Musky Fish

Musky Fish - Muskellunge fish

ALSO CALLED: Esox masquinongy

About Muskellunge Esox masquinongy

Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) is an oxygen-sensitive fish and the largest member of the pike family.

The Musky or Muskellunge closely resembles other esocids in appearance and behavior, such as the northern pike and American pickerel. The body plan is standard for ambush predators with an elongated body, flathead, dorsal, pelvic, and anal fins far back on the body, much like the northern pike and other defensive pikes. Muskellunge are usually 28-48 in length (71-122 cm) and 15-36 lb (6.8-16.3 kg) in weight, but others have reached 6 feet (1.8 m) and nearly 70 lb (32 kg).

The name muskellunge originated from the Ojibwe word maashkinoozhe, which means great fish, and maskinoše or mashkinonge, which means big pike. Before settling on the common English name muskellunge, various names were used, including muscallonge, muskelunge,  muskallonge,  milliganong, maskinonge, muskinunge, maskalonge, and masquenongez.

There are four types of muskellunge fish-barred muskies, spotted muskie, tiger muskellunge, and clear muskies. Muskies especially thrive in and around the Great Lakes, including all five lakes and their surrounding rivers. Fishing the Great Lakes and surrounding areas provides anglers the best shot at landing one of these giant predators.

Muskellunge are one of the most sought-after freshwater game fish in North America. This species is a large predatory freshwater fish that are fast and aggressive, earning themselves the nicknames “the fish of a thousand casts” due to the challenge of catching them.

Appearance

The Muskellunge fish is a light silver, green or brown color with dark vertical stripes on the side, usually breaking into spots. Muskies have a large elongated body, a flat head, and a large mouth filled with long pointy teeth. Markings and coloration vary based on the fish’s location and habitat. Generally, they have spots or verticle bars on lighter body color. Its back, head, and upper sides are greenish-gold to golden brown with a cream or pearl belly. The fins on a musky fish are pointed and usually a rush color. Muskies have 6 to 9 pores on the lower jaw.

Muskie Range

Tiger Muskellunge fishMuskellunge are native to North America, including the St. Lawrence River, Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River basins. 

Muskellunge currently live in large lakes and rivers in the northern United States into Canada. They thrive in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Great Lakes Region, Canada, throughout the St Lawrence River drainage, through the Mississippi Valley, and can extend as far south as Chattanooga Tennessee River Valley into Georgia. Unlike species common for fishing, such as bass, sunfish, or catfish, musky’s do not inhabit every water body in the United States and are not found in Florida’s waters because of the heat. Just about 50 percent of the states have Muskies. Muskies are fishes that are very oxygen-sensitive. More oxygen is put into the system by cooler water, while the warmer the water, the less oxygen in the system is available. The most popular places to fish for muskie are the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair.

Habitat

The musky fish is generally a solitary fish with a small home range. They tend to roam more during their spawning season and when the food supply is short. Muskellunge thrive in lakes that range widely in depths and have large aquatic plant beds such as bulrushes, pickerelweed, water lilies, and arrowleaf. Muskellunge live in both medium and large lakes that have deep pools and areas of slow-moving water. The larger lakes tend to hold large muskies. This fish species is most comfortable in cooler water temperatures between 33 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. They cant withstand temperatures up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit for very long. Muskies generally stay in shallow, sluggish water and rarely go more than 40 feet deep unless the shallow waters get too warm or there is more food in the deeper areas. However, muskellunge fish prefer shallow vegetation areas that obtain easy access into the deeper pools.

Feeding Habits

Muskellunge tend to lurk around stumps, rock bars, rocky ledges, and vegetation. They wait patiently for a baitfish to swim by then will strike swiftly, piercing its prey with its large canines and swallowing it headfirst. Muskellunge aren’t picky on the prey species; however, there is a direct correlation between the size of the musky and the size of their food.

