The largest member of the pike family, the muskellunge, or musky, is also the largest freshwater game fish in New York State. It often grows to more than 40 pounds, and the current State record is a 69-pound 15-ounce giant taken from the St. Lawrence River.
Muskellunge generally live in cool lakes and large rivers, sometimes staying in moderately swift water. In New York State, two separate musky strains occur. The Great Lakes or St. Lawrence strain is found in the St. Lawrence River, the lower reaches of its major tributaries – the Grasses, Oswegatchie, and Raquette rivers – and the Upper Niagara River. The Ohio strain occurs in Chatauqua Lake, the Allegheny River and their major tributaries, and is also stocked into the Chazy River, a tributary of Lake Champlain.
Similar in appearance to northern pike, muskellunge differ by having scales only on the upper half of both the cheeks and gill covers, and 12 to 18 sensory pores on the undersurface of the lower jaw. Although actual body color ranges from barred to spotted to plain, muskies always have a light background with dark markings, just the reverse of the northern pike. Muskellunge are extremely rapid growers, reaching ten to 12 inches in length by the time they are eight month old. Like other pike, females grow faster and larger than males, explaining why most trophy muskies are female.
Muskellunge have similar spawning habits to other pike, spawning in mid to late spring. Muskies generally spawn slightly later than northern pike, and in waters where the two species occur together, later spawning puts them at a disadvantage. The earlier-hatching young northerns will eat young muskellunge.
Because of their large size and rarity, muskellunge are held in high regard. Their unpredictable nature fascinates people. It can take an experienced musky angler as much as 50 hours of fishing to catch one of these giants. A large musky has tremendous strength and may take up to one hour to land. Although muskellunge are tasty, most anglers now practice “catch and release” to help ensure the future of limited populations.
Tiger muskellunge are a hybrid cross between northern pike and muskellunge. While they occasionally occur naturally, most tiger muskellunge found in New York State’s waters have been stocked. First introduced by DEC in 1967 to provide “trophy” fishing, today the hardy hybrid is found in more than 50 waters across the State. The larger waters – the Mohawk River, Otisco Lake, Canadarago Lake, and the Susquehanna River – produce a number of trophy catches a year.
In appearance, the tiger musky is a real cross between its two parents. Tigers have the cheek and gill cover scale pattern of northern pike, but the barred dark body markings on a light background like the muskellunge. Averaging 24 to 38 inches, adult tiger muskellunge are larger than northern pike, but smaller than muskellunge. Tigers are extremely rapid growers, growing more quickly than either parent during the first two years of life.
Since tiger muskies are sterile hybrids, no successful spawning takes place. Tiger muskellunge are more easily raised in hatcheries than either parent. They readily feed on commercial fish food pellets and can be reared efficiently in great numbers. While the hybrid cross works either way, New York State hatcheries have traditionally used female muskellunge and male northerns for the stocking program.
Tiger muskellunge are important game fish actively sought by many anglers. Typically less difficult to catch than musky but more difficult than northerns, they add a unique quality to warmwater fishing.
Pike and People
Historically, many of New York State’s wetland areas were drained or filled to provide locations for residential and industrial development. Since wetlands provide essential spawning grounds for pike, draining and filling have reduced pike populations in certain areas.
The story of Oneida Lake is a good example of how the once-random removal of New York State’s wetlands hurt pike’s populations. In the early 1900s, Oneida Lake had great northern pike and pickerel fishing. The lake contained vast beds of emergent and submergent vegetation, and the two species flourished. By the late 1950s, however, most of these wetlands had been drained for agriculture or filled for urban development and the fishery completely changed. Deprived of their spawning grounds, the northern pike and pickerel populations declined.
Today, the value of wetlands is realized and steps are taken to protect important wetland areas. While wetland area boundaries are constantly changing and development is acceptable in some areas, DEC reviews and monitors permits for development to ensure that important wetland areas are preserved. On the St. Lawrence River, DEC has denied applications for certain development plans when wetlands were identified as important nursery grounds for muskellunge. Through continued review and monitoring, it is possible to ensure a proper balance is kept between human development and fish habitat needs throughout the State.