produces the sound, the water disturbance, and the erratic motion that pike love.

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