Are Pike Dangerous? (Surprising Facts & Incidents)

Pond Informer is supported by its readers. We may earn commission at no extra cost to you if you buy through a link on this page. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Are Pike Dangerous? (Facts & Documented Incidents)

Esox lucius
Pike are large, carnivorous fish that will eat pretty much anything that is rich in protein. Jik jik, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An absolute angler favorite due to their sheer size and fine taste, pike are known best for their torpedo-shaped bodies and predatory habits. These carnivorous fish are classified under their own genus, Esox. Native to many freshwater and brackish systems in the northern hemisphere, pike have a reputation for putting up a good fight and for having tasty, albeit bony, meat.

In well-balanced ecosystems with a stable food chain, pike are apex predators with a tendency to feed on juveniles of their own kind. They are seldom picky when it comes to their food sources and will take most protein-rich items that wriggle and swim. Apart from feeding on smaller shoal fish, pike can persist on an assortment of amphibians, insects, small mammals, and small reptiles whenever choice prey items are scarce.

Due to their sharp teeth, pike may be feared and regarded as vicious, even to humans. This view is, more often than not, quite unfair as these fish don’t naturally or intentionally attack people. They may also be disliked in some regions where their presence is perceived to be detrimental to the survival of native fish populations. While there are, indeed, instances where these fish can become aggressive and territorial, they are unlikely to cause dire harm.

A Mouthful of Pike Teeth

Close-up of walleye teeth
Pike usually have 2 different types of teeth: fang-like teeth that allow them to grasp prey and needle-like teeth that prevent prey from escaping. USFWS Mountain-Prairie / No copyright

General fear of handling pike fish or swimming with them in the wild is understandable due to their generously toothed mouths. A single, monster-sized pike can have up to 700 sharp teeth running throughout its upper and lower jaws. Most species tend to have anywhere from 300 – 500, with most arising from the ceilings of their mouths.

Pike species usually have 2 types of teeth: prominent, fang-like ones that can grow up to an inch long, and smaller, needle-like teeth that stay at about 0.2 – 0.4 inches long. The larger teeth allow them to firmly grasp live prey, while the smaller teeth are oriented towards the maw and prevent prey from escaping. Occasionally, their teeth may naturally fall out or become dislodged due to injury, but they usually grow back.

General Characteristics of Common Pike Species

1) Northern pike (Esox lucius)

Northern pike underwater
Northern pike are usually 16 – 22 inches long, but those found in coastal Eurasia tend to be much longer. Dan Horowitz / No copyright

The most well-known within its genus due to its widespread distribution throughout North America and Eurasia, the northern pike is a wonder to behold. This spectacular fish can grow to a massive length of 59 inches, though most mature specimens will typically measure between 16 – 22 inches. Populations found in coastal Eurasia tend to have the longest average lengths.

Identification of northern pike is rarely straightforward despite its light-colored speckles on an olive green to yellow-grey body. Juvenile to young fish may look quite similar to those of other pike species. The head and lower jaw are marked by sensory pores, which aid in detecting subtle vibrations in water and changes in pressure. As a hunter, this fish is an ambush predator. It can remain very still as it patiently waits for its prey to come close. It then lunges forward at remarkable speed to secure its food.

The northern pike favors shallow, cool streams with clear water. If it is present in high densities, it may become increasingly aggressive and prone to cannibalism. Though it typically feeds on smaller fish, such as the banded killifish, larger individuals will attempt to feed on considerably sized fish. When it does catch non-aquatic food items, such as birds or mammals, it usually drowns the prey before consuming it. This species has been observed to hunt waterbirds. A huge specimen was implicated in the death of a swan in Ireland, but instances like this are extremely rare.

2) Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)

Large muskellunge
Muskellunge look very similar to northern pike but are usually much bigger, with some measuring up to 5 feet long! Matt Garvin / CC BY-SA 4.0

This large predatory fish is also fondly referred to by anglers as ‘muskie’. As it is challenging to catch, it has earned the title, “fish of 10,000 casts”. In terms of natural distribution, feeding habits, and tendency toward aggression, the muskellunge closely resembles the northern pike. The major key differences lie in their overall size and appearance. Muskellunge are much bigger than other types of pike on average, and have record lengths of up to 5 feet!

Large muskies are undoubtedly considered trophy fish for even the most experienced of anglers. Unfortunately, their slow growth rate makes them vulnerable to overfishing and habitat destruction. These apex predators form small schools in vegetative areas of freshwater systems. Their large stomachs allow them to consume prey that are around half to 2/3 their total length.

3) American pickerel (Esox americanus)

American pickerel
American pickerels are much smaller than northern pike and muskies, but are still considered to be feisty. Gordon C. Snelling / CC BY 4.0

On average, this pike is much smaller than the species discussed above. Mature individuals reach a maximum length of around 13 inches. It has two main subspecies – redfin pickerel (E. americanus americanus) and grass pickerel (E. americanus vermiculatus). Though smaller and less aggressive, these pike are still considered to be voracious and feisty. Anglers favor them as game fish in the vegetative areas of sluggish lakes.

Both lateral regions of the American pickerel are marked by lightly angled and organically shaped dark bars. Their mouths are just as toothy as those of larger pike species, though it follows that the teeth are much smaller. Regardless, they must be handled with caution as the sharp teeth can leave a mark and potentially draw blood.

Do Pike Bite Humans?

