Why Are Northern Pike Called Jackfish?

There are few fish that I enjoy going after than the northern pike. Aggressive ambush fish who leave no doubt when they hit your lure and give you an enjoyable fight. Pound for pound they are some of the best fighters out there, and sometime they fight well above their weight.

giant northern pike caught by angler
That’s a beauty! Picture By SpinfisherCRO – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52630332

Always a good time when you’re going northern fishing!

One thing that surprised me was that calling northern pike snakes wasn’t just relegated to small pike like I learned growing up. That blog post did the deep dive into where those names came from and why. While that was the complete story about pike being called snakes, this turns out that the pike name story wasn’t complete.

Turns out that “Jackfish” is a nickname for pike that is also extremely common in some major pike areas…and I had never even heard of that until recently!

Northern pike are most often called Jackfish in central Canada, specifically Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The origin story for this is muddled, but the most common local stories say when Alexander MacKenzie was exploring his cook Jack loved cooking pike – hence yet another dinner of “Jackfish.”

This certainly isn’t the least plausible fishing story I’ve ever heard, though a little bit of research suggests this is probably just that.

Is This Jackfish Story Name True?

The honest truth is that no one really knows why northern pike are called Jackfish in the central Canada regions of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. It’s quite possible that the MacKenzie story was popular and became something of “local lore.”

Since pre-Internet days regional stories, slang, and expressions tended to be passed down through the generations it only had to stick at one point in an area to end up lasting decades or even longer.

The Reason the MacKenzie Story Isn’t Likely True

Multiple dictionaries point to 1735-1745 as the first time that the term “Jackfish” is known to have been used in written form and began consistently appearing in dictionaries at this point.

Since Alexander MacKenzie’s expedition went from 1792-1793, that story is, at best 47 years too late from historical events.

So while that is a fantastic story for how the northern pike came to be known as Jackfish, it’s very unlikely. Add in the fact that early exploration did not equal European settlement, and it seems even more unlikely that story would have stuck in a region that wasn’t already full of colonies or colonists.

So however Jackfish came to be a nickname for pike, it very likely was not due to a chef during the trans-Canada expedition that preceded Lewis & Clark by a decade.

One Counterpoint: That original appearance of the term “Jackfish” could have referred to Ocean fish common in the Caribbean and the oceans around the New World.

This means that original meaning could have referred to one type of fish like Amberjack, but in this specific region of Canada the term came to be associated with Northern Pike and other members of the pike family of fish, instead.

So two different definitions for a term that isn’t all that original. This actually is fairly plausible and might explain the difference.

Regional Area Matters

Jackfish or “Jacks” is definitely a regional term and as this discussion on a Canadian fishing forum shows, even within the area there were some pretty heated disagreements on which terms meant what.

Not only is it the only written confirmation I could find of the story my buddy from Manitoba told me about where the term “Jackfish” came from, but it was the only written online account I could see trying to tackle that topic anywhere.

In many places all pike were simply called snakes. In others, snot rockets (I got a good laugh out of that one). In many places the term “pickerel” was used (technically incorrectly) as a broad catch all term for pike, pickerel, and in some places even walleye.

Because of this even within areas known to use the term “Jacks” for pike, the common meaning of this term could change from town to town.

Age Matters

While Jackfish still is considered a popular name for pike, it is definitely fading in popularity. While this was extremely common as recently as the 1970s, that also seemed to be about the time where slowly but surely less younger anglers were using that term.

As of this writing (2020) generally Jackfish is now a very regional, very “old angler” term that doesn’t get thrown around nearly as much anymore. In all likelihood it’s going to be one that eventually mostly hits the wayside, but as long as there are some wise Old Timers hitting those Central Canadian waters for pike, it’s nice to think the term “Jackfish” will last just a little bit longer.