Pike vs Pickerel: Differences You Should Know

What’s the difference between Pike and Pickerel? A seemingly simple question but one that can have confusing answers depending on where you are. 

I grew up in a fishing camp in Northeastern Ontario, Canada and had great opportunities to meet many individuals from all across the US, Canada, UK, Australia and many other countries. What can be fascinating are the names we give fish that are similar and yet can be wildly different. For those in the US, when asking this question they may have the idea of a Northern Pike vs a Chain Pickerel. Whereas here in Canada, Pickerel refers to Walleye in the US or Zander in other parts of the world.

Man holding a French River Northern Pike, floating in a Bear's Den Lodge rental boat. Cloudy blue sky in the background along with Granite rocks and lush green trees.
French River Northern Pike – Northeastern Ontario

So who is right? Perhaps our confusion in North America can be thanked by the late British Rear-Admiral, Sir John Franklin. In Chapter 3 of his book “The Journey To The Polar Sea (Published 1823),” during his discussions with the Cree Indian Tribe about various native fish species, John Franklin makes reference to, “[…] river perch, termed also horn-fish, piccarel or doré […].” Considering Sir John Franklin’s importance in Canada’s Northern exploration it’s a possible start to the accepted colloquial name “Pickerel” for Sander vitreus. However, for the sake of this article, I will continue to refer to Sander vitreus as “Walleye.” Since there is a distinction between different members of the Pike (Esox) family with “Pike” and “Pickerel”. Walleye is also the accepted name for this member of the Perch (Percidae) family by various biologists and the Government of Canada.

Man wearing a Bear's Den Lodge hat holding a French River Walleye or Pickerel. Caught and Released while fishing French and Pickerel River, Ontario.
French River Walleye often called “Pickerel” in Canada.

What Is the Difference Between Pike and Pickerel?

Northern Pike (Esox lucius) and Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus) are both native to Ontario and other parts of Canada. Being members of the Pike family, they share similar characteristics. Both have long cylindrical bodies and elongated snouts. As well as having their dorsal and anal fins located further near their tail fin. This allows the Pike and Pickerel to coil like a snake before exploding into a high-speed strike to help capture their unsuspecting prey.  

What separates the two species? 

Size

Northern Pike grows larger than Grass Pickerel and other members of the Pickerel subspecies such as Chain Pickerel. Northern Pike can grow up to 25 kg (55 lb 1 oz) as evidenced by Lothar Louis’s IGFA All-Tackle World Record. However, the average Northern Pike in Ontario grows to 45 – 75 cm. (18 – 30 in.).  

Adult Grass Pickerel are usually less than 30 cm. (approx 12 in.) which helps identify them from their larger cousins of Muskie and Northern Pike. However, when juvenile Northern Pike are compared to Grass Pickerel they may look strikingly similar.

Appearance

Northern Pike is slightly darker in body colour, with a distinct horizontal spotted light yellowish or white-spotted chain-link pattern. Whereas Grass Pickerel have dark green sides and varied dark wavy horizontal or vertical patterns. A young Northern Pike under 7 inches has light vertical bars similar to a Pickerel. However, a Grass Pickerel also has a visible light stripe that runs horizontally through the middle of its body from head to tail. 

Image displaying an Ontario Grass Pickerel. Photo credit to Kari Jean and OntarioFisheries.ca.
Photo of a Grass Pickerel by Kari Jean, image from OntarioFisheries.ca

Grass Pickerel fins are dusky to yellow-green and void of spots on their fins unlike the Northern Pike. A Pike’s jawline curls further back and closer to its eyes than a Pickerel. Their backfin has a smaller “split” between halves than Pickerel. Northern Pike also lacks a dark vertical bar extending below each eye that a Grass Pickerel has.   

The length of the snout on a Grass Pickerel is less than 4.5 times in length of the body. Their head when seen in profile – the top outline of the snout often appears concave from orbit to the tip of the snout. A Grass Pickerel’s pelvic fins and abdomen have less than five cardioid (heart-shaped) scales. 

Habitat

Both Northern Pike and Grass Pickerel will share similar habitats and hunting grounds. Due to their biological differences, however, Pike and Pickerel have different preferences in their environment. 

The preferred habitat for Grass Pickerel is warm slow-moving streams, ponds and shallow bays of larger lakes. Grass Pickerel as their name suggests adore abundant aquatic vegetation, but will also hunt in areas with rocky or gravely structures. Being a sight hunter like a Muskie, the Pickerel thrives in clear to tea-stain coloured water.

Northern Pike while young will exhibit many similar hunting strategies to Pickerel. As they grow larger, Pike being a cool-water species will hunt deeper depths during the hot summer months. Unlike the Grass Pickerel, which stays in shallower grassier waters. Northern Pike prefers slow, heavily vegetated rivers, weedy bays, drop-offs and shoals. Pike are rarely found in brackish water and can also be found around rock points, areas where bays, rivers and channels narrow. This gives the Northern Pike natural cover to lay in wait for wandering prey.

Distribution in Ontario

Within Canada, Northern Pike are the most common member of the Esox (Pike) family found in most parts of Ontario. Grass Pickerel are predominantly found in the Southern Great Lakes of Ontario and parts of Quebec. See Ontario Distribution maps below.    

Distribution map displaying locations of reported Grass Pickerel in the Province of Ontario from prior to 1994 to 2013.
Distribution map of Grass Pickerel from 2014 by Ontario.ca. 14 of the 15 location of Grass Pickerel can be found in Southern Ontario.
Map showing red dots for locations of recorded Northern Pike in Province of Ontario, Canada. Map was provided by Government of Canada.
Distribution map of Northern Pike in Ontario.

Conclusion

Even experienced anglers may have difficulty distinguishing the differences between Northern Pike and Pickerel, however, it may be from differences in languages and names to even similar-looking sub-species of fish, The real difference lies in understanding a fish’s characteristics like their appearance and prefered habitats. The distribution differs in Ontario for Northern Pike and Grass Pickerel. The French River produces Northern Pike only. Distinguishing between Pike and Pickerel should be easier for you.  

Article by: Joe Barefoot, M.B. – Published Outdoor Writer and Photographer 

Related Articles

  1. Muskie vs Northern Pike: Know the Differences
  2. Walleye vs Sauger: How to Spot the Difference

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