The muskellunge (Esox masquinongy), also known as muskelunge, muscallonge, milliganong, or maskinonge (and often abbreviated “muskie” or “musky“), is a species of large, relatively uncommon freshwater fish of North America. The muskellunge is the largest member of the pike family, Esocidae. The common name comes from the Ojibwa word maashkinoozhe, meaning “ugly pike”, by way of French masque allongé (modified from the Ojibwa word by folk etymology), “elongated face.” The French common name is masquinongé or maskinongé.
The muskellunge is 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 are typically 28–48 inches (0.71–1.2 m) long and weigh 5–36 pounds (2.3–16 kg), though some have reached up to 6 feet (1.8 m) and almost 70 pounds (32 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 reliable method to distinguish 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 Michigan, 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. There is also a small population in the Broad River in South Carolina. Several North Georgia reservoirs also have healthy stocked populations of muskie. 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 structures 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.
Muskies prey upon anything that fits in the mouth. Most of the diet consists of fish but it also includes crayfish, frogs, ducklings, snakes, muskrats, mice, other small mammals, and small birds. The mouth is large with many long, needle-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 since their metabolism is slower, while large bait are preferred in fall as preparation for winter.
Length and weight
As muskellunge grow longer they increase in weight, but the relationship between length and weight is not linear. The relationship between them can be expressed by a power-law equation:
The exponent b is close to 3.0 for all species, and c is a constant that varies among species. For muskellunge, b = 3.325, higher than for many common species, and c = 0.000089 pounds/inch.
This equation implies that a 30-inch (76 cm) muskellunge will weigh about 8 pounds (3.6 kg), while a 40-inch (100 cm) muskellunge will weigh about 18 pounds (8.2 kg).
Muskellunge are sometimes gregarious, forming small schools in distinct territories. They spawn in mid to late spring, somewhat later than northern pike, over shallow, vegetated areas. A rock or sand bottom is preferred for spawning so that the eggs do not sink into the mud and suffocate. 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 the bottom of the lake. Soon afterward they are 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 12 inches (30 cm) by November 7 of the first year.
Adult muskellunge are Apex predators where they occur naturally. Only humans pose a threat to an adult but juveniles are consumed by other muskies, northern pike, bass, and occasionally birds of prey. The musky’s low reproductive rate and slow growth render populations highly vulnerable to overfishing. This has prompted some jurisdictions to institute artificial propagation programs in an attempt to maintain otherwise unsustainably high rates of angling effort and habitat destruction.
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, but they can be quite intense. The muskie can also do headshaking in an attempt to rid itself of the hook(s). 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 tend to use smaller lures in spring or during cold front conditions and larger lures in fall or the heat of summer. The average lure is 7.9–12 inches (20–30 cm) long, but longer lures of 14–26 inches (36–66 cm) are not uncommon in the musky angler’s arsenal. Anglers are strongly encouraged to practice catch and release when fishing for muskellunge due to their low population.
Subspecies and hybrids
Though interbreeding with other pike species can complicate the classification of some individuals, zoologists usually recognize from zero to three subspecies of muskellunge.
- 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. Hybrids are sterile although females sometimes unsuccessfully engage in spawning motions. Some hybrids are artificially produced and planted for anglers to catch. Tiger muskies grow faster than pure muskies, but do not attain the ultimate size of their pure cousins as the tiger muskie do not live as long. The body is often quite silvery and largely or entirely without spots but with indistinct longitudinal bands.
- ^  Michigan DNR
- ^ Froese, Rainer, and Daniel Pauly, eds. (2011). “Esox masquinongy“ in FishBase. 9 2011 version.
- ^ R. O. Anderson and R. M. Neumann, Length, Weight, and Associated Structural Indices, in Fisheries Techniques, second edition, B.E. Murphy and D.W. Willis, eds., American Fisheries Society, 1996.
- ^ Becker’s text