Northern Pike

Esox lucius

  • Pike teeth are sharper than most freshwater gamefish.
  • Although pike are common in Michigan, pike populations are sensitive to a variety of problems.
  • Being aggressive to a fault, pike are also relatively easy to catch.


The northern pike is truly a northern fish and is found at moderate- to high-latitudes throughout the northern hemisphere. The name “pike” is shared with a long medieval weapon similar to a spear. Large pike are sometimes called “gators” and small pike can be called “hammer handles.”


Life History

One of the first fish to spawn after ice out, pike move to shallow wetlands in late winter or early spring. In many lakes, habitat destruction from shoreline development and filling of wetlands has led to a decline in pike numbers. Managed spawning marshes are sometimes constructed to compensate for the loss.

As pike grow older they become less tolerant of warm water. Small pike can be found in shallow weed beds through the summer, but large pike head for deep water (if there is adequate oxygen) or seek cold springs, creek mouths and other connected Great Lakes habitats.


Pike are visual predators that often lie motionless at the edge of weed beds waiting for an easy meal. As they grow, pike switch to larger and larger prey. Lakes that contain suckers, ciscoes, trout, smelt or some other large, soft-finned forage species are most likely to produce trophy-sized pike. Yellow perch, chubs and various other minnows are also on the menu, but spiny, deep-bodied fish like bluegill are not preferred because they are difficult for pike to swallow. In some lakes, large pike can become cannibalistic when there is a lack of preferred prey.


Management Issues

Although pike are common in Michigan lakes and low-current areas of many rivers, pike populations are sensitive to a variety of problems. Warming temperatures, filling of wetlands, excess nutrients from fertilizers and stormwater runoff, habitat fragmentation from dams and road crossings, land use changes, and aquatic plant removal can change habitats in ways that harm pike or favor other species that prefer warmer, murkier water.

Being aggressive to a fault, pike are also relatively easy to catch. This means that large pike can be fished out quickly by skilled anglers in some lakes. To complicate things for managers, other lakes are home to abundant slow-growing pike that actually benefit from high harvest. Michigan’s fishing regulations for pike attempt to account for these differences by allowing for harvest of abundant small pike in lakes where stunting is a problem (where adult fish don’t grow as large as they can because of overpopulation and limited resources).

Water temperatures above 82˚ F are lethal to pike, and several southern Michigan lakes and rivers experienced pike die-offs during the summer of 2012 due to elevated temperatures.


Fishing for Pike

Large pike are popular gamefish and are targeted year-round on Great Lakes waters. Inland waters have a closed season to protect spawning pike, but offer ice fishing in winter and open water fishing for the remainder of the year.

Anglers target pike using a variety of lures that are cast or trolled, with relatively large slim-bodied lures being popular because they mimic preferred prey. Perch and firetiger colors are dependable options along with red-and-white. Large live baits including suckers and chubs are used under bobbers in summer or fished below tip-ups in the winter to entice pike. Darkhouse spearing — where a fisherman sits in a dark fishing hut on a frozen lake or river waiting for a fish to be attracted into range by a decoy hanging several feet below the surface in the clear water below in order to catch by spear — is also popular for pike on some waters.

Pike teeth are sharper than most freshwater gamefish and can easily cut through the thin monofilament line used by anglers fishing for panfish, bass or walleye. A leader made of steel, Kevlar or heavy fluorocarbon can be used to prevent bite-offs, and anglers targeting pike usually use them.

When using live baits anglers often allow pike to run with the bait and swallow it before setting the hook. This can be necessary when using a single hook and a large bait, but by using a quick-strike rig tied with two hooks, anglers can set the hook immediately and avoid hooking pike deeply.


Handling and Cleaning

Handling pike takes some practice — and a good measure of caution. Grip fish across the back, placing the thumb and forefinger just inside the upper portion of the gill covers. This provides a good handle on the fish and keeps fingers away from teeth and sharp gill rakers.

Cleaning pike is similar to cleaning other fish, but fillets contain a row of Y-shaped bones that can be removed either before or after cooking. The bones of larger pike are actually easier to remove, which is one reason some people avoid keeping small pike even on lakes where pike are stunted and there is no size limit. Some anglers avoid eating pike altogether, but with a little extra work, anglers are rewarded with an excellent meal of firm, tasty meat that is particularly good when baked with fresh herbs and vegetables.


Further Reading