Muskellunge or muskie (Esox masquinongy) are large, relatively rare freshwater fish of North America. They are the largest member of the pike family, Esocidae. Their native range includes the St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes, Hudson Bay and Mississippi River basins.
The name muskellunge is thought to be a corruption of the Ojibwe word mashkinoozhe meaning "ugly fish" and lunge meaning "lake trout." Another possible etymology stems from maggue allongee, the name given to the fish by early French settlers meaning "long face."
Growing to lengths of 71-183 centimetres (2-6 feet) and weights of over 30 kilograms (66 pounds), muskellunge are powerful predators known for their ferocity. Anglers seek mature animals as coveted trophies or simply for a good fight. While normally solitary animals, Muskellunge have been known to form small schools in lakes where prey is plentiful.
Found in cold, clear lakes and large rivers, muskellunge closely resemble the northern pike in both appearance and behaviour. Like the pike, their bodies are elongated with flat heads and dorsal, pelvic and anal fins set far back of the head. This is the classic lie-in-wait or ambush predator body plan: Muskellunge lurk among the weeds and floating plants where they wait for an opportune moment to strike. Their linear speed is had at the expense of manoeuvrability. While not the marathon runners of the ichthyological world, muskellunge do have a good deal more endurance than their closest relative, the Northern Pike. They are known by anglers for long, powerful runs, and stunning aerial acrobatics.
They prey upon anything small enough to fit inside their mouths, from other fish, crayfish and frogs, to ducklings, snakes, muskrats and other small hapless mammals. Their bill-shaped mouths are large with many sharp teeth; muskies engulf their prey head-first, sometimes in a single gulp. Although the animals are capable of swallowing something up to 45 percent of their total length, selection must be made carefully. Muskellunge are sometimes found dead with their last meal lodged down their throats, apparently having drowned.
While very ferocious predators, muskellunge do not live up to many of the myths that surround them. In general, any stories one hears about a muskie "attack" are either folk legends or hyperbole. Muskies have been known to attempt to strike at mammals and birds on the shoreline, but this is a very rare occurrence.
The underside of their lower jaw is lined with sensory pores; small pits which detect vibrations, thereby allowing the muskellunge to find prey in turbid waters—this is part of the animal's lateral line system. However, muskie rely most heavily on their sharp vision and highly mobile eyes. Clear water is preferred.
Muskellunge are a light silver, brown or green with dark vertical markings which tend to break up into spots. (In some cases markings may be absent altogether, especially in turbid habitats.) This is in contrast to northern pike which have dark bodies with light markings. A sure way of distinguishing the two species is by counting the sensory pores of the lower jaw: while a muskie will have six or more, the northern pike never has more than five. The lobes of the tail fin in muskellunge also come to a sharper point than those of northern pike.
Because of their shared preferences muskellunge and northern pike often occur in the same body of water, leading to incidents of interbreeding. The hybrid offspring of these rare couplings, called tiger muskellunge, are sterile; most specimens are introduced via stocking programmes for the benefit of sport fishermen. They are smaller than purebred muskies but share their coloration. However, tiger muskies have tails similar to northern pike.
Muskellunge spawn in mid to late spring, somewhat later than northern pike. Muskies seek shallow vegetated spawning grounds, the males arriving first. Spawning takes place at night and may last from five to ten days. The eggs sink and adhere to plants where they are abandoned by the adults. Eggs which are not eaten by fish, insects or crayfish hatch within two weeks. The fry live on yolk until their mouths develop, at which time they begin to feed on copepods and other planktonic animals. Before long they begin to predate other fish, reaching a length of 30.5 cm (12 inches) by November.
Reaching sexual maturity at 3-5 years, muskie may live for 30 years or more. Females grow faster and live longer than males. Their predators are few: birds of prey and humans are their only real worry as adults, but young are hunted by northern pike fingerlings (which have a head start due to their earlier spawning), bass and sunfish. Their low resilience and slow rate of reproduction have caused many governments to instate breeding programmes in an effort to maintain populations. Anglers are encouraged to practice catch and release when after muskellunge.