Muskellunge Fish, or ‘Muskies’, are considered the tigers of the sea, especially across Wisconsin. Here, we look at what makes them tick, and how keen anglers can tame these beasts at last.
What is a Muskellunge Fish?
The largest member of the esox fish genus alongside species such as Pike and Pickerel, Muskellunge fish (also known as Muskies or Musky) is a freshwater game fish that’s native to Northern American waters. This iconic fish, characterized by its elongated flat body, is now especially synonymous with fishing culture across Wisconsin, where the fish is incredibly prevalent. Most often, the body of a Musky is around six times as long as it is deep, and is covered with either stripes, spots, or splotches across silver, green, or light brown scales. This varies from the Northern Pike, which is often confused with the species but has dark bodies with lighter bars instead, and which also has five or fewer pores under the jaw while Muskies have six.
The Musky has especially become a coveted prize catch for anglers due to its famously predatory behaviors, which see it attacking everything that moves in or on the water. Unsurprisingly, this violent approach means that Muskies are generally solitary creatures, with most living as one in just a few of the species on any lake, though some small groups have been sighted.
There are currently three recognized subspecies of Musky, and they are –
- The Great Lakes Muskellunge: Muskies native to The Great Lakes Basin
- The Chautauqua (or Ohio) Muskellunge: Muskies found in Chautauqua Lake or south into Ohio.
- The Northern Muskellunge: Native to Michelin, Wisconsin, and Minnesota
The Tiger Musky also deserve a mention here, though its typically sterile nature prevents it from being a subspecies in its own right. This cross between a Musky and a Northern Pike is becoming increasingly common due to planned releases and varies from ‘true’ Muskies because of a more distinctive stripe design, and a generally smaller size. Equally, while male Muskies are typically smaller than females, there is no size variation between male or female Tiger Muskies.
Where to fish for Muskellunge Fish
Muskies use their environments to achieve their reputation as some of the most successful lake-based underwater predators, and will typically seek clear, freshwater lakes with shorelines or shallow water where it’s easy to spot prey while laying hidden among weeds or under rocks and other debris. Muskies will typically feed most heavily in temperatures of around 60˚F, and are most comfortable in cooler waters ranging between 33-78˚F, though Muskies are hardly ever found in waters that exceed 68˚F.
While muskellunge fish sightings are relatively rare, predominantly because of their need to live in solitary locations for fear of cannibalistic behavior, it does still have a high prevalence across Northern America, specifically across Wisconsin where Muskies can be found in 711 lakes, and 83 river segments. Sightings have especially been linked to the Chippewa, Flambeau, and Wisconsin rivers. More broadly, Musky habitations span across as many as 1,000 bodies of water spanning 35 states including Northern Minnesota, Michigan, and beyond, and ultimately stretching into Canada. In particular, anglers report that some of the best lakes for Muskie fishing include –
- Green Bay, Wisconsin
- Lake St. Clair, Michigan
- Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota
- Allegheny River, Pennsylvania
Further to this, Tiger Muskies have also been specifically released in over 25 states, including Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah, in a direct attempt to protect indigenous Musky populations that, specifically in areas like Arizona, have been so severely hunted in the past that they’ve been left decimated.
Muskie fun facts
- Muskies are one of the largest freshwater fish in North America
- Muskies typically measure between 28-48 inches long, and weigh 13-36 lb
- The current world record for the largest measured Musky is 60 ¼ inches, and 67 pounds, 8 ounces, caught in 1949 by Cal Johnson.
- Muskies live for an average of 30 years, though the oldest recorded Muskie was found in Iowa, and was 25-years-old.
- An adult Musky can have between 500-700 teeth in its mouth, each of which is razor-sharp.
- Muskies have few predators and will feed on most living things in their habitats, but prime food sources include crayfish, frogs, ducklings, snakes, mice, and even small birds.
- An average Musky will be able to take down prey that’s up to 30% of its own length.
- Female Muskies lay between 60,000 to 100,000 eggs.
