Life History of a Fish: Northern Pike

I am a northern pike. Not everyone knows anything about me and my kind. Those who do either like us a lot or dislike us intensely. For the increasing number of people who do like us we provide excellent sport angling as we are large, fierce predators with a reputation for being aggressive and there are many interesting and important “tricks” to learning how to catch us. In addition, it appears, for some people we simply taste good. On the other side of the fence a significant number of humans loathe us as we predate voraciously and efficiently on other fish species which may have been their preferred target species. There are places in Ireland, Alaska and elsewhere where excellent fishing for trout or salmon has been severely impacted by the introduction of my species, and we are very difficult to eradicate once we become established. 

Whether you love me or hate me, I am an important part of the ecosystem wherever I am found and am often an appealing sport fishing target and still an important food source in some areas. I am called the “northern pike” because I am found in the northern hemisphere in a broad band from the eastern European shores right through Europe, Asia and Siberia and then across to California and the northern states of the USA to the Atlantic seaboard.  My species has many names. In France I’m known as brochet, in Hungary – csuka, in Finland – hauki, and in North America, apart from simply the pike, I am called many names including jack, jackfish, snake, slough snake, slough shark and gator – often depending on the area and size of pike. Scientists call me “Esox Lucius” and place me in a small family, the Esocidae, that includes similar species such as my slightly larger cousin the muskellunge (Esox muskellunge) which inhabits some of my range in North America and confuses many people. Humans also recently separated off a new pike species, Esox cisalpinus or southern pike, which they found in Italy

We are called “pike” because, a long time ago, some people saw a similarity between my species and the “pike” – a long, sharp spear-type weapon. I am indeed long and thin with a large mouth full of fearsome teeth at the front. In terms of proportions, my mouth must be among the largest found in fish and it can open particularly wide. I am what humans call an “ambush predator” in that I spend a lot of time in cover or just “hanging” in the water column waiting for suitable prey to blunder into my “kill zone” which is close and directly in front of me. We have very large fins and, when we are about to dart forward, we bend our bodies into an “S” shape and then suddenly shoot forward propelled by these fins. Then, as we rapidly open our mouths, our prey is automatically sucked into the vacuum created. 

an unusually colored northern pike
Northern pike are normally dark-greenish with lighter bean-shaped spots, but coloration may vary across the range. Photo credit: Pergető Kalandok

Our teeth are not only strong and sharp, but they are inclined slightly backwards and so a struggling fish will tend to gravitate further down our throats the more they wriggle. Initially, we usually grab large prey side on and then manipulate them to be swallowed head-first.  We have very large eyes which we use to locate prey which is mostly fish or frogs, while small pike usually predate on invertebrates and things like tadpoles. We mostly feed during daylight hours when we can best see our potential prey. Because we are long and fairly thin, we look small and unthreatening when we approach our prey head on. Our colors, which are mostly mottled greens, yellows and black, help us blend into our backgrounds and this assists us escape detection from potential prey or predators, which are all too often larger pike. 

Our breeding cycle is straightforward in that in springtime we gravitate to shallowish water, usually with good weedbeds, where male and female fish come together and spawn. Spawning takes place at temperatures around 9 degrees Centigrade (48 degrees Farenheit). Each female produces large numbers of 2.5-3 millimeter diameter eggs which are deposited among the weeds. Initial hatching rates are apparently good, but then, sadly, many of our young fall prey to cannibalism – firstly from some of the adults in the vicinity, but fairly soon thereafter from our own cohorts. We grow very rapidly if adequate food is available and, in the early stages, most food is small invertebrates such as daphnia. 

Most of us live for about 10 -15 years but a few have been reported to live up to 25 years of age, growing slowly and continuously. Unlike some other species, our European members seem to grow slightly larger than we do in the USA. The largest pike recorded in Europe was 150 centimeters (59 in.) and 28.4 kilograms (63 lbs.). The largest American pike on record was a specimen of 21 kilograms (46 lbs.) and it was caught in New York State in 1940.  Reports of much larger, in fact monster pike, circulate from time to time, but many are incorrect being a result of confusion with our muskellunge colleagues or optimistic exaggerations. 

