Northern Pike are large predatory fish which are one of the world’s most successful freshwater predators. Pike are found in many locations across Europe and Northern America.
They are renowned as good fighters when caught which makes them extremely popular for anglers and are prized as game fish.
Pike are the largest predators which are native to the UK.
Pike are a species of fish of the genos Esox – or the pikes.
The Latin name is Esox Lucius and was historically known as luci, lucy or luce. This changed to pike because of their similarity in looks to weapons called the pike which itself comes from the Middle English word for “pointed”.
Their official name is now northern pike.
This has been shortened to simply “pike” in the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA. Other names given to the pike include jackfish, slough shark, gator (as their head is a similar shape to an alligators) and long head.
Northern Pike have been around for some time as fossilised remains have been found in Norfolk, UK and a 62 million year old Esox fossil was found in Canada.
The eating of pike has been recorded for culinary purposes as far back as the Romans. In medieval Europe, pike were introduced by monks to stew ponds to provide a steady supply of eating fish.
There are even reports of manor houses keeping a supply in their fishponds or moats to keep their kitchens supplied.
In the UK, it is common for anglers to catch pike and return them to the water. There are still places which regard pike as a good eating fish.
One issue with eating them for culinary purposes is that, unlike many other fish, they are extremely bony due to the Y-shaped (epipleural) bones between each flake of flesh.
For this reason, they are very difficult to de-bone and in some communities where pike is a popular eating fish, the ability to de-bone the fish without removing much flesh is a highly prized skill.
Distribution and Habitat
Northern Pike are common across the Northern Hemisphere and are widespread in Europe, Russia and Northern America.
They are mainly found in lakes, slow-flowing rivers and canals. Pike have been introduced to Morocco and can even be found in the mouths of rivers around the Baltic Sea.
Pike can be found in the weedy areas of lakes and reservoirs as well as in clear rocky waters. They can be found in any areas with an ample supply of fish for feeding.
Pike also require vegetation for spawning as, due to their cannibalistic nature, the small pike (or “Jacks”) may need to hide in the submerged vegetation. They are more likely to live in canals which are not heavily boated.
In areas where the pike have been introduced to fisheries or are spreading beyond their natural habitat they can be seen as damaging. In places such as Stormy Lake, Alaska, there have tried to eradicate their pike population by poisoning the lake.
The reason for this is they were concerned that they threatened the supply of bass, trout and salmon. In California, there is a law which requires anglers to remove the head of any pike they catch.
The shape of the northern pike is long and slender.
It looks like a long torpedo with a large, flattened head. The fins are positioned towards the back of the fish for rapid acceleration.
The lateral scale count is 110-130. The eyes are positioned slightly behind and above the mouth and are looking forwards.
The colour of the pike changes between fish, each is in fact unique to the pike. They are generally a green, olive colour with creamy yellow or white blotches.
The poem “Pike” by Ted Hughes describes it as “Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold. Killers from the egg, the malevolent aged grin”. With the smaller pike, they have lines until they grow and the lines will later divide into the blotches.
The head of the pike is worth a special mention. It has a large bony head which is somewhat like a crocodile or alligator’s. It has the look of a prehistoric predator. Their teeth are fearsome and razor sharp.
All are pointed backwards so that, once they have locked onto their prey there is little chance of escape. The top jaw contains smaller teeth (but just as sharp) and the bottom jaw contains longer teeth.
If it isn’t obvious at this point, it goes without saying that you will need specialist equipment to remove the hooks!
Northern Pike are often between 0.6 to 1.5 metres in length.
They can easily grow to over a metre and that is considered to be a good size in Europe. In North America the pike tend to be smaller and do not reach the size of the European stock.
Pike can weigh a substantial amount, but up to 35lb is considered to be very large. There is a direct link between the length and weight of the pike, so the longer the pike the heavier it will be!
The British record for a pike is an impressive (and slightly scary) 46lbs 13oz!
In Finland, catching a pike weighing over 10kg (22lb) means that you are thought to be a master fisherman! The International Game Fish Association recognises the largest catch as a 55lb monster from Greffern Lake in Germany. Imagine reeling that in!
In North America the pike tend to be slightly smaller. One of the largest specimens was from New York and weighed 21kg (46lb).
Pike can live for up to 25 years, but 15 years is thought to be typical.
How They Feed
Pike are incredibly aggressive feeders.
They have unlimited confidence and are territorial. They are ambush foragers, they will wait in camouflaged areas by of vegetation until their prey pass. They remain still by moving the last fin rays of the dorsal and pectoral fins.
They hunt by sight.
