Northern pike (Esox)
Northern pike are often called freshwater sharks and their physical make-up is ideally suited for the kind of hunting they do. Since they live and ambush prey around weeds and other aquatic vegetation, their coloring provides a camouflage that blends in with their surrounding environment. The background color of their back and sides is a dark olive green to greenish brown, with lighter oval spots running horizontally along their body. Their bellies are a solid creamy white. Pike fins are round, as opposed to their cousin, the muskellunge, which are pointed. The head is long and the mouth flat like a ducks bill. Pike also have many rows of sharp teeth that will quickly damage whatever prey they strike. Pike are also fast swimmers and can chase after prey at about 8 to 10 miles per hour.
At the fry and fingerling stages of life, a pike’s diet consists of invertebrates such as zooplankton and aquatic insects until they reach juvenile status. Then fish such as darters, minnows, and small bass and perch become the main food source. As pike grow, so does the size of their food. By the time they mature, pike will eat anything they can swallow without choking, including frogs, salamanders, crayfish, small mammals, and birds, but they will still feed mainly on other fish. Pike are solitary hunters and feed mainly by sight, usually during daylight hours. They tend to lurk in the weeds, lying in wait for their next meal to swim by.
Pike are native to northern states in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin – as well as every province in Canada except Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Northerns are also native to many waters in Europe. Pike have also been introduced to every state except Alabama, Delaware, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with varying degrees of success.
Within their native and introduced ranges, pike will live in a variety of waters, in large or small lakes or rivers and marshes with slow currents. They do not survive well in waters with low or fluctuating water levels. Protected coves and bays with shallow, thick vegetation are a necessity for spawning, feeding, and cover, and deep water is required for summer survival.
The pike’s preferred temperature range is 59 to 70 F, but they will tolerate temperatures up to 85 F for short periods of time. They usually travel to cooler water in the summer, wherever optimum temperatures, available prey and adequate vegetation are present.
Aside from temperature requirements, pike are very tolerant fish. They can tolerate pH levels as high as 9.5, 7 percent salinity, and dissolved oxygen as low as .7mg/L, which will usually produce a large winterkill for other fish.
- Pike can often be infected with several different parasites. The broad tapeworm can infect humans if the fish is not cooked thoroughly. A cestode parasite may also use the pike as a host. A trematode, another parasite, causes cysts on the pikes skin.
- Fisheries managers have tried to domesticate the pike but have had no luck. The pike will also not accept artificial food.
- Because northerns are at the top of the food chain and eat smaller fish, they will accumulate toxins such as mercury and pesticides in their bodies that were in the smaller fish. Always check local consumption advisories before keeping and eating northern pike.