Pickerel, Pike, and Muskie
Known affectionately as "water wolves" by recreational anglers, members of the pike family are famous for their predatory nature. Solitary fishes, they lurk in the shadows of weedbeds, submerged logs and ledges where their green or brassy color allows them to savagely ambush prey. Generally found in shallow, warm areas they are easily distinguished from other fishes by their long, slender bodies, pointed, toothy bills, forked tails and single dorsal fin located far back on the body.
Although there are several species in the pike family, three stand out in particular: chain pickerel which generally measure less than 24 inches, northern pike which can weigh in excess of 40 pounds, and muskellunge, which have been known to top the 60-pound mark.
You can pick out the chain pickerel easily by its generally smaller size, chain-like markings and fully scaled cheeks and gill covers. Northern pike feature light spots over a darker body while the markings on a muskie are laid over a lighter base.
- Members of the pike family generally prefer shallow, weedy bays, flats and cove areas, although the biggest of each species have a tendency to slip into deeper water to patrol channel edges.
- Look for pickerel and pike along the perimeter of largemouth bass hot spots. Both species can be found near any type of weedbed but show a marked preference for lily pads, cattails and grassy rather than mossy mats.
- Pickerel, pike and muskies seem to prefer natural wooden structure to man-made structure.
- Members of the pike family are primarily sight feeders. They are most often caught during daylight hours when waters are clear and visibility is good.
- For pickerel and pike, 8- to 12-pound test spinning gear is ideal. Standard freshwater bass gear will generally suffice but go heavier if big fish encounters are expected.
- For muskies, lines of 15-pound test and greater are often necessary.
- Use a 12- to 20-pound test, fine-wire leader when targeting pike and muskies to defeat the teeth of these aggressive predators.
- All members of the pike family have a tendency to follow lures for great distances before striking. Tempt these lurkers by working the lure in a tight figure eight pattern before lifting it out of the water.
- Although they will strike lures throughout the day, early morning hours are generally best for pursuing water wolves.
- Pike of all types like to attack from the side. When sight casting, be sure to retrieve your lure so it passes across the fish’s line of sight.
- For chain pickerel, use sizes 6 to 9 Panther Martin Classic All Silver or Classic All Gold, Panther Martin Dressed in rainbow trout, or Panther Martin Deluxe Holographic in green/gold.
- For northern pike, choose a size 12 to 20 Panther Martin spinner with a silver, gold or brightly colored blade. A Panther Martin Dressed Salmon Egg spinner can be deadly in the spring, while a FishSeeUV Salmon & Steelhead Marabou spinner in marabou UV lime tiger is great for early summer. For large northerns, a size 20 Panther Martin Muskie MaraBuck in gold/black/red, white/purple/blue, or gold fire tiger makes a great choice.
- When muskies are the target, the large profile of a Muskie MaraBuck in size 20 or 28 is tough to beat. Try an electric chicken or white/purple/blue in dark water, or a silver/red/black in clear water.
- In dark, tannin-stained waters or shadowy coves, Holy Hammered spinners in size 9 or 15 are a good bed for all members of the pike family. Try Holy Hammered Coral for pickerel, Holy Hammered Rainbow Brite for pike, and Holy Hammered Sunfish for muskies.
- In cold water, reel slowly to work your Panther Martin spinner just above submerged weeds. Panther Martin Spotted Red and Spotted Black spinners are especially effective following the first cold fronts of fall.
- As waters warm in early summer, buzz a Panther Martin spinner just below the surface so that it pushes up a large bulge on retrieve.
- For a big profile that signals a major meal to pickerel, pike, and muskies, retrieve a Sonic SizzleTail near the surface on shallow flats or just above weeds and structure in deeper water along channel edges.
- Panther Martin Dressed and Marabou spinners ride slightly higher in the water column than undressed spinners. Use the former for generating surface strikes with fast retrieves and the latter for working slowly just above submerged weeds.
- Big pike are often caught off points. Work smaller Panther Martin spinners in sizes 9 to 12 close to shore and select progressively larger sizes as you move out over deeper water.
- All members of the pike family patrol weed edges. Quickly retrieving a WeedRunner just below the surface along weed edges and across open pockets brings explosive strikes. Try a WeedRunner Silver White Ice in spring, Silver Root Beer in summer and Silver Strawberry in fall.
- When working Panther Martin Muskie Marabuck spinners for big northerns and muskies sharp direction changes often trigger strikes from following fish.
- When pike or pickerel are feeding aggressively, the bright flashed and holographic colors of Holy Hammered spinners can anger them from significant distances.
- Vivif Style Spinner Minnows work especially well on early season, cold water pickerel and pike. Choose super silver/silver blade, or use a holographic rainbow trout pattern with sliver blade in waters stocked with fingerling trout.
Pike Family Facts
- Pickerel, northern pike and muskie are among the first fishes to spawn after ice-out each spring. Early spawning increases the young predator’s chances of survival, because they are large enough to feed on the newly hatched young of other species.
- Regardless of the species, all pike are fast growers, with females growing bigger and living longer than males. Muskellunge reach ten to 12 inches in length by the time they are eight months old.
- On the smaller end of the pike scale, grass and redfin pickerel rarely exceed 12 inches. Muskellunge, the largest member of the family, may weigh more than 60 pounds.
- Northern pike are one of the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the world, and the only members of the pike family to occur in arctic environments.
- In addition to other fish, northern pike and muskie occasionally eat muskrats, turtles and even ducklings. They will strike at fish measuring up to half their body length.
- All pike species prefer weedy portions of rivers, ponds and lakes in spring - but large adults will often move offshore during the summer months.
- Due to their aggressive predatory nature, rapid growth and large size, pickerel and northern pike help control populations of smaller fish species.
- It can take an experienced angler more than 50 hours to catch a single muskie. Large specimens have tremendous strength and may take up to one hour to land.
- Tiger muskellunge are a hybrid cross between northern pike and muskellunge. While they occasionally occur naturally, these hybrids are sterile and cannot reproduce.
- Pike greatly reduce their feeding activity when water temperature exceeds 75 degrees.