Game Fishing > Pike Family, Esocidae > Mascalonge


MascalongeThe specific name nobilior, long current for the mascalonge, and the one based on its earliest accurate description, was conferred by Rev. Zadoc Thompson in "Notes on Certain Vermont Fishes," in the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, and later he described it fully in the "History of Vermont." It is an excellent and appropriate name, and one that has become familiar to anglers. I have retained it, inasmuch as it was discarded, I think, for a very insufficient reason.

The specific name masquinongy, which has been given to this species in the books, is supposed to have been given to the mascalonge by Dr. Mitchill in 1824. His description, however, cannot now be found.

The size and weight of the alleged specimen of Mitchill would seem to indicate the mascalonge, but the great northern pickerel, Esox lucius, occasionally reaches a like size and weight. I once caught one weighing twenty-five pounds in northern Wisconsin, and saw several a little heavier, one of fully twenty­eight pounds.

Dr. Kirtland, in 1838, had, previous to De Kay, applied Mitchill's name masquinongy to a specimen from Lake Erie, and it is upon this evidence, principally, that this name has been adopted as the specific title of the mascalonge. But afterward Dr. Kirtland used Thompson's name nobilis (meaning nobilior) and Le Sueur's name estor for the mascalonge. He also subsequently described the mascalonge from Lake Erie as atromaculatus, and one from the Mahoning River, Ohio, as ohiensis. From this it would appear that Dr. Kirtland, although a good naturalist in his day, was not at all clear in his estimation of the mascalonge.

There has been controversy concerning the common or vernacular name of the mascalonge. Some claim it is from the French, and derived from the words "masque" and "allonge," which virtually mean "long face," and which is certainly nearer to the common pronunciation of mascalonge or muscalunge. Others claim it is an Indian name from the ojibwa language, as "mash," meaning "strong," and "kinoje," meaning "pike." "Mash" is also said to mean "spotted" and "deformed." From mash and kinoje come "maskinonge," as it appears in the statutes of Canada. The name has been spelled in numerous ways.

There is no authority or precedent for the name "muskellunge" as used by some writers and anglers, as neither the original French or Indian words have the letter "u" in either the first or last syllable. Moreover, the term "lunge" is in some sections applied to the lake trout. I am aware, of course, that the name has obtained considerable currency, but in much the same way that the black-bass is called "trout" in the South, and the pike-perch is denominated "salmon" in certain localities.

As the most prominent writers on fish and fishing give it as "mascalonge," that name should be universally adopted, no matter
what its origin, or whether derived from the French Canadians or the Chippeway Indians; that question is more interesting to philologists than to anglers.

The mascalonge is common in the St. Lawrence basin and the Great Lakes, more abundant in the lakes of northern Wisconsin, less common in the upper Mississippi River, Chautauqua Lake, New York, and Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, and rare in the upper Ohio River and tributaries. It has a long body, somewhat compressed, its depth being about one-fifth of its length; the head is large, about a fourth of the length of the body, and flattened, with the lower jaw projecting. It has a terrible array of teeth of assorted sizes. On the edge of each side of the lower jaw are several long, bayonet­shaped teeth, from one-half to an inch apart; in the front part of the tip of the projecting lower jaw are a few short but sharp teeth, recurved; in the front part of the upper jaw are three clusters of long, fanglike teeth, standing out amidst the smaller, cardlike teeth; on the edge of the forward half of the upper lip is a row of small, but very sharp, recurved teeth; back of these on the roof of the mouth (vomer and palatines), and extending back from the fangs in front to the throat, are three rows of cardlike teeth; recurved and very sharp.

The coloration and markings vary so much that several varieties have been needlessly established, as the variations are found in every locality, and do not seem to depend on habitat or environment. The usual color is dark gray, greenish or brownish, always darker on the back, lighter on the sides, and belly white or whitish. The fins usually have dusky or slate-colored spots or blotches; the lower fins and caudal fin are often reddish. The markings of the body vary a great deal. In the young the upper half of the body is covered with small, round black spots, which usually disappear or change their shape as they grow old. In mature fish the spots are more diffuse, sometimes enlarging to an inch or more in diameter, or by coalescing form vertical broad bands, while in others there are no distinct dark markings. And while all of these various markings are
found in fish from the same locality there is no apparent structural difference.

