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.
Muskie vs Pike: Average Size and Weight
Muskie size and weight data
Muskies typically grow larger than their pike cousins, but in some parts of the world like Europe, Alaska, and Canada, pike can at times give muskies a run for their money and both are revered game fish.
The average size and weight of a musky are anywhere from 28 to 48 inches long, with fish 50 inches or longer not being uncommon. Weight can be anywhere from 15 to 40 pounds. The largest trophy fish caught have been five feet in length, and if the old world record is to be believed, which is very controversial in the musky angling community, they could potentially reach 70 pounds, as that is what the world record is currently listed as.
Pike size and weight data
The average pike tend to have a length much less than the musky at 16 to 22 inches, but there have been fish in recent history that were as long as 59 inches, and the recognized world record IGFA northern pike weighed in at 55 pounds.
Tail Shape: Muskie vs Pike
Along with the coloration differences on the body and tail, the shape of the tail is also an indicator of what species it is.
Northern pike have rounded tails. The tips of the tails aren’t points and features a prominent rounding.
Muskies have a more prominent tail fork, with a much more prominent V-shape as compared to northern pike.
Number of Pores
If all else fails and you still can’t distinguish the difference between pike and muskie, there is one fail-safe method to find out what one you are dealing with, the jaw pores.
On the bottom of the lower jaw of both species you will see a series of pores in the skin. These pores help them detect vibrations and movement in the water.
Northern Pike will always have 4 to 5 jaw pores that run along each side of the bottom jaw, while muskies will always have 6 to 9 pores. So if it’s five or fewer pores, you have a pike.
The branchiostegal rays on the lower gill plate could be another method of distinguishing between the two species, but this method is not the easiest, and other methods mentioned earlier are far easier and quicker.
Northern pike will have 13-16 of these rays, while a musky will have 16-19 branchiostegal rays.
Difficulty to Catch
Muskies are by far much more difficult to catch than a northern pike. Northern pike is almost always aggressive and willing to eat anything so pike fishing is fairly easy.
Muskies are much different in this regard and will hunt prey like a wolf, and in many cases investigate its potential prey, or in most cases, your lure presentation by following it to the boat several times in a row, and in most cases, simply leave. That’s why the muskie is known as the fish of ten thousand casts.
Many anglers think that this is curiosity on the fish’s part, but I personally think it’s instinctual, and the certain trigger needed at that time to make the fish react in feed didn’t occur, and the fish was in a neutral feeding mood.
These two game fish both have a brain about the size of a pea, and this doesn’t leave much room for anything other than pure instinct.
Pike and Muskie Distribution
Muskies have a much more localized natural range compared to pike in the United States. Pike can be found naturally from Maine, across to the Great Lakes region as well as many western states like Montana and Colorado, and as far south as northern Arizona, New Mexico, and Northern Texas in select areas.
Muskies naturally inhabited the Great Lakes region, with prominence in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, as well as areas in New York, in particular the St. Lawrence river, the upper Mississippi river basin. There are also small localized native populations in the Tennessee river valley, and the Broad river in South Carolina.
Both species have been artificially planted in bodies of water across the country, with muskies being more prominent in terms of artificial propagation in states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and others. Much of the stocking of muskies takes place in states where they are found naturally, like Wisconsin, with large lakes that naturally do not have musky populations being stocked.
Studies have shown that no detrimental effects to the local ecosystems occur typically with these local stockings, as the lake across the road might have muskies, but the one being stocked does not, and all native fish species have evolved with the predators to begin with.
Check out this post for more information.
Muskie vs Pike: Taste
Muskies are commonly not eaten today. Back in the 20th century up until the 1980’s muskies were commonly harvested and eaten, but in some cases, such as that of the Great Lakes region, musky populations were decimated by commercial fishing, and it wasn’t until management efforts in the 2000’s that it has once again become a world-class trophy sport fishery.
