Nicknamed “water wolves,” members of the pike family are well known for their predatory nature. Solitary fishes, lurking in the shadows to ambush their prey, pike have highly carnivorous habits which have generated hundreds of fish stories ranging from swimmers being bitten to a favorite pet being eaten while going for a swim. While most of these stories are just that – stories – some are not.
Pike are generally found in shallow, warm water areas near weed beds or other cover. They are easily distinguished from other fishes by their long, slender bodies and duck-shaped bills. Their large mouths contain needle-sharp teeth which are very effective in grasping and holding fish. Pike have forked tails and a single dorsal fin located far back on the body. Their green or brassy coloring allows them to blend in easily with a weedy environment.
As a group, pike are remarkably variable in size. On the smaller end of the scale, the red fin pickerel rarely attains a weight exceeding one pound, whereas the largest member of the family – muskellunge – is the largest freshwater game fish in New York State and may weigh more than 50 pounds. Regardless of the species, all pike are fast growers, with females growing faster and living longer than males.
Pike have voracious appetites. An adult pike is mostly piscivorous (fish eating), but it will also eat frogs, mice, ducks, and even muskrats. The pike’s body shape, coloring, and eating methods are well suited to its predatory nature. The pike ambushes its prey, patiently waiting in the concealment of vegetation or near stumps for food to go by. Contorting its arrow-shaped body into a slight “Z,” the pike springs forward to seize the unsuspecting prey sideways in its mouth, then retreats to cover before rotating the prey in its mouth and the swallowing it head first. A large portion of a pike’s diet is spiny finned fish, and swallowing them head first ensures the collapse of the fins.
A pike generally prefers one large food item over several smaller items. Its large mouth enables it to eat larger fish and often it will grab a fish one-third to one-half its own length. If the pike cannot swallow the fish whole, it will sometimes swim around with the tail protruding from its mouth until the head is digested, allowing room to swallow more.