Northern Pike vs. Muskellunge: What are the Differences?

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Many observers – even those familiar with freshwater fishing – will often confuse two of inland water’s top predators: the northern pike and the muskellunge.

Just as experienced anglers often get tripped up on the black crappie vs. white crappie debate, the pike vs. muskie issue can be complex.

Fortunately, we will take a look at some of the major differences between the two species below.

Norther Pike vs. Muskie: How to Tell the Difference

Let’s Start with Biology: Species, Genus, and Family

Biological Classifications List
Biological Classifications Chart (photo via Peter Halasz/Pengo/Wikimedia Commons)

Just as we have when considered the biological differences between various species of bass and sunfish, we are going to look at how both pike and muskie are classified.

Muskellunge, which are casually known as both “musky” or “muskie,” are part of the species Esox masquinongy. The northern pike are part of the species Esox lucius.

Both species, however, are part of the genus Esox, which is often called the “pike family.”

Other members of the Esox genus include:

  • Chain Pickerel: Esox niger
  • Amur Pike: Esox reichertii
  • Southern Pike: Esox cisalpinus
  • Aquitanian Pike: Esox aquitanicus
  • American Pickerel: Esox americanus

All members of the Esox genus are part of the Esocidae family. That said, there is still ongoing research to find connections between Esox (the youngest genus in the family) and its cousins. While all species within Esox carry distinct similarities, the same cannot be said for the other species associated with genera like Dallia or Novumbra.

Muskie vs. Pike: Differences in Size, Shape, Coloration, Habitat, and Behavior


Muskellunge are generally larger than northern pike. Muskies can reach lengths of over 5 feet in length and can weigh over 60 pounds (27 kilograms), while northern pike usually reach a maximum length of 4 feet and can typically weigh up to 50 pounds (23 kilograms).

There are certainly outliers for both species, but the IGFA denotes the certified world record northern pike at just over 55 pounds. The world record muskie sits considerably higher at 67 pounds, 8 ounces.

Again, this is simply a general rule. If you happen to catch both a muskie and a northern pike on the same body of water, the pike could absolutely be larger.

Body Shape, Coloration, and Profile

Muskie Fishing in Ohio
Muskie come in a variety of sizes, but they tend to have similar feeding patterns. The muskie above has damage to its tail, but you can tell by the submandibular pores, light body color/darker stripes, and “pointed” tail that this is a muskie. (photo via Chas Savage/Premier Angler)

Variations will certainly exist, but both northern pike and muskie tend to follow general size, coloration, and profile rules.

Muskie will typically have an orange or green coloration with spots or mostly vertical bars. The darker splotches rest against the natural green or orange of the body. The body color often tends to be a lighter/brighter color than that of the pike.

Norther pike, on the other hand, tend to have a darker green body. The splotches on the body are usually much brighter and tend to be green or yellow.

Tail and Fin Differences Between Muskie and Northern Pike

Another way anglers can tell the difference between northern pike and muskie is by looking at their fins and tails.

Muskie typically have a pointy, forked tail with spots/patterns consistent with that of the body. Northern pike have tails that are more rounded and patterns that are more subdued/blended.

Check the Jaw

A popular way to spot the difference between muskie and norther pike is by checking for pores under the jaw.

These submandibular (“below the jaw”) pores are often an indicator of the particular species, just as the dorsal spines on black and white crappie can be counted to identify the differences.

Norther pike will typically have 4-5 pores below the jaw while muskie will have between 6-9 pores.

Habitat: Natural Locations for Northern Pike and Muskie

Many freshwater bodies – especially those in cooler climates within the United States and Canada – play home to both species.

The Great Lakes and Canada provide some of the finest muskie fishing in the United States (and the world). Are you venture south, however, the size and frequency of this elusive fish begins to taper off. Still, you can find muskie in Central State waters, including Missouri, Nebraska, and even Oklahoma.

Northern Pike appear in waters even further south, including Georgia and Texas. They are also found in many of the same northern states (and Canada) as the muskie.

World-class northern pike fishing often requires a trip to Europe, however. Denmark, Germany, Findland, and even Russia are all known to have excellent pike fishing.

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