Thursday, June 25, 2009

Musky-Top of the Food Chain

Nature Watch

By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

Huge amounts of time, and money, are spent in search of the famous musky. A muskellunge, Esox masquinongy, is a large, fairly uncommon freshwater fish of the north woods. The name comes from the Ojibwe word maashkinoozhe, meaning "ugly pike". The original musky range in Wisconsin was mostly confined to lakes and rivers in the drainage of the Chippewa River above Chippewa Falls, the northern part of the Wisconsin River, and the Amnicon River near Superior. The distribution has been extended to other places mostly through stocking.
At the top of the lake food chain, these ambush predators sit and wait, capturing their prey by stealth and cunning rather than strength or speed. They usually hide motionless, waiting for their prey to come within striking distance. They are well camouflaged with dark vertical stripes on their sides that tend to break up into spots. Muskies tend to prefer clear waters where they lurk along weed edges or rock outcrops to rest, acting as good spots for finding their food. They have a large mouth with many large, hair-like teeth that allows them to eat fish, snakes, frogs, mammals, ducklings, muskrats, mice, spiders, or crayfish. They will take their prey head-first in a single gulp, and will eat prey up to 30% of their own body length. When their metabolism is slower in the spring, they choose smaller bait, and before winter begin eating larger food items.
During the summer muskellunge will form two home ranges - in the shallow areas and deep areas. Known as a loner, they conceal themselves in shallow vegetation, and will stay in those ranges, searching for food depending on the water temperature and clarity of the water. Other times they will move offshore and remain sedentary in deep water. Their home range is usually less than twenty acres. When water temperatures go higher than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, their movement decreases, and optimum temperatures are in the 70’s.
Growth of musky can change even among fish within the same lake. For those who catch and release a 12-inch fish, it will generally be one year old; a 24-inch fish at three years, and a 37 to 45-inch fish could be over ten years old. Females grow faster than males so can become much larger. These growth rates are also variable depending on lake conditions. For example, musky in Wisconsin have been known to be twenty years old, and measure less than thirty inches in length. To see any musky is quite exciting, and to see one follow a lure to the boat is a highlight of anyone’s day. Enjoy the waters of the north woods during the upcoming Musky Festival!
For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibits, the Curiosity Center and Brain Teasers 2, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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