Wilderness Underfoot: The northern pike

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11424553783856.jpg’, ”, ‘The northern pike – Esox lucius have been reported weighing as much as 50 pounds, with lengths up to 70 inches. In one unsubstantiated report, a 70-pounder was caught in the 1800s.’);

March is spawning season for this large native fish

Thin and snakelike, with a flattened head shaped like a duckbill, the northern pike is no skinny-mini. This is one of our region’s heftiest fishes. To grow really hefty—assuming it has plenty of food to begin with—what the northern pike needs most of all is simply time.

Northerns can reach 26 years of age, although fewer than one in a million are likely to live so long. Most of them are killed soon after hatching. Any northern lucky enough to survive beyond 20 years can easily weigh more than 30 pounds and reach a length of 48 inches. The largest and longest-lived northerns are females; growth in males seems to drop off after maturity, and they seem to be preyed on more heavily than females.

The northern pike has adapted to the cooler temperate regions of North America and Eurasia, wherever water freezes over. Despite this, warmer temperatures seem to increase the size of this fish. When northerns are stocked in the cooling ponds of utility companies, which can reach summer temperatures more than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, they grow quite large. Many of the largest northerns in Illinois have been taken from cooling ponds.

Three members of the pike family are commonly found in our region: the grass pickerel, the northern pike and the musky. All are well camouflaged with patterns that help them blend in with shoreline plants and underwater roots. Pike and musky are very similar in appearance, but the most obvious difference is their color. The northern pike is dark with light, bean-shaped markings, while the musky is light with dark, vertical bands. In waters where both species occur, they often produce hybrid offspring known as tiger muskies.

The northern pike often lurks in vegetation, waiting for an unsuspecting victim to cross its path. With a lightning-fast attack, a mouth full of sharp teeth and an appetite for meals up to a third of its own body weight, the pike is a deadly predator. Even the young hatchlings have aggressive hunting tendencies, and because northerns spawn early (during March), they often gain the advantage over other fish. Unfortunately, they can have a devastating impact on the populations of other fish species.

In addition to consuming fish, northerns eat frogs and salamanders, crayfish, large insects, birds and small mammals such as muskrats and mice.

No other river in Illinois has as many northerns as the Rock River, although even here they’re not abundant. Look for northerns in early spring, particularly during March. This pike is often stocked in ponds and reservoirs that are used for fishing. It readily snaps at bait, including lures and large minnows, and it puts up a long, ferocious fight.

This is a hardy fish, content to live in any freshwater stream, river, marsh or lake that supplies enough forage—even if the water is poorly oxygenated or somewhat polluted. (Naturally, fish from polluted waters should not be eaten!)

From the March 15-21, 2006, issue

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