Pike Species of New York (Upstate)

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About Pike, Pickerel, and Muskellunge

Pike fish parts

Pike are a family of predatory fish that include various forms of Pike, Pickerel and Muskellunge. New York State is home to 4 species, with two sub-species and one hybrid. The shape and coloration of each species is similar, but their size varies greatly. The Muskellunge is the largest and fastest-growing freshwater game fish in the state, with a record catch of 69 pounds. The Redfin Pickerel, however, rarely gets above 2. Pike have gained a reputation for being ferocious predators that seize any opportunity to feed, even if that means snagging a hooked fish as it’s being reeled in or attacking small pets or rodents unlucky enough to swim through their hunting grounds. Stories circulate of attacks and lost fingers of unfortunate swimmers and fisherman. Their dangerously fierce reputation is largely undeserving and most exciting stories of their shark-like habits turn out to be tall tales. As a top-level aquatic predator, pike are often blamed for fish population declines, an accusation that holds little truth as well. Pike are, in fact, efficient predators that play an important role helping to control fish populations in many parts of the world. Throughout the northern hemisphere, they keep populations of smaller, more productive fish in check. These populations could explode sans predation, and could cause detrimental shifts in many ecosystems.

The Pike’s torpedo-shaped body, with its large mouth, sharp teeth and massive eyes fit perfectly for ambush predation. Its olive-mottled skin blends in perfectly with shallow weeds, where it floats and waits for fish to pass by. It folds its body slightly, allowing it to spring forward at the blink of an eye. Favoring the larger fish, it snaps its massive jaws across the body of its prey and begins to work it around so it can swallow it head-first. With spiny-finned prey often being the target, swallowing head-first helps to fold the fins down for a more comfortable meal. The Pike’s attack is quick and sometimes indiscriminate. They will attack floating junk, hooked fish and even their own species. Juveniles “with eyes larger than their mouths,” often take on larger prey than they can swallow. They swim around with the prey’s tail sticking out of their mouths, until their digestive juices melt them down to a manageable size. As sport fish, Pike are favorites. Although not very common, they are aggressive and readily strike a wide variety of bait. Once hooked, they put up a fight that can make an angler’s weekend. The larger species, such as the Muskellunge provide a great challenge and make excellent trophy fish, although we highly recommend snapping a photo and releasing immediately. The details presented below generally represent adult specimens, not juveniles. A Walleye is often referred to as a Walleye Pike or Yellow Pike. This is incorrect. Walleyes are members of the Perch family.

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Fishing Books and Guides

New York State Pike, Pickerel, and Muskellunge Identification Guide

Chain PickerelChain PickerelChain PickerelFind more images of this species on Bing

Chain Pickerel (Esox niger)

AKA: Federation pike, Federation pickerel Identifying characteristics: Streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened, but not quite duck-billed snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The color ranges from olive-brown to yellowish-green and has a distinct chain-link pattern on its sides. The gill covers and cheeks are scaled. A dark line runs from the eye to the lower jaw. Underneath the lower jaw are 8 sensory spots. Size: From 12 to 24 inches in length and weighing from 1 to 2 pounds. Females grow faster and larger than males. New York State record: 8 lb. 1 oz. (2/13/65) Habitat: Shallow waters with abundant vegetation. Often slow-moving creeks and rivers, or the backwaters of lakes. Tolerant of warmer waters. General range: Lakes, ponds and large streams east of the Genesee River and south of the Adirondacks (including some water systems in the southern Adirondacks). Not found in the Genesee or Allegheny River systems. Food: Smaller shallow-water fish, including pike. When other fish are scarce, or the opportunity arises, may feed on frogs, birds and rodents. Recommended baiting: Fish near shore in heavily vegetated areas. Most baits will work (minnows, spinners, lures). The Chain Pickerel is active in winter making it a favored ice fishing catch. Although this fish may seem tough, it isn’t. Specifically fragile mouth parts are a concern. Great care is needed not to harm the fish when removing hooks. Small injuries can lead to death. Predators: Pretty much all larger predatory fish and some birds of prey. They reproduce early and grow quickly in order to avoid predation. Stocked? Chain Pickerel are native and maintain wild breeding populations. Reproduction: Spawning occurs in early spring in swampy, marshy or flooded areas. The adhesive eggs are dropped in random places and stick to whatever they come in contact with. It takes a few weeks for eggs to hatch and the young remain in the swampy areas for another month. Pike reproduce early in order to avoid predation of their young and to give them a jump-start on growth. By the time other fish species hatch, young Pike are already hunting. Using seasonal flood plains for spawning usually leads to large numbers of juveniles becoming stranded and dying as the water recedes. The young are often considered to school, but this may be due to their proximity and numbers after hatching. They will often attack each other, honing their hunting skills. Nesting: No nesting habits. Other Info.: Although edible, this fish is usually not the intended catch. A tough fish to clean and debone; it is usually thrown back. Adults are solitary, only coming together to spawn.

