The lean, mean, fighting machine

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-VyESVDiVnu.jpg’, ‘Photo by Chuck Novara’, ‘Rockford attorney Mike Hedeen recently landed this beauty from Lake Kinkaid in southern Illinois.’);

The muskellunge is undoubtedly the most sought-after fresh water trophy fish in North America. It is a member of the pike family and is found from the headwaters of the Mississippi River system in the northern United States and Canada, south to South Carolina and Tennessee.

Locally, the muskellunge is frequently encountered in Pierce Lake in Rock Cut State Park, the Rock and Kishwaukee rivers, and in nearby Shabbona Lake in DeKalb County. In fact, the Illinois state record for a muskie until 2002 was a 37-pound 13-ounce giant taken in 1997 from Shabbona. This record was shattered, however in 2002 when a monster tipping the scales at 38 pounds 8 ounces was taken from the Kaskaskia River in Shelby County.

These Illinois record muskies are mere minnows when compared to the one holding the world record at an ounce shy of 70 pounds taken from the St. Lawrence River in 1957.

One hundred years ago, the muskellunge was probably not common in Illinois, but today, due to extensive stockings over the years by the Department of Natural Resources, it is found in many localities throughout our state. In fact, Lake Kinkaid near Murphysboro in extreme southern Illinois lures muskie hunters from far and wide.

The muskie is sometimes called “the fish of 10,000 casts” because it is not easy to hook and land one. Wisconsin offers arguably the best muskie fishing in the United States; yet it has been estimated that it takes the average angler more than 100 hours to catch a legal muskie in our neighbor to the north. Millions of dollars are spent in Wisconsin each year at lodges, bait and tackle stores, resorts, restaurants, and service stations by anglers in search of this elusive fish.

Why do anglers so avidly seek to tangle with a muskie and forsake other game fish? It is because once you have hooked one of these denizens of the deep, the experience is so exhilarating that you will never forget it. Spectacular leaps out of the water and soundings to the bottom, where it will lay quietly giving the impression of being hooked to a snag are characteristic antics of the muskie, They will split a graphite rod, strip the last bit of line off your reel, straighten out a hook, or do anything else to escape.

Some days when they are not hungry, which is not often, they will taunt the angler by following a lure right up to the side of the boat, giving every indication of striking it at any moment, before they defiantly turn away, leaving the frustrated hopeful inventing new expletives.

There are several members of the pike family in addition to the northern pike and muskie, including the sauger and chain pickerel. I have never had the pleasure of catching a muskie, but I can take consolation in the fact that I did hook and land the largest chain pickerel caught in the state of Maryland during the year 1972. (This is not a fish story as I have the trophy awarded by the Baltimore Sun newspaper to prove it.)

The pure or true muskellunge is apt to be confused with only two others, the northern pike and the so-called tiger muskie. The true muskie has no scales on the lower gill covers, and the tips of the tail and pelvic fins are pointed. The northern pike and the tiger muskie have scales on the lower part of the gill cover (operculum) and the tips of the tail (caudal) and pelvic fins are rounded.

As the muskie and the northern pike are what may be appropriately called “kissing cousins,” cross mating occurs to produce the hybrid tiger. The tiger muskie is, however, sterile as chromosome incompatibility exists, and they cannot produce viable sex cells. Tigers are produced in fish hatcheries and are introduced into favorable waters. They are said to be easier to catch than the pure muskie, but do not grow as large. The largest tiger muskie taken in Illinois weighed 29 pounds, 8 ounces, and was caught in 2002 in Lake Summerset in Stephenson County.

Muskies feed on anything they can overcome, including medium size ducks. They are literally highly evolved feeding machine that inspired a man named Wilcox to describe them thusly:

“A wide, ferocious and rapacious jaw,

A vast, insatiate and expansive craw,

Your chiefest aim and wish

Is to combine in one all smaller fish.”

Good luck the next time you try to hook one of these noble fish.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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