In a mascalonge of less than a foot in length the spots are very black, very round, and quite small, not exceeding a sixth or an eighth of an inch in diameter. Various appellations have been bestowed on the mascalonge to denote its rapacity, as the shark, wolf, or tiger of the waters, all of which are well merited by that fierce marauder. It subsists entirely on fish, frogs, snakes, and even the young of aquatic mammals and water fowl. Nothing in the shape of food comes amiss to him. He is solitary in his habits, lying concealed among the water plants and rushes at the edges of the streams or channels and along the shores, or beside shelving rocks or banks in clear lakes, from whence he darts open-mouthed upon the luckless fish that approaches his lair. The number of fishes swallowed by a mascalonge during a single summer is almost incredible; and they are not minnows and small fry alone, such as are devoured by other predaceous fishes, but such as are old and large enough to reproduce their kind.

It spawns early in the spring and in very shallow water, where most of the eggs are devoured by frogs, turtles, fishes, and water fowl a wise provision of nature when it is considered that the female deposits from one hundred thousand to three hundred thousand eggs. The eggs are quite small, about ten or twelve to an inch, and hatch in about two weeks. The mascalonge is the most valuable food-fish of its family, and is pronounced by some as being really excellent; but I consider it much inferior to the whitefish, lake-trout, pike-perch, black-bass, or brook-trout. While possessing no especial flavor, its flesh is firm and flaky, more so than that of the pike or pickerel, and it commands a ready sale in the markets.

It grows occasionally to an enormous size. I have taken it up to forty pounds, good weight. The mascalonge is the best game-fish of its family. When of large size, from twenty to thirty pounds, it exhibits a bull-like ferocity when hooked, making furious dashes for liberty, and if not stopped in time will eventually take to the weeds. It exhibits great powers of endurance, but little finesse or cunning in its efforts to escape. It depends on main strength alone, swimming swiftly in straight lines, as might be inferred from its shape. Its long body does not admit of the quick doublings of the black-bass or brook-trout. If kept on the surface with a taut line it sometimes leaps into the air; but if allowed its own sweet will it bores toward the bottom, or endeavors to reach the refuge of weeds or rushes. One of less weight than twelve pounds, when hooked, can scarcely be distinguished from the pike or pickerel in its manner of resistance, and exhibits but little more gameness.

A black-bass rod of eight or nine ounces is sufficient for the largest mascalonge one is likely to encounter in these days. I caught one on the St. Lawrence, many years ago, that weighed thirty-two pounds, on an eight-ounce rod, and gaffed it in twenty minutes. Others have done the same even with a lighter rod. But it must be remembered that the weight of the fish, added to his fierce lunges, is very trying to a light rod, and I should not recommend one of less weight than eight ounces, which will answer for all emergencies in skilled hands.

The best season for mascalonge fishing is in May or June, and in September and October, the latter months preferable. The most favorable hours are in the early morning and late afternoon. The middle of the day may be fished with a better prospect of success on cloudy, lowering days, with a brisk wind.

The best bait is a large minnow. Rowing along in water from five to ten feet deep, the bait should be cast as far as possible to the edge of weed patches, reeling it again very slowly, or if the bait is alive it may be allowed to swim outside of the water-plants for a short time. By moving along continuously, and making frequent casts, this method is much more successful than still-fishing. When the wind is just right, or when the current is strong enough and the wind not contrary, it is a good plan to allow the boat to drift while casting. As soon as a fish is struck and hooked the boat should be moved to deeper and open water at once, in order to give free play to the fish and lessen the probability of its taking to the weeds.

In open water the angler has a better chance successfully to play and land his quarry, which should be kept on the surface as much as possible. He can be aided very much in his efforts by the careful and judicious management of the boat by a skilful oarsman. When the mascalonge shows signs of weakness and can be drawn alongside, it should be gaffed at once. Not by striking at it with quick and violent motions, which serve only to frighten the fish and endanger the angler's tackle, but the gaff should be kept below the fish until it can be drawn over it, and then by raising it slowly and cautiously, until near enough, when, by a quick upward and drawing motion.