Once a target is found, they will rapidly accelerate to catch it. They accelerate by bending their bodies and, using their large caudal, dorsal and anal fins, to propel themselves.
The pike catch their prey in the side of their mouth with their backward pointing teeth and then turn it headfirst to swallow it.
Northern Pike are generally solitary feeders, however there have been reports from divers who have observed groups of similar sized pike hunting at the same time.
Pike generally eat smaller fish (including smaller pike). They are not particular and will even eat bony or spiny fish such as perch.
They have also been known to catch frogs, small mammals and ducklings. In one instance a large pike was found that had choked to death on a swan!
Jacks will begin to feed on invertebrates or insects until they are large enough to catch larger prey.
When the source of fish is low, pike are known cannibals as they hunt smaller pike. For this reason there can be a high young mortality rate. In cool summers pike will grow slowly and will not be able to reach a larger size to put off the larger pike.
Pike can spawn at around two years of age. Pike Spawn between March and May when the water reaches 9 degrees Celsius.
The eggs will not hatch if the water drops below 6 degrees. They return to the same place every year as they have strong homing behaviour. A mature female can produce up to 500,000 eggs.
The large amount of eggs is probably due to the high mortality rate amongst the jacks.
The eggs are usually orange or yellow and are 2.5 to 3 mm in diameter. The embryos can swim after hatching and are usually 7.5 to 10mm. They generally stay at the bottom of the water for some time before venturing out further.
How To Catch Pike
There really is nothing like fishing for pike. When they are feeding they will attack and bait and will really bend your rod. If that isn’t enough you will need to strike fast to stop it from swallowing the bait!
There are three main ways which you can use to catch pike: deadbait fishing, livebait fishing and lure fishing.
You can even fly fish for pike by using patterns that imitate small fry or invertebrates, which again shows the diversity of the pike’s diet. In larger lakes the float tube water craft is suitable for fly fishing for pike.
Pike prefer waters that are clear with weeds so this is a good place to cast your line. Pike fishing suits anglers who want to move around quite a bit to try different areas. The pike won’t move around too much so you need to take your bait to them.
Whichever method you prefer, make sure that you have good tackle with you for when you catch the pike.
If you can unhook them in the water this is preferable to protect them. Make sure that you have a good set of forceps as you do not want your fleshy finger getting caught in those teeth!
Dead baiting is probably the most popular method of catching pike. Although the pike does not have a strong sense of smell it can locate the baitfish by smell.
It is recommended to use a strong smelling oily sea fish such as herring, sardine, mackerel or sprats. This technique works the best in the winter when the metabolism of the pike is lower and therefore they are less likely to chase bait.
Strong rods are required for deadbaiting because of the large fish and the large bait and rigs that will be cast out.
A 3lb test curve is probably the best for deadbaiting, together with a reel which holds adequate heavy line. In regard to the line you will need a 15lb mono or a braid which is much heavier.
Always remember to use a wire trace as the pike’s razor sharp teeth will easily cut through mono, braid and fluoro. The line can be under a float or ledgered on the bottom.
It is quite possible that livebaits have been used for thousands of years once it became obvious that pike were predators. The northern pike’s staple diet is fish and therefore live baiting is probably an easily leap to make to catch pike.
Clearly, livebaiting is a controversial, so it is down to the angler whether he or she uses this method. Many countries have banned the use of live baiting for this reason.
Make sure to check with the fishery or club on whether livebaiting is allowed. It has been said that goldfish were good live bait for pike, however do not introduce foreign species into the water as it can introduce disease.
Any coarse bait which forms part of the pike’s natural diet can be used as live bait. Common bait include roach and skimmer bream as they are bright, shiny and can be caught easily.
Gudgeon are also popular and are favoured by predator anglers (and are also easy to catch). As with deadbaits, livebaits can be fished in a variety of methods.
As anyone who has looked online or been to a tackle shop knows, there are an endless amount of bright, beautiful and frankly weird lures on offer.
You can find pike lures which range from frogs to minnows to baby pike! There are also hard lures, spinners, spoons and jerkbait which have all met with success. We would recommend trying several different lures out to find what works for you.
Although pike look fearsome and somewhat sinister, they are in fact very delicate and it is important to take care when handling the fish and when placing them back in the water.
If you catch a pike try to make sure that your hands are not dry as it can easily damage their skin or disturb the mucus covering their skin which can lead to infections and possible death.
If the pike has been out of the water for some time for weighing or photographs it is important to give the fish adequate time to recover before fully releasing.
If you would like more information on how to fish for pike, check out our fishing tips page for more information!