Guest Author: Sasha Doss
Editor: Patrick Cooney
Artist: Hannah Dean
White Sox, Red Sox, Esox. People obsess more about one of these three “sox” than the other two. Only fisherpeople will know which one prevails.
Studying Muskellunge has been such a wonderful experience. Many of my days over the past few years as a graduate student in fisheries have started cold and way too early preparing for a day of Muskellunge sampling. But every minute spent handling and interacting with Muskellunge makes those mornings well worth the cold and lost sleep. Their speed, resilience, beautiful coloration, and toothiness continue to fascinate me, and I am full of appreciation for the predator. So when I was asked if I’d be interested in writing about Muskellunge and other esocids for the blog, I couldn’t say no. I hope you find yourself as fascinated as I am!
Members of the Esox genus, especially the larger pikes and Muskellunge, are known for their elusiveness and the challenge they present to anglers. Also known as “water wolves,” the pikes have a reputation for being aggressive predators. They have the typical body plan of an ambush predator—torpedo-like body, flattened head, and the dorsal, pelvic, and anal fins are set far back on the body. Pikes aren’t much for talking, but they will give you a mouthful (of sharp, pointy teeth) if you’re not careful. Pikes generally have a yellow-green coloration with green spots, stripes, or bars along their flanks. Because this fashionable look gives them almost seamless camouflage in vegetation, pikes can enjoy a couch-potatoesque lifestyle in which they sit and wait—sometimes for hours on end—for the perfect unsuspecting victim.
I give you the seven recognized species in the Esox genus:
1. The American Pickerels:
Redfin Pickerel Esox americanus americanus Gmelin, 1789; &
Grass Pickerel Esox americanus vermiculatus Lesueur, 1846
The Redfin and Grass Pickerels are the two subspecies of American Pickerel. These fish can live to about six or seven years and usually grow to about 12 inches in length. Both are native to North America. The Redfin Pickerel resides in the east throughout the Atlantic Slope drainage and in the Gulf Slope drainage from Mississippi to Florida, and the Grass Pickerel resides farther west in the Gulf Coast and Mississippi drainages. Where the ranges of the two subspecies cross along the Gulf Coast, the two can interbreed.
Not surprisingly, the Redfin Pickerel has distinctive orange-red fins and tail, which help set it apart from its pickerel twin. The Redfin’s coloration is typically green to brown with dark green vertical bands. The Grass Pickerel is similar with less distinct markings and wider spaces between the bands. This coloration allows the pickerels to be lazy couch potatoes in the weeds while they wait for prey. As top couch potatoes in many systems, the pickerels are bioaccumulators. If their smaller prey have been exposed to harmful chemicals, like environmental mercury, the chemicals can build-up in the pickerels’ tissues. If a bird, human, or hungry, hungry hippo then eats the pickerel, that animal is at risk for mercury poisoning.
2. Chain Pickerel Esox niger Lesueur, 1818
Cousin to the other pickerels, the Chain Pickerel is the most widespread, residing in waters from east Texas to Maine. Due in part to its ubiquitous nature, the Chain Pickerel has many nicknames, including ‘gunfish,’ ‘federation pike,’ ‘jack fish,’ and ‘southern pike’—not to be confused with the actual Southern Pike Esox cisalpinus. As its name would suggest, the Chain Pickerel has a distinctive dark chain-like pattern on top of its lighter, yellow-green sides. The pickerel can blend easily into vegetated habitat with this pattern and, like its cousins, it partakes in the couch-potato lifestyle. The Chain Pickerel can live between 8 and 10 years, and the average size for adults is about 24 inches. The Chain Pickerel’s native range includes Atlantic and Gulf Coast tributaries, but the fish has been introduced elsewhere including drainages in Colorado and Nova Scotia.
3. Amur Pike Esox reichertii Dybowski, 1869
The Amur Pike is one of few pikes that do not occur naturally in North America. It is exclusively a resident of the Amur River system in Russia, China, and Mongolia, and has had only one short, unsuccessful introduction in Pennsylvania in the 1970s. The Amur Pike, also called the ‘black-spotted pike,’ probably has the most unique coloration of the pikes with silvery sides covered in small, black dots. These pike are slightly smaller than Northern Pike, the largest on record is 45 inches, and they have similar feeding habits. Amur Pike have been known to reach ages of 15 to 16 years and are prized sportfish throughout their range.
4. Southern Pike Esox cisalpinus Bianco and Delmastro, 2011
The Southern Pike is a new addition to the pike genus. The recently described Southern Pike is currently found in central and northern Italy. It was only in 2011 that support was provided to delineate this species of pike. Previously, biologists thought that Southern Pike were actually Northern Pike with a color variation, but both phenotypic and genetic differences exist between the two. This finding had large management implications because managers often stock Northern Pike from different parts of Europe and if those fish were stocked into waters with Southern Pike, hybridization between the two species might jeopardize the survival of the suave, Italian-speaking couch potato.