Grass PickerelGrass PickerelFind more images of this species on Bing

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

AKA: American pickerel The Grass Pickerel and Redfin Pickerel are subspecies of the American Pickerel. Identifying characteristics: Streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened, but not quite duck-billed snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The color ranges from olive-brown to yellowish-green and has a distinct chain-link pattern on its sides. The gill covers and cheeks are scaled. A dark line runs from the eye to the lower jaw. Underneath the lower jaw are 8 sensory spots. Size: Up to 12 inches in length and rarely over a pound. Females grow faster and larger than males. New York State record: 2 lb. 1 oz. (3/5/89) – this is the record for the American Pickerel, classified under the Redfin Pickerel. Habitat: Shallow waters with abundant vegetation. Often small, slow-moving creeks and ponds. Tolerant of warmer waters. General range: The Great Lakes basin and Allegheny watershed (western NY) Food: Smaller shallow water fish (including each other), insects and crustaceans. Recommended baiting: Fish near shore in heavily vegetated streams, ponds and marshes. Most baits will work (minnows, spinners, lures) It’s a small fish, but it will put up a decent fight, making it a great catch for younger anglers. Although this fish may seem tough, it isn’t. Specifically fragile mouth parts are a concern. Great care is needed not to harm the fish when removing hooks. Small injuries can lead to death. Predators: Pretty much all larger predatory fish and some birds of prey. They reproduce early and grow quickly in order to avoid predation. Stocked? Grass Pickerel are native and maintain wild breeding populations. Reproduction: Spawning occurs in early spring (March/April) in swampy, marshy or flooded areas, upstream. The adhesive eggs are dropped in random places and stick to whatever they come in contact with. It takes a few weeks for eggs to hatch and the young remain in the swampy areas for another month. Pike reproduce early in order to avoid predation of their young and to give them a jump-start on growth. By the time other fish species hatch, young Pickerel are already hunting. Using seasonal flood plains for spawning usually leads to large numbers of juveniles becoming stranded and dying as the water recedes. The young are often considered to school, but this may be due to their proximity and numbers after hatching. They will often attack each other, honing their hunting skills. Nesting: No nesting habits. Other Info.: Although edible, this fish is usually not the intended catch. It is small in size, as well as a tough fish to clean and debone, so it is usually thrown back. Adults are solitary, only coming together to spawn.

MuskellungeMuskellungeMuskellungeFind more images of this species on Bing

Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)

AKA: Muskie, Musky, Muskelunge, Muscallonge, Maskinonge Identifying characteristics: Large, streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened, but not quite duck-billed snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The color ranges from brownish to greenish to silvery often with dark bars on its sides and usually the dorsal, anal and tail fins. The fins have a reddish-brown hue to them. Only the top half of the cheeks and gill covers have scales. A dark line runs from the eye to the lower jaw. Underneath the lower jaw are at least a dozen sensory spots. Size: Averaging from 1 to 5 feet in length and often weighing over 40 pounds. Females grow faster and larger than males. This is the largest game fish in the state. New York State record: 69 lb. 15 oz. (9/22/57) Habitat: Heavily vegetated sections of large lakes and of slow-moving river segments. They tend to stick to shallow waters, but will move to deeper sections as they grow. Tolerant of warmer temperatures, but these fish stick to cooler waters than other Pike. General range: In NY State they are found in the upper Niagara River; the St. Lawrence and Allegheny, and Chaz River systems; Chautauqua and Black Lakes. Lake Erie and western Ontario, as well as several other river systems and moderately-sized lakes have small breeding populations or stocking programs, but catches are rare. Food: The Muskie’s size is quite an advantage. It eats a wide variety of smaller fish (including smaller pike), frogs, birds and rodents. Juveniles feed on algae and insects. Recommended baiting: Bring large lures and a lot of patience. Even the most experienced Muskie angler will find it can take several days to land one. Muskies don’t feed much in winter so get them when they begin feeding in early spring. Cast cranks, jerks or spinners near shallow, warmer waters (wherever baitfish will congregate). Great care is needed not to harm the fish when removing hooks. Small injuries can lead to death. Predators: Pretty much all larger predatory fish and some birds of prey. They reproduce early and grow quickly in order to avoid predation. The larger Muskies have only humans to worry about. Stocked? Yes, although there are native breeding populations. Reproduction: Spawning occurs in early spring in swampy or marshy areas stemming from their home body of water. The preferred water is shallow and warm. The males congregate days before the females. During spawning the males thrash wildly, helping to disperse the eggs. The adhesive eggs are dropped in random places and stick to whatever they come in contact with. The females leave a few days after, but the males stick around, not to protect the eggs per se, but they do benefit by feeding on anything that swims along for a Muskie egg meal. Unfortunately, Northern Pike spawn earlier in these locations. When Muskellunge young hatch, the Northerns are ready to feed on them. Nesting: No nesting habits. Other Info.: Two strains of Muskie are found in New York State. The St. Lawrence strain is generally found in the rivers leading to Lake Ontario, while the Ohio strain can be found in the Allegheny River, Chautauqua Lake, and is stocked in several other places. Muskellunge meat is considered tasty and they make great trophies. One of the most challenging game fish to land, it can take an experienced angler countless attempts to catch. Once hooked, a fight can last an hour or more. It’s certain that catching one of significant size is rewarding. Most anglers recognize their scarcity in this region and practice responsible catch-and-release.