Muskellunge will feed on anything from minnows to gamefish and even other muskies. Their favorite foods in their diet seem to be suckers, perch, or cisco. They will also eat muskrats, mice, ducks, and frogs. Muskellunge have huge stomachs and can consume prey up to 2/3 their body length. Muskellunge are a top predator in any body of water they inhabit and will eat larger prey than almost any other freshwater species. They primarily rely on sight to capture their prey, so it’s more difficult for them o feed at night or in murky water.

Spawn and Life Cycle

Muskie fisheries - Lake St ClairThe Muskellunge fish spawns when the water temperature rises from 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit typically from mid-April to late May. Muskies tend to spawn in early spawn as soon as the first ice starts to melt. The females and males swim side by side to seek out shallow, warm areas. They swim along several hundred yards of shoreline together, depositing eggs and milt over the bottom at irregular intervals simultaneously.

Female muskellunge can lay between 20,000 and 200,000 eggs per year. The larger females tend to produce greater quantities of larger eggs.

The spawning for muskies rarely lasts over a week. Afterward, the adults leave the spawning grounds providing no parental care to the young or protecting the eggs. Muskies return to the same spawning areas every year.

The eggs of muskellunge are amber-colored and generally hatch within two weeks. The newly hatched fry feed on zooplankton for a few days then switch to feeding on live fish. Young muskellunge are prey to northern pike, yellow perch, bass, sunfish, some aquatic insects, and even other muskellunge. The young musky fingerlings will reach 7 to 13 inches by the end of the summer. They continue to grow fast until they are five years old. The male muskellunge mature in about four to five years at 28 to 31 inches. The females mature in about five to seven years at 30 to 36 inches in length. Adult muskellunge have no aquatic predators but may become victims to disease, large birds, or people. Muskies live to be about 18 years old on average but can reach up to 30 years old.

How To Fish For Muskies

Muskies are predators built for strength and speed and have become prized game fish throughout their fisheries range. They are known to be hard to hook because they are difficult to trick, impossible to predict. Muskies are challenging to trick into biting your lure, but they are famous for their acrobatic jumps and skilled at throwing the hook.

Muskellunge will take both artificial and live bait; it’s more important to coordinate the bait or lure size to the time of year. In the Fall, muskie will go after larger baits, while in the Spring, when the waters are cold, and the fish are sluggish, they are more likely to take the smaller baits. Regardless of the time of year, anglers should use a wire leader to avoid losing their lure to this fish.

The best spots to start in are areas near the structure, drop-offs, rocks, sand bars, weed edges, or shady areas along the shorelines. The best time to catch a large trophy muskie is in the Fall; September and October are the peak months for trophies.

Anglers are advised not to release the fish back into the water in areas where Muskies are not native due to their alleged detrimental effect on trout stocks and other smaller fish species.

Techniques

Muskellunge will often follow a lure back towards the boat without actually striking. Muskies tend to strike baits that have a lot of movement or action, so it’s critical to keep the lure moving.

Finding out the forage organisms in the lake is essential. Muskies usually consume shad, cisco, carp, suckers, and any other sticky, fatty fish. Anglers will often drift or cast live bait in the fall season, usually a white sucker fish about 10 to 14 inches long.

Generally, muskies feed better in off-colored water to clear water for various reasons. 

Early Fall is known as the transition time, and muskies will strike both small and large bait, but anglers generally have better luck with smaller lures, straights, and bucktails. In late Fall, as the water temperatures drop into the low 50s, larger baits ranging from 8- to 13-inches are often very productive.

Gear

Traditional musky fishing gear includes a medium-heavy action7, a heavy braided fishing line about 50 to 80 pounds, and various lures spinner-baits, bucktails, jerk baits, crankbaits, topwater plugs, and large spoons. Anglers are successful with live bait as well, the most popular bait being large suckers. Musky anglers need to use a wire leader because of the sharp teeth on this fish. Bucktails and jerk baits are best when casting, and diving plugs are the most common lure for trolling.

