northern pike

Northern Pike (Complete Species Guide With Pictures)

The northern pike is one of the world’s most common and popular freshwater predators. It can be found all over the northern hemisphere and is fished for by millions of anglers. Big pike over 30lb are the stuff that dreams are made of when it comes to sportfishing, as such fish are incredibly beautiful and majestic creatures.

The northern pike (Esox lucius) is a predatory freshwater fish that has an aerodynamic, torpedo-shaped body, a flat head, and a snout that is filled with razor-sharp teeth. The pike inhabits both lakes and river systems in Europe, North America and parts of Asia. It can reach a maximum length of 60” and a maximum weight of about 60lb.

This article will give you all the facts about the apex predator that is the pike and provide you with great images about this amazing fish.

What Does a Northern Pike Look Like?

what does a northern pike look like
Courtesy of Sam Urey Perch Angler

Body Shape

The northern pike has a highly aerodynamic, torpedo-like body shape that it develops at a very early stage in its life. This slender body shape makes the pike a very fast and effective predator.

This shape, coupled with the shape of its head, a rather broad back, and a rather dark body coloration makes that the pike bears a certain, if faint, resemblance to an alligator, which perhaps partly explains its prehistoric and somewhat frightening image as an apex predator.

Coloration

coloration of northern pike
Courtesy of Nathan Edgell

Most commonly, the northern pike has an olive green to dark green colored body that is dotted with yellow or white bean-shaped spots or short bars on its flanks.

Similar to these spots or bars, its belly is of a white or yellowish color.

Fins

The pike’s fins are often of a deep red or brown color and are marked by either light or dark picturesque spots, or lines that sometimes look like someone has drawn them there.

Teeth & Mouth

If the northern pike is known for anything, it’s for its plentiful razor-sharp teeth. A pike’s mouth has up to 700 teeth of varying patterns and sizes. Some bigger specimens can have fang-like teeth that are close to 1 inch in length.

Its mouth, which, rather surprisingly, bot resembles that of an alligator and that of a duck, is rather large and can be opened extremely wide, enabling the pike to grab and swallow both large and deep-bodied prey fish.

Eyes

As the pike is mostly a sight hunter, it consequently has rather large eyes. So large in fact, that they can often look disproportionately large to its body size.

These big eyes give the pike a very large field of vision, which it naturally uses to its advantage when hunting for prey. Of course, water clarity plays an important role here. More often than not, you will find larger pike populations in clearer water, as it makes it easier for the pike to find foot in such conditions.

When having caught a pike, look deeply into its eyes! Sometimes, you can catch a glimpse of its ancient predatory history, as this fish has roamed the waters of the earth for many millennia!

Average And Maximum Length And Weight of a Pike

how big can a pike get
Courtesy of Ronan Murray

Depending where in the world you are catching them, the average and maximum size of the pike in your local waters can differ slightly. In North America, it is somewhat lower than in Europe and parts of Asia.

Here is a general data collection of the pike’s average and maximum length and weight:

Average Length20-30 inches
(50-75 cm)
Maximum Length59 inches
(150 cm)
Average Weight5-12 lb
(2-5 kg)
Maximum Weight63 lb
(28.4 kg)

Of course, it is probably a certainty that somewhere out there in the world, there are larger and heavier pikes swimming around that have not been caught or recorded yet!

Where Can You Find Northern Pike?

where can you find northern pike
Courtesy of Andre Charron

The northern pike is a fish species that can be found all over the northern hemisphere, making it the only species of the Esox genus with a circumpolar distribution, meaning that it has spread around or near the earth’s entire north pole region. As such, it can be found in all of the northern hemisphere’s continents.

Europe

The pike is Europe’s most common and popular predator game fish. There are literally millions and millions of pike anglers who fanatically fish for pike all year round, using all types of different fishing techniques and methods.

It can be found in virtually every European country and all over the British Isles. You can catch pike from the northern parts of Scandinavia to the most southern parts of Italy, Spain, and Greece. It is also an extremely common fish in the eastern European states and in the whole of Russia, including Siberia in the very north-east of the country.

Some of the biggest European pike can be found in the Netherlands, England, and Germany.

North America

The northern pike is a very common and popular fish in the U.S. and in Canada as well. It can be found in 32 of the U.S. states.

American pike can be caught in parts of Alaska and Maine in the northern parts of the country, in the Great Lakes regions and the states surrounding them, as well as in the southern parts of the States, such as the northern parts of Texas and Arizona.

It is also a common fish in many Canadian provinces, except for British Columbia and the maritime areas of eastern Canada, where it is rare.

Asia

As the pike can be found all over the northern hemisphere, it naturally also made its way into parts of the Asian continent.

Here, it can most commonly be found in The western countries of the Asian continent, such as Georgia and Kazakhstan, as well as the western parts of Mongolia and China.

Are There Other Types of Pike?

Southern Pike

southern pike
By Syrio – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The southern pike (Esox cisalpinus) is a differently colored variant of the common northern pike, which was only recently classified as an own species (in 2011).

