Melton Hill Reservoir Muskies
(This page was last updated: September 2014)
Scientific name: Esox masquinongy (Esox comes from the old European name for pike and masquinongy comes from the Chippewa Indian name for this fish –“mas,” meaning “ugly,” and “kinononge,” meaning “fish.”)
Common names: Muskellunge, Musky, Muskie, Lunge, Maskinonge, Blue Pike, Great Pike, Jack, Spotted Muskellunge, Barred Muskellunge, Leopard Muskellunge…
Muskies are voracious predators and one of our largest and fastest-growing fish. The 43 lb. 14 oz. Tennessee state record was caught from Melton Hill Reservoir in 2017. The IFGA recognized all tackle world record 67 lb. 8 oz. muskie came from Lake Court Orielles, Wisconsin in 1949.
Muskies are native to Tennessee, the Ohio River drainage, upper Mississippi River drainage, Great Lakes, southern Hudson Bay tributaries, and some northern Atlantic Coastal drainages (Etnier and Starnes, 1993). They have been widely propagated and stocked elsewhere in the US for sport fishing.
Native Tennessee muskies originally occurred in both the Cumberland and Tennessee watersheds. Impoundments have destroyed most of these native populations, but some may persist in streams of the Big South Fork and Obed River systems.
The TWRA has stocked 50,204 muskies into Melton Hill since 1998 at an average rate of 0.59 fish/acre/year. These fish originated from either the Pymatuning fish hatchery in Pennsylvania, Indiana DNR, Iowa, or the Minor Clark Fish Hatchery in Kentucky. Some small muskie fingerlings were stocked prior to 1998 (1965-1990), but not on a consistent basis as they are now.
State-wide muskie stockings (17 k)
Anglers are having increased success catching muskies and the TWRA routinely collects them while electrofishing. Since the population is limited and no natural spawning has been documented, anglers are encouraged to practice catch and release when possible. Substantial harvest of this species would negatively impact the quality of the fishery as it develops. Melton Hill's creel limit allows only one muskie per day with a minimum length limit of 50-inches. A Tennessee State record muskie (> 42.5-pounds) would likely have to be a very plump, 53- to 54-inch fish.
Muskies are streamlined with bodies about six times as long as they are deep. The dorsal and anal fins are set far back toward the tail which allows them to swim swiftly through the water. They have flat, duckbill snouts with many strong, sharp teeth. They do not have scales on the lower half of the cheek or lower half of the gill cover. Six to nine sensory pores are located on each side of the jaw.
The back and sides are light green to silver with vertical rows of darker spotting, or vertical stripes. The vertical striping is usually more pronounced on younger fish. Very young fish are often distinctly spotted (see photo under "Life Cycle" below). The stripes may fade in older muskies, giving them a more uniform color. Their bellies are white and their fins vary from pale greenish-cream to dark brownish-orange (almost red). A black, horizontal streak runs through the eye.
It is possible to determine the sex of mature muskies by the shape of the urogenital region. The urogenital region of an adult female resembles the shape of a pear, while the opening resembles a keyhole on an adult male. (Lebeau and Pageau, 1989). Females reach larger ultimate sizes than males.
In most situations, muskie are solitary fish that stay close to their home range, but roam when food is in short supply. Because of the unique conditions present in Melton Hill, muskie roam a great deal and congregate into groups during certain times of the year. Muskie prefer larger rivers that have both deep and shallow basins and large beds of aquatic plants. They can also be found in medium to large rivers with deep pools and slow-moving water. They do well in clear lakes with few weeds like Melton Hill Reservoir when stocked. They prefer cool water temperatures (65-75 F), but can tolerate temperatures up to 90 F for brief periods. Melton Hill provides exceptional water quality throughout the year. It maintains good dissolve oxygen levels and cool water temperatures even in the late summer thanks to the outflow from Norris Reservoir and a very short retention time.
Newly hatched fry eat primarily plankton, but quickly shift to invertebrates and fish. Their feeding peaks at water temperatures in the mid-60s and drops off as temperatures reach the mid-80s. This sedentary fish waits patiently for any prey to swim into view then attacks, impaling it sideways on its large canines. It rotates the prey and swallows it head first. Muskies are very aggressive and will even eat one another. Their main diet is fish, but muskrats, mice, frogs, and water birds are taken from time to time. Their feeding habits are generally unpredictable.
There appears to be a direct relation between size of muskies and the size of the fish they eat. The growth of larger individuals may be hindered if food of adequate size is not available. They depend primarily on sight to capture prey and have more difficulty feeding in murky waters. Muskies can reach speeds of nearly 30-mph in short bursts.
They have earned the reputation of being the “fish of 10,000 casts”. However, it is more like the "fish of 500 casts" for experienced Melton Hill anglers. Angler data from 2008 suggests an experienced Melton Hill muskie hunter might expect to catch one fish per 14.2 hours of fishing during the peak winter and spring months.
No muskie reproduction has been documented in Melton Hill and it is doubtful that the proper conditions exist for them to become self-sustaining. They may spawn, but the lack of aquatic vegetation makes young fry extremely vulnerable to predation and causes the eggs to suffocate in the muddy bottom substrate.
