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Northern pike can be distinguished from their cousins, the pickerels, by the scaleless lower half of their gill covers and the lack of a dark bar beneath the eye. Northern pike bodies are dark green to brown, and there are often bright gold markings on both sides of the head. Juveniles have a pale and dark green stripe pattern, but the pale stripes change to the characteristic light bean-shaped spots with age. The underside of the lower jaw has 8 to 12 distinguishing pores.
Northern pike are very adaptable and occur in a wide range of habitats. They are one of the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the world, and the only members of the pike family to occur in arctic environments. In New York State, they occur primarily in the St. Lawrence, Upper Hudson River, Lake Champlain, and Finger Lakes drainages. Northern pike prefer weedy portions of rivers, ponds, and lakes, but large adults will often move offshore into deeper waters. They are specialized for feeding on large fish, and will often eat fish that appear too large for them. They also eat crayfish and other invertebrates, and may even eat frogs, mice, muskrats, and ducks. In Oneida Lake, northern pike enjoy a typical diet of walleye, yellow perch, smallmouth bass, and white bass.
Northern pike spawn in April or May, just after ice-out when the water temperature is between 4.5° and 11°C (40°-52°F). Like other pike, they migrate into shallow, heavily vegetated areas (like flooded marshes, which dry up by late summer) to spawn. Males and females swim in pairs, and the female releases eggs at irregular intervals to be fertilized by the male. This behavior usually occurs between 2:00pm and 5:00pm in the afternoon, and the eggs adhere to the surrounding vegetation. A female northern pike produces an average of 9,000 eggs per pound of body weight, and eggs hatch in about 2 weeks.
Northern pike are among New York's most important sportfish. They are relatively easy to catch and put up a good fight when hooked. They can also be caught when ice fishing, and northern pike ice derbies are common sporting events in many parts of the state. Due to their predatory nature, rapid growth, and large size, northern pike often control populations of smaller fish species.
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