There are many fish that are known for being aggressive but there aren’t many, especially outside of sharks, that actually have a reputation for attacking people. Northern pike and muskie are two of the rare fish that have a reputation for attacking people in the water.
Do pike attack fishers? Let’s separate the truth from the large number of big fish stories out there. Do pike or muskie actually attack fisherman?
Northern pike and muskie do not intentionally attack fisherman or swimmers, though they will bite fingers to try to get off a hook. Very rare reports of bites from pike do exist but the fish let go of the person (usually their hand) after realizing they weren’t prey. Pike have no interest in attacking anything they can’t eat.
There are a few isolated instances of a northern pike or muskie biting a person. However, these reports almost always fall into two categories:
- Fisherman gets his/her hand shredded while fighting to unhook a muskie or pike in the boat
- Someone getting their hand or foot bitten before the fish realizes that’s not a small fish and let go of them
Pike Attack to Eat, Not to Fight
Pike are all about striking fish or other small prey with the intention of eating. If you are too big to eat, they’re not interested in dealing with you. Despite the nickname of “snake,” pike aren’t interested in fighting in self-defense, they’ll just swim away if there’s no food to be had.
Most of the time pike tend to strike things 1/3 to 1/2 their body size. I say most of the time because while that is the widely accepted common range you learn in advanced biology, fish for pike long enough and you have that story of having an 11 inch pike hammering into a 9 inch Magnum Rapala Crankbait.
Which makes for a good picture (unfortunately 1994 in my case so no idea where that great photo is), but also adds to that reputation for aggressiveness that makes the idea of pike attacking people very believable.
But outside of attacking anglers’ fingers in the boat or the random hand or foot in the water during a feeding frenzy, this just doesn’t happen.
Pike Attacks Are Very Rare (and Hard to Confirm)
One of the reasons for this is that when a pike or muskie bite someone, they expect that foot or hand to be a small fish or animal. When it quickly becomes apparent that they’ve bit off way more than they can chew, they not only let go – but quickly swim away.
Pike and muskie, once they reach a certain size, have no predators. They are absolute top of their food chain. So running into something bigger than them they can’t deal with is a weird or frightening experience that they a
Short list of “confirmed” pike/muskie attacks:
- 10 year old bit putting on water skis in Wisconsin lake probably a pike bite
- Kayak angler bit in foot by musky in Missouri
- 11 year old girl bit in foot by musky in Minnesota while paddleboarding
- Almost certainly a fish story – but it’s a pretty good one
- Subarctic Angler list of 3 confirmed pike attacks
So Are Pike Dangerous?
The short answer is no, northern pike aren’t dangerous. Neither are muskie or tiger muskie. While the occasional attack does happen, it’s almost always the result of mistaking a foot or hand for a small fish. Once they realize something is wrong they let go.
Now can a pike be dangerous to your hand or fingers, especially when shaking those treble hooks out of its mouth? Yes, absolutely! There’s a reason the most common warning to a snake charmer (pike angler) or muskie fanatic is “Watch your fingers!”
But when it comes to a really serious injury or life-threatening danger, it just isn’t there. There have been some cases where a lot of stiches were needed, and one verifiable case where some minor surgery was required because a girl’s foot was shredded to the tendon/ligament level by a big muskie.
That’s the only instance I’ve been able to find from hours of phone calls, online searches, and more of an injury from a northern pike or muskie resulting in more than pain, a little blood, and some stitches.
And maybe a slight hesitation before getting back in the water right away after that. Understandable.
Pike Attack FAQ
Q: Can a northern pike bite your finger off?
A: No. While pike can do some serious damage to the hand of a fisherman, their teeth aren’t long enough or strong enough to slice through muscle, tendons, ligaments, AND bone.
Q: Has a northern pike ever killed a person?
A: No. There are no recorded instances of this happening. Same with muskie or tiger muskie.
Q: Do northern pike bites get infected?
A: They can, especially if left untreated. A bite from a pike would have a lot of potential deep cuts and that can let lake bacteria get in and infect you. That’s the lake, it’s the stuff on the pike’s teeth – there’s nothing extraordinary here but even a regular bacterial infection is nothing to sneeze at.
Q: Can a pike kill a person?
Q: Can a muskie kills a person?
Q: Do pike attack dogs?
A: This is rare but pike to sense by vibration so a small dog in particular might be seen as potential food and is more likely to get an occasional potential bite from a northern pike.
Q: Are pike dangerous to swimmers?
A: Not really. While the occasional bite could happen which will cause injury, they’re not going to pull you under, slice through a limb, or do anything like that which could cause truly serious injury or potential of death.
Personal Experience with a Northern Pike Attack (Story Time)
The closest experience I came with a northern pike attack was while in Canada, to the annual trip to Mackie Bay in Lac de Mille Lacs. This didn’t come while swimming or hanging the feet off the dock.
We were fishing and Dad brought a relatively small northern to the boat. It was borderline big enough to keep, but there were plenty up there and a limit to how many we could take home so it was getting a throwback.
On top of that this was the rarity that annoys many pike anglers: a pike that didn’t put up that great a fight.
Maybe that’s why Dad’s guard was down a bit when this pike stood still through one treble hook released when it decided to shake off the last one. Dad dodged the flying lure, the pike turned it’s head, and suddenly Dad had a gash across the back from thumb to the back of the hand.
The fish managed to shake perfectly to hit the side of the boat, fall into the water, and tail flip water out of the lake onto my cursing Dad.
For half a second I thought he was going to dive in after it.
Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and while wrapping his hand in a red handkerchief. Thirteen year old me also learned more swear words in two minutes than the rest of my life combined.
That’s about the most severe pike attack I’ve ever seen in person.
Pike Attacks, In Conclusion
There just aren’t going to be many pike or muskie attacks in the news. In fact, there aren’t even enough recorded to say that there’s an average of one attack per year.
And that’s combining northern pike and muskellunge attacks together.
So the answer to the original question of: “Do northern pike attack anglers?” The answer is basically while a short attack on the hand or foot very occasionally takes place, they’re extremely rare and as a rule pike don’t attack people.
So that’s one less thing to worry about when going in the water. But if you’re fishing for that big one, once you get them in the boat: watch those fingers! 🙂