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Identifying The Pike (Esox) Family

Jan 24th, 2010 by Lucky BASStard

Profiling The Pike.

identifying the pike family

We’ve all been there.  You’re with your buddies on the water bass fishing, pitching plastics and spinnerbaits when a pickerel breaks through the weeds and grabs your line, or worse, breaks it off.  Or was it a pike?

How about that time the guy on the shoreline was yipping and hollering about the “pike” he just caught when he has a 12” chain pickerel flopping on the bank.  Well, here is a thorough and concise article on how to profile the Pike Family.

The Pike family is identifiable by its long, slender body type, its billed snout full of razor sharp teeth and its insatiable appetite.   But how can you tell them all apart?

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

The smallest members of the pike (esox) family are the Grass Pickerel and subspecies Redfin Pickerel.  Obtaining a length of approximately 15” (38 cm) at full maturity, the Grass Pickerel can be identified by its fully scaled cheek and suborbital bar (black line below eye).  One of the easiest markings used in identifying any member of the pike family is the suborbital bar (shown below); each is uniquely different.  On the Grass Pickerel the dark marking continues from below the eye to the jaw-line, prominent, and angled towards its tail-end.  The suborbital bar tends to be darker on females (girls have to look pretty, afterall).  Its coloration is generally olive or brown on to with dark green and brown wavy bars on its sides and white to yellow under the belly.

pike vs pickerel image

The species can most often be found in lakes, ponds, swamps, backwaters and other calm, highly vegetated areas of freshwater.

The species ranges along the Atlantic coastline from Massachusetts to Central Florida and from the Great Lakes south to Mississippi, divided by the Appalachian Mountains.

Redfin Pickerel (Esox americanus americanus)

The Redfin Pickerel is a subspecies of the Grass Pickerel.  Unique to this subspecies is its bright red fins, for which it was named.  For other behavioral and characteristic traits, see above.

Chain Pickerel (Esox niger)

In the middle of the family is the Chain Pickerel.  Reaching a maximum length of 39” (99 cm) the chain pickerel is most easily recognized by its chain-like markings.  This species tends to be olive green to yellow on the sides, again highlighted by the chain-like pattern.  The suborbital bar on the Chain Pickerel is vertical from below the eye to the jaw-line.  The Chain Pickerel’s snout is much longer than that of the Grass or Redfin Pickerel.

The species can most often be found in vegetated lakes, swamps, backwaters and quiet pools of creeks and small to medium rivers.

The species ranges primarily along the Atlantic coastline from northern Maine down to the bottom of Florida, and west to Louisiana, though introduced elsewhere.

Northern Pike (Esox lucius)

norther pike chain pickerel image 6

The Northern Pike is a much larger member of the family, but not the biggest.  The species can obtain a length of 53” (133 cm).  Dissimilar to its relatives, the markings of a Northern Pike are oval-shaped yellow spots on its dark green to yellow sides. Remember, a Northern has light spots on a dark body.  An immature fish may have yellow or white wavy bars on its green sides before developing spots.  Black spots are most often found on all of the fins, excluding the pectorals.

The Northern Pike has virtually no suborbital bar, but if at all visible, it would occur vertically, as on the Chain pickerel, though much fainter and narrower, terminating at a point just above the jaw-line.  However, if the fish has a vertical suborbital bar it is most likely a chain pickerel.

The species can be found in clear vegetated lakes, calm backwaters to creeks and small to large rivers.

northern pike identification

The Northern Pike thrives in cooler water habitat and ranges from the central United States north through the majority of Canada and the entirety of Alaska.  The species does not inhabit the Western coastline of the continental United States or the Atlantic coastline except the region of New England.

Tiger Musky (hybrid offspring of a Northern Pike and Muskellunge)

tiger musky identification image 2

This species has incredible markings—strong barring on its sides.  It is quite a sight and takes the better qualities of each of its parents.

Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)

muskellunge identification tips image

The largest member of the Pike family is the elusive Muskellunge, reaching lengths of up to 72” (183 cm).  The “musky” also has a virtually undetectable suborbital bar, though if it were noticeable it would be vertical below the eye, though even thinner and shorter in profile than that of the Northern Pike, continuing only half-way from the bottom of the eye to the jaw-line.  Opposite from the markings of the Northern Pike, the Muskellunge has dark spots, blotches, or bars on a green to yellow side.  Again, a Muskellunge has dark spots on a light body.  With a pale to bright white underbelly, the overall complexion of a muskellunge tends to be lighter in tone and of a more brown and yellow palette.  The cheek of the musky is only partially scaled.

musky pike image pickerel 2

A unique behavioral attribute to the Muskellunge is its tendency to hunt alone.  This makes the species even more difficult to catch.

The species may be found in clear vegetated lakes, and backwaters to creeks and small to large rivers.

The muskellunge is isolated to the Great Lakes area, parts of New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire and southwest of New England, down through Pennsylvania and further.

Now that you’re an expert, you can know exactly what you’re up against on the water.  Don’t be mistaken again!

-Come chat with me, the Lucky BASStard, on the BASStard Forum.

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Burr, Brooks M; Page, Lawrence M. A Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes: North America North of Mexico. Peterson Field Guides. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

The Book of Fishs: Food Fishes, Game Fishes, and Other Inhabitants of North American Coastal and Inland Waters. National Geographic Society. Washington D.C, 1939. p. 138-141.

The Ultimate Guide to Freshwater Fishing. North American Affinity Clubs. Publishing Solutions, LLC, 2003, p.118-119.

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