What Do Northern Pike Eat? (And Best Bait)

There are a variety of lures and baits you could use to target northern pike. But if you want to catch them effectively you need to select the right bait. The first step is to learn what they eat. We have done the research and are prepared to share it with you here.

The simple answer is that northern pike will eat almost anything. They are the top of the aquatic food chain and routinely dine on almost anything smaller than they are, including fish, frogs, snakes and smaller pike. They have also been known to take birds or small mammals that venture to close to the water’s edge.

As predators pike are opportunistic feeders, taking a bite at anything that presents itself. That being said, they do have a preferred diet. Furthermore, this diet varies during their life cycle and even at various points in the season. Understanding what northern pike prefer to eat, and when it changes, will let you target them more successful all year long, season after season.

The Pike’s Menu Fry to Trophy

As mentioned before, the northern pike is a predator from the time it is born. However, although an adult pike may attack and eat almost anything younger fish are restricted by their own size and hunting ability.

Juvenile pike will feed mainly on small insects, progressing to smaller bait fish species quickly. As the young pike grow bigger, so will the size of what they are willing to eat.

Even a mid-sized northern pike is a formidable predator, having quickly reached a size that allows it to dominate most other species. Insects and bait fish, often a life long food source for other species, are no longer capable of providing the substance needed for these fast-growing fish.

At this point juvenile northern pike will begin targeting almost any fish it can catch, even those over ½ its own size. This is also when frogs, reptiles and even small birds become a potential meal.

By the time a northern pike reach adulthood, they have become a virtual eating machine. They spend much of their time hunting, eating and thinking about hunting or eating. They have also developed their hunting skills to their peak, allowing them to successfully feed on anything they want. Due to their own increasing size what they want is a big meal. The menu has not changed, what has changed is the amount they need to eat. To get the most bang for their buck large adult pike will focus on larger, more satisfying menu options.

Although adult pike will still eat larger baitfish, frogs, snakes and small birds when readily available they are now even higher on the food chain. This allows them to focus on bigger, more satisfying meals including walleye, bass, perch, small musky and even pike smaller than themselves.

Pike Feeding Habits

We mentioned it before, and it is worth mentioning again, the northern pike is a virtual eating machine. Everything about this species is centered around being the top predator in the waters it calls home. They are large, fast and camouflaged – traits allow it to catch and eat almost anything it encounters. But as with any other species there are times of day when northern pike are more active, and therefore, more easily caught.

  • Based on research and personal experience northern pike are generally most active during the early morning hours. Just before sunrise pike leave their hides and start searching for the first meal of the day. During this time they will be more mobile and moving around in the shallows, closer to shore and easier to target.
  • As the sun gets higher in the sky and water temperatures increase pike will become less active. This is when the move to their hides, usually located in deeper water. Although they may still strike out of aggression, they are less likely to spend energy in chasing a mid-day meal.
  • The setting sun signals a second peak feeding period. Northern pike will once again venture out of there hides, into shallow areas while in search of dinner. Although the morning still appears to be the best time to catch pike the setting sun does signal a second chance for big pike.
  • Although walleye and sauger are naturally designed for aggressive late night feeding northern pike are not so adapted. Their night vision is limited, and fish caught after dark are usually the victim of their own aggression, striking at bait preserved as a threat rather than a meal when dropped in very close proximity to their hide.

Time of day is not the only factor to consider when targeting northern pike, time of year also plays a critical factor. As a species that thrive in cooler climates, the northern pike is going to be more active during colder periods but that does not mean they stop eating when the temperature rises. However, they will change their feeding patterns.

  • The most active time of year is without a doubt post-spawn spring season. This is when large females are desperate to replace the weight lost while spawning. Not only are they increasingly aggressive they are also prowling the area looking easy meals and a lot of them in an attempt to replace the weight lost during the high-stress spawn.
  • In summer temperatures cause the shallows to warm up, so pike will move to cooler, deeper areas. Although they will continue to feed, they will slow somewhat due to the stress induced by warming water.
  • As fall approaches decreasing temperatures will result in a return of almost spring-like feeding habits. Although activity will increase, and pike will be more mobile they will still lack the feeding frenzy of the post spawn period.
  • Other than immediately following the spawn winter may be the period when pike are most active, and most successfully targeted. Thanks to very cold-water temperatures and limited food choices large pike will spend an increased amount of time hunting and eating – a necessity if they are to survive this lean period.

