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Muskellunge Management in New York

Muskellunge, or "muskies," are the largest freshwater sportfish in New York State and are considered the ultimate trophy by anglers who pursue them. Their legendary ability to challenge and confound the angler, their massive size potential, and their well-earned status as top predators, have often inspired anglers to forsake other fish for a chance to encounter the "fish of 10,000 casts."

Muskellunge are the largest members of the pike family, Esocidae, which also includes northern pike, chain pickerel, redfin pickerel and grass pickerel-all native to New York State. When muskellunge and northern pike interbreed, they produce a sterile hybrid cross called a tiger muskellunge. Tiger muskellunge are sometimes produced naturally in waters where both species reside, but they are also reared in hatcheries and stocked as a popular sportfish.

Muskellunge inhabit coolwater lakes and large river systems in eastern and north-central North America. They spawn in the spring in water temperatures around 50-60° F in shallow water, typically along lake and river shorelines. Muskellunge grow rapidly, attaining 10-12 inches in length by their first winter, and are around 30 inches long by age 4. Most muskies are reproductively mature by age 6, when they average 34 inches long, with females typically larger than males. Muskies can grow to enormous proportions, sometimes reaching 50 pounds or more. The state record muskellunge tipped the scales at 69 lbs., 15 oz!

Distribution

At least 13 lakes and 19 rivers have muskellunge populations in New York State. The St. Lawrence River, Upper Niagara River and Chautauqua Lake are the most renowned muskie fisheries in the state, but quality fisheries also exist in smaller lakes such as Waneta, Greenwood, Bear, and the Cassadaga lakes, and in inland rivers such as the Susquehanna, Allegheny, Delaware, Great Chazy and major tributaries of the St. Lawrence River.

Types

Two native muskie types or "strains" occur in New York State-the Great Lakes strain and the Ohio River strain. The Great Lakes strain is found in the St. Lawrence River and tributaries, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and the Niagara River. These populations are self-sustaining. Ohio River strain fish are native to the Allegheny River watershed but have been introduced to the Lake Champlain, Delaware and Susquehanna River watersheds. Populations in the Susquehanna River and tributaries are now self-sustaining, but the other populations are supplemented or maintained by stocking. Ohio River strain fish tend to have a barred, or striped, color pattern, while the Great Lakes strain is typically spotted.

Management

Muskellunge fisheries in New York are managed through habitat protection and enhancement, research and monitoring, stocking, and fishing regulations.

Habitat Protection and Enhancement

Maintaining and enhancing water quality and habitat are critical to the maintenance of healthy muskie populations. Shoreline development and erosion, unnatural water level fluctuations, invasive species and wetland encroachment all threaten the stability of muskellunge populations. Habitat protection and enhancement measures include identification and rehabilitation of spawning sites, enforcement of water quality and wetland regulations, identifying and preserving important spawning and nursery habitats, and determining the impacts of invasive species on habitat quality.

Research and Monitoring

As top predators, muskellunge are naturally low in abundance. Because of this, monitoring their populations is challenging and requires a variety of sampling techniques dependent on the objective and waterbody. The status of some important lake muskellunge fisheries in New York State, including Chautauqua Lake, Waneta Lake and the Cassadaga lakes, is regularly monitored by adult trap netting surveys during spawning in the spring. Boat electrofishing surveys are also sometimes used to check the status of populations in inland rivers, such as the Great Chazy and Susquehanna.

The St. Lawrence and Upper Niagara River populations are two of only a few large, self-sustaining populations in North America, and unique management programs have been established for them. The St. Lawrence River population is managed through the efforts of an international St. Lawrence River Esocid Working Group, to perpetuate the muskellunge as a viable, self-sustaining component of the fish community in the river, and to provide a quality trophy fishery. Monitoring of adult and young of-the-year muskellunge has been ongoing since 1990, providing an annual assessment of population changes. Beginning in 2005, widespread mortality of adult muskellunge due to the fish disease viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) was observed. This resulted in major declines in adult catches in spring spawning surveys and young-of-the-year catches during summer seining in nursery grounds. Continued monitoring in nursery areas and studying the factors influencing reproductive success are highly important. The information derived from these efforts is guiding habitat and population enhancement strategies.

