The muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) is the largest member of the pike family. Popularly called muskies, muskellunge have been known to reach weights of more than 50 pounds, although weights of 30 to 35 pounds are more common. Three distinct muskie subspecies occur naturally in different habitats, and are distinguished by their colors and markings. A fourth muskie type, the tiger muskie, is a sterile hybrid cross of the muskie and the northern pike (Esox lucius).
Muskies are predators. They live in calm waters with temperatures between 60 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Their most common prey are smaller fish, but muskies will eat birds, snakes, frogs, and even small mammals.
While their natural environment is the lakes and rivers in southern Canada and south to Tennessee in the eastern United States, muskies are a popular game fish. They are deliberately stocked for sport fishing purposes in many waters outside their natural range. However, imported muskies are destructive to native species, and some states ban such introductions of non-native species for that reason.
The three muskie subspecies are adapted to their native areas, where their colors and markings provide them with camouflage. Due to stocking efforts, it is not unusual to find two or all three of the subspecies swimming in the same waters.
Muskie-pike hybrids are often raised in fish hatcheries to be stocked in waters far outside their natural range. They are often preferred for stocking purposes because the hybrids are sterile. These fish may be found as far west as Oregon and as far south as Texas where they have been stocked, but muskies of any type are absent in most western states as well as many eastern and southern states.
The spotted muskie (E. masquinongy masquinongy), are native to the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, and their tributaries. They also have been imported to many other regions of the United States. Spotted muskies are characterized by small, dark-green or black spots on a light-green or silver background. This type sometimes is called a leopard muskie. If the background is darker than usual, it may be called a black panther muskie.
Similar to the spotted muskie, the barred muskie (E. masquinongy ohioensis) is marked with bands or large blotches of dark coloring on a light background. Originally found only in the Ohio River and its tributaries, barred muskies can now be found living and reproducing in waters far from their natural habitat.
The clear muskie (E. masquinongy immaculatus), is a natural resident of the rivers and lakes of Ontario and Manitoba, as well as Minnesota and Wisconsin in the United States. Slow growers, clear muskies are not as widely stocked away from their natural range as the other two subspecies. They are rarely seen in the United States beyond their native waters. Clear muskies range in color from silver to deep green with very faint spots or bands, if any.
Tiger muskies are sterile pike-muskie hybrids. While such hybrids sometimes occur naturally, tiger muskies are usually bred in fisheries. They are faster growing than their parents, and can tolerate higher temperatures. Because they are sterile, they are often used to stock lakes and rivers outside the natural range of the parent species because their numbers can easily be controlled.
Tiger muskies are sometimes confused with the barred muskie, but the markings are distinctly different. Tiger muskies feature light bands and spots on a dark background, and their patterns continue up and over their backs. Barred muskies have dark markings on a light background, and their patterns do not cross over their backs. The hybrid muskie has a shorter, stockier body, and the fins are more rounded, like those of the pike.
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Barbara Taliaferro is an animal enthusiast who lives in Ambler, Pa. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Animal Science and has spent most of her life working with animals and the people who love them. She has been sharing her love and knowledge of animals through the written word since 2009.