The Muskellunge or Muskie or Musky (Esox masquinongy) are large, relatively rare freshwater fish of North America. They are the largest member of the pike family, Esocidae. The name muskellunge comes from the Ojibwe word maashkinoozhe, meaning “ugly pike,” by way of French masque allongÃ© (modified from the Ojibwe word by folk etymology), “long mask.”
Muskellunge are found in the Great Lakes region north to Canada, the St. Lawrence River, Hudson Bay, and in the Upper Mississippi Valley and northward, although the species extends as far south as Chattanooga, TN in the lower Tennessee River Valley. They prefer cold, clear lakes and large rivers, where they lurk among the weeds rocks and other structural objects, to rest. The fish forms 2 home ranges, a shallow summer range and a deep summer range, the shallow range is much smaller than the deep range. A Musky will continually move in the ranges searching for food and the correct water temp.
They closely resemble the Northern pike and pickerels in both appearance and behavior; all are members of the Esocidae family. Like pike or pickerel, their bodies are elongated with flat heads and dorsal, pelvic and anal fins set far back of the head: this is the classic lie-in-wait or ambush predator body plan. Growing to lengths of 2″“6 feet and weights of over 66 pounds, Muskellunge are a light silver, brown or green with dark vertical markings which tend to break up into spots. (In some cases markings may be absent altogether, especially in turbid habitats.) This is in contrast to northern pike which have dark bodies with light markings. A sure way of distinguishing the two similar-looking species is by counting the sensory pores of the lower jaw: while a Muskie will have six or more, the northern pike never has more than five. The lobes of the tail fin in muskellunge also come to a sharper point than those of northern pike. Muskies have no scales on the lower half of their gill cover.
Muskies prey upon anything small enough to fit inside their mouths, from other fish, crayfish and frogs, to ducklings, snakes, muskrats and other small hapless mammals. Their bill-shaped mouths are large with many sharp teeth; Muskies engulf their prey head-first, sometimes in a single gulp. Although the animals are capable of swallowing something up to 30 percent of their total length, selection must be made carefully. Muskellunge are sometimes found dead with their last meal lodged down their throats. Large Muskies have been known to eat fully grown ducks.
Anglers seek mature Muskies as coveted trophies or simply for a good fight. Their linear speed is had at the expense of maneuverability. While not the marathon runners of the ichthyological world, muskellunge do have a good deal more endurance than their closest relative, the Northern Pike. They are known by anglers for long, powerful runs, and stunning aerial acrobatics. At best a challenging fish to catch, the Muskie has been called “the fish of 10,000 casts”. Anglers most often use lures of conventional configurations, but extremely large size, to fish for Muskie. The average lure used to catch Muskie is 8-12 inches in length. Larger lures can also be used to catch large Muskies – many of these types of lures can range from 14-26 inches in length.
Muskellunge have been known to form small schools in all lakes. They spawn in mid to late spring, somewhat later than northern pike. Muskies seek shallow vegetated spawning grounds, the males arriving first. Spawning takes place at night and may last from five to ten days. The eggs sink and adhere to plants where they are abandoned by the adults. Eggs which are not eaten by fish, insects or crayfish hatch within two weeks. The fry live on yolk until their mouths develop, at which time they begin to feed on copepods and other planktonic animals. Before long they begin to predate other fish, reaching a length of 12 inches by November.
Reaching sexual maturity at 3″“5 years, Muskies may live to around 30 years. Females grow faster and live longer than males and thus reach larger lengths and weights. While Muskies at along the northern portion of the range may take 7-11 years to reach 40 inches of length, the fish in the southern portion of their range may grow to this size in as little as 5 years. Based on where the genetic strain is originally found their genetic potential can vary greatly. The ShoePac strain reaches smaller lengths and weights than the Leech Lake Strain( both stocked through out the mid-west). The Northern musky reach larger sizes due to a “burn out” in the southern fish.
Their predators are few: birds of prey and humans are their only real worry as adults, but young are hunted by northern pike fingerlings (which have a head start due to their earlier spawning), bass and sunfish. Their low resilience and slow rate of reproduction have caused many governments to instate breeding programs in an effort to maintain populations. Anglers are encouraged to practice catch, photo and release when after muskellunge.
While very ferocious predators, muskellunge do not live up to many of the myths that surround them. In general, most stories one hears about a Muskie “attack” are either folk legends or hyperbole. Muskies have been known to attempt to strike at mammals and birds on the shoreline, but this is a very rare occurrence, although they will not hesitate to take a rodent, or duckling swimming above them.
Subspecies and Hybrids
Though interbreeding with other pike species makes exact classification difficult, there are three recognized subspecies of muskellunge. The most common variety can be found in the Great Lakes basin and surrounding area. The spots on the body of the Great Lakes Musky seem to form oblique rows.
The Chautauqua Muskellunge is a subspecies present in the Ohio River system; Chautauqua Lake; Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River. It is also called the Ohio Muskellunge, Barred Muskellunge, Ohio River Pike, Allegheny River Pike, or Jack Pike. This fish is marked with dark spots from indefinite crossbars on the sides.
Because of their shared preferences, muskellunge and northern pike often occur in the same body of water, leading to incidents of interbreeding. A cross-breed of the Muskellunge found in the lakes of the Midwest, the Tiger Muskellunge is hybrid of the Great Lakes Muskellunge and the Northern Pike. The offspring of these rare couplings are sterile, with the exception of a few large females. Most specimens are introduced via stocking programs for the benefit of sport fishermen. These Tiger Muskies reach a smaller size than Muskies but will grow faster than either parent. They are smaller than purebred Muskies but share their coloration. However, Tiger Muskies have tails similar to Northern pike. The body is apt to be more or less silvery, without spots, but with indistinct crossbands. Variations on its name include: Unspotted Muskellunge, Wisconsin Muskellunge, and the Barred Muskellunge.