Northern PikeNorthern PikeNorthern PikeFind more images of this species on Bing

Northern Pike (Esox lucius)

AKA: Pike Identifying characteristics: Large, streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened, but not quite duck-billed snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The color ranges from olive-green to brown with light (often elongated or bean-shaped) spots on its sides and usually the dorsal, anal and tail fins. Only the top half of the cheeks and gill covers have scales. Underneath the lower jaw are no more than 12 sensory spots. Size: Averaging from 18 to 20 inches in length, but can reach several feet. They average 1 to 3 pounds, but specimens over 20 pounds are caught regularly. Females grow faster and larger than males. New York State record: 46 lb. 5 oz. (9/15/40) Habitat: Heavily vegetated sections of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Rocky sections of colder, deeper waters. They tend to stick to shallow waters, but will move to deeper sections as they grow. In large lakes they tend to stick to bays or marshy areas. They are highly tolerant of water conditions. General range: Northern Pike are one of the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the world. They can be found in much of the northern hemisphere. In NY State they are found in all the major lake drainage basins, but not in the southern tier. Food: A wide variety of smaller fish (including smaller pike), insects, frogs, small birds and rodents. Northerns may breed in the same locations as the Muskellunge, only earlier in the season. Northern juveniles will hatch sooner and grow quicker, allowing them to feast on eggs and newborn Muskies. Recommended baiting: Fish near shore in heavily vegetated areas in spring. Most baits will work (minnows, spinners, lures). The Northern is active in winter making it a favored ice fishing catch. Although this fish may seem tough, it isn’t. Specifically fragile mouth parts are a concern. Great care is needed not to harm the fish when removing hooks. Small injuries can lead to death. Predators: Pretty much all larger predatory fish and some birds of prey. They reproduce early and grow quickly in order to avoid predation. Stocked? Yes, although there are native breeding populations. Reproduction: Spawning occurs in early spring in swampy or marshy areas stemming from their home body of water. The preferred water is shallow and warm. The males congregate days before the females. The adhesive eggs are dropped in random places and stick to whatever they come in contact with. The females leave a few days after, but the males stick around, not to protect the eggs per se, but they do benefit by feeding on anything that swims along for a Muskie egg meal. Northern Pike are some of the fastest growing fish in our area. Nesting: No nesting habits. Other Info.: Northern are considered to be the tastiest of the pike we have here. They are relatively easy to hook, and present a decent challenge to reel in. Their activity in winter also makes them an excellent ice-fishing trophy. They’re just as important to the ecosystem in New York as they are to sport fishing. As an abundant top-level predator, they help control populations of feeder fish. Northern seem to compete directly with Muskellunge and nudge them out.