Muskies likely spawn during early April in Tennessee. Females can produce up to 180,000 eggs. Spawning occurs in shallow water and has been observed during the day, but may also occur at night. Relatively long-distance spawning migrations have been documented and adults tend to return to the same spawning locations every year. The male and female swim together in close contact over the spawning site, which usually features underwater stumps and weed beds, and release eggs and milt indiscriminately. The eggs hatch in 8-14 days and the fry attach themselves to sunken debris as they absorb their egg sacs.
Mortality of fry is high because they are very vulnerable to predation. When muskies are about four days old, they turn the tables, and begin eating other fish. They can grow to 12-inches in only four months if adequate food is available. Muskies become sexually mature after three years. Females grow faster than males and muskie grow best in the early summer and fall. Muskies may live to 30-years in some climates, but their life-span in Tennessee should be much less.
Very young muskies are preyed upon by many fish species, certain aquatic insects, and birds. Older fish have no aquatic predators, but may fall victim to large birds of prey. Muskies acquire the stealth of adults early on, but it doesn't always work to their advantage. Young muskies may neglect the presence of predators while concentrating motionlessly on potential prey.
Traditional muskie tackle includes a heavy 7- to 8-foot bait casting rod equipped with a substantial level-wind reel. Many anglers use 50- to 100-pound test braided line with a 12- to 18-inch, 100- to 150-pound wire leader. Most anglers cast large plugs, bucktail spinners, or spoons. Some anglers prefer to cast or drift live bait and usually have the best luck fishing during the daytime. Melton Hill muskies hit large baits cast into blow-down trees throughout the middle to upper section of the reservoir. Many congregate near or downstream of Bull Run Steam Plant's warm-water discharge during the winter and early spring.
Muskies may also be found near rock drop-offs or sand bars. Most often they are caught close to shorelines having overhanging and submerged trees. They prefer baits that have considerable action and make a lot of noise. When a muskie hits, set the hook immediately.
Please avoid using live bait for muskie! If you must, then consider learning how to properly use one of the many types of "Quick Strike Rigs" since they are less likely to gut-hook the fish.
To practice catch and release, do not land the fish. Instead, reel it in next to the boat and keep it in the water using a very large and sturdy net like Frabill's "Big Game" or "Big Kahuna". Remove the hook(s) with strong long-nose pliers. One may need to cut stubborn hooks with small bolt cutters (Knipex lever action). Muskies are resilient and survive well if handled carefully. Anyone who releases a muskie should give top priority to the fish's well-being. The following techniques have been recommended to help ensure the survival of the muskies that are released:
- Do not play the fish to complete exhaustion. Use heavy line and wire (avoid heavy fluorocarbon or mono) leaders so the fish can be netted as quickly as possible and to minimize the risk of leaving a lure in an escaped fish's mouth.
- Keep the fish in a LARGE net (Frabill's Big Kahuna) submersed in the water while removing the hooks. The fish will remain calmer if it is NOT brought into the boat or on land. It will also be able to continue to breath.
- If hook removal might injure the fish, cut the hook(s) with small bolt cutters (Knipex #7102200). The imbedded portion can then be more easily removed with long-nosed pliers. You may also need a jaw-spreader at times to facilitate hook removal.
- Determine the length of the fish with a marked stick/PVC pipe or a tape measure. If you wish to weigh the fish, do so by attaching a scale to the net (NOT THE FISH) and later subtract the weight of the net. A better option is to field measure the fish's length and girth and use this link to calculate weights when you get home.
- If you want to take a picture, do so quickly and DO NOT hold the fish vertically by the gill covers. Always support its weight horizontally to avoid possible injury to the spine and gills.
- When the fish is ready for release, hold it upright and horizontal in the water until it regains strength. Do not hold on to it for very long as it will likely recover just as well on its own. Often a good, hard push will encourage the fish to recover more quickly.
Sign posted at important access areas around Melton Hill and Greatfalls Reservoirs
More than 1,000 of the muskies stocked into Melton Hill in 2009 were microtagged. These tagged fish are being followed throughout their life span and have begun to provide excellent age data. Melton Hill's fish reach 17-inches early in their first year, Age-2 males can reach 28-inches late in the year, and Age-3 females can reach 37- to 39-inches late in the year. One Age-4 male made it to 35-inches early in the year and females have grown to 49- to 51-inches by Ages 10-12.
In the summer of 2013, one of TTU's radio tagged fish was recaptured by an angler. Unfortunately the fish died, but the tag was recovered and turned in. This female was tagged in 2010 when 46.9-inches in length and was 52-inches when recaptured. It had grown a little more than five inches in 2.5 years.
Obviously, Melton Hill muskie grow at considerably faster rates than more northerly populations.
The structure of choice for aging muskies in northern states is a bone in the head region of the fish called the cleithra or cleithrum. Samples taken from a few of Melton Hill's fish suggest aging may not be possible using any bony structure due to the influence of the steam plant's warm water discharge.
Etnier, D. and W. Starnes. 1993. The Fishes of Tennessee. The University of Tennessee Press.
Lebeau, B. and G. Pageau. 1989. Comparative urogenital morphology and external sex determination in muskellunge, Esox masquinongy Mitchill. Canadian Journal of Zoology 67: 1053-1060.
Sternberg, D. 1992. Northern pike and muskie. The Hunting and Fishing Library. Cy DeCosse, incorporated, Minnetonka, Minnesota.