As our appearance suggests, we are an ancient and proud species with a record going back about 2.5 million years, while “pike-like” fish fossils date as far back as around 80 million years ago. Like the crocodile, we evolved a successful and efficient form, set of “tools” and way of living long ago and, basically, we have stuck with it, apart from a few small modifications in recent millennia, as our target species developed and changed. Being able to eat a wide variety of fish as well as amphibians and even some birds and reptiles, the target does not really matter as long as it can fit into our mouths and we are able to digest the victim. One of the reasons why some people dislike us is that when we are introduced to a new waterbody we will predate heavily on whatever fish species are present. In some areas we have spread by “accident” while in others, anglers have purposefully brought us in to improve the sport fishing. 

angler and pike
Pike fishing can take you to the most remote corners of the world. Photo credit: River Fishing Mongolia

We can survive in water bodies where we are the only fish species, but then we tend to grow slowly, eating mostly our own species supplemented by whatever else is able to be engulfed. Unfortunately, for some specialist anglers, we can and will, impact the fish species composition in new areas. Where, in the past salmonids – like trout or salmon species – were the top predators, we can really upset old balances, change species abundance and ratios and markedly alter fishermen’s catches. As a result, we really should not be moved without serious consideration of all potential impacts to see if the advantages of having us outweighs our negative impacts. Once we have been introduced, and have succeeded in spawning, it is usually almost impossible to remove us without draining, or even poisoning, a whole waterbody. 

We best like slow moving, sluggish river waters or the still water of dams or lakes. We move around within the water bodies generally preferring the deeper waters in winter and the shallower areas and margins in spring and summer. Although we are mostly solitary, we do congregate at spawning times and occasionally when large, local food sources become available. Freshwater is our domain and yet we can tolerate brackish, or even some marine areas. In the Baltic Sea we are well known for forming aggregations around shoals of “bait” fish, although we do prefer the less saline areas of that sea. Much of the time we lie quietly along the margins of vegetation, or simply hang still in the water column, waiting for prey to come too close for their own good. In the wild we very rarely take dead prey and yet some anglers have discovered that we can take dead prey/bait if suitably presented. As adults we are mostly territorial, however, and usually anglers move around a waterbody trying to find spots where some of us are feeding.   

As was mentioned earlier, where we occur we are regarded as “top predators” and we have really earned this position. All other fish species tend to live in perpetual terror of us and, if we are present in a waterbody, its character will be very different from a neighbouring lake with no pike. Anglers regard us as an aggressive, hard fighting and sometimes elusive target but there is now a veritable army of pike specialist angling enthusiasts that sometimes go to enormous lengths and expense, to try and target very large members of our species. 

In terms of fishing, we can be almost all things to all fishermen. From the specialist, active fly fisherman, to the more sedentary, passive bait fisherman, we can provide excellent sport and, if necessary and all too often, a tasty meal. In the past, most anglers fished for pike using traditional spinning gear with fairly large and bright artificial lures. The lures could be solid, shiny, metal ones right through to multi articulated plastic “doodlebugs”. Being such a voracious predator, we find it difficult not to “take” a suitable looking lure that is cast into, or near our, “kill zone”. 

To catch a pike on a fly, try large flies and fast, erratic retrieve. Photo credit: Minor Bay Lodge

While spinning with lures is still popular among pike anglers, some found that we are also attracted to suitable dead baits (mostly fish), that are cast near cover where some of us reside. Float fishing using dead, or sometimes live, bait can be very appealing to us and many of my friends and family have been lured away by such unfair practices. In recent decades fly fishing for my species has grown to become productive and popular. The fly patterns used vary greatly in terms of size and colors, but generally we are attracted by a large fly, fast, but erratic, retrieve and this often precipitates a strike. 

One of our earliest and most successful assets that we developed, our very sharp teeth, are the bane of non-pike anglers in waters with resident pike. Anglers who target us usually use heavy nylon or even wire traces near the bait or lure as we usually end up, at the end of a long fight, desperately shaking our heads near the surface in order to rid ourselves of the lure, bait, or fly thus, often cutting the line. Unlike many other freshwater species, we can be caught throughout the year but, while in warmer times we are often in shallow water, in winter we tend to be in deeper waters and generally move more slowly. Apart from occasionally finding dead bait by smell, we really are “optic” feeders and rely heavily on our eyesight to locate and grab prey. Almost all pike fishing is thus carried out during daylight and even small “bait” fish have little to fear from pike after dark. 

We really are a magnificent species, feared by all other residents of the waterbodies and favoured by many specialist anglers. We dominate many rivers and lakes and have even been recorded eating snakes and trying to devour birds as big as swans. We cause many small injuries to anglers, usually after we have been landed, but are otherwise no threat to humans. All in all, we are a great benefit to mankind, in terms of food and entertainment and a natural “pike fishery” usually requires little actual management. While we do apparently taste good, many pike anglers spend much time trying to catch their own largest pike and I strongly recommend catch and release for my species.  We can live many years and letting us go, if we are handled carefully, will result in us growing even bigger to be able to be caught again.

Leave a Reply