Esox masquinongyAllegheny River pike(Also: Barred muskie; Great pike; Lunge; Mascalonge)

Geographic Range

Muskellunge are native only to North America. Muskellunge are abundant in many lakes and rivers over much of North America, however, their greatest concentrations are present in the waters of the Midwestern states. Their native range extends from 36 to 51N, barely reaching into Canada. (Sternberg, 1992)


Muskellunge inhabit freshwater rivers and lakes and can survive in a wide range of water temperatures. Muskellunge prefer water in the 67-to 72-degree range and are hardly ever found in waters with a maximun temperature below 68 F. Muskellunge favor clear water and cannot adapt to water that stays turbid most of the time. They also have a well-defined home range. Several studies have shown that muskellunge seldom leave their home range, except to spawn, although they roam about within it. The larger the body of water the larger the home range. Although they prefer shallow, weedy water (less than 20 feet deep) during their early years of life, as they grow larger, they spend more time in deep water.

Muskellunge cannot endure fast current, so they are seldom found in rivers with high gradient (drop), of more than 10 feet per mile. If there are backwater areas where they can get out of the moving water then they will live in rivers with higher gradients and faster currents. (Sternberg, 1992)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams

Physical Description

"Muskellunge are the largest member of the pike family " Esocidae (Waszcuk, 1996), they resemble the northern pike in most respects, but are distinct in the following respects. The sides vary from greenish to brownish to silverish, usually with dark markings, but the marks may be absent. The white or cream-colored belly often has brownish or grayish spots. The dorsal and anal fins, which are set far back on the body, vary from greenish to brownish to blood red and usually have dark markings. The duckbill-shaped jaws have long, sharp teeth: the roof of the mouth has pads of shorter, recurved teeth. The cheek and gill cover have scales on the top half only. The underside of the jaw has sensory pores, numbers varying from 12 to 20, but the count is usually 15-18. (Sternberg, 1992)

  • Range mass
    1 to 29.48 kg
    2.20 to 64.93 lb


Muskellunge are random spawners, not nest builders. They scatter their eggs in shallow water, most often over live or decaying aquatic plants or their roots. They spawn in the early spring, normally in water temperatures from 49 to 59 f. They often spawn in the same weedy bays of the main lake or on shallow flats in large bays, far from the shoreline, as in the Great Lakes and some other large lakes. Muskellunge have been known to drop their eggs in water as deep as 6 feet. Males move onto the spawning grounds a few days before the females. The spawning period lasts for 5 to 10 days. As the eggs and milt (sperm) are released, males thrash their tails wildly, apparently to help scatter the eggs. The violent activity commonly results in deep gashes and split fins, and the damage may kill the fish.

Females leave the spawning area a few days after depositing their eggs. Males normally stay around for several weeks, but do not protect the eggs. With no parental care the eggs are vulnerable to predators such as cray fish, predacious insects and small fish. In about two weeks, the eggs that survive will hatch. The fry are precocial and begin to feed on plankton after their mouths develop.(Sternberg, 1992)

  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    1825 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    1460 days



Although muskellunge were thought to be loners because they are difficult to catch, research has shown that they sometimes swim in loose packs consisting of small numbers of individuals. Muskellunge depend strongly on sight to find food. Their eyes are highly moblile, enabling them to track fast-swimming prey and to see in practically any direction. Muskellunge also have incredible might vision, but they do not fare well in low-clarity waters.

