muskellunge is one of the largest and most
elusive fish that swims. A muskie will eat
fish and sometimes ducklings and even small
muskrats. It waits in weed beds and then
lunges forward, clamping its large, tooth-lined
jaws onto the prey. The muskie then gulps
down the stunned or dead victim head first.
are light colored and usually have dark
bars running up and down their long bodies.
That's the opposite of northern pike, which
have light markings on a dark body. Muskies
are silver, light green, or light brown.
The foolproof way to tell a muskie from
a northern is to count the pores on the
underside of the jaw: A muskie has six or
more. A northern has five or fewer.
muskie, unlike the northern pike, has six
to nine pores (usually seven) on each side
of the underside of the lower jaw. The lower
half of the muskie's cheek is not scaled.
The lobes of the muskie's tail are more
pointed than those of the northern pike.
muskie's coloration, too, is distinct from
a northern pike's and takes three common
forms that depend somewhat on the muskie's
place of origin, but all have a light background.
have three different variations;
dark spots on a light background (spotted phase),
dark bars on a light background (barred phase)
and the third pattern, which is occasionally seen
throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, is the "clear"
phase of light sides with no marks or very faint
marks on the rear third of the fish.
muskie spawns when the water temperature is 48
to 59 degrees, about two weeks later than the
northern pike. A 40-pound female can produce more
than 200,000 eggs. They generally spawn twice,
the second time about 14 days after the first
time. Unlike the northern pike's adhesive eggs,
which cling to vegetation, the muskie's eggs settle
to the bottom, rather than the weedy in-shore
areas northern pike use. This separation of spawning
areas apparently prevents northern pike fingerlings
from preying on newly hatched muskie fry. In other
circumstances, however, late-spawning northern
pike have been observed actively spawning with
muskie; the hybrid offspring is called a "tiger
muskie's diet is similar to the northern pike's.
Fry eat plankton and then invertebrates but soon
eat primarily fish. Muskie feeding peaks at water
temperatures in the mid-60s and drops off as temperatures
reach the mid-80s.
are smaller than northern pike during their first
couple years but later grow longer and heavier
than their relatives, occasionally surpassing
30 pounds. The average angler-caught muskie is
much larger than the average northern pike. Genetics
plays a role in this size difference. So do fishing
regulations that protect muskie with a minimum-size
limit but allow a liberal harvest of small to
medium-size limit but allow a liberal harvest
of small to medium-sized northern pike.
tiger muskie is the hybrid of the northern
pike and muskie. It is usually infertile
and has characteristics of both parents.
The hybrid has distinct tiger bars on a
light background, similar to the barred
coloration pattern of some muskie. Its fins
and tail lobes are rounded like a northern
pike's but colored like a muskie's. The
cheekscale and mandible-pore patterns are
intermediate between a northern pike's and
tiger muskie grows slightly faster than
either pure-strain parent in the first several
years of life. It can exceed 30 pounds.
Some tiger muskie occur naturally, though
most hybrids are produced in hatcheries.
They are useful in stocking because they
grow quickly and endure high temperatures
better than either paren does. Hybrids are
easier to raise in a hatchery than pure-strain
muskie, they reach legal size sooner and
they are easier to catch. Because tiger
muskie are usually sterile, their numbers
can be controlled by changing the stocking
managers use the pure-strain muskie in lakes
that can sustain naturally reproducing populations.
The tiger muskie is reserved for lakes with
heavy fishing pressure in and near the Twin
Cities. Tiger muskie are subject to the
same low possession limit and minimum-size
limit that protect pure-strain muskie.
Muskie apparently have evolved
to avoid head-on competition with northern pike.
If northern pike find their way into muskie water,
they seem to proliferate at the expense of muskies.
does the northern pike compete better? That question
continues to puzzle fish biologist, though many
believe that the earlier-hatching northern pike
prey on newly hatched muskie if the two species
use the same spawning areas.
waters where muskie evolved without northern pike
present, the muskie chooses the same weedy, flooded
wetlands that serve as northern pike spawning
areas elsewhere. If pike are introduced to these
lakes, as they have been in Wisconsin drainages,
the northern pike spawn in these same areas -
but about two weeks earlier. So when the muskie
fry hatch, they may be eaten by the larger young-of-the-year
make matters worse, young muskie routinely hang
just below the surface of the water, where they
are easy prey for birds from above or fish from
below. Where the two species have coexisted for
thousands of years, as they have in the Mississippi
River headwaters, the muskie seem to have adopted
different spawning areas. In Leech Lake, for example,
muskie spawn offshore in 3 to 6 feet of water.
Northern pike, meanwhile, use the weedy shorelines
of bays and presumably have less chance to prey
on the muskie.
evidence suggests that riverine conditions help
muskie hold their own against northern pike, which
prefer slower, weedier water. Researchers have
speculated but haven't proved that northern pike-muskie
competition may be affected by other factors,
including disease, dissolved oxygen concentrations,
water-temperature fluctuations at spawning time,
and prevailing water temperatures.
muskie long has been recognized as special - a
large, rare trophy. Its habitat requirements are
more particular than that of its close relative,
the northern pike. In many areas, the muskie's
existence is rather tenuous - threatened by fishing,
habitat loss, and competition from other fish
species. So the goal of muskie management is to
create or protect self-sustaining populations
and to produce a few large fish for the angler
skilled and dedicated enough to catch them.
lakes where the muskie is native, the protection
of habitat - especially spawning areas - is the
key to protecting these fish. Removal of shoreline
and aquatic vegetation denies the muskie cover
it needs. Eutrophication from farmland and residential
development hurts spawning success by consuming
oxygen along the riverbed or lake bottom, where
the eggs of muskie and some forage fish incubate.