What is the Best Bait for Pike?

Now that we have explored the more complex aspects of the northern pike’s feeding habits – the what, when, where and why – it is time to put this information to use. It is time to take this information and determine which bait(s) are best for your next fishing trip.

Because northern pike are an apex predator the best bait is without a doubt live bait native to the water you will be fishing.

Live bait is almost always the best bet, especially when fishing for large carnivore species such as the northern pike. The key is to select a bait which is native to the water fished. This is what the local pike are normally searching for and will be far more enticing than an offering they have never seen before. That being said, if you do not have access to local bait or choose to use artificial lures you can still land plenty of pike by selecting a option that mimics those natural baits.

Match the size of your bait or lure to the year class you are targeting. Bigger baits and lures catch bigger pike.

If you are pursuing larger, potential trophy northern you do not want to spend the day throwing small lures that imitate insect, baitfish or similar baits young of the year are chasing. Remember, as the pike grows so does it’s dietary needs. Increasing your lure or baits to 4-6 inches will yield growing juveniles.

By jumping to jumbo, 6 to 9-inch lures you will limit the chances that smaller fish will have the ability to even think about taking a bite but still draw the big wall hangers from their hides.

When mimicking live bait opt for lures that resemble frogs, mice, large bait fish, small predator species or even small birds that have landed on the surface. It is important to select color patterns that match the local selection too.

Do not forget to play on the northern pike’s aggressive nature. If they will not strike out of hunger get them to attack out of anger.

Remember that pike are not only predators they are the top predators. Even when not actively feeding they will often strike out of pure aggression. By playing on this natural behavior you can often entice a strike by simply putting something within their personal space. Pike will also react violently to what they believe is another predator invading the area or feeding nearby.

  • Spinner baits drive pike crazy. The combination of movement and sound plays to the pike’s natural aggression and makes them almost impossible to ignore. Tandem spinners, which mimic one fish chasing another fish, will also trick a pike into thinking another predator is feeding in their areas- something they simply cannot let go unchecked.
  • Top waters plugs are both effective and exciting to use for pike. Again, you are using a combination of action and sound to draw large pike out of cover. This option is not only good when you do not wish to probe the thick weed beds it adds a level of excitement only found when you get to see the lure disappear in a large splash, followed by the arm-tiring tug of your next pike.
  • Weedless lures will allow you to target pike reluctant to leave hides. Even when pike are spending time in deeper weed beds, such as during warmer summer months, they are still aggressive. The key is to put the lure in their face, which means into the weeds.
  • Deep diving crankbaits are also an effective summer lure. Again, the idea is to get the lure down deep where pike are when the shallow water areas are too warm to attract pike.

Related Questions:

There are several myths concerning northern pike and their preferred diet choice. Two of the more frequently heard claims are that they will not eat bluegills but love hotdogs. But is this true? Let’s look at what the research says.

Do Northern Pike Eat Bluegill?

Although pike are the top predator and more than capable of eating bluegills this most abundant of panfish do not appear to be a preferred menu selection. Experts are not in agreement as to why. Some believe the combination of oval shape and sharp dorsal spines make bluegills hard to eat. Others point to the bluegill’s preferred habitat, deep in thick weeds, as the reason they are safe from the average pike.

Do Pike Eat Hot Dogs?

As odd as it may sound hotdogs do catch northern pike. Whether it is the shape, smell or they resemble an easy meal pike will readily eat hotdogs. However, hotdogs are only a seasonal addition to the menu and tend to be most effective during winter months. This is probably related to a general lack of other options.

To Wrap Up

We hope that this information has not only made you a more informed angler but will help you catch more pike. Remember, each water is different and the pike that call those waters home have their own preferences. While none of the tips provided will work on every water, they will allow you to focus your efforts better. Only through trial and error will you determine what works best for you and the waters you call your own.

Good luck and good fishing!

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