There are 40 different ways to spell the name of this fresh-water champion. Muskellunge is the most commonly accepted but the Algonquin Indians had the first. They called him "maskinonge," which means "great Pike." And no description could be more fitting. The Muskie is a Pike of a super variety. He's the meanest, most arrogant, and one of the most difficult to catch of all fresh-water fish. He's also North America's most prized game-fish trophy. He's not scary like a Brown Trout. You'll see him take your live bait gently with his lips and hold it for a half-hour or more while you get a nervous breakdown waiting for him to make up his mind. He usually drops it if you don't panic first and pull it away from him. Then he swims off scornfully. He'll follow your artificial lures without striking them not only time after time but season after season. And he's, even more, a lone wolf than a Northern Pike. He'll live in the same lair for years until he's caught, then another Muskie moves in to take over his realm, which averages as much as a square mile of water. An angler sometimes goes after the same Muskie every year only to see his dream fish following every lure he casts. He prays that some day the monster will strike, and occasionally it happens. Then he's apt to get more than he expected. Many a hook-angered Muskie has charged the boat, leaping right over it—sometimes in it! Then it's like having a tiger by the tail and not being able to let go. The Muskellunge is an ail-American fish, ranging from New York State west to Minnesota and north through the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. His average weight is between 15 and 25 pounds; the world record taken on fishing tackle was 69 pounds, 15 ounces, and over 5 feet long! Muskies are carnivorous from birth, and young ones grow amazingly fast. In Muskie hatcheries, at 2 months, they're about 6 inches long, and each must be fed between 10 and 15 live minnows daily—they won't touch dead ones. In shape, the Muskellunge is similar to the Pickerel and Pike, but he has an underslung pot-belly bulging with food. His color varies from dark olive-green to dark gray, with irregular black markings on his back, sides, and fins. His positive identification is his gill covers and cheeks, which have scales only on their upper halves. These are completely scaled on the Pickerel; on a Pike, the scales are missing on the lower portions of the gill covers.
Muskellunge live only in very large lakes and their connecting rivers because they must have plenty of room not only for their own tremendous bodies but also to support the smaller fish on which they feed. A Muskie lair might be a sunken tree, a rocky hole near a bar off a jutting point of land, or a thick weed bed, all preferably in the deepest water. He leaves it to spawn in spring and thereafter only to attack passing panfish, small animals that swim, ducks, and other Muskies that come looking for a lair of their own. But too often, he's able to tell the difference between natural food and one with an angler's hook fastened to it.
Casting over a Muskie hole is one way to tempt him. Try a selection of large 4-inch spoons with bucktail treble hooks of various colors, and retrieve them at various speeds and depths. Sharpen your hooks because a Muskie's jaws are tough gristle, and use a 12-inch wire leader on the lure for protection against his sharp teeth. A 30-pound-test line is advisable, and an extra-strong glass casting rod—very stiff so you'll be able to sink the hooks in his tough jaw. Jerk the rod three or four times after he's taken the lure, to make sure he's solidly hooked. There are big plugs, too, which might fool a Muskie for you. One is designed to resemble a swimming baby duck. Another is supposed to imitate a swimming chipmunk.
It's possible to fly-cast for Muskies with heavy fly rods and large Bass-type flies, but only a few are taken on this tackle. More are taken by deep-trolling a large spinner-and-bucktail combination behind an outboard motor over all the known Muskie lairs, the theory being to visit them all on the chance that one fish might be hungry enough to strike. The method that pays off most often is trolling a dead 12-inch Yellow Perch or Sucker tied to a 6/0 hook so that it spins slowly or wobbles. But even this isn't guaranteed. With Muskies especially, you just can't beat realism.
But bait-casting provides the most sport because at least you can see the Muskie following your lure. And follow it, he will. He never seems to get discouraged. After your twentieth cast, he's still there, his big nose bumping the lure's tail. The tricks to fool Pickerel won't work with him, such as moving the lure in a figure 8 when it's in close or dangling it in the air over his nose. And the noisy-lure trick for
Northern Pike leaves him cold. But there is a way to fool this smart-aleck—not every time but often enough. Give your lure a more realistic touch. Science has proved that fish identify their food by smell as well as by sight and sound. So carry with you a small bottle of cod liver oil. Drape a large tuft of cotton over your lure's rear hook and soak this cotton in the cod liver oil before each cast. How often do you think a Muskie can follow this hors d'oeuvre, inhaling its delectable fragrance, before he loses his self-control? Even a dead Sucker or Perch or a slice of fish belly can't beat cod liver oil—they don't smell strong enough!