What Are the Health Benefits of Pike?

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on June 07, 2022
6 min read

Pike — commonly called northern pike — is a popular game fish. It has great-tasting meat that you can cook in many different ways. Another reason to have pike fish is for its various nutritional benefits. As one of the healthiest coolwater fishes, it makes a great choice for those who like to follow a healthy diet.

Northern pike belongs to the family Esocidae, which consists of other fishes like pickerel, muskellunge, and mud minnows. Its scientific name is Esox lucius. Throughout the world, it's known by many other names, like American pike, common pike, snot rocket, grass pike, slough snake, gator, slough shark, water wolf, and, most commonly, jackfish. 

Pike fish are generally large in size, growing up to a length of 4 feet. A great way to identify them is by their flat, broad snout that looks similar to a duckbill. The color of these fish depends on where they come from. If you catch a pike from a clear lake or stream, it will usually have a light green color. In comparison, fish caught from a dark river or wetland have darker shades like dark green or brown. 

Northern pike, as its name suggests, is distributed throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere, including regions like Asia, Europe, North America, the Arctic, and Siberia. In North America, they can be found in great numbers in the Mississippi River basins and the Great Lakes. They're mostly seen in slow rivers or warm lakes, swimming in the weedy areas near fallen woods or log jams.

The taste of northern pike can vary slightly from lake to lake and season to season. For example, some people find it to have a muddy taste during the summer. In the end, what its taste really depends on is how well you prepare it. 

Most recipe books will advise you to skin the fish before cooking, as the muddy taste often comes from the skin. So, if you clean and fillet the fish properly in such a way that its flesh doesn't come in contact with the skin, you'll find the flesh at its best — white and flaky with a mildly sweet taste.

Northern pike is rich in proteins and various other nutrients, like vitamin B3, vitamin B12, and selenium. It's also a major source of vitamin D, which makes it a great addition to your winter diet. Your body can normally make vitamin D when exposed to sunshine. But in the winter, when you tend to get less sunlight, you may need to get this vitamin from foods like pike fish.

Another reason to have northern pike is for the healthy fats in it. A 230 g or 8 oz serving of raw pike flesh contains about 0.5 g of omega-3s — essential fats that your body can't make on its own and that you have to get from food. Also, compared to other sources of animal protein, like chicken, duck, pork, and beef, pike has significantly lower amounts of saturated fats. These fats can raise your bad cholesterol levels and increase your chances of getting heart disease. So, the less of these fats a food has, the better.

Loaded with various nutrients, northern pike can benefit your health in the following ways:

Keeping your body fit. Protein is an important building block of your skin, muscles, bones, and cartilage. It also plays a major role in building and repairing different tissues of your body. As a high-protein food, pike fish can help you build muscle mass, reduce muscle loss, and recover faster after injury or exercise. A protein-rich diet also controls hunger by keeping you full for a long time. So, eating pike can also help you maintain a healthy weight.

Making your bones and muscles strong. The vitamin D content in northern pike will help regulate the phosphate and calcium levels in your body. Your body needs these minerals to keep your bones and muscles strong and healthy. Having this fish will also lower your chances of getting conditions like osteomalacia and rickets that are caused by a lack of vitamin D.

Preventing heart disease. Omega-3 fats have many health benefits, like lowering blood pressure, maintaining a healthy heart rate, controlling cholesterol, and reducing inflammation in the body. All these effects together help to keep your heart healthy. So, pike fish — which is rich in omega-3 — can help you keep heart disease at bay.

Maintaining brain function. Northern pike has good amounts of vitamin B12, which helps boost the development and function of your brain and nerve cells. This vitamin also plays a key role in maintaining your myelin sheath (protective fatty layer around the nerve cells), which in turn keeps your brain healthy.

There are various ways to cook northern pike that lend different flavors to the fish. But the way you fillet and clean the fish will actually decide how well your dish tastes. The skin of this fish has an unpleasant coating of mucus, which is why you should properly remove the scales and skin.

Even after skinning the fish, there's a chance that you'll find the pike flesh muddy-smelling. In such cases, muffle the smell by soaking the flesh in spiced-up saltwater or by putting lemon wedges inside it. 

You can make various dishes with northern pike, including quenelles, rolls, cutlets, burgers, soups, pickled pike, and even pike egg bannock. Since pike meat is firm and dense, it makes a great choice for grilling and barbecuing. But with the right steps, you can also eat it baked. These are some of the recipes you can try:

  • Bake the fish in the oven with mushroom sauce. 
  • Stuff the fish with lard and stew it with vegetables and pork.
  • Bake the fish with sour cream and Parmesan.
  • Toss the fish with garlic, salt, chili flakes, and crushed black pepper. Cook it on the grill.
  • Fry the fish in beer batter.
  • Bake the fish with tropical flavors like tomato, garlic, mango, or onion. Squeeze fresh lemon over the fillets while cooking.
  • Leave pike cubes in a cooled brining liquid overnight in a fridge. After draining the brine, jar the fish with layers of onion slices, lemon slices, and bay leaves. Pour pickling liquid into the jar. Seal it and leave it in the fridge for 10 days.

The meat of northern pike is considered safe and hypoallergenic. Still, you should avoid consuming it raw.

Also, like other fishes, it contains some amount of mercury. Since pike is a predatory fish (fish that eats other fish), the amount of mercury in it is higher than that found in the insect-eating fishes like lake sturgeon and book trout. By eating more than the recommended amount of fish, excess mercury can collect in your body, leading to muscle weakness as well as pins and needles sensation in your feet, hands, and around your mouth.

To guide people on how much northern pike they can eat, different areas have their own safe eating guidelines. For example, if the pike is caught from Wisconsin's inland (non-Great Lakes) waters, the guidelines recommend:

  • Eating one meal per month for children under 15, nursing mothers, and women of childbearing age
  • Eating one meal per week for men and women beyond their childbearing years

Similarly, the Northern Fish Nutrition Guide for the James Bay Region recommends limiting the intake of predatory fish like pike and walleye if you like to eat fish more than once a week throughout the year.