Pike teeth
Anglers should be particularly careful around pike as their teeth can cause serious injury. Argyleist / CC BY 2.0

Pike do not intentionally bite humans as they simply aren’t interested in consuming us as prey or in causing us harm. In the event that they do, there are usually underlying causes that may involve threats to their survival. Bites may also be caused by confusion, particularly in the water, in cases where a bejeweled hand is mistaken for a fish or lure. As pike seldom ever attack live animals that are more than half their size, the main reason one would bite a human is self-defense.

Pike can indeed be dangerous as they pack a remarkably strong bite force. It is forceful enough to trap live prey and tear flesh. Pike jaws can slam shut with enormous pressure, but they are seldom strong enough to sever the finger of an adult human. Regardless, a hand in a pike’s mouth is never a good thing as the teeth are sharp enough to cause serious injury. The sharpest ones can cause cuts that may require stitches. Anglers must be extra careful to keep their hands out of harm’s way.

Attempting to pull a hand out of the firmly shut mouth of a pike can inflict more harm. If you ever find yourself in this dire situation – one where a toothed fish has latched onto a part of your hand, stay calm. If the fish is small, try to force its mouth open so that the teeth can cleanly be pulled out of the wounds. If the fish is considerably large and has drawn a fair amount of blood, it may be best to have a trained companion or health professional pry its mouth open. The wounds must be treated as soon as possible to prevent infection. Oral antibiotics may be necessary as well.

List of Recorded Pike “Attacks”

Man holding pike
While not impossible, pike “attacks” are very unlikely to happen and are usually the result of aggravation, mishandling the fish, or jewelry. John Fielding / CC BY 2.0

Pike have occasionally injured the hands of many unsuspecting anglers and have victimized a few swimmers. Reports may be wildly exaggerated and may place these fish in a bad light. “Attacks” may occur in or out of the water and are usually the result of aggravation, mishandling the fish, or the use of jewelry (as it resembles lures or the scales of small fish, particularly at night), but these are extremely rare. Below are some documented incidents of seemingly random injuries caused by pike.

  • In July 2020, a female angler in Winnipeg claimed she was attacked by a muskie. While she was standing chest-deep in water, a meter-long muskie grabbed her calf with its jaws. She recalls looking down at the source of pain and finding a fish head that resembled that of an alligator. The muskie pulled her into the water and, after she flailed about, finally released her. The resulting wound measured about 7 inches wide.
  • In 2017, an 11-year-old girl was paddleboarding in Island Lake, Minnesota. Her leg was grabbed from underneath the paddleboard by what was later determined to be a muskie. She had nine deep wounds, mostly above her ankle, that required surgery and stitches. The doctors remarked that the cuts were razor-sharp.
  • In 1999, a water skier in Lake Langorse, Wales, was attacked by a northern pike. The lake is known for this fish, but no one had ever been attacked before. While waiting for a boat to pick him up, the skier felt something forcefully grab hold of his left foot. When he mounted the boat, blood began to pour from the wound. The boat’s driver remarked that she could see tooth marks.

Safety When Handling Pike

Northern pike being handled
To handle pike as safely as possible, it’s recommended to wear gloves and use a chin grip, among other things. Ray Dumas / CC BY-SA 2.0

While the attacks mentioned above completely took the victims by surprise and were likely unavoidable (cases of being at the wrong place at the wrong time), anglers can adopt the following safety measures to prevent themselves from being injured by pike:

  • If you don’t have much experience unhooking pike, wear fishing gloves. Aim to arrange your trips with an experienced angler who can help teach you how to handle pike correctly.
  • Use a pair of long forceps instead of your own hands to remove the hook. Never use your own fingers as the pike’s jaws can catch you off-guard and clamp shut.
  • Hook removal should be done on a landing mat where the fish’s body can be secured or prevented from flailing about.
  • Never let your guard down as the baited fish may suddenly lunge at you. Always keep a firm grip on the pike.
  • Keep a pair of wire cutters with you in case the hooks are too deep and need to be cut.
  • Learn how to use the chin grip when handling pike. This involves lifting the gill cover and sliding a few fingers under the gill plate and into the lower jaw, where the chin bone can be held.
  • For swimmers: do not wear shiny objects that may imitate the reflection of scales or the shine of a baited hook while in the water.

Pike Should Be Respected, Not Feared

Pike in river
Pike should be respected and their natural habitats treated with care, so that they can continue to fulfill their important ecological roles. Shao at Ukrainian Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pike can be dangerous, but they are not to be feared. These fish will rarely ever intentionally hurt a human. A pike attack is certainly traumatizing, but victims eventually accept that it is highly unlikely to ever happen to them again. Fortunately, no human fatality has yet to be directly associated with a pike bite. In cases involving seemingly deliberate attacks in the water, chances are that the implicated fish exhibited aggression due to confusion, shock, or threats to their territory. Injuries from mishandling baited pike occur far more often.

Pike should not be regarded as monstrous animals that jump at the chance to draw human blood. Instead, pike should be respected. Their natural habitats must be treated with care. These freshwater systems must be conserved so that pike populations may prosper and continue to fulfill their ecological roles.

Without these fish, the freshwater ecosystems which rely on their carnivory to balance the food web will likely suffer. You’ll find that anglers, who often admire pike for their forceful nature and stunning coloration, often feel compelled to release even the most beautiful specimens.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.