All About Pike: The Water Wolf

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 13th November 2023

Scientific nameEsoxWeightUp to 35 kilograms (77 pounds).
PronunciationpaykLengthUp to 1.83 meters (6 feet) 
ClassificationActinopterygii, Esociformes, EsocidaeLocationPalearctic and Nearctic regions

The Pike

Pike in Plzeň Zoo
Pike in Plzeň Zoo | Jik jik via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Pike is the common name for freshwater fish in the Esox genus.

This is a group of predatory fish known for their elongated torpedo-shaped body and their sharply pointed heads.

The name “pike” refers to the pointed head and shovel-like snout of this fish.

The pike is a large carnivorous fish that grows to a length of one meter or more.

It lives in lakes, slow-moving rivers, and other freshwater bodies with a lot of vegetation.

Pikes are prolific ambush hunters, and they use the vegetation as cover to catch fish, frogs, small mammals, and other marine animals they prey on.

A pike can swallow prey up to half its body weight.

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

The pike is a common target of both commercial and sport fisheries.

As an interesting predatory species, these unique attributes of the different pike species are known to scientists and fish enthusiasts.

In this article, we’ll explore all the fascinating facts about the pike, including its taxonomy, physical characteristics, habits, habitats, and unique adaptations.

Taxonomy and Classification

The name pike or pickerel commonly applies to fish in the Esox genus.

This is a group of freshwater fish that belong to the family Esocidae.

Compilation image of each type species in the three extant Esocid genera
Compilation image of each type species in the three extant Esocid genera | Arnstein Rønning et al. via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Esox is the only living genus in this family.

It belongs to the order Esociformes.

This is a small group of freshwater ray-finned fish distantly related to the Salmonid fishes (salmoniformes).

Esox lucius, also known as the northern pike, is the most well-known species in this genus, but there are at least six other species besides the northern pike.

They include the Amur pike, chain pickerel, muskellunge, southern pike, American pike, and Aquitanian pike.

It is worth noting that a few other freshwater fish species, such as the walleye (Sander vitreus), are sometimes referred to as pickerels even though they’re not directly related to the actual pikes.

Pikes have been around since the Paleocene Epoch.

An Esox fossil
An Esox fossil | Ra’ike via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

In fact, their ancient ancestors in the order Esociformes diverged from the Salmoniformes about 110 million years ago.

Extinct species in the Esox genus lived on the ancient land mass of Laurentia (which later became North America) and Eurasia (Europe and Asia)

The oldest fossil pike species discovered so far is Esox tiemani.

This ancient fish lived and went extinct during the Late Paleocene Epoch, about 56 million years ago.

Gage Beasley's Pike Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Pike Stuffed Plush Toy

Physical Characteristics

Pikes vary in size from one species to another, but they’re mainly medium to large-sized.

All members of this genus are known for their elongated torpedo-shaped bodies, typical of predatory fish species.

They also have a sharply pointed head, with a flattened, shovel-shaped snout similar in appearance to a duck bill.

They have an enormous mouth filled with numerous sharp teeth.

Esox lucius with its mouth open showcasing its sharp teeth
Esox lucius with its mouth open showcasing its sharp teeth | MAKY.OREL via Wikipedia CC0 1.0 DEED

Pikes have a slender profile, with their dorsal and anal fins located far back on their body, close to the tail.

The length and weight of this group of freshwater fish depend on their species, age, diet, and habitat.

Generally, adult pikes have a maximum recorded length of about 1.83 meters (6 feet), while the maximum recorded weight is about 35 kilograms (77 pounds)

Pickerels have a muscular body covered in scales.

This group of fish is known for their gray-green coloration, with cream-colored spots.

This gives them a mottled appearance, with distinct stripes along their backs.

This unique appearance helps the fish blend in with underwater weeds where they’re commonly found.

An Esox blending in its surrounding
An Esox blending in its surrounding | mel-nik via iStock

The pattern on each pike’s body is unique, just like human fingerprints.

Individuals from different habitats may also have a slightly different appearance.

Pikes from clear streams and lakes are typically light green, while individuals living in a dark river or slough will be a darker shade of green.

Males and females look very similar, but females tend to attain greater sizes because they live longer.

Some individuals may also demonstrate mutations that give them a slightly different appearance.

For instance, the silver pike or silver muskellunge is a mutation of the northern pike that does not have the rows of spots seen in other pikes.

A Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) for reference
A Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) for reference | Raver Duane via Wikipedia Public Domain

Instead, it appears silvery or white instead of mottled green.

Habitat and Distribution

All species in the Esox genus are primarily freshwater fishes.

