Loving care for royal eggs

The kingly muskellunge taxes the patience of anglers who try to catch him and of conservationists who try to hatch him
August 03, 1958

In the lakes of the Midwest and New York, with any sort of luck, a muskellunge hatched from eggs like those shown on the opposite page will live 15 years and in that time come to weigh over 30 pounds. In any water where it prospers the muskellunge is undeniably the king, but a king with an exasperating habit of sulking in his tent. In the curtain of shadows under grass and timber, he will lie still for hours, an ugly pug with a protruding jaw, seemingly sullen and at odds with the world, brutish and indolent as a carp, utterly uninterested in any lure or live bait. Then suddenly the muskie crashes through the curtain into the light, a sleek, moving beauty, so fast its move is hard to see. Many fishermen do not have the patience for muskies, but there are a fair number who are willing to spend many luckless hours for the spectacular moment.

Such muskie devotees, particularly the 20,000 who every summer fish Lake Chautauqua in western New York, will be cheered by the fact that the muskie eggs shown here (magnified seven times in this picture) are but a few of several million hatched every year by a quiet, dedicated New York State conservationist named Ray Norton. Since most of the hatch is dumped into Lake Chautauqua when they are a scant half inch long, Norton's effort to take the eggs and milt from the muskies he traps seems a waste of time. Under natural conditions, because muskies scatter eggs and milt haphazardly in the shallows, only about 5% of the eggs are fertilized. But mixing the eggs and milt by hand and coddling the fertilized eggs in laboratory jars, Norton gets a yield of over 60% a year. From each hatch, Norton rears about 10,000 muskie fry through the summer, releasing them as eight-inch fingerlings.

The care and feeding of 10,000 little muskies keeps Norton in a calm but constant state of worry. The growth of muskies is greatly affected by water temperature, and they are finicky feeders. The muskie, by the time it is an inch long, thrives only on the living, moving fry of lesser fish. Thus Norton has the added burden of hatching or catching 20 million trash fish a year. He literally sleeps beside his brood to be sure the muskies do not lack water and to keep them from being molested too much by visiting tourists, raccoons, kingfishers and grackles. His devotion is exceptional, but after 30 years of it, Norton has concluded there is nothing ordinary about muskies or muskie fishermen and an extraordinary effort might as well be made on behalf of both.