Redfin PickerelRedfin PickerelFind more images of this species on Bing

Redfin Pickerel (Esox americanus americanus)

AKA: American pickerel, Brook pickerel The Grass Pickerel and Redfin Pickerel are subspecies of the American Pickerel. Identifying characteristics: Streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened, but not quite duck-billed snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The color ranges from olive-brown to yellowish-green and a wavy-line pattern on its sides. The fins have a red tint to them. The gill covers and cheeks are scaled. A dark line runs from the eye to the lower jaw. Underneath the lower jaw are 8 sensory spots. Due to a similar appearance, they are often mistaken for the Chain pickerel. Size: Up to 13 inches in length and rarely over a pound. Females grow faster and larger than males. New York State record: 2 lb. 1 oz. (3/5/89) – this is the record for the American Pickerel, classified under the Redfin Pickerel. Habitat: Shallow waters with abundant vegetation. Often small, slow-moving creeks and ponds. Tolerant of warmer waters. General range: The great Lakes basin and Allegheny watershed (western NY) Food: Smaller shallow water fish (including each other), insects, and crustaceans. Recommended baiting: Fish near the shore in heavily vegetated streams, ponds and marshes. Most baits will work (minnows, spinners, lures) It’s a small fish, but it will put up a decent fight, making it a great catch for younger anglers. Although this fish may seem tough, it isn’t. Specifically fragile mouth parts are a concern. Great care is needed not to harm the fish when removing hooks. Small injuries can lead to death. Predators: Pretty much all larger predatory fish and some birds of prey. They reproduce early and grow quickly in order to avoid predation. Stocked? Redfin Pickerel are native and maintain wild breeding populations. Reproduction: Spawning occurs in early spring (March/April) in swampy, marshy or flooded areas, upstream. The adhesive eggs are dropped in random places and stick to whatever they come in contact with. It takes a few weeks for eggs to hatch and the young remain in the swampy areas for another month. Pike reproduce early in order to avoid predation of their young and to give them a jump-start on growth. By the time other fish species hatch, young Pickerel are already hunting. Using seasonal flood plains for spawning usually leads to large numbers of juveniles becoming stranded and dying as the water recedes. The young are often considered to school, but this may be due to their proximity and numbers after hatching. They will often attach each other, honing their hunting skills. Nesting: No nesting habits. Other Info.: Although edible, this fish is usually not the intended catch. Its small size, as well as being a tough fish to clean and debone, it is usually thrown back. Adults are solitary, only coming together to spawn.

Tiger MuskellungeTiger MuskellungeFind more images of this species on Bing

Tiger Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy x lucius)

The Tiger Pickerel is hybrid of the Muskellunge and the Northern Pike. Identifying characteristics: Large, streamlined, torpedo-shaped body with flattened, but not quite duck-billed snout. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper. The eyes and mouth are large. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and opposite each other on the back third of the body. The color is a light brownish to cream often with dark bars on its sides and spots on the dorsal, anal and tail fins (like the Muskellunge). The fins have a reddish-brown hue to them. Only the top half of the cheeks and gill covers have scales (like the Northern Pike). Underneath the lower jaw are roughly 10-14 sensory spots. Size: Averaging from 2 to 4 feet in length and often weighing over 30 pounds. Generally larger than the Northern Pike, but not as large as the Muskellunge. Females grow faster and larger than males. These are the fastest growing Pike in New York. New York State record: 35 lb. 8 oz. (5/25/90) Habitat: Heavily vegetated sections of large lakes and of slow-moving river segments. They tend to stick to shallow waters, but will move to deeper sections as they grow. Tolerant of warmer temperatures, but stick to relatively cooler waters than other Pike. General range: They are found in numerous lakes and streams in New York State; including the Mohawk and Susquehanna River systems. Moderately-sized lakes such as Conesus, Otisco, Cossayuna, Durant and many others (check DEC stocking information for specifics) Food: A wide variety of smaller fish (including smaller pike), frogs, birds, and rodents. Recommended baiting: Fish near shore in heavily vegetated areas in spring. Most baits will work (minnows, spinners, lures). The Northern is active in winter making it a favored ice fishing catch. Although this fish may seem tough, it isn’t. Specifically fragile mouth parts are a concern. Great care is needed not to harm the fish when removing hooks. Small injuries can lead to death. Predators: Pretty much all larger predatory fish and some birds of prey. They reproduce early and grow quickly in order to avoid predation. Stocked? Yes, although Tigers may appear naturally in the wild, the vast majority are stocked. The DEC stocks these fish regularly for sport fishing. Reproduction: As a hybrid species, the Tiger Muskellunge cannot reproduce, although many specimens will certainly join with either the Muskies or Northerns to try. The state DEC mates Muskies and Northerns in captivity. Nesting: No nesting habits. Other Info.: This hybrid combines the strength and size of the Muskie with the easier catch of the Northerns. Additionally, the interesting color patterns and specific waters they are stocked in, help make it one of the more sought out game fish.

Note
Some fish images originally prepared by Ellen Edmonson and Hugh Chrisp as part of the 1927-1940 New York Biological Survey. Permission for use granted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Others were acquired from the public domain. Some are used as part of a Creative Commons license.

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