For many casual anglers who do not pursue muskies or haven’t caught one in their time on the water, telling the difference between a muskie vs. pike can be confusing.
With a little education and observation on the water, telling the difference between the two is easy, and in this article, we will take a look at what these differences are so you can distinguish a northern pike from a muskie.
While they look very similar at first glance, muskie and pike are actually two different species, although they are cousins, so to speak.
Author Note: Pike and muskie belong to the same family, the Esocidae family, which is also part of the same genus, the Esox genus.
The Esox genus includes a few other species as well from around the world, including the Amur pike, the southern pike, which was considered to be a northern pike until gaining the classification of being its own species in 2011, the American pickerel, and the chain pickerel.
There are many ways to identify which species is which, so let’s break down each major identifying feature of both species.
Colorations and Markings
The coloration and markings of both species are the easiest way to determine which is which, and you will notice a stark difference between the two species.
First, we need to talk about the different strains of muskie. While there are several different strains, there are two strains the make up the majority of muskie populations, the Great Lakes strain and the Wisconsin river or Chippewa strain.
Great Lakes Strain muskies are silver in appearance with darker colored dots patterns. This strain is native to the Great Lakes, but they have been stocked in inland lakes in many states including, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
The strain that most people are familiar with is the Wisconsin strain. These fish feature a coloration that can vary from dark green to olive with gold scales, particularly on the back. In many cases, the markings are vertical running bars, but they can also be seen with clear sides and little to no markings.
Unlike muskies, the northern pike has markings that vary from white or cream to even a yellowish coloration. In contrast to muskies, these markings are light in color in comparison to the rest of the body and not dark.
Their body color ranges from olive to very dark green, and their backs are almost black in color, compared to the muskies’ brown and gold coloration.
Author Note: Avid muskie anglers can typically tell whether a fish is a muskie or a pike when one is following a lure to the boat simply by viewing the coloration on the back.
For the discussion on coloration, we must also add in the tiger muskie. The tiger muskie is a hybrid offspring of a pike and muskie and looks dramatically different than both species.
Tiger muskies have very tight rows of dark vermiculations that are very prominently displayed and are some of the most beautifully colored and marked fish in all of North America.
Tiger muskies a frequently stocked in lakes in the Western United States.
The preference for hybrid stocking in these waters is due to the tiger muskie being sterile and incapable of reproduction.
When the stocked populations die of old age and other natural causes, there are no long-term negative effects that could result of the continuation of the species in non-native waters.
Natural tiger muskies in bodies of water with both native pike and muskie species are highly prized catches among muskie anglers due to their rarity.
While both fish can grow to large sizes, the average size of muskies in North America is typically much greater than those of pike in the waters where both of them are found.
The average size of the muskie varies greatly from 28 to 48 inches, but 50+ inch fish are much more common in recent years due to a hardline approach of catch and release by muskie anglers and great fisheries management from conservation agencies like the Departments of natural resources, in the form of stocking and the increasing of length limits.
Northern pike average anywhere from 16 to 22 inches, but it’s not uncommon to hear of 40-inch fish being caught in lakes that receive very little fishing pressure.
Due to their high-density populations in most lakes when compared to muskie and higher harvest rates, many pike do not reach over 30 inches in length.
In Europe, the story is different, and pike can grow to very large sizes, and many are caught over 40 inches in length.
The weight of a muskie depends on the length and, on average, weigh anywhere from 15 to 20 pounds as a young adult, with trophy weights being 30 to 40 pounds.
Pike typically weigh much less simply due to being smaller. For example, a 26-inch pike will typically weigh around 4 pounds.
Lower Jaw Pores
A sure-fire way to tell the difference if you are struggling to do so simply by coloration and markings is to count the pores on the lower jaw.
On the bottom of the lower jaw, you will see a row of small pores on each side of the jaw. These pores are sensors that help the fish detect movement in the water in the form of vibrations, similar to the lateral line.
Author Note: A muskie will have anywhere from 6 to 9 pores in each row of their lower jaw, while a northern pike will only have 4 to 5 pores. So if the number is less than 6, you have a pike in your hands and not a muskie.
The area of the lower gill plate of the Esox genus has what is known as branchiostegal rays. These rays vary between muskie and pike.
While this identification method is certainly the most difficult to use, it can be used if, for some reason, all other identification methods fail, which is highly improbable.
Muskie has 16 to 19 branchiostegal rays, while the northern pike only has 13 to 16 rays in total.
I would not recommend using this method, as it is very difficult to count these rays on a live fish and to do so would mean leaving the fish out of water for an extended period while you try to count the small rays on a flopping and uncooperative fish.
This can cause delayed mortality, as a flopping fish out of the water on a boat deck or other surface will remove the slime coating and cause internal organ damage.
The fins of the two species are another great way to tell the species apart as they look very different from each other.
Pike fins have rounded tips and a very prominent orange and yellow coloration with black lines and markings.
Muskie fins, on the other hand, are more pointed than that of their pike cousins and are typically reddish in color with very few faint markings, if any.
Muskie anglers can at times identify whether a fish is a muskie or a pike in the water when they follow lures up to the boat at times by the red color of their fins.
These fin identification methods work for the tails of both species as well.
Species Population Densities and Range
While this section doesn’t answer how to distinguish between the two species, it can still help determine what species you have encountered simply based on the body of water you are fishing.
Muskies are very rare compared to pike, and a good population density on a body of water with muskies can be around only .5 fish per acre. The same acre might have 10 or more pike located within it.
Not all lakes in the native muskies range actually have muskies. For example, with over 15,000 lakes and 12,600 rivers in the state of Wisconsin. In 2011 only 667 lakes and 48 rivers and streams had a population of muskies large enough to be considered fishable.
So if you are not fishing one of these lakes or rivers, there is a very, very high chance that you are dealing with a pike.
With that being said, a muskie could find it’s way to a lake that is not listed as muskie water via creeks, flooding, or illegal stocking.
Once you learn the coloration and markings that both species display, identification will become incredibly easy with no confusion. While their anatomy in many ways is the same, the differences between the species become stark after only a few encounters with the two species.
Another feature you might notice with both species is that they stink! It’s due to the protective layer of slime they have on them.
We hope you found this guide on muskie vs. pike informative.