What is a Tiger Muskie?

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Photo by Derek Olthuis (Tyler Commons with tiger muskie)

While there are few muskie anglers in this world, fishermen tend to ask this same question: “What is a Tiger Muskie?” The answer is quite simple and lies in the name of the animal; however, some still don’t understand the difference between the muskie and its tiger hybrid. This isn’t surprising due to the very few visual opportunities fishermen get. Many chase the apex predator of the northeast and fail to get a follow, let alone land one. It’s as if only muskie addicts can tell the true differences between the two… To be a muskie addict, one needs to understand that getting skunked is inevitable and a follow is close enough to a win for the day. The countless hours spent on the water and research put into this river wolf will indeed pay off.

Photo by Eric Ratliff

To begin, let’s get some things straight about a tiger muskie. A tiger muskie is a hybrid, carnivorous fish offspring of the true muskellunge and the northern pike. It lives in freshwater and its range extends to Canada, the Northeast, and the Midwest United States. Here are some personas that make the tiger and purebred muskie different.

Identification 

A muskie is not a freakin pickerel or pike… “Oh man, I landed a 15’’ muskie the other day! Beautiful green colors and design!’’ No sir… That’s most likely a chain pickerel. The misinterpretation is understandable due to the similarity in shape and fight. As far as identification, the easiest way to identify tigers is to look at its irregular, vertical, and dotted pattern. The irregular stripes come from the muskie and the dark dots are from the pike. Mix them and you get a very unique design. Also, the fins on a tiger resemble more of a pike with a more pointed tip. You can see this best by observing the caudal fin on the tail end.

A diagram of how to identify muskie vs pike. The key points are: Is the tail pointed or rounded? Are the markings dark or light? How many pores are there on the lower jaw?
Image from: https://fishingbooker.com/blog/muskie-vs-pike-all-you-need-to-know/

Reproduction

So, if you get a mommy muskellunge (Esox masquinogy) and a daddy northern pike (Esox lucius) to hookup (pun not intended), an extremely sought after and beautiful fish will be made… A tiger musky (Esox masquinogy x lucius). Muskies spawn in the spring and will work their way up into very shallow waters to lay their eggs. Sadly, tigers are a rarity due to their inability to breed. The poor infertile ‘skis are alone and confused with their gender… Buzzkill.

Photo by Joshua Medill

Location

Pure muskies and tigers are native to mid-west and northeastern regions of North America all the way up to Canada. We still tend to forget some of the more southern states that have outstanding muskie fisheries like, WV, TN, KY, and more. They thrive in cooler lakes, highland/timber reservoirs, and rivers. During the spring spawn, you can even catch them in fairly small creeks that are tributaries to larger bodies of water. Luckily, for you westerners that want in on the action, tigers are stocked out west. And I promise you that it doesn’t make them any easier to catch or smaller than the east coast…

Photo by Joshua Medill  

Size

Since the muskie is the largest in its family, tigers also have the ability to grow to impressive lengths. Tigers actually grow at a faster pace (studies showing that they grow 1.5 times faster than a purebred muskie). Like other hybrid species, tigers aren’t as susceptible to disease and stay strong. Nevertheless, regular pure bread muskies still win in overall size. It just takes a few more years to surpass the tiger.

Photo by Sean Kearney

Now it’s time to get into some of the basic knowledge of a muskie as a species and discuss their:

Nicknames

While many know, muskies are a very sought-after fish due to its sheer size and rarity. This high demand called for several nicknames. To name a few there is Esox, river wolf, ski, lunge, ugly pike, the fish of 10,000 casts, freshwater barracuda, Great pike, and many more.

Photo by Collin Terchanik

Diets

Being on top of the food chain, muskies tend to eat any living thing in sight. These aren’t one of those ugly-ass carps my friends, so keep your corn and dough balls at home. Its main diet consists of any species of fish (including its own) that it can get its mouth around. The diet also includes small birds, frogs, large worms, rodents, and other small mammals. There are even some rumors stating that small dogs have been taken by monster muskies… So, keep a close eye on the dog while having a lake day.

Photo by Eric Ratliff

Behaviors

Muskellunge are ambush species and will either cruise or wait amongst vegetation/coverage before striking at their prey. They are very patient when feeding too. Another tactic of theirs is to stalk the prey several feet before initiating it, which is why we like to figure eight when finishing our strips. Another good note is that muskie have a daily route when feeding. They tend to be in the same locations every day, so if you know there are muskies in the area, try hitting spots at different times of the day. A study by Dr. Ed Crossman of the Royal Ontario Museum proved that water temps trigger these routed movements. In the spring when water climbs past 59 F, muskies head to their summer homes and lay low. Then the opposite happens in the fall, once the waters go back down past 59 F they become more active again and rise from the depths. This answers part of the question of why muskies are more active during the spring and fall.

Photo by Eric Ratliff

Catching Tiger Muskie

After putting in some time and getting those first few follows and reassurance that there are indeed tigers in a river system or lake, you can now concentrate on other important tactics in targeting them. Here are a quick 5:

  1. Strong Minded – Any musky angler will tell you that fishing for these beasts takes strong concentration. You will at times catch yourself getting lazy throwing that huge fly around and miss opportunities all day. Strip the streamer each time with a purpose and focus on the goal. You are going to have a lot of days of this constant mental battle and seeing no action at all. Be confident in your casts and fly outfit. Never give up until you pull the fly out of the water after your final figure eight for the next cast.

    Photo by Nick Kelley
  2. Match the Hatch – Each body of water has prevalent fish species that muskie target. If there are trout or suckers in the system, throw a 9-12’’ Double Buford rainbow trout pattern. If that doesn’t work, change to a different sized T-Bone sucker imitation. Keep changing patterns and presentations, muskie love struggling movement. Almost like a cat with a chew toy. Anything large and a solid movement in the water will entice a muskie from its coverage.

    Photo by Justin Carfagnini
  3. Cast like a Semi-Pro – You need to have the ability to make long casts and cover water. Most recommend an 8 -10wt rod, heavy shooting line, and a large arbor real with a good drag system. Having the casting stamina is a large part of getting a muskie’s attention. Due to so few and pickiness, you just gotta keep casting. However, the cast doesn’t need to be pretty and quiet like you see on a dry fly-casting tutorial. Just get that sucker out there and you’re set.
  4. Seasonal Predators – You can catch a ski any time of year, but the best times are said to be in the fall as they bulk up for winter or the spring when temps are comfortable and they are getting ready to spawn. You will see many more follows and in turn get more takes during these times. Also, be aware of the moon phases! This river wolf howls at full moons(not literally) and is more active like other fish. If you see one, just know there are most likely there more around.

    Photo by Eric Ratliff
  5. Strip Set – If you finally get the chance to hook into a muskie, make sure you set the hook properly. This could be your only chance for a while! Strip set the hell out of it and lift the rod hard… Then do it again to be sure you are set in. They have a fairly hard mouth that can be difficult to penetrate.
Photo by Kyle Petera

At the end of the day, a muskie is a damn muskie… Tigers are still stingy as hell and takes the same time to find one as a purebred. With a few visual and biological differences, the tiger muskie still behaves the same as its parent and can be found in all the same places. Now that you know that pickerel and pike aren’t muskie, and understand the difference between tiger muskies and pure breeds, we can now identify this beautiful species appropriately. Muskie fishing isn’t for everyone, but for those who do decide to give it a go, good luck.

Header photo by Derek Olthuis (Tyler Commons with tiger muskie)

Article was written by Flylords team member, Collin Terchanik.

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