Why Are Northern Pike Called Snakes?

tiny northern pike
Super small, gotta throw it back – now that’s a snake!

Some fish have very strange nicknames. One of the more common ones that can throw anglers off, especially if they have the very common fear of serpents, is “snake.”

What’s interesting about this nickname is how it has changed, evolved, and is used different depending on what area you’re in.

Some anglers call pike “snakes” for a variety of reasons. Small ones get that name because they are long and often slimy, in some lakes they are unwanted, and they can overrun a small ecosystem. There is more behind each of these reasons as to why northerns often carry this nickname.

While the following sections are general information, keep in mind that in different pockets or areas there can be many

Pike Were Not Always Popular

Believe it or not, northern pike were not always popular! In fact, the Washington Post ran an article in 1978 about angry Manitoba anglers and guides who hated northern pike who already referred to these fish as “snakes” even back then – and not just the small ones (Source).

This was a bit of surprise to me doing research, because up at Maki Bay, a resort in Lac de Mille Lacs Ontario that my family and I used to go to yearly for big fishing trips, a snake ONLY referred to small northern pike that were too small to keep.

This actually came up a lot as pike are aggressive predators willing to eat about anything, and more than once I hooked a pike that was barely bigger that the crankbait I was fishing with.

Yeah, that’s more than a bit aggravating.

The article shows a hostility towards pike that is above and beyond even some of the more vocal detractors I’ve run into today, so it’s not out of line to say that the profile of northern pike as a game fish has moved up quite a bit in the almost 40 years since that article was written.

So Why Are Pike Called Snakes?

First thing to recognize is that “snake” is definitely not a complimentary nickname for a northern pike. When that term is used, the angler is frustrated or annoyed at best and angry at worst.

One reason for this name is that compared to other game fish that tend to share the same waters as pike, pike’s bodies tend to be much longer and thinner, which gives them the biggest snake-like appearance compared to other fish in the area.

Although not likely to be mistaken for a snake in real life, without question they are much closer in body shape to snakes than walleye, lake trout, perch, bass, or any other popular game fish. This makes the derogatory nickname somewhat a natural fit, especially for fishermen who don’t want to find one on their lines.

Another reason for this nickname is that many small pike tend to be a bit slimy. They are willing to find cover about anywhere, and they are plenty slick. It is worth noting that snakes aren’t generally slimy, but the stereotype of snakes has them as slimy. So when a small pike is long, lean, and slimy, and you don’t want to see it on the line, that seems a good a nickname as any.

Finally, one of the major reasons unwanted pike in general and small unwanted northern pike in particular are nicknamed snakes is because while it’s fun to see them hit, many times they can damage or even break a lure. The number of crankbaits we’ve had to get new treble hooks for are too numerous to count.

When a tiny northern pike hits so hard the middle of your favorite fishing lure snaps in half in its mouth, and the pike is smaller than the lure itself, it becomes downright infuriating.

So in summary, small pike (and sometimes larger ones) are called snakes because:

  • Their long narrow bodies
  • The sliminess (although it is a myth that snakes are slimy by nature)
  • Small pike are unwanted when on the hook – just like reeling in a snake on the lure

Why Would Pike Be Annoying?

While the profile of the northern pike has definitely picked up, the fish isn’t as good eating as walleye, perch, or lake trout. This can make it a lot less popular, and the process of cleaning fillets is much harder because of the infamous Y-bone.

The Y-bone alone is enough to make many even experienced anglers throw their fillet knives in frustration, and to many anglers that makes walleye, bass, and trout much better uses of their angling time.

Pike tend to be top of the aquatic food chain. This means that if the pike population gets out of control, they can hammer the population of other local fish species and overrun the area, especially in water with limited sources.

Annoying pike = snake.

Pike As An Invasive Species

In places where northern pike were not native species, and there aren’t many other natural large or predatory fish, pike are seen as a major nuisance. In these places pike might be referred to as snakes in all sizes, but they are dangerous to an ecosystem.

Where they are naturally found, pike are an aggressive predatory fish that hunt and eat constantly. In fact, pike are one of the few fish that seem to be in a constant feeding frenzy.

While they can be a great sports fish, in places where they are an invasive species there will be no limit and often it will be encouraged to keep them all out of water to reduce the invasive population.

If this is the type of area they’re in, it’s not as uncommon for all of them to be called snakes as they can devastate walleye, perch, sauger, trout, and grayling populations in any given area.

There you have it – all the reasons that in many places northern pike have this, let’s call it less than flattering nickname!

Looking for Better Pike Gear?

If you’re anything like me you’re always open to upgrading a piece of gear to give you better chance of landing a northern. The following are my personal picks for the best pike gear out there, each link leads to Amazon.com so you can get up to the minute prices on the gear that will help you catch more northerns.

Happy fishing – and get trophies instead of snakes!