A subspecies of red fin pickerel, grass pickerel have a very spotty distribution in New York State. Grass pickerel are often mistaken for young northern pike, but can be distinguished by their fully scaled cheeks and gill covers. Like other pickerel, grass pickerel have eight sensory pores on the underside of the lower jaw and a distinct dark bar beneath each eye.
Grass pickerel prefer heavily vegetated areas of slow-moving streams, lakes, and ponds. They spawn at approximately the same time of year as red fins, usually in March or April. Spawning occurs in upstream sections of flooded streams and marshes where vegetation is plentiful.
Like red fin, grass pickerel are of little interest to New York State anglers.
Northern pike are among the State’s most important sport fish. They are relatively easy to catch, can grow to over 40 pounds, and put up a good fight when hooked.
Northern pike are very adaptable and occur in a wide range of habitats. They are one of the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the world, and the only members of the pike family to occur in arctic environments. Northern prefer weedy portions of rivers, ponds, and lakes, but large adults will often move offshore into deeper waters. In New York State, they occur primarily in the St. Lawrence, Upper Hudson River, Lake Champlain, and Finger Lakes drainages.
Northern pike can be distinguished from their cousins, the pickerels, by the scale less lower half of the gill covers. Their bodies are dark green to brown with light bean-shaped spots. There is no distinct dark bar beneath the eye. The undersurface of the lower jaw has eight to 12 pores and there are often bright gold markings on both sides of the head. Northern can grow to be quite large – the current New York State record is a 46-pound two-ounce monster taken from Great Sacandaga Lake back in 1940.
Northern pike spawn in April or May, normally just after ice-out. Like other pike, they migrate into flooded marshes to deposit their adhesive eggs.
Northern are delicious to eat. Their meat is white and flaky, and because of their large size, their bones are more easily removed than those of pickerels. Northern can be taken through the ice as well as in open water, and provide an important winter fishery. Ice derbies are common sporting events for these prize fish in many parts of the State.
Due to their predatory nature, rapid growth, and large size, northern pike help control populations of smaller fish species. By feeding on small fish, they prevent over population and stunting. In some parts of Europe, northern are raised for food.