Muskies can grow up to nearly 6 feet long and 70 lbs., though fish in the 30-40 inch category are most common, with anything over 40 inches constituting a respectable fish. The fly-caught world record, a Minnesota specimen, was 57 inches and estimated to be around 50 lbs.
Smaller fish (up to 35 inches): 7/10
Medium Fish (35-45 inches): 8/10
Large fish (45+ inches): 9/10
Enormous appetite; long follows and bulging wakes; inscrutable moods; intense hand-to-hand combat (the reel rarely enters the fish-fighting equation).
Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan; Ontario; Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, New York.
As far as North American freshwater fish go, the muskellunge nearly transcends the category of fish; their large size, voracious appetite and tendency to feast on small mammals and birds makes them seem less fish than animal. Throw in the fact that every other year it seems like a swimmer is attacked by one of the species, and there is no question: the musky is a predator of such size and ferocity that the angler should feel grateful that their boat separates them from the fish.
In addition to being preternaturally voracious, the musky has another defining characteristic: curiosity. Of every one muskellunge that eats your fly, you will likely see many others follow and approach the boat. Musky, in short, like to check things out.
Musky fishing is exhilarating. All the labor of casting, retrieving and figure-8ing flies the size of your forearm is instantly redeemed by the intensity of the fight. Musky battles are short and intense—think riding a rodeo bull. There is a tremendous sense of urgency during a musky fight. From the instant the hook is set, fighting a musky on a fly rod is a completely manual sort of affair, a tug-of-war where the angler’s goal is to pull, pull, pull and not give an inch. During this battle the drag system of the reel is rarely, if ever, used.
The muskellunge is exclusively a North American fish. Fishable musky populations exist in a wide range of states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, New York and Maine. North of the border, the Canadian province of Ontario boasts excellent musky populations. While musky peak size depends largely on the size of the watershed—in which case bigger definitely equals better—muskies are also found in smaller lakes and rivers throughout their range. Muskies do not need to be giants to make exciting fly rod quarry.
That said, for those looking to tango with true giants, there are a number of fisheries that have emerged as true trophy repositories—waters that give up 50+ inch fish with regularity. These include the New River in Virginia, Mille Lacs and Leech Lake in Minnesota, Wisconsin’s Green Bay, Michigan’s Lake St. Clair, and Ontario’s Lake of the Woods and Eagle Lake.
As water temperatures stabilize around the 50 degree mark, male muskellunge move into spawning areas, followed by females. Unlike pike, which produce sticky eggs that adhere to aquatic vegetation, musky broadcast non-adhesive fertilized eggs in shallow water full of silt and decomposing matter. Muskies are sexually dimorphic, which means males and females have different patterns of growth and longevity, with females getting larger and living longer.
While muskies will occasionally attack other gamefish that an angler might be reeling in, such as smallmouth bass, walleye and pike, they do not habitually consume them—their interest is triggered by the struggle of a fish in distress. Preferred forage of muskies are suckers and perch.
Muskellunge grow quickly during the first five years of life and more slowly as they approach middle age. It takes a musky on average ten years to reach 40 inches, and 18 years to reach 50 inches.
Muskies are characterized as a cool water fish, which accounts for their veracity even when temperatures plunge into the low 40s. This and the nature of their musculature also makes them vulnerable to exhaustion fatalities when temperatures creep above 80 degrees. At such times, refrain from fishing for muskies, and if you do catch one, take care to land it quickly and resuscitate it thoroughly.
In states with closed seasons, the opener often falls around late May and early June, though many states offer a year-round catch-and-release season for muskies. Good fishing continues right up until ice-up in northern regions, and throughout the winter in the mid-Atlantic states of Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. In general, muskies feed more often as the weather gets colder, which makes the late October, November and early December prime time for trophy fish.
Musky rods fall into the 10-12 weight window. Look for models with extended fighting butts and extended front grips that assist with figure-8ing. In general, rods with a little more flex tend to be easier to work with over a long day of arduous casting. One key feature of the musky cast is shedding water. A ten-inch fly with lots of bucktail undergoes a significant weight change when it first comes out of the water, so casters will want to build into their casting motion time and movements designed to lighten the weight of the fly before double hauling begins.
Reels should balance the rod to make casting over a long day easier and more efficient; this, and holding excess line, is their primary occupation in musky fishing.
Intermediate and sinking lines are the way to roll for muskies. Floating lines make presenting anything but a popper near impossible: musky flies are so bulky and buoyant that even with a Type VI sinking line, a fly can easily be fished just below the surface by speeding up the retrieve. Therefor, Intermediate, Type III and Type VI lines are the rule, with the denser lines allowing faster retrieves with bigger flies.
Leader and tippet
Musky leaders need not be complicated. Three to five feet of straight 50-60 lb. mono connected to 12 inches of bite wire connected to a fly will more than suffice.
Musky flies fall into a few different categories: surface flies, like large poppers, articulated subsurface flies, and single-hook subsurface flies. Musky flies generally feature large heads and/or shoulders that push significant water when stripped. At the end of the strip, these hydraulic features also cause the fly to turn hard to the side, essentially presenting broadside to a musky at the end of every strip.
The classic musky fly structure is the Buford, which consists of tail of saddle feathers supported by bucktail, with a body of iterated reverse-tied bucktails, and a head of deer hair spun and trimmed to shape. Colors run the gamut depending on watershed and available prey-fish, with “sucker” colors such as black/brown and red/orange being trusted producers.
Musky-specific landing gear is essential when it comes to the safety of both the musky and musky angler during the release. The first requisite is a very large net—emphasis on “very.” Because a net big enough to handle a good-sized musky is also too big for just about any boat, most musky nets are both foldable and telescoping for ease of storage. Practice deploying the net properly before attempting to land a fish.
Because a musky’s jaws will default to the closed position, they will need to be first propped open with a pair of jaw spreaders, without which the act of unhooking a musky becomes both onerous and dangerous. Jaw spreaders are cheap, so invest in a few pairs and keep one in your boat and one in your tackle bag so you’re never caught empty-handed. There’s no worse feeling than having a great fish at the side of the boat and no way to get the hook out of it’s mouth.
The next part of the equation is long-nosed pliers. Musky mouths are dangerous places for fingers to go, so a pair of pliers with an 8-10 inch nose is essential. Used in tandem with a jaw spreader, unhooking a musky can be quick and painless.