Here is the scene, I am casting off a dock in an unfamiliar fishery while on a short vacation. I did not have a ton of time to research the waterway, but I know that there must be some fish kicking around, and I always have a fishing rod handy.
I throw on a little Cleo so that I will get hit by almost anything that swims and zing out my fist cast toward a point nearest to my location.
About halfway through my retrieval, with a big thump, my rod bends over, and I set the hook. This does not feel like a smallmouth, and it feels larger than a panfish. I am anxious to see what I have as it comes closer with each turn of the reel handle.
As I get the fish to the dock, I see that it is a long, slender fish, but it takes a swift net job and removal from the water to get a good I.D. on the specific species I have just landed.
What have I caught?
My first thought is that the fish has to be a Northern Pike. I know that these fish are prevalent in almost any large body of fresh water and that they feed on points in relatively shallow water along with transitions.
I also know that while pike is the first thing that comes to mind, that there is a whole family of fish that bears a close resemblance to a pike, and that it will take a bit more investigating to figure out exactly what this catch is.
Potential Species of Fish in my Net
Pike is similar to both pickerel and muskie. All of these fish are long and slender, with a pointed snout and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. They have tons of other similar factors as well.
The tails of pike, muskie, and pickerel are all forked. So, that eliminates a determining factor of what I have landed. They all have a dorsal fin that is pushed back towards the tail of the fish, not at the top of its back like other fish species.
The rest of the fins sometimes have spots and sometimes can be different shades of green or amber, so that is not going to help me identify what I am looking at.
I need to break down what the differences are so that I can decide what I have with 100% certainty.
First, pickerel come to the chopping block. Now, there are a few types of these fish, redfin, grass, and chain.
I know that redfin has a very light-colored body and pronounced red fins, so this species is quickly eliminated by my fish having a dark complexion.
Grass pickerel comes next.
A quick google search lets me know that these fish are not currently living in this part of the Northeast and that they are very dark-colored, far past the fish I am identifying in terms of dark coloration. So I eliminate that from my potential species as well.
Next, the chain pickerel. Now, this one is starting to sound better. The fish is green with light spots, has a light underbelly and a chain pattern along its skin.
Those are all sort of characteristics of the fish swimming in my net at the side of the dock, from what I can see. As I get a closer look, I can see that the cheek and gill plate on my fish are not fully scaled.
That, according to my research, will eliminate pickerel from my list altogether.
Research shows that pickerel have fully scaled cheeks and gill plates, pike and musky do not. Another deciding factor is the sheer size of my fish.
Pickerel rarely grows larger than 12 inches, and the fish I reeled in is at least triple that length. I guess that means I am eliminating any possibility that this fish is a pickerel.
What about a pike? Northern Pike is for sure residents of this body of water. They like to feed in relatively shallow, warm water, and they hunt around transitions from rocks to weeds.
Well, that sounds about right for where I caught this fish. They grow to 50 inches or more and can weigh up to 30 pounds.
This fish is nowhere near that size, but it falls within the parameters of that species. Gill plates on the fish I have are only partially scaled, but the cheek is fully scaled. This is where things start to get interesting.
I know that pike and musky in this size range are quite similar looking, so I need to dive deeper into the specifics of my fish. To do this, I will quickly note that the coloration of my fish is dark with a yellow jelly bean-looking pattern along its sides, and a light underbelly.
The fins on this fish are a green color with a hint of amber. These characteristics are what had me leaning toward it being a pike, to begin with.
As I turn the fish to remove my hook, I count the pores on the chin of my fish. There look to be 5 of these submandibular pores. These are sensors the fish has to feel vibrations and disturbances in the water, which help them to find prey.
So everything up to this point has led me to believe I have a Northern Pike swimming in my net, patiently waiting for me to release it.
I want to go one step further and compare the features of this fish against those of a muskie so that I know for sure I am not releasing a mythical fish of ten thousand casts without taking photographic evidence of my catch before it swims off.
Muskie or muskellunge is the big, bad cousin of the pike and pickerel. They can grow up to six feet and 60 pounds.
They are built similarly to the fish we have been discussing but do have some distinct features that set them apart besides the size factor.
First, muskie is lighter in color than the other species. With a light olive skin tone, they are noticeably different than pike.
Skin patterns range from the nonexistent, on-fish called “clear muskie” to dark stripes, which help fish in weedy areas blend in better to their surroundings.
Those stripes are why some anglers mistake them for pike. Next, the cheeks and gill plates of muskie are only partially scaled.
If you remember, the pike has a scaled cheek and partially scaled gill plate, and pickerel have fully scaled versions of both. This would help identify a smaller specimen.
Musky also has a higher quantity of submandibular pores than a pike. These range from 6-10, so there will be noticeably more than you would find on a pike.
How to Catch More Pike
Now that we are certain about characteristics of the fish matching those of a pike, how can I land a few more?
All of these species generally feed in the same way, on the same prey. They are ambush predators who hide in weeds and strike smaller fish from the side.
Not shying away from any bait that is half their size and less, the range of species a pike will target is pretty broad. Anything from perch to sunfish, to bass, and even a smaller pike would be on the menu.
Targeting them when fishing means that you can use a ton of different baits, but you will have to do so under the right conditions to be successful.
First, knowing that pike spawns almost immediately after ice-out, along with pickerel and muskie is important.
This means that these species are on the hunt for food before other species have even begun to hatch. It also means that catching pike and its cousins can begin earlier than other species as well.
Tips and Tricks for Catching
To target these fish specifically, aim to fish along with points and transitions from weeds to rocky bottom structure.
They love to hide in and amongst weed lines and attack bait that is swimming just above or outside of those weed lines.
Position your bait as near as possible without getting hung up and you should be in the strike zone.
Another tip is one we discussed earlier. These fish attack from the side, so make sure, when you are casting or trolling, to position your retrieval so that the bait or lure crosses in front of the fish and not parallel to it as it swims.
This will give you a better chance of catching the predators rather than spooking them.
Identifying your catch is a very important step in becoming a seasoned angler.
It is sometimes more difficult than others, but once you perfect the process, it will help you catch more fish.
Being able to distinguish what fish you are targeting from other species will help you to determine specific feeding habits, habitats in which they are more likely to be found, and even whether or not you are catching fish that are in season.
Researching is one way to become a better angler, but the best way is generally to be on the water and practicing your craft.
Like anything else, practice makes perfect. So, get out there and try your luck now that you know what the differences are between pike vs muskie vs pickerel.