The musky fishing community and organizations have spent decades educating anglers on the need for catch and release of muskies due to their low population densities, which are very susceptible to overharvest, and as a result over 90% of all muskies caught today are released back into their habitats after catching.
Pike tend, on the other hand, to be not nearly as rare as their cousin the musky, and one can easily go fishing and catch 10-20 small pike in a day if they know what they are doing.
Due to huge population densities on many of the lakes that they inhabit, the pike has become a fairly common fish to harvest. Pike tend to have flaky white meat that makes for great table fare, but they are bony and require a special filleting technique to ensure the “Y bones” are removed before consumption.
Muskie vs Pike: Habitat
Musky and pike being so similar means that they inhabit the same areas. While a pike might not want to share a particular spot at the same time as a musky, unless it wants to get eaten, you will catch pike often while fishing in areas known to hold muskies.
Habitats include lakes, shallow weedy bays, or any deeper water with submerged vegetation, along with rivers where they can be found around submerged timber, flats, and rocky areas.
They also inhabit the deepwater areas of lakes where they will suspend in open water in pursuit of suspended prey fish, as well as mid-lake structures like humps, points, and sunken islands.
How to Catch Pike and Muskie
Five Top Pike Fishing Tips
- Fish Vegetation
- Use lures with erratic actions
- Spinnerbaits and bucktails work great
- Pause lures regularly
- Use the proper release tools
Check this post for our list of the best lures for pike.
Five Top Muskie Fishing Tips
- Vary your speed throughout your retrieves
- Always do large figure 8’s next to the boat after every single cast
- Always watch for the following fish behind your lure
- Always have a deep net and leave the fish in the water until the release
- Don’t leave spotted muskies to fish unknown spots
Check this post for our favourite muskie lures.
Northern Pike and Muskie FAQs
Can Pike and Musky Live Together?
Pike and muskies living together are typical in most lakes where muskies live. While they will use the same areas to feed, like a small area at the tip of a point, or rock pile, you typically will find one or the other but not both. This is because muskies are territorial and will more than likely attack a smaller pike on its spot.
When you’re fishing a broader area like a weed bed, you will more than likely contact both species relatively close to each other.
What’s The Biggest Pike Ever Caught?
The current IGFA all-tackle record for the largest pike was a 55-pound fish caught in Germany in 1986.
What’s The Biggest Muskie Ever Caught
While being a controversial subject among the diehard musky angler community, The Louis Spray fish of over 69 pounds 15 ounces and 64 1/2 is considered by many to be the world record musky and is stated so in the National Fishing Hall of Fame.
But the Louis Spray musky is not considered the world record according to the International game fish association. Instead, the Cal Johnson fish of 67 pounds 8 ounces caught in 1949 out of Lac Courte Oreilles Lake in Hayward, Wisconsin, is the world record.
Is it Musky or Muskie?
The difference in spelling of musky or muskie is a personal preference thing, and another argument amongst musky aficionados. Both words are simply a shortening of the word for the actual fishes name of muskellunge.
My personal view on the topic and how I have written it throughout the article is to use musky when talking about a singular fish and muskies when discussing them in the plural.
Tiger Muskie vs Muskie?
Tiger muskies are hybrids between a northern pike and a muskellunge. They are incredibly beautiful fish, and once you have seen a tiger muskie, you will know that’s what it is. It has very tight and prominent tiger stripes running vertically along its body, and its fins are comparable to northern pike fins.
Native tiger muskies are very rare, and musky anglers relish at the thought of catching a large tiger muskie.
Tiger muskies are stocked in many bodies of water, in particular in the western United States. They are sterile and cannot reproduce, so by stocking these fish in a lake, there aren’t any worries about long term side effects of being introduced, as once the population is removed from harvest or dies out from natural causes, they will simply be gone from a body of water.
Final Thoughts on Muskie vs Pike
In many ways, the northern pike is very similar to the musky. In other ways, they are very different. Once you see a few of each species close up, distinguishing between the two will be very easy, especially once you know what to look for.