It is great to have a variety of lure colors while muskie fishing. For transparent water, natural colors are preferred, such as walleye, perch, bass, sucker, and shad. For cloudy waters, use bright baits on bright days and dark ones on overcast days. These can include Orange Tiger, FireTiger, Cobra Perch, Black Perch, and frog patterns.

Early in the season, fish from shallow bays and broad weed flats with a Mepps Musky Killer. The Mepps Magnum Musky Killers are 143 percent larger than the Mepps Musky Killer norm. 

For an unparalleled light, these big lures feature an extra powerful #7 solid brass blade and a bounce you can sense up to your shoulders. They will run as deep as eight feet, making the Magnum Musky Killer an ideal spinner, even the weed lines surrounding deep water, for fishing the mid-summer haunts of massive Muskies. It’s also a great spinner of warm water for fishing over weeds with a fast retrieve. Hold your rod tip up and efficiently launch your retrieve when working with some large lure on the weeds.

Seasonal Musky Fishing

northern pike fishSpring, as the ice starts to melt, surface water temperature is barely above freezing, and the water beneath the surface is often warmer. The Spring is when muskellunge are close to where they are going to spawn when the water temperatures rise. The water isn’t warm enough for the muskellunge to move into the shallow water, so it’s best to fish the open water near spawning sites and drop-offs. Baits commonly used by anglers in the Spring are crankbaits, swimbaits, verticle jigs, and soft plastics. Look for heavy populations of baitfish to decide the best spot to start.

Pre-spawn is when the shallows’ temperature becomes higher than the open water and drop-off areas’ water temperatures. During this time, the muskellunge will move up into the warm shallow waters. During the pre-spawn, female muskies heavily feed to supply enough energy and nutrients to make their eggs. During mild conditions or warming trends, anglers typically fish the shallow sand areas and weed flats with crankbaits, swimbaits, glide bait, and soft plastics. During a cooling trend when the shallows’ temperature drops, anglers fish with the same lures used in Spring when the ice is first starting to melt.

A spawning musky is unlikely to bite a lure; however, muskies don’t spawn all at the same time, so while you may see a pair of muskellunge spawning, there will likely be others nearby who are still feeding and haven’t yet started to spawn. In this case, anglers will use the methods and bait for pre-spawning fish.

Muskellunge during the post-spawn is generally very sluggish. The male muskies tend to be more active than the females during this time. The lull lasts for about two weeks on smaller inland lakes. Larger lakes, such as Miller Lacs, Lake St Clair, Lake Michigan, and large river systems generally experience the lull less because of different water conditions. Once the muskies recovered from the sluggish period, they will be the most active they are all year. The type of bait to use depends on the local forage, but generally, soft plastics, bucktails, and topwater plugs are useful this time of year.

In the summer, the best time of the day to muskie fish is early in the morning or evening. Muskellunge generally don’t feed as much in the middle of the day during the summer. Top bait for the summer includes bucktails, soft plastics, and topwater plugs in open water, weed edges, and rock piles. Fishing for muskies at night is best during the summer months and done with the same baits, but retrieve slowly since they rely on their vision and can’t see as well. If the water temperatures exceed 80 degrees, it’s best not to fish for them as the water is too hot and can be detrimental to their health if caught.

In Fall, the muskellunge move out of the summer spots into shallower waters. The best muskie lures for this time of year are bucktails and soft plastics. 

Late Fall is the best time for musky fishing, producing the largest fish of the year. This is the time committed musky anglers are fishing before the lakes freeze over.

The muskellunge this time of year are looking for an easy fatty, big meal and don’t want to exert energy by chasing down a small, fast-moving baitfish. In the autumn, the Musky eat vigorously, adding body fat to get them through the harsh winter. The best baits to use in late Fall are big jigs and soft plastics with slow, easy movements—fish along drop-offs and the open water with large populations of baitfish. Muskies often hold near their spawning sites in late Fall, so consider fishing a potential spawning site.

