How Pike Impact Muskie Behaviour
Updated: Feb 12
When we were younger & trying to learn how to catch Muskie we spent a lot of time reading articles, forums, watching videos, and talking with other Muskie anglers. While this provided us with a ton of great information it never quite applied to the waters where we fish! Most of the muskie information out there today are from fishing bodies of water where muskie are the only apex predators and from waters throughout the United States which are on average a lot warmer than central or northern Ontario. In the northern great lakes, Georgian Bay, and other lakes in these areas where we choose to fish there are also big populations of northern pike! While the information we were able to obtain was usually pretty logical it matched our approach for finding and targeting pike; while we rarely if ever came across muskie while doing so. This disparity is one that has interested us for some time and one that made us wonder why our experiences were so different. Over time we have came to realize the true impact that northern pike (populations of big northerns that is) have on ski's and how to adapt our strategy to target one over the other.
The first thing to note is that pike and muskie are from the same family of species. This means they have similar behaviours, tendencies, and general appearance. Both are apex predators and so if they co-exist in the same bodies of water this means competition! While most would argue that the muskie is bigger, more powerful, and more aggressive so it gets what it wants this is not actually the deciding factor in how the competition plays out.
The big factor (at least that we have found so far) is water temperature and timing!
As we all know fish only have two jobs, spawning & eating. At the very start of the year when ice still covers most of the lake pike are already preparing to spawn. Since muskie do not spawn until later in the year this means pike leave spawning sites first and get first dibs on all the prime pieces of structure & cover! In bodies of water where they co-exist there are typically a lot more pike than muskie. While Pike don't school a number of them will pack into areas using the same structure or cover. This means that there will likely be multiple pike in every prime location!
Since the pike arrive first this means that a single muskie may have to compete with multiple pike for a spot. All anglers know that muskie are a lot more picky than pike, and especially small pike, that seem to attack anything that comes nearby. This behaviour difference and the head start in arriving to the locations makes it difficult for the muskie to compete in the same areas. As a result muskie tend to stake their claim at a single complex feature that they can "own" to themselves (something small that can only hold one fish) rather than the bigger more expansive locations.
The good news is that competition for spots rarely last long! One big difference between pike and muskie are their preferred temperatures for optimal growth. The Northern Pike prefer around 55 F (The big ones anyways) while Muskie prefer the warmer waters around 72 F. This is a big difference! Further south, where big pike don't have a large population, waters may warm to this temperature quickly in the spring but in northern ontario and on the great lakes reaching a summer peak over 75 is rare! This means that as the pike move out to deeper cooler waters as the summer progresses the prime shallow locations become available for muskie to overtake. Since muskie need so much warmer water than pike they also tend to stay within shallower protected bay systems throughout the early part of the year and summer rather than moving out to the cooler main lake like most literature suggests. When the water starts to cool again in the fall pike return from the depths to prime feeding locations and the competition is back on. This time the muskie tend to move back off the prime feeding areas to avoid the competition with numbers of aggressive pike. They won't move far as forage tends to concentrate in small areas during the fall but they will adjust to locations that allow them to move into warm waters quickly. This means access to extremely shallow water and rocks that heat up quickly throughout the day!
So there you have it! While most information you find can be used to help improve your angling it is important to consider the context of where the information was obtained to see how and if it applies to your body of water. When competition exists the regular "rules" don't quite apply and adaptations will be necessary. To put things in perspective the two fish shown were caught this fall only a few hundred feet from each other. The pike came out of a large weedbed in a pinch point (a big obvious feeding area) where as the muskie came off a shallow rocky hump nearby.