Musky are the number one predator in the cold waters of the United States and Canada that they live in. By knowing and understanding what a musky likes to eat, you can tailor your fishing tactics to match and hopefully catch more of these elusive fish.
So, what do muskies eat?
Around 95% of a musky’s diet consists of small fish like ciscoes, and yellow perch. But they will also eat small mammals like mice and rats as well as ducklings if they can find enough fish to fill their bellies.
Also, larger fish species such as walleye, trout, and bass are not safe either, but muskies do not eat these very often.
Join me as I run through everything you need to know about what muskies eat and why, plus the top lures and baits to catch them with.
Table of Contents
- What do Muskies Eat – a List of Favorite Foods
- What do Muskies Eat by Season
- What are the Best Baits for Muskies?
- What are the Best Lures for Muskies?
- Winding Up
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What do Muskies Eat – a List of Favorite Foods
Before we get into the details of what a muskey prefers to eat and why, let’s take a look at the list below of their preferred prey.
- Yellow Perch
- Largemouth bass
- Smallmouth bass
- Small mammals
- Small birds
As you can see, a musky’s main diet consists of various different species of small fish. Which one they choose to eat, depends on which of them is most prevalent at a given time.
What do Muskies Prefer to Eat?
Muskies are intelligent creatures that want to eat enough while using the least amount of energy possible.
If there are shoals of yellow perch swimming around, they will be much easier for a musky to catch compared to having to hunt a fish that is not in abundance in their habitat.
Therefore a musky will always prefer to eat whichever bait fish is most available in their habitat. Now, each habitat is a little different from the next, so you will want to learn about what fish live in the particular place you are fishing for musky.
What Fish do Muskie Eat?
Muskies will eat any fish that is easy for them to catch and this is usually fish between 5 and 15 inches long.
We have already run through the list of fish that muskies eat, but their favorite fish are soft-finned species with a ton of protein. These include tullibee, bullheads, suckers, ciscoes, minnows and carp.
Why soft-finned fish species?
They are a lot easier to eat as the soft fins make them a lot easier to swallow. However, if these fish species are not available to them, they will go after anything they can to fill themselves up.
Muskies will go after large walleye, trout, bass, and even pike if they have to. But, they avoid targeting these species as catching, swallowing, and digesting them requires a lot more energy.
What do Muskies Eat by Season
A musky’s diet consists mainly of what is most available to them and this changes with the seasons. Let’s take a look at how a muskies diet changes with each season.
What do Muskies Eat in Winter?
In the winter, muskies will move to deeper water in lakes and deep slack water in rivers. Like all fish, they have to conserve their energy when the water is cold and move deeper where it is warmer.
Muskies still have to eat in winter though and will eat anything that requires minimal energy. No fish is off the menu in these moments, it is more about how easy the meal is. If any of the species in the list mentioned above swims close to a musky, it will most likely inhale it.
Whether they will eat a big fish like a 20 inch trout depends on the particular musky. While a big trout will fill them up for a while, it might take too much energy to catch and swallow.
What do Muskies Eat in Spring?
In the spring, muskies are thinking about spawning and will move closer into the shallows near to their spawning sites.
The muskies will be looking to feed but they will also be lazy as they start creating all the eggs and sperm required to spawn.
Since they are in shallower areas, species that live in these areas will be their main target. Yellow perch love to live in shallow areas and muskies will hit them hard during the pre-spawn, so long as they are an easy enough meal.
When muskies spawn, they do not eat anything. But, they don’t all spawn at the same time, so you should still go musky fishing during the spawning season.
After spawning, muskies will slowly rebuild their strength for about 2 weeks before they have energy to eat again, the females in particular. The males will start eating sooner.
When they start eating after spawning, they do not hold back in any way. They will search out shoals of bait fish and gorge on them, so whatever is most prevalent at this time is what they will eat the most.
Overall, they spend their time next to shallower areas in drop-offs and near structures in spring. This makes yellow perch their favorite food during this time.
What do Muskies Eat in Summer?
In the summer, a muskies habitat is brimming with small bait fish that have all spawned. This makes minnows of various species their favorite food in the summertime as they are most abundant and easiest to catch.
But, when water temperatures get over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, muskies will sit deeper around structures and drop-offs. When this happens deep water bait fish species are their preferred prey such as herrings.
The best time to fish for muskies in the summer is when the water is cooler in the early mornings and late evenings.
What do Muskies Eat in the Fall?
Most predatory species eat as much as they can in the fall to store up fat for the winter. Muskies are more intelligent than this. They slow down their movements and choose bigger, fatter, easy-prey targets.
The reason this is so clever is that they are maximizing their food intake while expending the least amount of energy possible. This creates the most amount of winter fat stores possible.
This means that in the fall, muskies prefer to eat larger fish species that are easy to catch. Shoals of larger perch and herring are most likely on the menu.
How do the Seasons Affect Feeding Habits?