Lake St Clair

Lake St. Clair is a freshwater lake between the Canadian province of Ontario and the U.S. state of Michigan. Lake St Clair has the second-highest number of registered muskellunge. Lake St Clair is one of the best lakes to catch numerous fish in the 30 to 40-pound range and commonly in the 40-inch to 50-inch range. Heavy populations of muskies occur in the St. Claire river system to the north and Detroit river south.

It’s best to have numerous baits that vary in size and color when fishing for muskie, especially in Lake St Claire. Some of the standard trolling lures on Lake St. Clair are from Spanky, Ziggies, Blue Waters, Muskie Train MX6 and MX9, Shads, Musky Armor, and Masons. Casting weeds can be very effective when muskie fishing. Choose your lure pattern based on weed thickness, weed type, and water depth.

Edibility

Muskellunge are generally a catch and release fish, rarely targeted for human consumption. However, people can eat them in moderate amounts. The fish should be cleaned and properly prepared before consumption. The Musky can either be fried or roasted. Use butter to add flavor to it, and make it tastier by pan-frying the Musky. Be prepared to use a great deal of seasoning, and most anglers believe that the Musky is bland without it. Seasonings such as lemon pepper and garlic help to add flavor to it.

Record

The current all-tackle world record muskellunge weighed 67 pounds 8 ounces and measured 60 1/4 inches caught in 1949 on Lake Court Oreilles near Hayward, Wisconsin.

Musky Vs. Northern Pike

Muskellunge and Northern pike are close relatives from the genus Esox but are different species with unique markings and distributions.

Markings

Northern pike and muskie are often about the same size; however, muskellunge tend to grow bigger than northern pike. Pike average under two feet, and muskie generally double that. Markings can be absent in some cases, especially in fish from turbid waters. This is in contrast to the northern pike, with yellow marks on black bodies. The simplest way to distinguish these two fish is by the tail. The lobes of the muskellunge caudal (tail) fin reach a sharper point, while those of the northern pike are rounded broadly. The next best way to tell a muskie from a northern pike is by their markings. Even though the markings can vary greatly, the markings on a muskellunge will always be darker than the rest of its body. Pikes’ markings will always be lighter than their bodies. Measuring the sensory pores on the mandible’s underside is a reliable way to differentiate the two comparable animals. The Musky will have at least seven on either side, while the Northern Pike will only have about six on either side. The northern pike has cheeks covered with scales, while a musky has a lower gill cover and cheek without scales.

Distribution

Both northern pike and muskellunge thrive in and around the Great Lakes. Anglers can catch pike in most of North America as far south as Oklahoma and Arkansas. They live from the northwest of Alaska to Labrador in eastern Canada. They also live beyond North America in the northern range around the world. The muskie distributions are more limited. They live from the Great Lakes down the Appalachian Mountains to Georgia.

The Tiger Muskellunge

The tiger muskellunge, or tiger muskie, is a usually sterile carnivorous fish. The tiger muskellunge is the hybrid offspring of a female true muskie and a male northern pike. This tiger muskie fish grows quickly, almost 1.5 times faster than the true muskellunge. It lives in freshwater, and populations range from Canada, the Northeast, and the Midwest United States. Tiger muskies are most abundant in Michigan and also live naturally in the Upper Mississippi Valley, the Great Lakes, and Ohio and St. Lawrence Rivers. States such as Minnesota, Michigan, Washington, Massachusetts, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming stock tiger muskies.

Tiger muskellunge are stocked in some waters but rare in the wild. Like other hybrid fish species, tiger muskellunge grow faster, stronger, and is less susceptible to disease than the parent fish.

The main prey of tiger muskellunge is small birds. The tiger muskie is a popular sport fish that reaches 50 inches in length and is difficult to catch. The lure size should depend on the density of weeds in the area or the water depth you are fishing. In open water, larger lures such as Jointed Rapalas, Ziggy Lures, Willy Lures, Large Mepps Bucktails, Muskie Plugs, large spinnerbaits, or long shallow running Rapalas are best. Usually, Fire-Tiger and Perch-color work best during the daytime, and red lures work better in the evening.

MORE INFORMATION ABOUT MUSKELLUNGE FISH

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