Drainage of wetlands causes siltation and exaggerates
the effects of flooding and drought - all to the
detriment of muskie. Increased turbidity makes
foraging harder for the sight-feeding muskie.
managers normally don't stock muskie in lakes
and rivers where they are native and self-sustaining.
It simply isn't necessary or effective. Stocking
is used instead to create new muskie fisheries.
Fisheries managers introduce muskie only to lakes
that seem particularly well suited to them. An
ideal lake has adequate forage, no chance of winterkill,
suitable spawning areas and a size exceeding about
500 acres. Muskie then are stocked as fingerlings.
If natural spawning areas are limited, stocking
will continue on a regular schedule. Ideally,
however, the population will become self-sustaining.
managers have begun paying much more attention
than they once did to the genetic origins of the
muskie they stock. Several strains of the fish
have evolved in different regions and watersheds.
Some grow larger than others, which is of interest
to the angler. More important, however, is that
the adaptations of some strains allow them to
better survive in certain habitats. For example,
the muskie of Leech Lake and elsewhere in the
upper Mississippi basin has evolved to coexist
with northern pike, apparently by spawning in
areas different from "classic" northern
pike and muskie spawning habitat.
to stock muskies to control stunted panfish populations
generally have failed. Muskies seem as ill-suited
to the task as do northern pike. When muskies
were introduced to one Wisconsin lake, the number
of largemouth bass dropped. The number of yellow
perch increased while their size decreased. Muskie
actually appeared to contribute to the problem
they were thought to correct. In another Wisconsin
experiment, muskies were stocked in a lake filled
with runty bluegill. Though the muskie fattened
up quickly, the bluegill population showed no
muskie are perceived as trophies - and because
large fish are scarce and old - most states impose
a minimum-length limit and low possession limit.
muskie fishermen are doing far more for their
sport than the law requires, voluntarily releasing
nearly all their fish, even those larger than
the size limit, to be caught again. In the words
of ichthyologist George C. Becker, "catch-and-release
programs work by offering more fishing fun, and
by providing the moral satisfaction that comes
with leaving something for the next fisherman
rather than contributing to the exhaustion of
an already strained resource."
matter how lovingly we treat the muskellunges,
it is destined to remain uncommon and hard to
catch. Its biology guarantees that. With proper
management, the occasional trophy will continue
to thrill the dedicated muskie angler.
is a trophy muskie?
- 50 inches or greater
is a trophy female muskellunge.
muskellunge are 15 years or older.)
- 45-49 inches is
a trophy male muskellunge.
no male muskellunge reach 50 inches in length.)
HANDLING & RELEASE
big muskie is an old muskie. Females require 14
to 17 years to reach 30 pounds. Northern pike
grow even more slowly. Once taken out of the water
and hung on a wall or carved into fillets, a trophy
is not soon replaced by another fish of its size.
So, the key to creating trophy northern pike and
muskie fishing is catch-and-release angling. Unfortunately,
some fish are mortally injured by improper handling
and cannot be successfully released.
northern pike and muskie are difficult to handle
because of their slippery hides (slime coat),
lack of good handles and sharp teeth. Big fish
are particularly troublesome because of their
great size and power.
handling makes catch-and-release work:
first step to successfully releasing fish is
to use artificials rather than live bait. Caught
on artificials and handled carefully, nearly
all fish can be returned with no permanent injury.
second step is to keep the fish in the water
if at all possible. If you must lift a big fish
from the water, support as much of its body
as possible to avoid injuring its internal organs.
grip a fish by the eye sockets if you intend
to release it. By doing so you abrade its eyes,
injure the surrounding tissue and may cause
are some effective methods for handling large
northern pike and muskie:
the fish over the back, right behind the gills
(never by the eye sockets!) and hold it without
squeezing it. With the other hand, use a pliers
to remove the hooks, while leaving all but the
head of the ;fish in the water. Sometimes hooks
can be removed with the pliers only; the fish
need never be touched.
Hooks can be removed from some fish even as
they remain in the net in the water. If that's
not possible, lift the fish aboard and remove
the hooks while the fish is held behind the
head and around the tail. To better restrain
large fish, stretch a piece of cloth or plastic
over the fish and pin it down as if it were
in a straight jacket.
is made of net or porous cloth about 2 to 3
feet wide stretched between two poles. As you
draw the fish into the cradle and lift, the
fold of the mesh supports and restrains the
fish. This method requires two anglers.
Atlantic salmon anglers, a tailer is a handle
with a loop at one end that is slipped over
the fish's tail and tightened. The fish is thus
securely held, though the head must be further
restrained before the hooks are removed.