As you will have noticed, muskies change their feeding behavior most due to water temperature changes and spawning.
Colder and hotter water temperatures cause muskies to slow their feeding down and they look for larger, easier meals. Before, during, and just after spawning muskie don’t feed that much easier but they come into their own in late spring, summer, and early fall.
This is when their habitat is full of small minnows and they go to town on them as much as possible.
What are the Best Baits for Muskies?
The best live baits for muskies include big white sucker, big perch, and bluegill. You want to ensure your live bait is pretty big as muskies like big fish, and the bigger the bait, the bigger the musky, usually.
Look for live bluegills, yellow perch, and white suckers that are around the 10 inch mark and you should be in for some musky action.
When it comes to dead baits, you want to use oiler fish that leave more of scent in the water. This includes fish like ciscoes, smelt, and white suckers too.
Mackerel is also a great bait, even though it is not found in their habitat, it smells so good that they can not resist.
What are the Best Lures for Muskies?
There are lots of excellent lures for musky fishing but it would take a long time to name them all, so let’s look at the categories of lures that work best.
Bucktail jigs are immensely effective musky lures as they can be fished at multiple speeds, multiple depths, and they create a lot of vibrations that a musky can feel.
The great thing about these jigs is that they can be fished very slowly, and since muskies love an easy meal, you can retrieve them at a pace they love!
Soft plastics are also extremely effective at catching muskies and this is for the same reasons as the bucktail jigs above.
Soft plastics are also fished on weighted hooks and can be retrieved slow or fast. This allows you to match the retrieve to the seasons.
Plus, when you use the pause, stop, and go retrieve, a soft plastic looks just like an injured fish, which is an easy meal muskies can not pass up!
There are two excellent types of topwater lures that muskies love. Propeller topwater baits look like small fish and have a propeller at the front which churns up the water. This makes muskies go a little bit crazy as it makes a ton of commotion.
Walk the dog topwater lures swim from side to side on the surface. This action is also something muskies love.
You should only fish topwater lures in the summer though.
Glide lures are simply jointed swimbaits and these are deadly for muskies all year round. They are bigger lures which muskies like, and their jointed body creates a very life-like swimming motion.
The trouble with glide baits is that they are hard to learn how to fish properly so be sure to practice. They do a lot of different things at different speeds and retrieves and mastering all the methods will have you catching a lot more muskies.
You can also fly fish for musky and they are considered one of the number one species on the planet to catch with a fly rod.
When fly fishing for musky, big flies that look like large bait fish are key and they should be fished slowly.
Do muskies eat other muskies?
Yes, larger muskies will eat smaller muskies so long as they are not too small. Musky fry are too small for a full grown musky to bother with, but a musky of 7 inches long is the perfect baitfish for a larger musky.
In some cases, larger muskies eat so many smaller muskies, that they actually damage the population.
How big of a fish can a musky eat?
A musky can eat a fish that is half as long as it is. Now, considering a big musky can be over 70 inches in length (a massive fish), it could eat a fish up to 35 inches in length.
Now, a 35 inch trout or bass is about 25 lbs in weight, a true trophy. However, we must remember that muskies do not target fish half their length very often as it is too big a waste of energy for them.
What do juvenile musky eat?
Juvenile muskies eat the same things as most juvenile fish. They start with zooplankton and then move into insects like nymphs once they have grown a bit. Next up are small bait fish and once they are large enough, bigger bait fish.
At what depth do muskie feed?
A musky’s favorite depth is between 10 and 30 feet, and they may drop to a maximum of 40 feet if the water temperature forces them to do so.
This makes them quite a shallow predator and they like to hide around structures and drop offs to ambush prey – another energy conservation tactic!
How often do muskies eat?
It depends on what a musky chooses to eat. If a muskie eats a big 12 inch sucker, chances are it won’t have to eat for a while. But, if a musky is chasing around 5 inch shad, it will need to eat more than a few of these in a day.
Generally speaking though, a musky will not pass up on an easy meal and a larger musky will need to eat more small shad than a medium size musky, so size plays a role here too.
But, muskies have been known to not have to eat for days, and even weeks at a time. This is most likely due to their last meal being a very large one.
How much does a muskie eat in a day?
It is very hard to find any data on how much a musky needs to eat in a day to continue to survive.
Pike need to eat between 1.5 to 5 times their body weight per year, and I would imagine a musky would need a similar amount of food per year. How much they can eat does depend on
I am, of course, speculating a bit here but following the figures for pike, a 30 lb musky would need to eat a minimum of 45 lbs of food per year and a maximum of 150 lbs of food per year.
Muskies are incredibly wise fish and they are not easy to catch. But, by knowing how they feed and what they like to eat, you can increase your chances.
The real key to catching them though, is patience. Never stop trying, use the right baits at the right time of year, and eventually you will catch one.
If you have any musky fishing stories, questions, or muskie fishing knowledge you’d like to share, please comment below. We would love to hear from you!