Quantification of native muskellunge habitat: Influence of body size, fish community composition and vegetation structure

Habitat utilization of native young-of-the-year (YOY) muskellunge, Esox masquinongy, was quantified by the type and density of vegetation present, water depth, and fish communities associated with their presence and abundance in nursery bays of the Upper St. Lawrence River. We completed 441 seine hauls and captured 400 YOY muskellunge in 11 bays that were sampled each July and August over a 3-year period (2002–2004). We hypothesized a change in habitat utilization related to increasing body size, as YOY muskellunge doubled in total length from July to August. Fine-leafed submerged and emergent macrophytes and prey availability (cyprinids, Notropis sp., banded killifish, Fundulus diaphanous and tessellated darter, Etheostoma olmstedi), were positively related to muskellunge use in July, while in August coverage of broad-leafed submerged macrophytes and increased overall vegetation density were the best habitat descriptor. In both months, muskellunge were associated with moderate (20–60%) vegetation coverage and density, however, captures were in areas of significantly greater vegetation coverage and density than was generally available. A negative relation of muskellunge occurrence with water depth, yellow perch, Perca flavescens, and stonewort, Chara vulgaris, was observed in both months. The negative relationship between muskellunge and depth, plus their strong linkages to nearshore submerged vegetation and forage fish that inhabit the nearshore areas, highlights the importance of protecting the ecological integrity of nearshore habitats. Our findings should assist managers in protecting native stocks, planning restoration and enhancement initiatives, and in regulating riparian and nearshore development