They’re most commonly found in lakes, ponds, slow-moving rivers, and other freshwater habitats.

Pikes have a widespread distribution that covers the Palearctic and Nearctic regions.

Their range extends across North America to Western Europe,  Siberia, and North Asia.

The different pike species have a specific range within this region.

For instance, the Northern Pike is found in parts of the United States, Canada, Northern Europe, Ireland, and Britain.

Conversely, the southern pike lives in central and northern Italy, France, and Switzerland.

The Aquitanian pike is endemic to France, while the American pike is only found in parts of Canada and the United States.

Behavior and Social Structure

Pike has a terrible reputation as overly vicious predators.

They can be aggressive, and there are even a few incidents of pike attacks on people.

Consequently, anglers must be careful when handling the fish so they don’t get bitten.

An angler carefully holding a Pike
An angler carefully holding a Pike | ronstik via iStock

Esox species are also known to be territorial and may establish and defend specific areas within their habitat against other pikes.

This is particularly true during breeding season when they defend their spawning sites.

Pikes are not known for long-distance migrations.

However, they may move over large areas within their home range in search of suitable feeding and nesting sites.

Pickerels are crepuscular, which means they’re most active at dawn and dusk.

They tend to rest or hide among the vegetation cover during the day.

However, as opportunistic feeders, they will come out to attack prey at any time of the day if it’s available. 

A Pike scouring its surroundings for potential prey
A Pike scouring its surroundings for potential prey | mel-nik via iStock

Pikes are generally solitary fish.

They do not form strong bonds with others or form schools like other fish species.

Individuals are more likely to be encountered alone, but they may also form loose aggregations in places where food is abundant.

Males and females may also come together during the breeding season to spawn.

Such interactions are temporary associations, and they do not engage in any long-term social interactions.

Pikes also don’t provide any parental care for their offspring after laying eggs.

Diet and Feeding

An Esox is a type of predatory fish.

They have a varied diet, but they feed mainly on smaller shoal fish.

A European Perch for reference
A European Perch for reference | Astappiev via Fishing Planet Wiki

Their diet includes small minnows to larger species like perch and sunfish.

A Redear Sunfish for reference
A Redear Sunfish for reference | Ondry via Fishing Planet Wiki

Pikes can also be cannibalistic.

They will prey on smaller members of their own species, given the opportunity.

In addition to fish, pikes will prey on insects and amphibians like frogs and newts.

During periods of food scarcity, pikes may feed on small mammals like mice and moles and small birds such as ducklings.

They have been known to prey on aquatic snakes as well.

Pike have large appetites and are capable of consuming prey that is up to half of their own body size.

They can swallow prey whole or in large pieces.

Their sharp canine teeth are adapted to gripping and holding prey but not for cutting.

Open mouth of a pike fish with its dangerous teeth
Open mouth of a pike fish with its dangerous teeth | filmfoto via iStock

Pike have a distinctive habit of catching prey in its mouth, immobilizing it with its teeth, and then turning the prey head first before swallowing.

Pickerels are renowned ambush predators, which means they rely on stealth and patience to catch prey.

They will lie in wait, camouflaged among aquatic vegetation, until the prey swims by.

When a suitable prey is within striking distance, the fish launches a rapid and powerful attack that’s challenging for most prey to escape.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Pike breeds in early spring, right after the ice sheets start to melt and the water temperature is about 35 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 degrees Celsius).

Spawning takes place in shallow waters.

Two pikes spawning near the surface of the water
Two pikes spawning near the surface of the water | Pro2sound via iStock

Females pick a suitable spawning ground, typically in an area with abundant aquatic vegetation.

She releases her eggs into the water while two or more males fertilize them.

The number of eggs produced may vary for the different pike species.

For instance, the female northern pike can produce between 250,000 and 500,000 at once.

The fertilized eggs stick to the vegetation, and they hatch within six to 29 days.

The incubation duration depends on the water temperature when the eggs are laid.

Northern Pike egg
Northern Pike egg | USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Wikimedia CC BY 2.0 DEED

Young pikes grow very quickly.

They may be up to six inches long by fall.

Pike have an average lifespan of about 24, but they become sexually mature at age three.

Some pike species are so closely related that they can interbreed.

For instance, the northern pike (Esox lucius) can breed with the muskellunge (Esox masquinongy).

When this happens, the offspring produced is called a tiger muskellunge (Esox masquinongy immaculatus).

Ecological Role and Interactions

Given their large size, pikes are top predators within the freshwater ecosystem where they live.

A Pike beside a folded telescopic spinning rod for comparison
A Pike beside a folded telescopic spinning rod for comparison | glebchik via iStock

They prey mainly on small animals such as fish and amphibians but may prey on small mammals occasionally.

