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Know Your Catch: How to ID Northern Pike and Muskies

Pikes and muskellunge are both predatory prize fish any angler would love to catch, but knowing the difference between the two makes a big difference in your fishing story… especially if you need to tell it to a conservation officer, because the rules for these species are different. Check out the easy tips below for identifying what’s on your line and what to do about it.

Master Angler Northern Pike, caught by Jeff Vroom | Iowa DNRRules First
If you catch a northern pike, you’re in luck. With a continuous season and no length requirement, you can keep your toothy prize for your living room wall, or throw it back after a few photographs as you like. There is a daily limit ranging from three to six fish depending on where you go, and possession limits range from 6 to 12 fish.

Muskies, on the other hand, have to be at least 40 inches long to meet the minimum length requirement, so even if you catch a “fish of ten thousand casts” you may have to put it back in the water.  “Even with the 40-inch minimum, nearly all caught muskellunge are released. They are a trophy fish anglers want to maintain,” says DNR fisheries biologist Jonathan Meerbeek.
Iowa fishing regulations

Master Angler muskie caught at Brushy Creek by Brian Newell | Iowa DNRStripes and Spots
One of the most straightforward ways to tell these trophies apart is their coloration. A northern pike is primarily bluish green, with light, bean-shaped spots in horizontal rows across the body. Juveniles have oblique bars of light and dark extending up from a white belly.

Muskies have highly variable dark vertical bars on an olive to dark gray base, and juveniles may appear to have dark spots on a silvery base all over. A tiger muskie, which is actually a hybrid between northern pike and muskellunge, counts as a muskie for length, bag and possession limits, and has dark vertical bars and dark irregular spots on an olive to dark gray base.

How to tell northern pike from muskies (this is a striped northern pike!) | Iowa DNRTurn It On Its Head
Both pikes and muskies have pores on the underside of their lower jaws that allow them to detect vibrations in nearby water, but muskies always have more. If you flip your catch over (carefully!) and count five or fewer pores on each side of the jaw, it’s a pike. If there are six or more on either side, it’s a muskie.

Make a Point
A true muskie’s tail fins split out to two points, no matter what their general body coloration. Tails on pikes and tiger muskies, however, split to two rounded portions. Remember these fish are predatory and sometimes cannibalistic, so these fins can sometimes be damaged from an earlier altercation.

. A tiger muskie, which is actually a hybrid between northern pike and muskellunge, counts as a muskie for length, bag and possession limits, and has dark vertical bars and dark irregular spots on an olive to dark gray base. | Iowa DNRScale Face
Lastly, if you look closely (and carefully) a pike will have scales covering its entire cheek, whereas a muskie’s scales only cover the top half.

Despite their differences, both of these trophy fish can be very difficult to catch – which is part of what makes them so desirable. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find them. Pikes are fairly common and naturally reproducing across all of northern Iowa, and according to Meerbeek, Iowa stocks about 4,200 yearling muskies annually to maintain their population. Look for both species in large lakes and rivers with plenty of prey fish, and keep casting.

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