The muskellunge – What’s in a name?

The scientific and common names of the muskellunge have an interesting history. The accepted scientific name, Esox masquinongy, is attributed to S. L. Mitchell, a New York physician. The description of this new species and the introduction of this scientific name are supposed to have been published in 1824. No copy of this publication has been seen at least since 1842 and there is doubt that the 1824 description and use of the name ever existed. The scientific name has passed through stages during which people defined the muskellunge largely on the basis of color pattern, as one species, three species and three subspecies of one species. The concensus now would appear to be that the three semi-distinct groups of populations represent three races of one variable species. It is generally assumed now that these three races, like the three ecotypes of Salmo gairdneri, do not warrant separated scientific names.

Much of the literature in the 1800ss muse be read with great care since the muskellunge and the northern pike were regularly confused and the scientific and common names interchanged. Over the years, there have been at least 94 common names applied to this species. The two most frequent names are muskellunge and maskinonge. The first is now the approved one but the second is still in use in Canada. Many attempts have been made to establish the derivation of these names from Indian words via French pronunciations. It would appear now very likely that the name is Algonquin in origin and represented a spotted kind of pike. The situation is clouded further by the general use today of the name “tiger muskellunge” for the hybrid between the muskellunge and northern pike. That name was first used for the western race of the muskellunge on the basis of the very bold vertical to oblique “strips” characteristics of muskellunge in that area.