Pre-Season Muskies & Pike: Understanding Spawning Behavior

Depending on when and where you’re fishing, understanding the spawning behavior of northern pike and muskies can be crucial to your angling success, especially as it relates to fish location.

Northern pike and muskies both spawn in much the same waters, though pike generally spawn earlier. When ready to spawn, pike and muskies head for the sheltered areas along some shorelines or in the back of bays. They prefer sandy or silted areas over gravel or rocks, and preferably, vegetation should be present. Pike also like to spawn in the dead stems of rushes and reeds at the back of protected bays.

Pike, depending on location, may spawn as early as March or as late as July.

Pike in reservoirs also prefer to spawn in the back of shallow bays among submerged grasses, but here they can encounter a unique problem. If water levels drop after the spawn, pike eggs will be left high and dry. Similarly, if the water levels don’t rise again in the spring, most prime pike spawning habitat will be dry and pike will be forced to use less-desirable areas.

When the spawning period begins, the males are the first to arrive at the breeding grounds. They may stay there for up to a month; however, the average stay is about 14 days. When the females arrive, their average stay is about 10 days. There is evidence that pike return to the same breeding grounds. In Iowa, state crews net tagged fish year after year at the same locations.

Once a female becomes ripe, the shorter male will swim by her side, eye to eye, insuring that the milt he excretes will mix well with the eggs deposited by the female. While mating, the male will repeatedly bump the female by flicking his abdomen against her sides, prompting her to release her eggs. The whole spawning operation can be completed anywhere from one and a half to five or more hours.

Pike Act Fast
Spawning dates can vary from year to year and from location to location. Much depends on the length of the winter and ice-out time. Spawning is stimulated by a rise in water temperature and by increased periods of light. Pike, depending on location, may spawn as early as March or as late as July in areas of Alaska or the Northwest Territories.

Whenever northern pike and muskies spawn in the same areas at the same general time, natural crossbreeding can occur, resulting in the uniquely marked hybrid tiger muskie, which is a sterile fish. Pike and muskie crossbreeding is most common in shallow, fertile lakes that warm quickly, simultaneously triggering both species to spawn.

The number of eggs laid by a single pike can vary; it depends upon the size of the female. A small pike may lay anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 eggs; a pike of 15 or more pounds may lay anywhere from 180,000 to 225,000. The time it takes to hatch the eggs can also vary, depending upon water temperature. Eggs laid in water at 43 degrees will take up to 26 days to hatch. Eggs laid in 50-degree water will hatch in 12 days.

Hatching percentage can range anywhere from 99 percent to nothing. A drop in water level, severe cold weather, and predators can all take a heavy toll on eggs and hatchlings.

Hatchlings Grow Quickly
Newly hatched fry don’t resemble their parents. They have no fins and their mouths must develop into the familiar duck-like bill. Northern pike fry start out no more than nine millimeters long. During this time, the fry attach themselves to weeds and grasses, and get their nourishment from an attached yolk sack.

Muskies grow more rapidly than the other members of the pike family.

Most pike move to the main lake area during their first 25 days of life. (This is before they have reached an inch in length!) Once out in the main lake they hide in dense vegetation to feed and find cover from predators.

Pike eat heartily and grow amazingly fast. Studies have shown they grow at the rate of .7 inch every 10 days. When they reach 1+1/2 inches in length, scales begin to appear; at 3 inches, their scales are fully developed.

Increased growth coincides with the increased size of the food source. Growth rates vary according to the latitude. In the northern-most part of their range, pike may take seven years to reach 20 inches; 12 years to reach 30. In the extreme southern edge of their range, however, pike can reach 20 inches between the second and third year.

Northerns live as long as 25 years in the far North; up to 16 years in the southern part of their range.

Muskies Spawn Later
Muskies spawn from mid- to late spring when water temperatures range from 49 to 59 degrees. Eggs are scattered at random, usually over some sort of vegetation, and the parents do not stay to guard their offspring as some fish species do.

Muskie fry basically are comparable to pike fry in size and growth rates, and like pike, they have to fend for themselves.

Studies done by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources show that muskellunge reach 30 inches between their third and fourth year of life. Muskellunge growth in Iowa is comparable to that found in other Eastern and Midwestern states. Growth figures do indicate some variation between states due to latitudinal location.

Muskies grow more rapidly than the other members of the pike family, and are known to live longer (some past age 30) than pike. Females grow faster and live longer than males.

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