The muskellunge is the largest member of the Esocidae family of pike. Its name is derived from the native Indian word maskinonge, which has had numerous interpretations. Among them are deformed pike (mashk kinonge); ugly ﬁsh (mas kinonge); and large pike (mas kenosha). The muskellunge is strictly a North American species, native to central and eastern North America.
IdentificationThe muskellunge has an arrowlike body that is long and sleek. A single soft-rayed dorsal fin is located very far back near the tail. The pelvic ﬁns are located
relatively far back on the belly, about halfway between the pectoral ﬁns and the tail, instead of directly under the pectoral ﬁns. The mouth is large, with the maxillae reaching back at least to the middle of the eyes, and it is broad like a
duck’s bill but full of teeth.
The coloration and the markings on muskellunge are highly variable but usually consist of dark markings on a brownish or green background. There are numerous dark, vertical bars that may appear as vermiculations or spots, and sometimes the body has no markings.
The northern pike, by comparison, has light-colored, oblong or kidney-shaped spots against a darker body, and the chain pickerel has a unique chainlike pattern on the sides, although the spaces between the “links” of the chain may be seen as large oblong spots, depending on one’s point of view. The grass and the
redﬁn pickerel look much more like the muskie in their markings, but they grow only to roughly 15 inches in length.
The muskie can also be distinguished from other Esox species by both cheeks and the gill cover, which are usually scaled only on the top half. In the pickerel, the cheeks and the gill cover are fully scaled; in the pike, the cheeks are fully scaled, but the gill cover is usually scaled only on the top half.
Another distinction occurs in the number of pores under the lower jaw. In the muskie there are 6 to 9 pores along each side (rarely 5 or 10 on one side only). In the northern pike there are 5 along each side (rarely 3, 4, or 6 on one side only). In the pickerel, there are 4 along each side (occasionally 3 or 5 on one side only).
Size/AgeMuskellunge are among the largest North American fish dwelling entirely in freshwater. The former all-tackle world record and current New York State record muskellunge is a 69-pound, 15-ounce fish that was caught in 1957 in the St. Lawrence River.
Most muskellunge encountered by anglers weigh between 7 and 15 pounds and are less than 40 inches long; specimens exceeding 20 pounds are not uncommon, but it is hard to come by one weighing more than 30 pounds. They have been known to live between 25 and 30 years, and many ﬁsh live for 15 years, although the average life span is closer to 8 years.
Life history/BehaviorMuskies spawn in the spring in 1 to 3 feet of water, in shallow bays covered with vegetation. This occurs just after ice out, and when the water temperatures are between 49° and 59°F. They are broadcast spawners and disperse the fertilized eggs randomly. Their spawning season usually occurs after the northern pike’s in areas where the two species coexist. Females grow larger than males at all ages, and both reach sexual maturity in 3 to 5 years.
Food and feeding habitsThe muskie is a solitary ﬁsh that tends to stay in the same area, lurking opportunistically in thick weedbeds and waiting for prey. It is seldom a wandering, roaming ﬁsh, although it may migrate from deep to shallow environs to feed.
Its diet is varied, with a preference for larger, rather than smaller, ﬁsh, as the muskie is well adapted to capturing and swallowing ﬁsh of considerable size. Yellow perch, suckers, golden shiners, and walleye are among its favorite foods, but it also consumes smallmouth bass and many other ﬁsh.
Other Namesmaskinonge, muskallonge, mascalonge, muskie, musky, ’lunge, silver muskellunge, Great Lakes muskellunge, Ohio muskellunge, Allegheny River muskellunge, spotted muskellunge, barred muskellunge, great muskellunge, great pike, blue pike, and so on. Occasionally, it is referred to as a “jack” in some areas.
DistributionThe muskellunge is endemic to eastern North America. It is native to the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and Mississippi River basins from southern Quebec to the Red River of the North in Manitoba and extends south in the Appalachians to Georgia and west to Iowa. It has been introduced (including the hybrid version) widely to Atlantic coast drainages as far as southern Virginia and elsewhere in the southern and western United States, although its representation in many of these areas is minor.
HabitatMuskellunge live in medium to large rivers and in lakes of all sizes, although their preferred habitats are cool waters with large and small basins or both deep and shallow areas. They are found in waters no more than 75 acres in size, as well as in enormous waters like Lake of the Woods, Ontario; Lake St. Clair, Michigan; or the St. Lawrence River.
They rarely venture far from cover and favor shallow, heavily vegetated waters less than 40 feet deep, but they sometimes inhabit deep water that lacks vegetation but offers ample prey.