Almost as important as vision is the lateral-line sense. The family Esocidae's lateral-line system includes lengthwise rows of pores along each side, as well as pores scattered over the body and head, including those on the underside of the jaw. Slight vibrations on the water, such as those produced by swimming baitfish, activate tiny hairs inside the pores. The hairs, in turn, stimulate nerves inside and enable the muskellunge to home in on its prey, even in murky water or under dim-light conditions. (Sternberg, 1992, Nechvatal pers. comm.)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Muskellunge are the top predator in any body of water where they occur, and they will eat larger prey than most other freshwater fish. Adult muskellunge will eat fish from one-fourth to one-half of their own length and up to 20% of their own weight. Young muskellunge do not hesitate to attack other fish of nearly their own size, grabbing the prey by the head and swimming around with the tail sticking out of their mouth until they digest enough to swallow the rest of the unfortunate victim. Muskellunge fry (the young) start to feed on plankton shortly after hatching. As the fry reach about one inch in length, they begin to feed on tiny insects and at about 2 inches their diet consists mainly of small fish, even including their own kind. Muskellunge feed primarily on fish, insects, ducklings, frogs, muskrats, and mice. There have even been reports of large muskellunge attacking small dogs and even humans, although most of these reports are greatly exaggerated.

Muskellunge feed very little until the spring when the water warms to 50 F. Feeding peaks when the water reaches temperatures of about 70 F, and some feeding continues until the water reaches 80 F. Muskellunge consume more food as the water cools in the fall, but they seldom feed once the water temperature drops below 40 F. (Sternberg, 1992)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Muskellunge bring in millions of dollars a year from sport fishing. The modern perspective on muskellunge is to regard them as a very desirable sport fish managed for their trophy value. Muskellunge are considered something special and are held in high esteem by both anglers and fishery managers. (Nechvatal, pers. comm., Graff, 1986)

Conservation Status

Muskellunge are a vary frail sport fish. Overfishing causes the population to dwindle rapidly, so most fisherman practice catch and release. There have been many regulations administered to decrease the number of muskellunge killed by enforcing minimum size and length restrictions. These regulations were first established in 1891 but then eliminated in 1930. They were eventually reestablished in 1960. The minimum length is set at 30 inches and the daily limit is 6. There have also been open season dates established in 1930 for anglers (fisherman) which are May 15 - February 1 but later extended to February 15. The most serious and difficult to solve problem facing muskellunge is the destruction of spawning habitat. Spawning habitats suffer when lake shore property owners remove unwanted weeds for easier boat access or add sand to their beaches to improve swimming conditions.

To increase muskellunge populations efforts have been made at muskellunge management consisting of stocking fry in natural populations. (Nechvatal, pers. comm., Olson, 1989, Sternberg, 1992)

Other Comments

The impressive size and insatiable feeding habits of muskellunge have resulted in many myths and misconceptions. Some of these are listed below: Myth #1: The muskies in my lake are eating all the other gamefish.

While muskies eat some gamefish, they are not numerous enough to have a significant impact on other gamefish populations.

Myth #2: I've seen the same muskie in the same spot many times.

Although they have a small home range they move about quite a lot. A certain piece of cover may hold a muskie most of the time, but it may not be the same fish.

Myth #3: The muskies you see suspended just beneath the surface are sick.

For some unknown reason, muskie seem to enjoy "sunning" themselves. On calm, sunny days, they often lie motionless with their backs almost out of the water. These muskie are healthy and sometimes catchable, if approached without being spooked.

A tiger muskie is a hybrid between a muskellunge and a northern pike. Its sides have irregular, narrow bars, often broken into spots, on a light greensih to brownish background. The tips of the tail are rounder than a muskellunge's. (Sternberg, 1992)

"Muskie anglers are die-hards, who brave rough water, snow squalls, and torturous cold November winds in search of one of the biggest freshwater fish in North America. (Waszcuk, 1996)


Natalie Nechvatal (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


uses touch to communicate


Graff, D. 1986. Musky Management- A Changing Perspective From Past to Present. American Fisheries Society Special Publication. No. 15 1986: 300-308.

Nechvatal, Dr. S. 1998. pers. commum.

Olson, D. and Cunningham, P. 1989. Sport-fisheries Trends Shown by an Annual Minnesota Fishing Contest Over a 58-year Period. North American Journal of Fisheries Management. 9(3) 1989: 287-297 Sternberg, D. 1992. Northern Pike and Muskie. The Hunting And Fishing Library. Cy DeCosse Inc. MN.

Waszcuk, H. and Labignan, I. 1996. In Quest of Big Fish. Key Porter Books Limited. 62-63