Esox niger Lesueur, 1818

Common Name: Chain Pickerel

Synonyms and Other Names:

southern pike, grass pike, jack, jack fish, eastern pickerel, gunny

Noel M. Burkhead - U.S. Geological SurveyCopyright Info

Identification: The chain pickerel is named for the dark chain-like patterns on its greenish sides, with a long, slim body somewhat resembling that of a northern pike. Further identification details can be found in Pflieger (1975); Page and Burr (1991); Etnier and Starnes (1993); Jenkins and Burkhead (1994).

Size: 99 cm

Native Range: Primarily the Atlantic slope from southwest Maine to southern Florida, but some populations exist above the Fall Line (Lee et al. 1980); Gulf Coast west to Sabine and Red drainages, Texas; Mississippi River basin north to Kentucky and Missouri (mostly Former Mississippi Embayment, but also upland streams in southeastern Missouri) (Page and Burr 1991). Hubbs et al. (1991) list as native to eastern Texas. For a detailed description of the distribution and range map, see Lee et al. (1980). Crossman (1978) also has a distribution map.

Great Lakes Nonindigenous Occurrences: Chain pickerel has been introduced into  Lake Huron, Potagannissing Bay near Rogg Island in Michigan (M. Ebner, pers. comm.); eastern Minnesota (Crossman 1978; Lee et al. 1980 et seq.); the Lake Erie drainage and the Adirondacks, Lake Ontario, Schroon Lake, and Piseco Lake in New York (Crossman 1978; Emery 1985; Lee et al. 1980; Smith 1985; Whittier et al. 2000; Cudmore-Vokey and Crossman 2000); many areas of Ohio (Trautman 1981; Burr and Page 1986; Hocutt et al. 1986), including Long Lake (Crossman 1978).

Table 1. Great Lakes region nonindigenous occurrences, the earliest and latest observations in each state/province, and the tally and names of HUCs with observations†. Names and dates are hyperlinked to their relevant specimen records. The list of references for all nonindigenous occurrences of Esox niger are found here.

Full list of USGS occurrences

State/ProvinceFirst ObservedLast ObservedTotal HUCs with observations†HUCs with observations†
MI201520151Lake Huron
NY198520045Indian; Lake Champlain; Lake Erie; Lake Ontario; Saranac River
VT199419941St. Francois River

Table last updated 9/23/2021

† Populations may not be currently present.

* HUCs are not listed for areas where the observation(s) cannot be approximated to a HUC (e.g. state centroids or Canadian provinces).

Ecology: Chain pickerel's preferred habitat includes vegetated lakes, swamps, and backwaters and quiet pools of creeks and small to medium rivers (Page and Burr 2011)This fish tolerates warm water, acidity to pH 3.8, and salinity to 22 ppt (Lee et al. 1980). It may enter brackish water in winter. Spawning occurs on flooded benches of streams, lakes, and ponds, where eggs sink and stick to the bottom or vegetation.

This species feeds primarily on smaller fish until it grows large enough to ambush larger prey from cover. Aggressive in their feeding habits, chain pickerel have been reported to eat a wide variety of bait, and are a popular sport fish that is an energetic fighter when hooked (Scott and Crossman 1973).

Means of Introduction: Intentional stocking in most areas; may have gained access to south Florida through artificial canals.

Status: Established in many areas. Reported from Kentucky.

Great Lakes Impacts: Current research on the environmental impact of Esox niger in the Great Lakes is inadequate to support proper assessment.

Chain pickerel is capable of hybridizing and forming viable offspring with related species, including the redfin pickerel (Esox americanus) and northern pike (Esox lucieus), both present in the Great Lakes Basin (Herke et al. 1990, Scott and Crossman 1973). The consequences of this are unknown.

It has been suggested that predation by or competition with chain pickerel could impact threatened or endangered species of Canada, including Atlantic whitefish (Coregonus huntsmani) and distinct forms of rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax) (DFO 2006, 2011).

There is little or no evidence to support that Esox niger has significant socio-economic impacts in the Great Lakes.

Speculation exists that the predation by chain pickerel could have a negative impact on some sport fishes, particularly native trout and other stocked salmonids (Brokaw 2008). Chain pickerel has been actively controlled in parts of Maine due to its reputation as a voracious feeder (Brokaw 2008).

There is little or no evidence to support that Esox niger has significant beneficial effects in the Great Lakes.

Chain pickerel is a popular sport fish in some parts of the Northeast (especially in the winter). In the Great Lakes and Canada, it is of minor importance to recreational fishing overall, although it is often kept if caught. The meat, which is white, flaky, and mild, is considered to be good eating, but contains many small bones. It is not of commercial importance (Scott and Crossman 1973).

