Pike Biology
By Tim Mead        July 12, 2012

The fighter in the middle of a battle
The fighter in the middle of a battle

From time-to-time, I get asked basic questions about pike fishing.   Here’s an effort to answer some of the questions that pop into my inbox.

Northern pike are a master freshwater predator.   In most systems where they are found, pike are the top-of-the-food-chain predator.  

Pike are elongated with a large and flattened, duckbill-like head.   The jaws have numerous teeth, sloping toward the rear.   Dorsal and anal fins are located toward the rear of the body.   Pike vary in color from green to brown on the dorsal side to white on the belly.   On the flanks, pike have multiple bean-shaped white to yellow spots.  

Pat Johnson with fine pike, notice the spots!
Pat Johnson with fine pike, notice the spots!

In North America, pike are distributed widely.   Native regions include Canada and the United States in the Great Lakes basin and northward.   Stocking has increased the range of the pike.   Pike are also found in northern Europe with Belgium,

Uli Beyer with a Baltic Monster
Uli Beyer with a Baltic Monster
Germany, England, Ireland and Sweden having major angling interest.   The Baltic Sea is sufficiently brackish -- that is to say “not to salty” -- to harbor monster pike.

While Esox lucius is the species most of us know, subspecies include the Amur pike, Esox reicherti, in the Amur River region separating Siberia and Manchuria, and the pike in Siberia, principally in the Ob’ River, Esox lucius baicalensis.  

Pike, as is true with many other critters, are dependent on the quality of their habitat.   Prime pike habitat is found in mesotrophic lakes with abundant eutrophic areas.   Pike are found in areas of aquatic vegetation, particularly various pond weed species (often called pike weed or cabbage).   Large pike are cold water fish and after shoreline areas warm, they seek deeper, colder water.   Smaller pike, up to 7- or 10-pounds, usually remain in shallow water near shore.  

Optimal water temperatures for pike range from 19° to 25° C (66°-77° F).  

Adult pike feed almost exclusively on other fish, principally on suckers and yellow perch.   Research shows the optimum size of prey for pike, that is the prey that maximizes reward for effort, is about one-third the length of the predator.   A 30-inch pike is best served by a 10-inch prey.   Suckers and yellow perch are both elongated species, easier for pike to swallow than rounder bluegills or bass.   No doubt, as suggested by many tales, adult pike also eat a variety of other prey -- crayfish, frogs, even ducklings.

Growth of pike is a function of density of pike, water quality, and abundance of food.   As is true with other fish species, many lakes have large numbers of small pike that compete for inadequate food supplies.   Once small pike take over, the population rarely holds trophies as the small fish cull the prey.

Pike grow to much larger sizes in Europe than in North America.   The North American record is a 20.97 kilo (46-pounds, 2-ounces) fish taken in Sacandaga Reservoir in New York, in 1940.  

Life Cycle of Pike

Spawning

Izaak Walton in The Complete Angler, accepted the ancient proposition that weeds, in appropriate ponds, became pike.   We now know better.

Pike accumulate near spawning areas usually before winter ice melts, probably a result of photo period stimuli.   In warmer regions, pike may mature sexually in a single year, but more typically mature pike are 2- or 3- years old.   Generally, pike seek shallow water with dark bottoms to spawn.   Shallow marshes are prime spots.   High water which floods otherwise dry marshes usually result in a large year class of pike.  

Actual spawning takes place in late afternoon when water temperatures are at a peak for the season.   The optimum temperature for the pike spawn is between 40° and 50° F.   In the event of an unusually late spring, pike may spawn under the ice.   In southern portions of the pike range, spawning takes place in March or April.   In northern reaches, spawning may take place as late as July.

Post-spawn

After spawning, pike disperse.   Among the spots that attract trophy pike in the post-spawn period are the mouths of creeks with spawning suckers.   In much of the pike range, a group of white pelicans hanging around a small creek will be a dead “give away” that pike are also in the area.  

Tim Mead (author) with Post Spawn Pike
Tim Mead (author) with Post Spawn Pike

In addition to dispersing, post-spawn pike also recuperate from the spawning effort.   Within a week or 10-days, this effort is usually completed.  

The post-spawn may be the best opportunity of the year to catch a trophy.   In northern Canada, for example, monster pike congregate in pods of 5- to 30-fish in shallow, warm water bays.   Warmer water may serve to speed metabolism, forage behavior, and recovery.   In any event, trophy pike are available to anglers during this period.

Trophy pike gradually move toward deeper and cooler water and forage on open water pelagic species.   Smaller pike linger in shallower water all summer.  

Summer

Once several warm days in a row, pike establish summer patterns.   Trophies generally move to deep water, though cool water creeks often congregate big fish in shallow water.   Rock humps or points also attract big pike in summer; they can move from deep water to shallow water with minimum effort.  

Summer time is classic, fish the weedbeds, time for pike.   Large numbers of mid-sized pike congregate in and around weedbeds, pond weeds (also called pike weed or cabbage), pencil reeds, and lily pads.   They forage on small fish, particularly shiners, suckers, or bullheads.   Surface temperatures are in the mid-70° range in much of pike country.  

Gordy Johnson With A Summer Pike
Gordy Johnson With A Summer Pike

Mid-size, of course, varies from region to region.   In prime pike country in northern Canada, mid-size pike range from 8- to 15-pounds.   In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in most lakes mid-size pike are in the upper 20-inches.

Fall

Long about the time ice begins to rim northern lakes on chilly mornings, only to melt rapidly, one of the best times for trophy pike begins.

Trophy pike move shallow again in a sort of fall feeding frenzy.   Weedbeds may still be a key location, as long as the weeds remain green.   Frost and waves break up weeds and dying weeds pull dissolved oxygen from the water as they decay.

Feeding is a major autumn pike activity.   Rocky humps, shoals, and points are spawning locations for pelagic bait fish.   Monster pike suspend off such spots to intercept the movement of spawning ciscoes.  

Winter

In much of the range of northern pike, lakes and some rivers freeze over.   Metabolism of cold water species, like pike, slows.   Pike are found close to prey rather than close to structural elements like humps, shoreline cover or other spots where pike are found in open water.   Pike often feed during winter on dead, but not rotted, prey which has sunk to the bottom.  

Pre-spawn

Before the ice melts, pike start moving toward spawning areas.   While heading toward spawning locations, pike are nonetheless seeking something good to eat.   They are opportunistic feeders during this period, chowing down on small fish, including dead fish, perhaps a duckling or some other critter that gets in the way.  

Pike metabolism is still slow.   They are not seeking something hard to catch.  

  

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           Last updated on March 13, 2018