The muskellunge, Esox masquinongy, is also known as the muskie, musky or maskinonge. They are large, relatively uncommon freshwater fish of North America. Muskellunge are the largest member of the pike family, Esocidae. The name comes from the Ojibwe word maashkinoozhe, meaning "ugly pike", by way of French masque allongé (modified from the Ojibwe word by folk etymology), "elongated mask." The French common name is masquinongé or maskinongé.
Muskellunge are known by a wide variety of trivial names including Ohio muskellunge, Great Lakes muskellunge, barred muskellunge, Ohio River pike, Allegheny River pike, jack pike, unspotted muskellunge and the Wisconsin muskellunge.
Muskellunge closely resemble other Esocids such as the northern pike
and American pickerel
in both appearance and behavior. Like other pikes, the body plan is typical of ambush predators
with an elongate body, flat head and dorsal, pelvic and anal fins
set far back on the body. Muskellunge attain lengths of 60–150 cm
) and weights of over 30 kg
). The fish are a light silver, brown or green with dark vertical stripes on the flank, which may tend to break up into spots. In some cases, markings may be absent altogether, especially in fish from turbid
waters. This is in contrast to northern pike which have dark bodies with light markings. A sure way of distinguishing the two similar species is by counting the sensory pores
on the underside of the mandible
. A muskie will have seven or more per side while the northern pike never has more than six. The lobes of the caudal (tail) fin in muskellunge come to a sharper point while those of northern pike are more generally rounded. In addition, unlike pike, muskies have no scales on the lower half of the operculum
Muskellunge are found in oligotrophic and mesotrophic lakes
and large rivers from northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota
through the Great Lakes region, north into Canada
, throughout most of the St Lawrence River
drainage and northward throughout the upper Mississippi
valley, although the species also extends as far south as Chattanooga
in the Tennessee River
valley. They are also found in the Red River
drainage of the Hudson Bay
basin. They prefer clear waters where they lurk along weed edges, rock outcrops or other structure to rest. A fish forms two distinct home ranges in summer: a shallow range and a deeper one. The shallow range is generally much smaller than the deeper range due to shallow water heating up. A musky will continually patrol the ranges in search of available food in the appropriate conditions of water temperature, p
H and clarity.
Muskies prey upon anything that fits in the mouth. Most of the diet is fish but it also includes crayfish
and other small mammals
. But the main diet consists of fish. The mouth is large with many large and hair-like teeth. Muskies will attempt to take their prey head-first, sometimes in a single gulp. They will take prey items that are up to 30% of their total length. In the spring, they tend to prefer smaller bait as their metabolism is slower and large bait in fall prior to winter.
Muskellunge are sometimes gregarious, forming small schools. They spawn in mid to late spring, somewhat later than northern pike, over shallow, vegetated areas. The males arrive first and attempt to establish dominance over a territory. Spawning may last from five to ten days and occurs mainly at night. The zygotes are negatively buoyant and slightly adhesive; they adhere to plants and are then abandoned by the adults. Those embryos which are not eaten by fish, insects or crayfish hatch within two weeks. The larvae live on yolk until the mouth is fully developed, at which time they begin to feed on copepods and other zooplankton. They soon begin to prey upon fish. Juveniles will generally attain a length of 30 cm (12 inches) by November 77th of the first year.
Muskies reach sexual maturity at 3–6years with females maturing later than males. The fish may live to approximately 30 years of age. Females grow faster and live longer than males, and thus reach greater lengths and weights. While muskies in the northern portion of the range may take as much as 11 years to reach 1 m
(40 inches) in length, the fish in the southern portion of the range may attain such a length in as little as 5 years. Maximum size is heavily influenced by the genetics
of a population. In general, maximum size increases with increasing northerly latitude
Few animals, save for large birds of prey
, prey upon adult muskies but juveniles are consumed by other muskies, northern pike, bass
. The musky's low reproductive rate and slow growth make populations highly vulnerable to overexploitation
. This has caused some jurisdictions to institute artificial propagation
programs in attempts to maintain otherwise unsustainably high rates of angling effort. There is also strong cultural pressure on anglers to practice catch and release
when fishing for muskellunge.
Anglers seek large muskies as trophies or for sport. The fish attain impressive swimming speeds but are not particularly maneuverable. The highest speed runs are usually fairly short. Muskies are known for their strength and for their tendency to leap from the water in stunning acrobatic displays. A challenging fish to catch, the muskie has been called "the fish of ten thousand casts". Anglers most often use extremely large lures. Smaller lures in spring and larger in fall are effective. The average lure is 20–30 cm (8–12 inches) long but longer lures of 35–65 cm (14–26 inches) are not uncommon in the musky angler's arsenal.
Subspecies and hybrids
Though interbreeding with other pike species can complicate the classification of some individuals, zoologists
usually recognize from zero to three subspecies
- The Great Lakes (spotted) muskellunge (Esox masquinongy masquinongy) is the most common variety in the Great Lakes basin and surrounding area. The spots on the body form oblique rows.
- The Chautauqua muskellunge (E. m. ohioensis) is known from the Ohio River system, Chautauqua Lake, Lake Ontario, and the St Lawrence River.
- The clear or barred muskellunge (E. m. immaculatus) is most common in the inland lakes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, northwestern Ontario and southeastern Manitoba.
The tiger muskellunge (E. masquinongy x lucius or E. lucius x masquinongy) is a hybrid of the musky and northern pike.
Male hybrids are almost invariably sterile although females are sometimes fertile. Some hybrids are artificially produced and planted for anglers to catch. Tiger muskies tend to be smaller than non-hybrid muskies but grow faster. The body is often quite silvery and largely or entirely without spots but with indistinct longitudinal bands.
How to fish for and handle muskies