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Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy). Photo: <a href="">Eric Engbretson</a>, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy). Photo: Eric Engbretson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Natural Selections: Muskies, Part 1

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The muskellunge, or muskie, is a popular fighting fish found in Northern waters.

Martha Foley and Paul Smiths College naturalist Dr. Curt Stager talk about this primitive fresh water predator.

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Martha: A friend of mine caught a muskellunge this fall. It was her first time out fishing for muskie and she caught a 51-inch muskellunge. That’s a huge fish, and there are people who go fishing for muskellunge a lot and were upset that in her first four hours of muskie fishing she caught a gigantic muskellunge. So I want to talk about these fish. They’re very prehistoric looking.

Curt: Yeah they look like crocodiles almost.

Martha: They do, they do look like crocodiles. They’ve got a long snout; they’ve got a longer lower jaw.

Curt: It’s sort of like a duck bill shape jaw that’ll open up like a big pelican scoop, but with teeth on it. They have this classic ambush predator design for fish, which you can also see in a lot of other unrelated fish too that have the same lifestyle.

Martha: Meaning eating other fish all of the time.

Curt: Eating other fish, but not necessarily running them down long-term, but hiding somewhere waiting, and then creep up real slow and do a quick lunge. The features that put the lunge in muskellunge would be not only the pointy head and the big teeth but also the way the fins are on the whole body. It’s kind of a long body with the fins sort of placed farther back, closer to the tail.

Martha: Lots of propulsion back there.

Curt: Big propulsion when you do a kick like that. And barracudas have it and predatory sickled fish in the African rift lakes have it, and they’re pretty well unrelated but the lifestyle gives them the advantage.

Martha: I told you about my little pike in the fish tank, didn’t I?

Curt: You’ll have to remind me.

Martha: Well we had this fish tank which we filled with native fish, minnows, and we found a couple little pike—you know, four or five inches long—and we put them in there. They are amazing killers. And they do they just hang, absolutely motionless, a little fin action. And then the poor little minnow comes by and the pike explodes towards the little fish, like a bullet, and the little minnow is in the mouth. Poof! It’s that quick.

Curt: Well it’s kind of neat. People have done studies with pike and also muskellunge— they’re in the same genus actually, just different species—and they have the same kind of thing. It turns out when they’re ambushing prey like that, it’s largely by sight; they have these big mobile eyes that can look forward and see stuff. The scientists studying this say they can actually tell when the fish saw the prey because they give a little start. Then they start to move close. But they actually use not only their sight when they’re grabbing the fish, but also the thing called the lateral line system that fish have, which is sort of a cross between hearing and feeling the vibrations in the water.

Martha: Like sonar?

Curt: Sort of, in a way. Vibrations in the water come into little picks in the flanks of the head of the fish and trigger off nerves, so it’s kind of by feel, too. That’s one of the ways you can tell a pike from a muskellunge. Both of them can be pretty big, both can get up to six feet long. But one way to tell is if you have them up close, you roll it over and look at the lower jaw or the underside of the lower jaw, and there are these pretty good sized pencil lead-sized holes in a row around the chin. That’s the openings to the lateral line system. Pike have five or less, and muskies have more than five.

Martha: I’m holding a pike skull in my hand and this was a big fish, I can tell. I can get my whole hand in this fish’s mouth, all the way in. He could have eaten my arm off. And I can see those little holes on the bottom of the jaw. I can also see the whole roof of the mouth is teeth, and they are all pointing inward. So that if my hand had gone in when this fish was alive, it would not have come out.

Curt: That’s the problem for them actually, because they don’t chew the fish up they take them in whole, and if they take one that’s too big, it’s not coming out.

Martha: I want to point out also that they have teeth on their tongue. And the teeth on the lower jaw are kind of like saw teeth, they go in different directions. This is a wicked looking thing.

Curt: Well you can imagine that they don’t have hands or anything else to grab their prey with. And they’re slippery and fast—especially minnows and things like that, too—so that’s how they grab them. If you have all the whole fish there, if you look down the throat, once you get past those teeth there are even more when you’re down by the gills. The gills are these kind of bony straps or arches that can flex for the breathing but they’ve got teeth on the inside of those, too, so they’ll also clamp down on something so there’s no way that fish is going to come back out. If they swallow something more than half of their body length, sometimes they’ll have to digest it head first. The head will get digested and the tail will still be sticking out their mouth.

Martha: Well, truly a scary fish. Even the four inch versions in our fish tank were terrifying and certainly they terrified the other minnows in the fish tank.

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