Telling a muskie from a northern pike is easy. At least, it is to avid muskie hunters and other experienced anglers. Many “weekend” fishermen, however, have trouble telling these two fish apart. What adds to the confusion is that both share the same basic shape and, to some extent, the same waters. Plus, some states have introduced the hybrid or “tiger” muskie, a muskie / northern pike cross with characteristics all its own.
Muskies can be distinguished from pike in several ways. Muskies may be barred, spotted or have almost no markings at all. If markings do occur, they will be darker than the background color of the body. Pike, on the other hand, have white or light-colored oblong spots against a dark (usually green) background. Another tip-off is that only the top half of a muskie’s gill is covered with scales, while a pike’s gill cover is completely covered. Finally, you can count the number of pores beneath the fish’s jaw. Muskie have six to nine on each side; pike usually have five.
One Fish, Three Phases
Muskies are found in a variety of color phases. The “clear” variety is distinguishable by a light golden or silvery tone, typically devoid of pattern. At times, faint markings can be found on the posterior one-third of the body. The “spotted” muskie will have distinct spots present on the gill plates and the entire body — spots even seep out onto the tail and fins. The barred muskie sports vertical dark markings on a light background, and may show some spots on the dorsal, caudal and anal fin.
No matter what the color or pattern of the muskie, the paired fin and caudal fin will have pointed tips. The pike’s paired and caudal fins are rounded.
Tiger muskie coloration consists of irregular narrow vertical dark markings on a light background, with stripes merging into the back in an interlocking pattern. The sides of a northern pike sometimes exhibit an alternating pattern of stripes and spots, or narrow-paired bars on a light background. But, the tiger’s pattern will never resemble that of a pike. The hybrid’s paired and caudal fins will also have rounded tips.
Northern pike are found in a wide variety of waters, but the muskie doesn’t seem to adapt to as many cold-water environments, limiting its range. Pike are found on all continents that fringe the North Pole; muskies are confined to a comparatively small area of the North American continent. They range as far north as southern Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, as far west as North and South Dakota and as far south as Tennessee.
Pike are very adaptable and can live in almost any type of freshwater, including lakes, rivers and ponds. They prefer weedy bays in natural lakes, and weedy, slow-moving rivers. Temperature preferences change as pike grow. Pike under 7 pounds, for example, prefer water in the 65-degree to 70-degree range; larger pike prefer 50 degrees to 55 degrees.
Big Jaws, Bigger Appetites
Both the northern pike and the muskie are ferocious predators, and will feed on just about anything that swims. The pike, however, seems to have a more diversified appetite. For example, pike will feed on dead fish, especially in colder months and late winter. Muskies seldom, if ever, feed on dead bait. Fish are the preferred forage for both pike and muskie, but both species will feed opportunistically whenever possible, tapping a menu that includes frogs, crayfish, mice, muskrats and ducklings. Larger meals are preferred.
Both the muskie and pike jaws boast large, sharp, pointed teeth flanked by razor-sharp cutting edges, and the roof is covered with short, backward-pointing teeth. This allows them to mortally slash and wound their prey while holding it fast in their powerful, vise-like jaws.
As a predator, the pike is king of its waters. Because of its formidable looks, it has come to be known by many names. Depending on location, the pike is known as Water Wolf, Toothy Critter, Slew Shark, Snake, or, up in Canada, just plain “Jack.”
However, pike and muskies cohabitate very well in regions where the water temperature doesn’t get too hot or too cold. In fact, this subject of cohabitation is open to much debate. Many muskie fishing fanatics have claimed pike and muskies didn’t live well together in the same waters. It was also claimed that pike and pike fry ate many muskie fry each spring. This theory was widely accepted because pike spawned earlier and they both used similar spawning habitat.
While this all sounds logical on paper, it’s arguable as to whether it actually happens. Most of the top-rated, world-class muskie waters also contain strong populations of northern pike. Legendary waters such as Lake Of The Woods, Georgian Bay, Lake Wabigoon, Leech Lake, Eagle Lake, Lac Vieux Desert and the St. Lawrence River all have lots of pike and muskies living together in the same waters.
The real reason certain waters contain one species and not the other might have more to do with water temperature tolerances than whether the fish was actually native to an individual lake or not.
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