By: Shawn Chapin
Many new anglers or anglers who don’t fish for these species can get confused about the differences between a musky and a pike. They look fairly similar if you don’t know what to look for, leading to anglers believing they caught a musky when in reality, they caught a northern pike.
Let’s dive into the differences between muskies and northern pike so that when you tangle with one or the other, you can spot the difference and have a clearer understanding of both these apex predators.
Are Muskie and Pike the Same?
Muskies and pike are not the same. While they look similar, they are, in fact two distinct and separate species. Pike and muskies do belong to the same animal family, which is Esocidae and the same genus which is the Esox genus.
Being part of the same genus means that they are cousins in layman’s terms, and they of a family of other very similar fish in the Esox genus, like chain pickerel, amur pike, American pickerel, and the southern pike, which was considered a subspecies to the northern pike, but has since been described scientifically as a separate species since 2011.
Muskie vs Northern Pike
Now, let’s dive into the differences between muskie vs northern pike in detail, so you can easily identify them in a matter of seconds.
Identification, Coloration and Markings: Muskie vs Pike
The musky has a couple of different and common strains that have different coloration and markings. While there are more than two strains of muskies, we will look at these two because they are by far the most common.
The Wisconsin River, or Chippewa strain “depending on who you talk to,” is the strain most people think of when they think of muskies.
The Wisconsin river strain features dark bars that are typically pretty prominent on the sides of the body, though sometimes fish will be caught that are clear-sided with only faint vermiculations.
They can have various shades of green with gold scales. This strain of musky has been stocked in many bodies of water throughout the country.
If you are on a body of water that features the Great lakes strain through artificial propagation, you will notice that the marking are dots and not bars, and the coloration is more of a silver than a green and gold coloration. This is what the musky looks like naturally in the Great Lakes and has been the strain of choice for many stocked lakes in states like Minnesota, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Northern pike, in contrast to the musky, has white, yellow-tinged, or cream-colored markings, not dark markings, and they are spots that run along the body vs dark vertical bars or the spot patterns of a Great Lakes strain of musky.
Northern Pike also varies from one fish to the next in terms of body coloration, with the coloration being an olive green to very dark green, with very dark color backs.
The backs look nearly black in the water, while muskies have a more brownish gold coloration in most cases. Avid musky anglers can typically tell if it is a pike or musky following their lure simply by the coloration on their backs.
The fins of the northern pike are also drastically different from a musky, with pike having bright orange and yellow coloration and black bars and marking on the fins, while muskies typically have red to reddish-brown fins with very small dotted markings, and some may not show much for markings at all.
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