To the average fresh-water angler who is accustomed to a three-or four-pound fish, a forty-pound fright like the fish shown above appears gigantic. Such an individual can be pardoned for displaying a certain amount of nervous caution when confronted by the mean head, the long jaw bristling with a wealth of sharp teeth, and the eye, baleful and malevolent, which seems to promise personal vengeance for the indignity of the hook. For many anglers, however, this is the fish they have been looking for all summer: the muskie, one of the largest of North American fresh-water game fishes and, because of its ferocity and unpredictability, one of the most prized.
The muskie is a tough fish to catch and usually requires many, many backbreaking hours of heaving a plug, bucktail or sucker. But this season, in northeastern Wisconsin, conservation officials claim the muskie fishing has been exceptionally good, the best in the past 18 years. "Even the novices are catching muskies," says one official, "and some guys who have been trying for years without success are finally bringing them in." One couple from Indianapolis took 13 legal-size muskies from Big Arbor Vitae Lake in Vilas County inside of a week. And this is in territory where the Muskellunge Club of Wisconsin once estimated that it took 105 hours of fishing to catch just one muskie of legal size.
Conservation men in rival muskie states are inclined to belittle Wisconsin's boom. Muskies are not becoming any easier to catch, they explain; it is merely that this July had a lot of rain and on-and-off heat which apparently brings them to the surface. They point out, furthermore, that Wisconsin has always claimed to have had more big muskies, medium-sized muskies and more good muskie waters than any comparable region in the world. It boasts 598 muskie lakes and 54 muskie streams and has even gone so far as to make the state fish a muskie.
Actually, the range and distribution of the muskie is rather limited. The other outstanding areas are Minnesota, Michigan, Ontario and New York (the St. Lawrence River, and Chautauqua Lake). In lesser numbers muskies are also caught in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Indiana, and some have even found their way down the rivers into West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. But though proved capable of existing in waters that attain rather high temperatures during the summer months, the muskie is essentially a northern fish, and thousands of hopeful anglers travel from 500 to 1,500 miles each year to try their luck and skill.
No one can say, although many are willing to guess, just how large the muskie will grow. That they pass the 100-pound mark is admitted, for a fish scaling 102 pounds was reported netted from a Wisconsin lake over 50 years ago. The largest muskie ever reported caught on rod and reel was just over 70 pounds, though the record was never officially accepted.
There has been considerable confusion as to the identification and nomenclature of the muskie ever since the Algonquian Indians first came across one. They decided it was just like a pike only bigger, and called it mas kinonge or great pike.
Then along came the ichthyologists. When they encountered the Algonquians and the fish they went into a huddle and settled on Esox masquinongy. The French contributed to the confusion—and ultimately to its clarification—by calling it masque allong� or long face. So naturally the French won out, and the fish became generally known as muskalonge or muskellunge. In angling jargon this was reduced to "muskie."
For any fisherman inclined toward research there should be little reason for confusing the muskie with other members of the Esox genus. Regardless of size, if the lower half of both cheeks and gill covers lacks scales there can be no question—it is a muskie. The pike has scales on the upper and lower cheeks and on the upper half of the gill covers, and the pickerel is scaled on both cheeks and gill covers.
During the extreme heat of the summer the muskie is a light eater, and shows some indifference to the anglers' lures. By early September the fish begins feeding more avidly, and this season proves most productive for the angler. Like the gourmet who finally reaches Paris, the muskie will try to eat anything. Its major diet involves other fish, principally suckers, carp, shiners, perch, assorted minnows and small muskies who happen to be passing. At the same time, it will not turn down an occasional frog, water snake, duckling or small aquatic mammal. A number of large muskies, when dissected, were found to contain adult ducks and large muskrats, and there have been instances when small dogs, out for a swim, were attacked by these fish. So far as is known, none have ever attacked humans without provocation.
No one knows what causes the muskie's response to the wide arid colorful assortment of baits and lures cast or trolled by the angler. However, it is entirely possible that a muskie considers anything that moves, and is not too large to be swallowed, to be edible.