Common name: Muskellunge (Musky)
Scientific name: There are three main subspecies of musky: the Great Lakes musky (Esox m. masquinongy); the Chautauqua musky (Esox m. ohioensis); and the Tiger musky (Esox m. immaculatus), which is actually a hybrid of pike and musky. The word Esox comes from the old name for pike in Europe. Masquinongy, the most common subspecies, is named from the Cree word “mashk” meaning deformed and “kinonge” meaning pike.
Appearance: Sometimes mistaken for northern pike, Muskies are distinguished by a sharply pointed tail and dark markings on their otherwise light, greenish body. The markings can take the form of stripes or spots, depending on subspecies.
Distribution: Native to the Great Lakes Basin and surrounding waters with a natural range from Manitoba to Michigan, musky have subsequentlybeen introduced all over the eastern United States, from Alabama to New York. Extensive stocking has kept this popular sport fish’s numbers strong most everywhere.
Spawning: Musky females will move into shallow waters and tributary streams soon after ice-out, followed later by the males. Spawning occurs at night, in waters ranging from 49 to 60º F – if the water temperature drops, the musky will actually pause and wait until it heats up again before releasing their eggs. Eggs are usually deposited indiscriminantly over several hundred yards of shoreline. There is no parental care. Adult spawners return to the same spawning ground in consecutive years.
Angling: Huge, fierce, and wily, musky enjoy the status of top predator in most of the lakes and streams they inhabit, and rank among the toughest fighters in fresh water. These solitary, highly territorial fish (a single, adult musky will claim up to 5 acres of foraging space) like to prowl in weed beds and other protective structure such as drop-offs, rocks, deep holes in fast-moving rivers, and beaver dams. Though highly aggressive once triggered, musky are patient hunters and will lie quietly in ambush until something particularly appetizing swims along. These tendencies – territoriality, hiding out, and waiting – make musky difficult to find and even more difficult to trigger. There can be several likely hiding spots within any given musky’s territory, and just because you’ve cast around a potential hideout a few times without success, that doesn’t necessarily mean the musky isn’t there.
Musky are one species that the fisherman needn’t worry about scaring off. In fact, the more surface commotion and vibration you can create with your lure, the better. Once you’ve found a promising patch of structure (preferably in warm water between 8’ and 20’ deep), cast a large bait and move it erratically and quickly along the surface, or – for a submerged bait – back and forth with wide, quick sweeps of the rod. Change your rhythm regularly, to better simulate the movement of a living creature, and be prepared to keep at it for a very long time (it may take up to a hundred casts, changing baits every twenty casts or so). Should a musky charge your boat (as they often do), you might want to try swirling the tip of your rod in the water to call its attention to the bait. Even if this temporarily throws the musky off, don’t worry – like the Terminator, it will be back.
Bait-wise, try large plugs, spoons, double-bladed bucktails, and jerkbaits. Live bait up to 10-12 inches is good for triggering a strike, but generally not recommended as the musky will likely swallow it hook and all, and seriously harm itself (killing a musky won’t make you very popular among other musky anglers, who tend to be fanatical advocates of catch-and-release).
Triggering a musky strike is only half the battle. Boating the fish will require a great deal of stamina on your part, and some heavy-duty fishing gear. A short, heavyweight baitcaster with a high retrive ratio, smooth drag, and twenty-pound line is the most common setup, though some anglers will even use light saltwater equipment.
Once you’ve got a musky on the line, keep your rod high and let the fish run until it tires. As a general rule, no matter how worried you may be about losing it, do not bring a musky in until it’s exhausted (assuming it doesn’t exhaust you first). No matter how close to your boat a musky may choose to bite, do NOT attempt to boat it immediately. If you do, you’ll probably find yourself at the local sporting goods shop, picking out a new rod. And even if you did succeed in pulling a still-angry musky aboard your boat… well, then you might find yourself in the local hospital for stitches.
If all this sounds tough – well, it is. But musky fishing offers a physical rush unlike any other in freshwater fishing, and when you finally capture one, the thrill is incredible. However, no matter how proud you may be, don’t even think about keeping a trophy. Catch, photograph, and release is the way to go, as the musky-fishing community is highly protective of these freshwater gladiators. Thanks to catch and release, musky – and the sport of musky fishing – have been getting bigger and better every year.