- Length: varies by lake, maximum of over 5 feet, trophy size of more than 50 inches
- Weight: varies by lake, maximum of almost 70 pounds, trophy size of 40 pounds or more
- Coloring: dark colored bars on a light-colored background of silvery green to light brown
- Common Names: muskie or musky, maskinonge, leopard muskellunge
- Found in Lakes: all of the Great Lakes
The musky was named the official Wisconsin state fish in 1955 and remains one of the most desired trophy fish in the Great Lakes region. It takes the average angler 20-80 hours to catch a legal musky, but that doesnt stop hundreds from trying each year.
Wisconsin has produced more record-size muskies than any other region and holds the world record at 69 pounds and 11 ounces.
Muskies vary greatly in color and markings, depending on the clarity and color of their home waters. The back, head, and upper sides of muskies range from iridescent green-gold to light brown. Dark markings may not be visible on larger fish. They have cream-colored or pearly white bellies, with small gray or brown spots; long, deeply forked, green to rust-colored caudal fins with sharply pointed tails; and green to rust-colored pointed pectoral and pelvic fins.
The size of these fish also varies greatly by lake. In lakes with cold waters and small numbers of prey fish, muskies can live as long as 17 years without reaching 30 inches in length. In the ideal habitat, a musky can reach 30 inches in as little as four years. Females tend to be longer and heavier than males of the same age. Muskies can live to be as old as 30, as measured by the cleithrum.
Muskies are solitary and stay close to their home range unless food is in short supply. They usually lurk near drop-offs from rock or sand bars in the middle of lakes, along weed beds or other vegetation, and in shady waters close to shores that are fringed with overhanging trees. They prefer larger lakes with deep and shallow basins and large beds of aquatic plants. Theyre most comfortable in cool water temps of 33-78 degrees F, but they can withstand 90-degree water for short periods of time.
The stealthy musky hunts by waiting motionless. When a fish swims by (any fish, including other muskies) they strike--impaling the prey on their large canine teeth, rotating it, and swallowing it headfirst. Strangely, the size of the fish a musky eats appears to be related to the ultimate size it can attain. As the fish grows larger, the size of its prey naturally varies more. Even if plenty of small fish are available, a musky may not be able to grow large without large fish to eat. Muskrats, ducks, shrews, mice, and frogs also appear in the stomachs of muskies from time to time.
Muskies are voracious predators and tough fighters on the line, but they face several challenges to their survival. They are in such demand by anglers--and their populations naturally consist of only a few individuals per acre--that they must be stocked in most lakes. Unfortunately, the fingerlings often dont survive for long. The Wisconsin DNR reports that approximately 65% of the young fish die within the first several months of stocking.
Loss of habitat appears to be the musky's greatest challenge. The fish do not adapt well to changing conditions and seem to be very sensitive to the loss of spawning habitat.
Once muskies are under stress from changing habitat conditions, they struggle to keep pace with the more adaptable northern pike. Under better conditions the two species can exist peacefully, although they do tend to keep their distance from one another.
Help keep the musky population strong by practicing catch and release when possible.
Muskies accumulate contaminants in their body tissues as they feed on fish that contain small amounts of these toxins. Some larger muskies may be contaminated with PCBs, pesticides, or mercury. Check the fish consumption advisory for your state (or the lake you plan to fish) to determine if your catch is safe to eat. (More information about the safety of eating Great Lakes fish.)
Other Musky Topics
- Can you tell the difference between a musky, a tiger musky, and a northern pike? Here's how.
- Want a few tips for catching muskies and tiger muskies?
- Here's a successful (and illegal) bait that we do not recommend. (article)
Sources: Terry Margenau, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, conversation February 23, 1999.
"Muskellunge," written by Maureen Mecozzi, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources brochure, January 1989.
Fishes of Wisconsin, George C. Becker, University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
"Tiger in the Woods: The Jungle Book on Tiger Muskies," In-Fisherman, April 1998, pp. 104-108, 110, 112, 114.
"Tell You Something about Big Muskies," In-Fisherman, September, October, November 1998, pp. 38-43.
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Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute
Brook Trout illustration copyright 1998 Gina Mikel
Musky photograph (c) Shedd Aquarium (e-mail)
Drawing from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Last updated 05 February 2002 by White