Management: Regulations (pertaining to the Great Lakes)
The sale of dead chain pickerel is prohibited in Quebec under the Quebec Regulation Respecting Aquaculture and the Sale of Fish § RRQ, c C-61.1, r 7.

Note: Check federal, state/provincial, and local regulations for the most up-to-date information.

There are no known biological control methods for this species.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife cites removal of fishing bag limits for Chain Pickerel as a management measure in certain lakes, noting that the rationale is biologically sound but negligibly effective because few anglers take advantage of the law and capture more than 10 pickerel per day. (Brokaw 2008 ).

Of the four chemical piscicides registered for use in the United States, antimycin A  and rotenone are considered “general” piscicides, but no studies have been found of their effects on Esox niger (GLMRIS 2012).

Increasing CO2 concentrations, either by bubbling pressurized gas directly into water or by the addition of sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) has been used to sedate fishes with minimal residual toxicity, and is a potential method of harvesting fish for removal, though maintaining adequate CO2 concentrations may be difficult in large/natural water bodies (Clearwater et al. 2008). CO2 is approved only for use as an anesthetic for cold, cool, and warm water fishes the US, not for use as euthanasia, and exposure to NaHCO3 concentration of 142-642 mg/L for 5 min. is sufficient to anaesthetize most fish (Clearwater et al. 2008).

It should be noted that chemical treatment will often lead to non-target kills, and so all options for management of a species should be adequately studied before a decision is made to use piscicides or other chemicals. Potential effects on non-target plants and organisms, including macroinvertebrates and other fish, should always be deliberately evaluated and analyzed. The effects of combinations of management chemicals and other toxicants, whether intentional or unintentional, should be understood prior to chemical treatment. Boogaard et al. (2003) found that the lampricides 3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol (TFM) and 2’,5-dichloro-4’-nitrosalicylanilide (niclosamide) demonstrate additive toxicity when combined. In another study on cumulative toxicity, combinations of niclosamide and TFM with contaminants common in the Great Lakes (pesticides, heavy metals, industrial organics, phosphorus, and sediments) were found to be mostly additive in toxicity to rainbow trout, and one combination of TFM, Delnav, and malathion was synergistic, with toxicity magnified 7.9 times (Marking and Bills 1985). This highlights the need for managers to conduct on-site toxicity testing and to give serious consideration to determining the total toxic burden to which organisms may be exposed when using chemical treatments (Marking and Bills 1985). Other non-selective alterations of water quality, such as reducing dissolved oxygen levels or altering pH, could also have a deleterious impact on native fish, invertebrates, and other fauna or flora, and their potential harmful effects should therefore be evaluated thoroughly.

Note: Check state/provincial and local regulations for the most up-to-date information regarding permits for control methods. Follow all label instructions.

Remarks: A report of a single collection from the Ohio River, Kentucky, is unsubstantiated (B. Burr, personal communication).

References: (click for full references)

Anonymous. 1994.  Fish Stocking Report. Texas Parks & Wildlife News (February 25, 1994). 18 pp.

Boogaard, M.A., T.D. Bills, and D.A. Johnson. 2003. Acute toxicity of TFM and a TFM/niclosamide mixture to selected species of fish, including lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) and Mudpuppies (Necturus maculosus), in Laboratory and Field Exposures. Journal of Great Lakes Research 29(Supplement 1):529-541.

Brokaw, R.K. (updated by J. Lucas). 2008. Chain pickerel assessment. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Divisions of Fisheries and Planning. Available:

Burr, B. - Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL.

Burr, B.M., and L.M. Page. 1986. Zoogeography of fishes of the lower Ohio-upper Mississippi basin. Pages 287-324 in C.H. Hocutt, and E.O. Wiley, editors. The Zoogeography of North American Freshwater Fishes. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.

Clearwater, S.J., C.W. Hickey, and M.L. Martin. 2008. Overview of potential piscicides and molluscicides for controlling aquatic pest species in New Zealand. Science & Technical Publishing, New Zealand Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand.

Crossman, E.J. 1978. Taxonomy and distribution of North American esocids. American Fisheries Society Special Publication 11:13-26.

Cudmore-Vokey, B., and E.J. Crossman. 2000. Checklists of the fish fauna of the Laurentian Great Lakes and their connecting channels. Canadian Manuscript Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 2500: v + 39 pp.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). 2006. Recovery strategy for the Atlantic whitefish (Coregonus huntsmani) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa, xiii + 42 pp.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). 2011. Recovery potential assessment for Lake Utopia rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax) designatable units. DFO Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat Science Advisory Report 2011/004. 18 pp.

Ebner, M. - Soo Tribe Inter-tribal Fisheries and Assessment Program, Sault Ste. Marie, MI.

Emery, L. 1985. Review of fish introduced into the Great Lakes, 1819-1974. Great Lakes Fishery Commission Technical Report, volume 45. 31 pp.