- Muskies were commonly featured in fables in the 19th century, and legend has it that Theodore Roosevelt called them “…dirty, flabby, tasteless pickerel.”
- In the summer months, Muskies can most commonly be found in shallow depths but will retreat to deeper waters during winter.
- Muskies are incredibly territorial, especially around the spawning season, which runs from mid-April to late May.
- Alternative names for Muskies include Ohio Muskellunge, Great Lakes Muskellunge, Barred Muskellunge, Unspotted Muskellunge, and the Wisconsin Muskellunge.
- Muskie Fry develops quickly and can span as long as 19 inches in a very short period.
- Muskies require very careful handling, and catch and release is always recommended to avoid further depletion of the species.
Top Muskellunge fishing lures & tips
Despite being categorized as ‘least at risk’ on the conservation scale, Muskies have developed their ‘prize winning’ reputation among anglers because of their elusive nature and insatiable fighting force that makes them pretty rare catches in the grand scheme of things. In fact, in areas of Wisconsin especially, Muskies are such a coveted fishing price that some anglers seek only to catch these ‘kings’ of the waterways for their entire fishing careers, going as far as to claim that having a Musky on the end of your line is like having a tiger by the tail. This description is especially apt considering that, even if caught, the size and bulk of Muskies makes it incredibly difficult to complete a catch like this, with many anglers finding nothing to show for their near-misses other than cracked rods, bent hooks, and bait that’s most definitely seen better days.
Anglers especially find that Muskies, adapted to a world almost entirely without predators, will fearlessly track lures without striking, following them back to the boat and often doing untold damage once they get there. To overcome this challenge, and to stand any chance at catching a much-coveted Musky before the 10,000 attempts that so many anglers claim to be a prerequisite, it’s essential to pay a little mind to your tackle and fishing setup, especially keeping the following key pointers in mind:
- Lures: Most anglers report that Muskies prefer to strike smaller lures, especially in the spring and summer months, as these are far better able to reach the hiding spots of this elusive species. Lures that seem to achieve the highest rates of success particularly include –
- Topwater lures
- Heavy action rods: Muskies are big fish, and they have a lot of heft behind them, meaning that heavy action rods, preferably spanning between 7-9 feet long and with a fast gear ratio, are the best option for ensuring a catch even once a Musky takes the bait.
- Heavy, braided line: A heavy, braided line with a pound test as high as between 80-100 is the best way to prevent line breaks, and should be connected with either a steel or heavy fluorocarbon leader. Even in this instance, it’s always worth carrying a spare, as Muskies could still bite through.
- Baitcasting reels: Baitcasting reels are often the Musky reel of choice thanks to their accuracy, though a 200 size or 35+ IPT is recommended.
Can you eat Muskellunge?
There’s a lot of conflicting information about whether or not muskellunge fish are a good fish to eat, especially as populations in areas like Arizona have been almost entirely ruined due to predatory fishing. What’s more, a need to get a permit in order to catch and release a Musky, much less keep and eat one, leaves a lot of anglers shying away from even trying. From a safety angle, too, there are questions surrounding whether it’s even safe to eat Muskies, especially considering the fact that their predatory nature can see them eating anything from snakes through to rats, and a range of other potentially hazardous creatures. This can lead to illness after consumption, even if all possible precautions have been taken for the safe preparation of this fish.
All of this being said, it is technically possible to eat a Musky, though probably not recommended. Some anglers who have done so report that the flavor of Musky isn’t dissimilar to other white fish meat like lobster or crab, though some also claim it to be quite tasteless, and with a strong, off-putting odor.
Muskies caught with a license and from clear waters must be carefully handled to ensure that they’re safe to eat, and should be filleted carefully with a knife to guarantee proficient cleaning (including the removal of thick bones,) as well as having all of the skin removed before cooking. Once this job is done, it’s possible to pan-fry this fish, but most anglers report that it needs strong seasoning, including salt and garlic, to ensure a good flavor and avoid the fish’s famed ‘bland’ taste profile.