Research in the Upper Niagara River has focused on evaluating habitat quality, young-of-the-year production and fish community structure in both the river and Buffalo Harbor. Habitat quality has been identified as a key limiting factor for the muskellunge population in this area. In addition, annual angler catch-and-release records collected by the Niagara Musky Association have allowed for a longterm assessment of the fishery.

The St. Lawrence and Upper Niagara River research programs are conducted by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) under a contract with NYSDEC using Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration grant funds. Niagara River muskellunge research is also supported by funds from the New York Power Authority through the Niagara Greenway Ecological Fund.

Propagation and Stocking

Many of the high-quality muskie fisheries in New York's inland lakes and rivers are products of successful stocking programs. Stocking has been used to establish new fisheries and maintain fisheries where natural reproduction may be lacking. Muskellunge have been raised for stocking in New York since the late 1800s, and this continues today at the Chautauqua State Fish Hatchery. Each spring, hatchery staff collect and fertilize eggs from wild fish, usually from Chautauqua Lake. Fertilized eggs are then hatched and reared at the hatchery. The first four months of the rearing process occur in tanks inside the hatchery, where muskellunge are fed a dry pellet diet and grow to about 5 inches long. In August, these "fingerlings" are transferred to outside ponds, where they are fed live minnows until they are ready for stocking at about 9 inches long in October.

About 25,000 fingerlings are annually stocked in 14 waters, primarily in the Allegheny River watershed, including Chautauqua Lake. Waneta Lake, in the Susquehanna watershed, and the Great Chazy River, a northern Lake Champlain tributary, are also stocked. Most stocked fingerlings are fin clipped to aid in monitoring the success of the stocking programs.

2015 New York Muskellunge Stocking List
Name County Ares Number
Allegheny River Cattaraugus 211 1,050
Olean Creek Cattaraugus 46 250
State Ditch (part of Conewango Creek) Cattaraugus 20 100
Bear Lake Chautauqua 114 550
Cassadaga Creek Chautauqua 99 500
Chautauqua Lake Chautauqua 13,376 13,000
Conewango Creek (2 sections) Chautauqua 246 1,250
Findley Lake Chautauqua 293 1,450
Lower Cassadaga Lake Chautauqua 100 500
Middle Cassadaga Lake Chautauqua 32 150
Upper Cassadaga Lake Chautauqua 100 500
Great Chazy River Clinton 232 1,150
Waneta Lake Schuyler 83 410
Totals 15,682 24,550

Fishing Regulations

Fishing regulations, including harvest limits, minimum sizes, and open seasons, are important management tools designed to provide angling opportunity while protecting muskellunge during the spawning season, and allowing them to survive to reproductive maturity and grow to desirable sizes.

Statewide (Inland Waters)

Statewide fishing regulations (leaving DEC website to official Fishing Regulations Guide vendor website) for muskellunge changed in 2015. The new regulations provide for an open season from the last Saturday in May to November 30, a 40-inch minimum size limit, and a daily possession limit of 1. These regulations raised the size limit and opened the season earlier than the previous regulations. They are intended to bring regulatory consistency to all inland muskie waters, provide more spring fishing opportunities after the spawning period, and require that more muskies are returned to their respective fisheries, which will allow them to grow to more desirable sizes and give them additional years to spawn.

Great Lakes, Niagara River, St. Lawrence River

The minimum size limit was changed in 2015 from 48 inches to 54 inches for the Upper and Lower Niagara rivers, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The increased minimum size limit will provide added protection for large females, allowing these fish to spawn for a few additional years before reaching harvestable size. This regulation also standardizes the muskellunge minimum size limit across New York's Great Lakes waters and the Province of Ontario, with the exception of their 44-inch minimum size limit on Lake Erie/upper Niagara River.

The season opening date for all of New York's Great Lakes waters remains the third Saturday in June. The season closes on November 30 in Lake Erie and the Upper Niagara River and on December 15 in the Lower Niagara River, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Muskellunge have long been considered a trophy fish, and the new regulations reflect that status. Dedicated muskie anglers already practice catch and release, which has helped sustain and improve New York's outstanding muskie fisheries. With the new higher size limits, it is important for all muskie anglers to become familiar with proper handling and release techniques to ensure that these fisheries reach their full potential for trophy fish. For information on how to get started fishing for muskies, see our Muskie 101 page.