Many anglers that catch either a baby musky or baby pike can have difficulties identifying between the two, especially if they are avid anglers of the species and muskies in particular. Let’s take a look at ways to identify a baby musky from a baby pike easily, and from there, take a deeper look into muskies, their habitats, behavior, and more.
The easiest way to identify a baby musky from a baby pike is to look at the markings. Muskies come in different strains, and different regions have a common strain.
Great Lakes Strain
For instance, the Great Lakes are home to the great lakes strain of musky, which have dark spots and a lighter background. Great lakes strain muskies have been artificially stocked in many lakes, most prominently in Minnesota, with there being some inland bodies of water in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kentucky, New York, and other states as well.
Great Lakes Strain muskies grow larger and wider than other strains, and once you see a few compared to the other common strains, you will see a prominent difference.
The more common strain of musky is the Wisconsin strain. There are actually several strains of musky in the state of Wisconsin alone, but they are all very similar in appearance. These muskies are what most people think of when they think of muskies.
This strain features dark bars on their sides, and instead of a lighter coloration like the Great Lakes strain, they can have various shades of green with gold scales. This strain of musky has been stocked in many bodies of water throughout the country.
Tiger muskies are actually hybrids, and they are the result of interbreeding between northern pike and musky.
They are incredibly beautiful fish, with dark and narrow bands and bars that give the fish its name. The Tiger musky also features the fin colors and markings of a pike to add to its vibrant coloration. Combining the tail and fin features of the pike with body markings that are incredibly prominent in appearance and fairly unique compared to both species makes a tiger musky stand out among both species.
Tiger muskies are also raised in fisheries and stocked, predominantly in the Western United States. They choose tiger muskies over other types because they are sterile.
Stocking sterile predatory fish in non-native waters that can’t successfully reproduce means that little harm will come to the native ecosystem because once the stocking stops, the species simply dies out to natural causes.
Musky strains are a very complex topic with there being a wide range of strains, all with small genetic differences, and it is far more in-depth than we will go into here. This is just a basic guideline between two of the more common types.
Pores on the Lower Jaw
Both muskies and pike have pores on the bottom of their lower jaw. These pores are easy to see and are a clear indicator of what Esox species you have.
A musky will have 6 to 9 pores on each side of their lower jaw, while a pike will only have 4 to 5. This is also one of the easiest ways to identify between the two species.
These pores are used to sense vibrations in their environment, similar to the lateral line that all fish have.
Both baby pike and baby muskies have forked tails, but there are key differences between the two.
Baby pike have rounded fork tips, while baby muskies have pointed tips, But the differences don’t stop there. Pike have a vibrant yellow to orange coloration in their tails with very prominent black bars that run horizontally.
Muskies, on the other hand, have tails that are more red than orange and do not feature the prominent bars that pike have but may have less prominent spots on them.
The musky is the largest member of the pike family. They can reach over 4 feet in length and over 40 pounds in weight. A fish can reach an age of up to 18-20 years of age, while some fish have been observed and documented to live up to 30 years.
The Muskellunge has a natural range in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Northern Minnesota, and throughout the Great Lakes region. The Northern or upper Mississippi river valley, New York, South Carolina, and the Tenessee river basin also have very small areas or bodies of water that have native musky populations.
Southern Canada also has many lakes and rivers that have natural musky populations.
Musky have been introduced to lakes and rivers via artificial propagation in many other states through the United States, but without regular stocking of these lakes and rivers, the populations in the majority of cases would not be sustainable due to habitats not being suited for successful reproduction.
Muskies are, for the most part, are solitary and territorial fish with a relatively small home range, but during spawning season and during times of food scarcity, they have been known to travel long distances.
They thrive in lakes with a wide range of depth and large amounts of aquatic vegetation and weed beds but can also be found in areas such as rock bars, mid-lake structures, stumps, and rocky ledges.
Muskies can also be found inhabiting rivers from small to large and can be found in deeper pools and areas with low current and around deep timber or flats.
In deep, clear lakes like the ones prominently found in Canada, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, muskies can be found suspended in the middle of the basin, over very deep water, where they follow and feed on large schools of baitfish like ciscos and whitefish that inhabit the deep and cold water.
Muskies will eat just about anything they can get their razor-sharp teeth into. While there have been studies that show a preference in prey consumed by muskies, which including soft-rayed fish like suckers, ciscos, and perch due to their torpedo-shaped bodies being easy to swallow, they are opportunistic feeders and will eat a wide range of animals.
Animals such as ducks, muskrats, mice, frogs, snakes, crayfish, and anything else small enough and unfortunate enough to cross their paths, “including your pet chihuahua.”
They will also prey on their cousin’s the northern pike, and even play the cannibal role and eat smaller muskies. They can eat very large prey compared to their body size, with muskies being able to consume prey that is up to 2/3rds their own length.
Spawning and Life Cycle
Muskies spawn from mid-April to late May, depending on water and weather conditions. Typically spawning occurs when the water temperatures reach 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
The fish seek out warm and shallow areas such as weedy bays to spawn in and can be seen from shore with one male and one female swimming side by side down hundreds of yards of shoreline while spawning, where they deposit milt and eggs at irregular intervals onto the bottom of the shallow areas.
A Female musky can lay anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000 eggs in a single year. That’s a lot of baby muskies! Egg numbers depend on the muskies’ size; the larger the female, the more eggs she will lay.
Spawning typically only lasts for about one week, and when spawning is over, the adult fish swim off to their spring and summer hunting grounds with no parental supervision to the eggs in any form.
Baby Musky Hatch
Eggs take about two weeks to hatch, and the newly hatched micro predators start feeding on prey such as zooplankton as soon as the day after hatching. After only a few more days, the baby musky will already be hunting live fish.
Baby muskies at this time are not at the top of the food chain obviously, and they are preyed on by a wide variety of species in the fry stage, having to survive a gauntlet of predators such as pike, bass, perch, sunfish, other muskies, and even from certain predatory aquatic insects.
The muskies that make it through this gauntlet will only be a literal handful of the 20,000 to 200,000 eggs from one individual adult female, and in their first year, will grow anywhere from 7 to 13 inches in length. Talk about a growth spurt!
The now one-year-old baby musky still isn’t out of danger yet. They still have to contend with larger pike and other muskies, and probably the most dangerous predator to them at this stage, birds of prey like eagles and osprey.
Once reaching adulthood, muskies don’t have much in terms of natural predators but still have to overcome issues such as disease, large birds of prey, and probably the most dangerous predator on the planet, human beings.
The Musky Angling Community
Throughout the history of modern sportfishing, musky anglers held status as being some of the most hardcore fishermen, and it’s easy to see why. The musky has been known throughout the decades as the fish of 10,000 casts.
Their low population density combined with being very cautious and curious predators that will follow your lure to the boat while investigating it, instead of just eating it, makes it arguably the most difficult fish to catch in freshwater in North America.
Due to the challenge of catching a musky, the diehard anglers of the species have adopted a hardline catch and release philosophy over the last few decades, with data showing that over 90% of all musky anglers today practice catch and release religiously.
The musky fishing community’s catch and release ethos is incredible compared to other forms of fishing, and most musky anglers like myself will tell you that the thrill of the chase that is musky fishing garners a high level of respect for the fish. Now that you know what baby musky looks like, you’ll be able to identify them!