This type of pike exhibits various patterns of bars or lines all over its body, as opposed to the northern pike’s spots. The southern pike also has fewer scales along its lateral line (101-115) than does the northern pike (125-148).

The southern pike is native to the northern parts of Italy, as well as southeastern France and Switzerland.

As it appears to be very closely related to its northern counterpart, the southern pike can reach roughly the same length and weight as the northern pike.

Chain Pickerel

chain pickerel
By Hellion102792 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The chain pickerel (Esox niger) is native to North America and closely related to the other two pickerels (Esox americanus), which are the redfin pickerel and the grass pickerel.

This type of pike only has a slightly different pattern from that of the northern pike and is the type of pickerel that most often gets confused with the common pike.

These two species do not differ all that much in body coloration, but the chain pickerel’s spots, unlike the northern pike’s, run into each other, forming the pattern of a chain. This is the main feature to look for in a chain pickerel.

Another one being size, as northern pike grow to be much larger than chain pickerel, which can only reach an approximate weight of 8-9lb.

This type of pike can be caught along the entire North American east coast, from southern Canada in the north all the way down to Florida and westwards to the state of Texas. It is also native to Lake Michigan and the lower parts of the Great Lakes.

Amur Pike

amur pike
By Andshel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The amur pike (Esox reichertii) is a rather exotic-looking member of the Esox family which is native to the Amur River system in east Asia.

It also goes under the name black-spotted pike, which can be explained by its rather unusual pattern of black spots all over its silvery body. These spots make it clearly distinguishable from the northern pike, apart from the fact that the common pike is not found in this area of the world.

The amur pike can reach a maximum weight of 30lb, making it somewhat smaller than the common pike.

Back in 1968, it was actually introduced to Glendale Lake in Pennsylvania (USA) were it quickly started to adapt to its new environment. Unfortunately though, the entire stock was lost in the summer of 1976 and since that year, there have been no further attempts to introduce this pike species to North American waters.

Origins of The Northern Pike

It remains somewhat unclear when and where the northern pike first started to appear. Research suggests that it is likely that the genus Esox originated on the North American continent, sometime during the last interglacial period (around 2.2 million years ago), and not on the Eurasian continent, as previously suggested by scientists.

From there, it then made its way through Alaska, over the Bering land bridge, and into the territory known as today’s Russia. From Russia, it then spread to and populated the lakes and rivers of pretty much the entire Eurasian and European continent.

When Do Pike Spawn?

when do pike spawn
Courtesy of Nathan Edgell

The spawning period of the northern pike stretches from March to early May, depending on local air and water temperatures, which will have to reach at least 9 degrees C (48 degrees F).

If the water temperature suddenly drops below 6 degrees C (43 degrees F), the laid eggs will not hatch, giving the pike’s offspring a much increased rate of survival.

This evolutionary feature, coupled with the enormous amount of eggs that a female pike can lay, has resulted in strong and resistant pike populations in water systems all over the world, despite the fact that many of the young die at a rather young age.

Male pike arrive at the breeding grounds weeks before the females do and tend to stay for days, or even weeks, after the spawning sessions is completed, which further aids the pike’s survival chances.

What Do Northern Pike Eat?

Being a carnivorous fish, the pike primarily eats all sorts of prey fish. These can include the following:

In Europe

  • roach
  • rudd
  • perch
  • smaller bream
  • smaller tench
  • smaller pike

In North America

  • minnow
  • chad
  • suckers
  • flatheads
  • creek chub
  • shiners
  • smaller bass
  • smaller walleye
  • smaller pike

Northern pike can be cannibalistic, which is why I included smaller pike in the lists, this is actually a rather common phenomenon in many waters and explains the enormous amounts of eggs that pike are laying.

juvenile northern pike
Courtesy of Dom Bartle

Especially given the fact that there even is some sibling cannibalism amongst juvenile pike.

When they are not feasting on each other, or when natural prey fish are scarce, they can also turn to other sources of food. Such can include the following:

  • smaller water birds
  • water rats
  • worms
  • insects
  • leeches
  • crayfish
  • frogs

How to Fish for Northern Pike?

The northern pike is one of the world’s most popular game fish and millions of anglers worldwide are targeting this freshwater predator each and every year. Hence, there are plenty of fishing methods to apply in order to catch pike.

No matter which style you go for, however, always make sure to put on a wire- or very strong fluorocarbon leader, as pike can easily bite through any type of conventional mainline.

Spin Fishing

spin fishing for northern pike
Courtesy of Robert Moores

Spin fishing is probably the most popular fishing method when it comes to catching pike. In recent years, the pike bait and lure market has virtually exploded, and there are now various types of pike lures available for purchase.

You can spin fish for pike using:

  • soft bait lures
  • hard bait lures
  • crankbaits
  • jerkbaits
  • spinnerbaits
  • spoons
  • jigs

Float Fishing

float fishing for northern pike
Courtesy of Nathan Edgell

This is a more passive and subtle way to fish for pike. Generally, float or bobber fishing for pike will require a rather heavy float or bobber (15-40g), in order to present your dead or live bait at the right depth.