Etnier, D.A., and W.C. Starnes. 1993. The Fishes of Tennessee. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN.

GLMRIS. 2012. Appendix C: Inventory of Available Controls for Aquatic Nuisance Species of Concern, Chicago Area Waterway System. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Halliwell, D.B. 2003. Introduced Fish in Maine. MABP series: Focus on Freshwater Biodiversity.

Hartel, K.E. 1992. Non-native fishes known from Massachusetts freshwaters. Occasional Reports of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Fish Department, Cambridge, MA. 2. September. pp. 1-9.

Hendricks, M.L., J.R. Stauffer, Jr., C.H. Hocutt, and C.R. Gilbert. 1979. A preliminary checklist of the fishes of the Youghiogheny River. Chicago Academy of Sciences, Natural History Miscellanea 203:1-15.

Herke, S.W., I. Kornfield, P. Moran, and J.R. Moring. 1990. Molecular confirmation of hybridization between northern pike (Esox lucius) and chain pickerel (Esox niger). Copeia 1990(3): 846-850.

Hocutt, C. H., R. E. Jenkins, and J.R. Stauffer, Jr. 1986. Zoogeography of the fishes of the central Appalachians and central Atlantic Coastal Plain. Pages 161-212 in C.H. Hocutt, and E.O. Wiley, editors. The Zoogeography of North American Freshwater Fishes. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.

Hubbs, C., R.J. Edwards, and G.P. Garrett. 1991. An annotated checklist of freshwater fishes of Texas, with key to identification of species. Texas Journal of Science, Supplement 43(4):1-56.

Jenkins, R.E., and N.M. Burkhead. 1994. Freshwater Fishes of Virginia. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, MD.

Kushlan, J.A. and T.E. Lodge. 1974. Ecological and distributional notes on the freshwater fish of southern Florida. Biological Sciences 37(2):110-128.

Lee, D.S., A. Norden, C.R. Gilbert, and R. Franz. 1976. A list of the freshwater fishes of Maryland and Delaware. Chesapeake Science 17(3):205-211.

Lee, D.S., C.R. Gilbert, C.H. Hocutt, R.E. Jenkins, D.E. McAllister, and J.R. Stauffer, Jr. 1980 et seq. Atlas of North American freshwater fishes. North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, Raleigh, NC.

Marking, L.L. and T.D. Bills. 1985. Effects of contaminants on toxicity of the lampricides TFM and Bayer 73 to three species of fish. Journal of Great Lakes Research 11(2):171-178.

Morris, J., L. Morris, and L. Witt. 1974. The Fishes of Nebraska. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, NE. 98 pp.

Morse, S.R. 1905. Fresh and salt water fish found in the waters of New Jersey, part I. Annual Report of the New Jersey State Museum. MacCrellish and Quigley, State Province, Trenton, NJ.

Page, L.M., and B.M. Burr. 1991. A field guide to freshwater fishes of North America north of Mexico. The Peterson Field Guide Series, volume 42. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA.

Pflieger, W.L. 1975. The Fishes of Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation. 343 pp.

Robison, H.W., and T.M. Buchanan. 1988. Fishes of Arkansas. University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, AR.

Scott, W.B., and E.J. Crossman. 1973. Freshwater Fishes of Canada. Fisheries Research Board of Canada Bulletin 184. 966 pp.

Smith, C.L. 1985. The Inland Fishes of New York State. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, NY. 522 pp.

Stauffer, J.R., Jr., J.M. Boltz, and L.R. White. 1995. The Fishes of West Virginia. . Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA. 389 pp.

Tilmant, J.T. 1999. Management of nonindigenous aquatic fish in the U.S. National Park System. National Park Service. 50 pp.

Trautman, M.B. 1981. The Fishes of Ohio. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH.

Webster, D.A. 1941. The life histories of some Connecticut fishes. Pages 122-227 in State Board of Fisheries and Game. A fishery survey of important Connecticut lakes. Connecticut Geological and Natural History Survey 63.

Whittier, T.R., D.B. Halliwell, and R.A. Daniels. 2000. Distributions of lake fishes in the Northeast - II. The Minnows (Cyprinidae). Northeastern Naturalist 7(2):131-156.

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Author: Fuller, P., J. Larson, T.H. Makled, E. Lower, and A. Fusaro

Contributing Agencies:

Revision Date: 9/12/2019

Peer Review Date: 1/30/2015

Citation for this information:
Fuller, P., J. Larson, T.H. Makled, E. Lower, and A. Fusaro, 2021, Esox niger Lesueur, 1818: U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, and NOAA Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, Ann Arbor, MI,, Revision Date: 9/12/2019, Peer Review Date: 1/30/2015, Access Date: 9/23/2021

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.