Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) — “muskie” or “musky” to most reelers — are the biggest members of the pike family, and they’re the big bad wolves of freshwater. They’re elusive, relatively uncommon, have huge maws full of sharp teeth (all the better to eat you with), stalk their prey, and attack hard.
All the qualities that make them an apex predator also make them a popular game fish for reelers. But like wolves, muskies are smart. And the bigger they get, the harder they are to catch.
In Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, muskie are often called the fish of 10,000 casts. Ontario muskie reeler Jake Bowles says that when you go muskie hunting, “You should expect to catch nothing.”
Where are they?
Muskies’ original range is the Great Lakes region, including the St. Lawrence, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers, and their tributaries. Muskies also inhabit inland lakes in the states and provinces of the Great Lakes region.
Stocking programs have introduced muskies into several other fisheries. They can now be found as far south as Texas and Alabama and as far west as Colorado.
While muskies offer a top-level sporting opportunity, they are also top-level predators. Fisheries where they’ve been introduced outside their native range have experienced declines of other important sport fish, like largemouth bass. Muskies not only eat many of the same forage fish as largemouth bass, they also eat young bass, as well.
Because of this, non-native muskie populations in California and Georgia have since been extirpated. In these states, they haven’t been seen since the mid-20th century.
What do they eat?
Muskies are opportunistic ambush predators. What muskies eat mainly depends on the fishery where they live and what’s available to them. Fish are the largest part of their diets. But, as they get bigger and more aggressive, they’ll take on anything from a duck to a muskrat, and anything in between.
When they attack, they hit hard and fast. Usually, they go for the head and try to swallow in a single gulp. This is why reelers love them: They strike fast and hard, often close to the boat, and then put up one hell of a fight.
Most reelers offer a baitfish presentation, but lures resembling frogs or crayfish can also tempt a muskie. You just have to keep trying until you find something that works.
How Big Do They Get?
Muskies are among the biggest freshwater predators in North America. They can reach lengths of five feet and weigh north of 60 lbs.
Of course, these aren’t typical sizes, but who wants to catch typical, right? The IGFA-certified all-tackle world record muskie came out of Lac Courte Oreilles near Hayward, Wisconsin. That monster was landed in 1949 by local reeler Cal Johnson and weighed in at 67 lbs., 8 oz. (30.62 kg).
Bigger fish have been reported since, including a 70-pounder, but their size and weights weren’t certified to IGFA standards. An don’t fret, there are plenty of big ones out there. In June 2017, a reeler on Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota found a floating muskie that was 59” long — 3” longer than the current state catch-and-release record — that had probably died of old age.
Guide Kyle Moxon, of Windsor, Ontario, recently put a client on a 56-¼” beast in the Detroit River. Catch and release fishing has helped ensure that there are plenty of big muskies out there, waiting to attack your line.
How Do They Taste?
You probably shouldn’t find out. By many accounts, they are edible. But there are a lot of reasons not to eat them. From a pure sporting standpoint, muskies take a long time to mature and reach their reproductive prime.
For example, researchers estimate it takes 17 years for a muskie attain a length of 50” and weigh around 40 lbs. If you want more muskies — big muskies — to catch, you should put those you’re lucky enough to hook back in the water.
The other problem with big fish at the top of the food chain, like muskies, is that they absorb anything nasty that may be in all the little fisheries they eat — like mercury. And the near-20-year life span of a muskies means that a big one can have a lot of stuff in their system that you don’t want in your system.
Finally, in the case of tiger muskies, which are the hybrids of muskies and northern pike that are often stocked by fishery managers, they’re sterile. This means they have no means of reproducing on their own, so if you remove a tiger muskie from a fishery, it’s down a fish with no eggs, fry, or fingerlings to make up for it.
Check out our profile on Ontario musky hunter Jake Bowles.