We determined the physical, chemical, biological, and land use characteristics that distinguish northern Wisconsin lakes with self‐sustaining populations of muskellunge Esox masquinongy from lakes where stocking is required to maintain populations. Lakes that supported self‐sustaining muskellunge populations were characterized by fewer shoreline alterations and by spawning habitats with softer, organic‐nitrogen‐rich sediments. Lakes that required stocking had extensively developed shorelines. The direction of water level change during the spawning period, percentage of spawning area sediment covered by woody debris, number of deadfall trees per kilometer of shoreline, and percentage of shoreline that was totally developed were the most important variables for classifying the level of muskellunge reproduction a lake could support. A linear discriminant function correctly classified 83% of the lakes with self‐sustaining muskellunge populations and 89% of the lakes requiring stocking to sustain or enhance muskellunge populations. Lake managers wishing to use muskellunge stocking programs to reestablish self‐sustaining populations should critically review each candidate lake by considering our model and that of Dombeck et al. (1986).