By feeding on these small marine animals, pikes help control their populations.

This helps to maintain a healthy population of zooplankton, aquatic insects, and other organisms lower in the food chain that the pike’s typical prey feeds on.

This type of cascading effect is healthy for the aquatic ecosystem.

Newly spawned pikes also serve as food for larger fishes such as minnows and perch.

Ducks, waterfowls, and larger pike individuals may also prey on these small fish.

An Esox lucius eating a smaller fish
An Esox lucius eating a smaller fish | Oxford Scientific via GettyImages

However, given their size and the nature of their habitat, mature pikes don’t have a lot of natural predators, with sea lampreys and humans being their major natural enemies.

Conservation Status and Threats

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies all pikes as a species of “least concern.”

This means they generally have a stable population and are not at a significant risk of extinction in the near future.

It is worth noting that the local abundance of pike species may vary across their range.

Even in areas where they’re not considered endangered or vulnerable, pikes may still face some threats due to various factors.

As a freshwater species, habitat loss and degradation are among the major threats faced by this fish species.

Pike populations living in freshwater systems close to human development, agriculture, and industrial activities can be affected by these human activities.

Similarly, pollution from industries, agricultural chemicals, and sedimentation from construction works can affect pikes and their prey, putting them at risk, at least locally.

Three pikes caught from recreational fishing
Three pikes caught from recreational fishing | KeVeR via iStock

Both commercial and recreational fisheries often target pikes.

Unsustainable practices while fishing for pickerel and their typical prey can lead to overexploitation in some places.

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

Pike lives in a variety of habitats and freshwater systems.

To survive in such an environment, the species have developed various unique adaptations and survival strategies.

One of their most notable traits is their ability to hunt prey with great patience and stealth.

Pikes can lie in wait for prey for long periods.

They use vegetation and other underwater structures and lay very still or make slow, deliberate movements to avoid being spotted by prey.

An Esox lucius lying in wait
An Esox lucius lying in wait | Westend61 via GettyImages

Pike can also strike at prey with incredible speed and force.

Their slender bodies and powerful muscles allow them to launch sudden attacks that catch prey by surprise.

Pike has a mouthful of sharp, needle-like teeth.

The rows of canine teeth are present on both their lower and upper jaws and are efficient for holding or grasping prey.

Pikes also have a gular plate on the floor of their mouth.

This is a bony structure that protects their delicate gill arches and throat when they attempt to swallow struggling prey.

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

The Esox fish has cultural significance across various cultures, especially in Europe and North America, where they’re mainly found.

For instance, this fish is often referenced in Russian mythology as a representation of evil water spirits known as vodyanoy.

An illustration of a Vodyanoy the Water Sprite
An illustration of a Vodyanoy the Water Sprite | Ivan Bilibin via Wikipedia Public Domain

Locals in the regions around the Sheksna River also believe a mythical spike once decimated the fish population in the area.

Today, this fish still maintains a real-life reputation as a ravenous and aggressive fish that is even regarded as a pest in some areas.

The aggressive fighting ability of this fish and its large size make it a particularly active choice for sport anglers.

Some tournaments and fishing contests may also feature pike as sought-after prizes.

Pike is sometimes targeted for its meat, which is included in the recipes of many cuisines worldwide.

Pike quenelle served with Nantua sauce
Pike quenelle served with Nantua sauce | Fryke27 via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

However, the fish has several long, forked bones, which can be problematic in certain recipes.

Future Prospects and Research

Pikes have been the subject of genetic studies aimed at understanding the diversity within their genus and their overall population structure.

Research like this will also make it easier to assess the health and distribution of pike populations.

Information like this will help guide conservation efforts to protect this species.

In the future, scientists may also use advanced ecosystem modeling to explore the role and ecological interactions of pike within the freshwater ecosystems where they live.

While there are no widespread threats to pike populations right now, the future may see more studies focused on climate change, water pollution, habitat destruction, and other factors if these problems ever get worse.

A dead Pike at the lake shore
A dead Pike at the lake shore | -slav via iStock


The pike is a freshwater fish species that belongs to the Esox genus.

The species has at least seven species, with the most popular one being the northern pike.

Different species of this fish are found in various parts of the world, especially in Europe and North America.

Pikes are known for their elongated body and a broad, flat snout.

They are aggressive predators that hunt prey using a combination of stealth and speed.

Pikes currently have a stable population, and they are currently not listed as an endangered or vulnerable species.

However, like other freshwater species, they still face a few local threats in various regions,

This is why we must invest more effort in learning more about this fish species and how we can contribute to protecting them.


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