Trust me, there is no greater feeling than seeing that big float pop under like it was a table tennis ball and disappearing into the depth, as a big pike has taken your bait and swims off with it. What a thrill!

Fishing on The Bottom

This is a great method for winter pike, when the fish are at a greater depth and less active than during the rest of the year.

Ledgering for pike means fishing on the bottom using a weight to keep your dead or live bait on or just above the lake or river bottom. As you don’t have a visual indication, such as a float, when you get a take, you will need to have some form of bite indicator. This can be either a hanger or bobbin or a bite alarm, which you will have in combination with a rod pod or bank sticks.

Trolling

trolling for pike
Courtesy of Alex Mason

This is another very commonly practiced way to fish for pike with lures or live bait. The only difference is that you will be needing a boat.

Trolling simply means that you have your lines drawn trough the water behind a moving boat. You can easy use a boat engine, rows (for slow trolling) or simply drift with the help of the wind.

As you don’t have to cast out and reel in your line, you can fish with several rods in the water, thereby increasing your chances of catching fish.

Ice Fishing

ice fishing for northern pike
Courtesy of Mitchell Byrne

In parts of the northern hemisphere, ice fishing is a commonly practiced method to fish for pike during winter, and a very fun one at that.

You can ice fish more actively with one rod and a lure, or more passively with a couple of rods (or tip-ups) and live bait. The latter gives you the advantage of covering a greater area on the ice, which improves your chances of actually finding the pike and getting bites.

Insider tip: Always make sure to a) have at least one fishing buddy with you, b) make sure the ice is thick enough to carry you, c) wear ice picks and d) drill a big enough hole (big winter pike are fat)!

World’s Largest Northern Pike

The official All-Tackle world record northern pike was caught in Germany a long time ago. It was a massive fish of 55lb 1oz that was caught in Lake Grefeern on October 16th, 1986.

According to local sources, the fisherman who caught this monster, German angler Lothar Louis, initially head out to fish for carp and roach. During his session, he saw a massive pike in his swim and decided to go for it instead.

Good thing he did, wasn’t it! Imagine what one little decision in one’s life can lead to! In Lothar’s case, it was a world record pike that has dominated the record list for now almost 35 years. Surely though, there must be bigger pike out there, mustn’t there?

Why Is It Called a Northern Pike?

Let’s take a closer look at the pike’s name and dissect it:

“Northern”

The word northern in northern pike clearly has a geographical meaning, as the northern pike is primarily found in the northern hemisphere (even the southern pike is geographically belonging to the north).

Research states that the pike’s distribution is limited to the northern hemisphere, due to the fact that

“Pike”

The word pike is a Middle English term, which was a pole-weapon and literally means “pointed”. Middle English was spoken between the years of 1055 and 1500.

As the northern pike must have had a clear resemblance to this ancient weapon, people who were catching and eating it started to name the species pike.

Other Names for Northern Pike

other names for northern pike
Courtesy of Nathan Edgell

Depending on where in the world you live, the pike can have plenty of different names. Here are a few examples from around the globe:

United Kingdom

The northern pike is a very popular game fish in the United Kingdom. Most commonly, it is simply called a “pike” or “jack”.

In the olden days, the pike was often referred to as “luce” (fully grown pike) or “luci” (young pike) when being used in Middle Age heraldry. This nickname would eventually be used to form its Latin name Esox lucius.

Germany

In Germany, common name for pike can include “freshwater crocodile”, “Esox” or “water wolf”. In German, the pike is called “Hecht”.

Sweden

In Sweden, the northern pike is sometimes referred to as a “slime cucumber”. The Swedish word for pike is “gädda”.

Russia

As the pike is one of the most commonly fished for species in Russia, it is a very popular fish, which goes under the name “Shchuka” in Russian.

USA & Canada

Here, the pike probably has its widest variety of different names. Depending on the region, it can be called:

  • common pike
  • lakes pike
  • great northern pike
  • northern
  • snake
  • slough shark
  • snot rocket
  • slimer
  • gator
  • jack
  • jackfish

Why Are Northern Pike Called Jackfish?

In both the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., the northern pike is sometimes referred to as jack or jackfish. This nickname actually has quite an interesting story to it.

Legend has it that the British explorer Alexander MacKenzie, while exploring the newly discovered American west, hired a cook to accompany him on his travels.

That cook was named Jack. Jack was a passionate fisherman who liked to fish for pike, which, during those times, was more than abundant in the lakes and rivers of North America.

As he was catching plenty of pike all the time, he naturally served it frequently at supper time. So much so, that MacKenzie and his men started to call the served pike for Jack’s fish, or simply jackfish. Unfortunately, it is not mentioned if they also got fed up with eating pike all the time, so one can only speculate.

Related Pike Articles

Here are some related articles on pike and pike fishing that you may find helpful.

Feature image courtesy of Raymond Young

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