5. Aquitanian Pike Esox aquitanicus Denys, Dettai, Persat, Hautecoeur and Keith, 2014
This is an even newer addition to the pike genus. The Aquitanian Pike, discovered in 2014, in Aquitaine, France, is currently found throughout the Charente and Adour drainages in southwestern France. Aquitanian Pike are similar to Northern Pike in diet and in habitat selection, and they have a brownish vertical bar below the eye similar to Northern and Southern Pikes. The Aquitanian Pike, like the Southern Pike, also faces the dangers of hybridization with Northern Pike.
6. Northern Pike Esox lucius Linnaeus, 1758
Northern Pike is the type species of the genus and the only member of the genus with a circumpolar distribution. The lifespan of a Northern Pike is typically about 25 years and, with enough forage, Northern Pike can easily reach lengths greater than 40 inches. The Northern Pike has dark yellow-green flanks marked with lateral rows of short, light bar-like spots. Unlike the similar-looking and closely related Muskellunge, the Northern Pike has light markings on a dark body background. Northern Pike and Muskellunge can also be differentiated by the number of submandibular pores (four to five versus six to nine respectively) and by the scaling patterns on the cheek (Northern Pike have fully scaled cheeks and Muskellunge have scales only on the upper half of their cheeks). Northern Pike are solitary couch potatoes, and although fish compose the majority of their diet, they are known for taking small animals, like frogs, rodents, and small waterfowl.
Increased fishing pressure, loss and degradation of critical habitat, and overexploitation of large fish are some of the major threats Northern Pike face.
7. Muskellunge Esox masquinongy Mitchill, 1824
Muskellunge are the largest couch potatoes of the genus and reside in North America in lakes and in large rivers from Canada to Georgia and from Virginia to Minnesota. Muskellunge are usually light silver, brown, or green with dark vertical stripes, which sometimes break into spots. Occasionally in turbid waters markings can be completely absent. Muskellunge can reach lengths greater than 55 inches but the average adult size is between 28 and 48 inches. Muskellunge are a long-lived species with lifespans as long as 30 years reported. Muskellunge are renowned for their elusiveness and the challenge they present to anglers and are often called the fish of 10,000 casts. Similar to Northern Pike, Muskellunge are also known to prey on smaller animals like muskrats and ducklings in addition to fish.
Hybrid: Tiger Muskellunge Esox masquinongy x lucius
Tiger Muskellunge are the ‘Franken fish’ of the genus and are the hybrid offspring of Northern Pike and Muskellunge. Tiger Muskellunge are usually considered hardier and grow faster than either parent species. The Tiger Muskellunge has dark, equally spaced, vertical or slanting stripes along its body warranting the ‘tiger’ name. The infertile nature of Tiger Muskellunge makes the species a good candidate for introductions and stocking because fisheries managers can effectively control their abundance. Tiger Muskellunge are also thought to be easier to catch because they are more eager than Muskellunge or Northern Pike to bite at a lure or bait.
The Esox genus is full of amazing fish, each member with a couch-potato lifestyle all its own. One of the biggest issues for the genus right now is their interaction with other fishes (like this example with Northern Pike and trout in Lake Davis, California), especially in systems in which they are nonnative. Anglers opposed to pike have been known to slay fish on the banks of rivers and lakes whenever given the opportunity. Despite their reputation as “monster fish,” many systems exist in which fisheries for pike and other sportfish, like Walleye and Smallmouth Bass, are both successful. However, this is not the case for every system, and one of the biggest challenges facing fisheries managers will be managing the predatory interactions—real or perceived—between pikes and other fishes. In the meantime, let’s hope the pikes continue to inspire great rock’n’roll hits like this one.
About the Author
As a left-handed, coffee-loving foodie, when Sasha is not on the river or in the lab, you can find her at the nearest food truck or coffee shop trying something tasty. Sasha is currently a Masters candidate at Virginia Tech in the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Department where her graduate work focuses on Muskellunge in the New River, Virginia and their predatory impact on Smallmouth Bass (click here for more information). She received her B.S. in Biology and B.A. in Environmental Studies from Washington and Lee University and is slated to start the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship in Washington, DC this coming February. Sasha says one of her goals is to help people feel connected to fish like they feel connected to furry fauna. She strives to do this by sharing stories about the amazing lives fish lead and how they are important to the world we live in.
Redfin Pickerel – Photo by Paul H. Young (http://www.sparsegreymatter.com/viewtopic.php?t=6224)
Grass Pickerel – Photo by Fredlyfish4 (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Esox_americanus_vermiculatus_juvenile.JPG)
Chain Pickerel – Photo by Ken Hammond (https://www.goodfreephotos.com/animals/fish/chain-pickerel-southern-pike-esox-niger.jpg.php)
Southern Pike – Photo by Andshel (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/26/Свежевыловленная_амурская_щука.JPG)
Aquitanian Pike – Photo by Srdjan Mitrovic (http://s129.photobucket.com/user/54rge/media/ul5_1.jpg.html)
Northern Pike – Photo by katdaned (https://www.flickr.com/photos/25520136@N08/2951756603)
Muskellunge – Photo by Matt Gentry at the Roanoke Times (http://www.roanoke.com/news/education/higher_education/virginia_tech/new-river-monster-fish/article_7416bcbc-997b-554c-8875-155d5b80ad33.html?mode=image&photo=1)
Tiger Muskellunge – Photo by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (https://www.flickr.com/photos/widnr/6506362281)