Do Northern Pike Have Red Fins?

Northern pike are some of my favorite fish to go after because when they hit your lure, it makes all that waiting and empty casting worth it. These freshwater wolves are known for their aggressive hit on lures, awesome fight, and great taste. Sometimes there is a pike that look a little odd compared to what you’re used to seeing and that brings up the question of whether or not northern pike can have red fins.

While northern pike’s tail tends to be more lightly colored with green spots, they can have red fins due to stress. A dark red or clearly red tail generally means the pike is stressed and has likely has been in a major fight with another fisherman recently.

If you catch a pike that you have to toss back due to catch-and-release rules, and it has a deep red coloration in the tail fin, chances are it’s a pike who hasn’t learned its lesson recently.

Redfin Pickerel
Not a northern pike. Redfin pickerel are a member of the pike family and those redfins are definitely distinctive but not technically a pike with red fins.

Why Do Some Pike Have Red-Colored Fins?

While some people assume it’s pollution or diet, there hasn’t been clear evidence with this in either case. There are generally only three reasons that pike would have fins that are reddish in color versus clear:

  1. A misidentification of a musky, which have brownish-reddish colored fins
  2. A misidentification of tiger musky, the musky-pike hybrids (some of which are nicknamed “tiger pike” because they look a LOT more like a chonky pike than a musky or even conventional tiger musky)
  3. Stress – often from previously being hooked by an angler, but heavy stress of any kind can do it

The first one you can tell them apart through a variety of different marks. We go into depth about the various ways of learning how to tell a pike and musky apart, and knowing the information can definitely help you from making those mistakes.

In addition to that, waters that have both Muskies and Northern Pike might also have Tiger Muskies in the rare time when the cross-breeding works. While many times these can look mostly like muskies with one or two characteristics of a northern pike, sometimes the opposite happens and you have a fish that looks 95% like a northern pike but might have one or two odd characteristics more often seen on muskies.

However, the picture below is a clear northern pike (and a nice one, at that) and as you can see in the back fins and the tail fin in particular, there’s some serious red coloration going on.

angler holding big pike with red fins
Angler holding a large northern pike with reddish fins indicating stress from an overly long or rough fight. Nice catch! (Picture Source)

So why does that very nice looking northern pike have red fins when the average northern pike doesn’t? It’s all about the stress. This indicates this was a fight that was very rough and put an extremely heavy exertion on the pike. It’s also possible when a tired pike just through one fight ends up getting hooked by an angler soon thereafter, before it’s fully recovered from the stress and trauma of the first experience.

The red on those fins is from blood cells exploding from stress. In extremely stressed pike, there are some reports that even the bottom of the fish can have a slight reddish tint, as well. This is much more unusual and takes a higher stress level. However, to answer the technical question of “Do northern pike have red fins?” the answer is “Normally no, but stressed out northern pike can have a reddish tint on their fins indicating that high level of stress.”

Northern pike are amazing fish, and while I haven’t personally caught one with red fins, it is possible after a rough fight to see that type of thing occur.

Final Words on Red Pike Fins

Assuming the right identification has been made and you’re not looking at a musky or a tiger musky that is heavy on the northern pike side of things, then you are basically looking at a stressed out northern pike, which hopefully came from giving you one heck of a fight while reeling it in because it would be a shame if an angler earlier that day got to have all the fun and you only received a half energy effort.

That said, if you were worried about the meat not being good or about whether that was a sign of parasites, you’re almost certainly in good shape. Red pike fins = stress. Not great for the fish but if its heading to the freezer or the frying pan, that’s really not an issue, is it?

Happy pike fishing!

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