Northern pike predatory fish found in lakes and rivers throughout North American from Alaska to Canada and south through portions of the mid-western United States. They make excellent table fare and are a favorite sport fish among anglers who enjoy a good fight. Trolling, casting and fly fishing are all popular techniques for catching northern pike. Angler beware, pike have very sharp teeth that can inflict damage if the fish isn’t handled with care.
Habitat: Lakes, Ponds, Rivers
How to identify Northern Pike
Northern pike have a long, slender, stream-lined muscular body which allows them to accelerate quickly through the water. They have a duck-bill-shaped snout and large mouth filled with hundreds of backward-slanting teeth designed for piercing and gripping prey. There is a single spineless dorsal fin along the top of the fish near the tail and anal fin positioned directly below.
Coloration varies from green to grey and fades to yellowish-white on their bellies. Adolescent pike have light colored bars extending along their sides. As they mature, these bars turn into uneven rows of light yellow specks running down their sides and extending the length of their body.
Northern pike are similar is appearance to their larger cousin the muskellunge (muskie). In fact, a first time angler who reels in a muskellunge may assume they’ve hooked a large northern pike. There are three tell tale signs you’ve caught a muskie, not a pike. First, northern pike have a more rounded tale. Second, pike have light spots along their body where muskies have dark bars. Finally, pike have 5-7 pores along the lower jaw compared to the 6-9 on a muskie.
An average size northern pike will range between 2 and 15 pounds, and grow up to 54 inches. However, monster pike over 60 pounds have been captured, and pike in the 20 to 30 pound range are not uncommon.
Northern Pike Range and Habitat
Northern pike are mainly found in the northern regions of North America. The largest populations of northern pike are in the Great Lakes area, eastern New York, northern New England, the Ohio Valley, Michigan, and Minnesota. They’re also common in Missouri, Nebraska, Alaska, and lakes throughout Canada.
The map below shows the native and extended range of northern pike in the United States. The extended range of pike includes Montana, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Utah, Nevada and even Texas.
Northern pike generally inhabit rivers, lakes, and slow moving streams where they are found in cooler, shallower areas. In the summer, they head to deeper waters. Pike prefer clear water and avoid stained, brackish water. They tend to hold to areas with vegetation where they lie in wait to ambush passing prey. They are also found near bulrush beds, rocky points, and other concealing structure.
The following are habitats where you can catch Northern Pike:
How to catch Northern Pike
Northern pike are voracious feeders and one of the hardest fighting of any freshwater fish species. As with any fish, to catch northern pike you first have to find them. Head for the grass. Pike love vegetation and 8 times out of 10 this is where you’ll find them. Find the vegetation and fish just outside weed lines, or on a quick retrieve just above underwater weed beds.
Pike are ambush predators that stalk their prey before striking. And when they strike, they strike with lightning speed. They have ravenous appetites and will consume just about anything that moves, including other fish, frogs, mice, birds, large insects, or any other small critter unlucky enough to fall in the water.
Because they’re such aggressive feeders, it won’t take you long to know if there are pike in the area you’re fishing. If you’re not getting bites within 5 to 10 minutes, move on to the next area. Once you’re in a good area, you’ll know—then try to find other spots that look similar.
Trolling and Casting
The most productive methods for catching northern pike are trolling or casting. The most productive strategy is a combination of the two. Trolling allows you to cover a lot of water quickly and pinpoint some casting hotspots. It’s tempting when fishing a body of water for the first time to start casting as soon as you find some weeds, but fight the urge. Trolling isn’t a replacement for casting, but it will get you more productive casting locations.
One of the benefits of trolling and casting for pike is that each method creates a different presentation. Casting from a boat places the pike lure in the shallows and moves it out of the shallows toward deeper water. This presentation leads pike to follow the bait. Trolling moves the lure toward the waiting pike and promotes immediate strikes. Used in tandem, or on their own, trolling and casting are you go-to methods for fishing northern pike.
Fly Fishing for Pike
Trolling and casting using lures or natural bait is effective; however, there are other methods that can be just as effective. For a growing number of anglers, targeting northern pike with a fly is where it’s at. Fly fishing northern pike will produce some of the most aggressive strikes you’ll ever experience. Pike are reknown for destroying flies with exhilerating speed and power.
Stripping a topwater fly pattern gets the water churning, makes noise, and really gets the attention of hungry pike. Topwater patterns that mimic frogs, mice, or other natural prey can really provoke some aggressive strikes—and fun memories.
Once you start chasing pike using a fly, you may never go back to casting again.
The following are effective fishing methods and techniques for catching Northern Pike:
Best Lures, Bait & Tackle to catch Northern Pike
Northern pike are voracious and aggressive feeders. They’ll attack just about anything that appears like a meal that comes within striking distance, including artificial lures. Spoons, inline spinners, and hard plastic baits are staples for pike fishing. Spoons are our preferred pike lure. Their shiny sides glimmer in the sun and mimic smaller bait fish pike are fond of. Heavier spoons also cast well. Hard plastics, such as crankbaits, jerkbaits, and spinnerbaits, work well because they’re designed to mimic a pike’s natural prey.
Northern pike will readily tackle prey up to a third their body size. Medium size lures are you safest bet when targeting pike, but don’t be afraid to fish larger lures—especially if you’re looking for lunkers. If you only want to catch pike in the 15 plus pound range, 8″-10″ lures is what you want to be fishing.
Flies used for targeting pike should be anywhere from 6-14 inches. Flies should match the hatch and mimic as closely as possible natural forage. Mouse, frog, or popper patterns readily produce bites, as do various streamers patterns made from deer hair, furs, and feathers all wrapped around a big hook. No need to be conservative or pretty with your choice of flies. Flashy, ugly, gaudy looking flies often get the most strikes.
The following are fishing lures, bait and tackle that can be used to catch Northern Pike: