Garz! (In hoc signo…)

Passed this sign the other day on the way to a river with a good population of Shortnose Gar (I still can’t get used to the idea that it’s now the accepted practice to capitalize common names, but I’m trying). The plan was to catch some. The sign seemed to promise me success. (In hoc signo vinces, right?) The obvious promise was broken.

A neon sign that says "GARZ."

In hoc signo vinces? Not this time. (Oglesby, IL)


As long as I’m posting signs of the coming of The Gar, here’s another one from a couple years ago.

Neon sign saying GAR.

Brookfield, IL

Mapping the Paddlefish (because someone had to do it)

I needed a map showing the range of the Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula, also known as spoonbill catfish, among other things), one of North America’s most striking animals. Despite a lot of searching (online and in books), however, I couldn’t find any map that was both up-to-date and of sufficient quality. I also couldn’t find any single listing of the species’ current status in all states where it is found, nor the regulations governing if/how it can be caught (for sport or commercially). What else could I do but create the map I needed?*


The map was created to accompany a paddlefish article in the fall 2014 issue of American Currents. (Click on the map to see it larger.)

Note: As noted in the key below the map, PA and NY have paddlefish populations. They are shown in the extirpated color because the species is still officially considered extirpated by both states. When that changes, so will the map.

Corrections welcome, but only if they come with reference to sources so I can verify and keep track.

Copyright information:

Creative Commons License
Status and distribution of the Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) in North America by Olaf Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
(This means you may use the map for non-commercial purposes only, provided it is not altered in any way and you credit me. A link to would also be nice. If, for some reason, you want to use the map in something commercial, contact me. If you need it altered somehow, contact me.

Additional notes on the paddlefish:

The last time a wild paddlefish was seen in Ontario was 1917.

Paddlefish roe (eggs) make fine caviar, and as is the case with many species of sturgeon, this fact has had a negative impact on the species’ population. Tight rules now govern the harvest and sale of paddlefish roe, but poachers still take fish illegally as there is money to be made.

Read the journal of just about any early European explorer traveling up the Mississippi and you’ll find references to the paddlefish. They must have been extremely common before we fished, dammed and poisoned them to their current reduced state.

  • In about 1805, Zebulon Pike, traveling the Mississippi somewhere around what is now southern Illinois/Missouri recorded this:
    (click on the image to go to the book)
  • Father Louis Hennepin, in (I think) 1680, compared a Mississippi River (he called it “the River Colbert”) paddlefish to a devil:

    “The eagles, which are to be seen in abundance in these vast countries, will sometimes drop a breme, a large carp [there were no carp on this continent at the time, so he meant either various suckers or perhaps mooneye, goldeye, or drum], or some other fish, as they are carrying them to their nests in their talons, to feed their young. One day we spied an otter, which was feeding on a great fish upon the bank of the river [some versions say "River Colbert" here]; which fish had upon its head a sort of beak about five inches broad, and a foot and half long. As soon as the Picard spied it, he cried out he saw the devil between the claws of the otter. This surprise was not so great, but that we made bold to feed heartily upon it. The flesh of it was good; and we named it the sturgeon with the long beak.”
    (Click on the page image to go to the book.)
  • One of the earliest illustrations appeared in the account of Antoine Simon LePage DuPratz (1695-1775), who traveled to North America in 1718 and spent 16 years living in “Louisiana,” a larger area then than now. His memoirs provide a wealth of information about the native people and animals of the region. Here are a few pages on fish and fishing, featuring suckers (what he calls carp are probably suckers of various species, since carp would not arrive here for another century or more; a later author, mentioning DuPratz, identifies the carp as buffalo, which makes perfect sense), gar (“armed fish”), catfish (at least that’s how I would identify his two kinds of “barbel”) and bowfin (“choupic”). If he did nothing beyond this, I’d still consider him a great man: he calls the bowfin beautiful and says many people confuse it with trout for its willingness to take a fly!

    A few pages from the chapter on fish:

    (Click on any of the images to go to the book.)
    I don’t know whether the illustrations are based on sketches by DuPratz or wholly created by someone who had never seen any of these animals (which happened a lot, leading to some wildly inaccurate images), but they combine a simplistic style uncommon for animal woodcuts in books of this time with a surprising lack of the fantastic over-imagination also common at the time.

Sources consulted in the creation of the map:

  • “Ecology and biology of paddlefish in North America: historical perspectives, management approaches, and research priorities,” by Cecil A. Jennings & Steven J. Zigler, in Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 10: 167-181 (2000), itself based on a map in Carlson and Bonislawsky (1981), was the source for placement of the dots showing historical, unconfirmed captures.
  • Freshwater Fishes of North America: Volume 1: Petromyzontidae to Catostomidae.Melvin L. Warren, Jr. and Brooks M. Burr, Editors. JHU Press, 2014
  • Douglas M. Carlson & Patrick S. Bonislawsky (1981) “The Paddlefish (Polyodon Spathula) Fisheries of the Midwestern United States,” Fisheries, 6:2, 17-27, DOI: 10.1577/1548-8446(1981)006<0017:TPPSFO>2.0.CO;2<0017:TPPSFO>2.0.CO;2
  • The Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America North of Mexico (Second Edition) by Lawrence M. Page and Brooks M. Burr. HMH, 2011.
  • The paddlefish page of the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species site:
  • The paddlefish page of the IUCN Redlist site: [Their citation: Grady, J. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) 2004. Polyodon spathula. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.2. <>. Downloaded on 03 October 2014.]
  • And the websites of the agencies in each state that govern wildlife, endangered and threatened species, fishing regulations, etc. There are too many to list here. All I’ll say about them is that some states are much better than others when it comes to making it easy to find information.

*Making things like this is part of my real job (loving unloved fish is, for me anyway, not a paying gig) as a book designer (mostly the pages, but also covers). I specialize in scholarly and scientific books and journals. If you are a scholar or scientist who needs someone to design your next book or the journals you edit, please get in touch.

Like native fish? Check out NANFA.

The North American Native Fishes Association ( is dedicated to native fish conservation, science, education, promotion, and appreciation. It publishes American Currents, a full-color quarterly journal (of which I am an editor as of a couple issues ago) that is mailed to all members. The annual convention, held in a different part of the country each year, brings together scientists, anglers, photographers, aquarists and other fishy people for several days of collecting fish, snorkeling with fish, talking about fish, etc. Dues are affordable ($30/year). Print out this  NANFA membership form or visit

American Currents (now in its 39th year) publishes a variety of material, from hard science to expedition reports. The spring 2014 issue even had an article about a member’s redline darter (Etheostoma rufilineatum) tattoo. That issue, by the way, is no available for free download at

Another valuable aspect of NANFA is its active forum, where members share information about all things native fish. It is that rare sort of web forum where most members are knowledgeable, generous, calm and able to communicate. The photo galleries include thousands of stunning fish photos.

I should point out that this is a very diverse organization. There are biologists whose names you would recognize if you’ve done any reading of the scientific literature or any Freshwater Fishes of State X books. There are people who keep native fish in aquariums. There are micro-fishers and normal anglers (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The covers of the most recent issue (Vol. 39, no. 3 [July, 2014]) and the previous issue (Vol. 39, no. 2 [April, 2014]), which has my white bass photo on the back cover:

NANFA_AmericanCurrents_39-3cover NANFA_AmCurrents_39-2_cover NANFA_AmCurrents_39-2_backcover


Gar Accomplished: all 5 US species

Contact with gar fires me up in a way no other group of fish does, and I know I’m not alone in appreciating these fish. The reaction they ignite in me is located somewhere deeper than the feelings touched off by more recently arrived fishes like trout, bass, or even suckers. It’s been said before by others who have found themselves addicted to these fish: they’re dinosaurs, dragons, pure predators, living fossils.

For me it is this: when I interact with a gar—hold it in my hands, feel its armor and muscle flexing and really look at it—I’m in contact with the Earth not as my familiar home, but as it truly is, stripped of maps, knowledge, and all the other baggage we pile up to create our illusion of understanding and control. A gar in hand is time travel, the Earth before names and ideas.

I know I’m probably reading too much into this, but something is definitely different about the gar experience.

Pseudo-poetic BS aside, gar are bad-asses. Muscle, teeth, armor, hunger, tenacity, and confidence add up to a fish that’s a hell of a lot of fun to catch. Small or large, they fight like crazy and no matter how careful you are, they can—and will—cut you. A truly spectacular, beautiful animal.

I have now caught all 5 gar species in the U.S. (and though I’ve caught all 4 that live in Illinois, I have yet to realize my goal of catching all 4 of them in a single day). Only the tropical gar (Atractosteus tropicus) and the Cuban gar (Atractostes tristoechus) remain, and I intend to meet both of them eventually. Until then, there is no chance I’ll lose interest in continuing to fish for the “local” gars at every opportunity.

Remember: compared to gar, all other fish are just bait.

July 12, 2014, Illinois River backwaters: My lifer spotted gar (Lepisosteus oculatus) Spotted gar! Spotted gar would NOT hold still. Luckily I've got shaolin monk speed.

January 6, 2014, Tamiami Trail, FL: Caught a bunch of Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus) Florida gar Florida gar

August 31, 2013, Illinois River backwaters: My lifer alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula), believed to be the first one caught in Illinois since 1966. (More about this fish here, here and here.)Alligator Gar

June 7, 2012, Mississippi River, WI: My lifer longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), 47 inches long and about 17 pounds, caught on a hookless rope lure.

Longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), 47" long, Mississippi River, WI, 6/7/2012 (on a hookless rope lure)

July 28, 2011, LaSalle County, IL: One of many shortnose gar (Lepisosteus platostomus) I caught the day I got my first one (8 landed in first 12 casts).


The World of Suckers (1909) and the Growth of Suckerism

Suckerism is not a circumstantial folly but an active emotion.

Lionel Josaphare

All hail the great unacknowledged scholar of suckers and suckerism, Lionel Josaphare (1876–?), whose work belongs on the shelf with your other fish books. It even includes valuable information missing from all those old Jordan & Evermann books and your $250 copy of Becker’s Fishes of Wisconsin. Though they covered a great many species, they apparently ignored quite a few. According to The World of Suckers, published in 1909,  some of the major sucker species are:

  • The Biped with the Coin
  • The Sucker Who Wants To Get Rich Quickly
  • The Voter
  • The Man Who Wants To Go to Heaven
  • The New Thought Sucker
  • The Soldier
  • The Lover
  • The Girl With the Demon Lover
  • The Sucker in Search of Happiness
  • The Optimist and the Pessimist
  • The Sucker Who Fears Public Opinion
  • The Sucker Who Tells the Truth
  • The Idealist and Reader of Fiction
  • The Astonished Sucker
  • and more!

Cover of the World of Suckers by Lionel Josaphare (1909)Josaphare covers everything you could possibly want to know about suckers AND suckerism.

For example, he provides a definition of the word “sucker”

[p. 1] It has been suggested that the word “sucker” arose from the name of a sweet and unsophisticated fish that skips through the waters of the Great Lakes and inflowing streams. Its aptitude for the hook was first the delight and then the ridicule of its captors, who were, perhaps like many good folks, looking for something at once delightful and ridiculous.


“Sucker,” then, on the face of it, means one who sucks obviously at an idea. Ideas are the milk of the mind, the nourishment of the soul, the food of national greatness. And even as a cow, or any female animal, unless soft hands or mouths take the milk, would corrupt its product, so would great ideas drivel over and dry without suckers.

He explains the Absolute Necessity for Suckers:

[p. 3] In order that civilization progress and partake of poetic grandeur continuously or now and then, there must be, ready and willing at all times, a predominance of joyful and high-spirited fools. These supply the hurrah and sentiment, money and labor: Make no mistake; these are not fools of the brain, but fools of the world. In themselves they are good, law-abiding, tax-paying, intelligent men; virtuous or avaricious, as they are wanted.

He also provides some Remarks on the Growth of Suckerism (p. 6). He settles a question we have long debated by revealing The Greatest Sucker of All (p. 85), and describes An Ordinary Day in the Life of a Sucker  (p. 102).

Continue reading

Bowfin for June Species Contest

I got to draw the button (and t-shirt) again this year for the June species contest. Last year I did a pumpkinseed. This year I made a bowfin. (Last weekend I was fishing with Garman and asked what kind of fish he thought I should draw. He said a bowfin would be cool. I ran with it.)

2014 button

To enter the contest, get an account at, buy the button and/or t-shirt, wait til 12:01AM on June 1st and go fishing. Stop fishing as little as possible. You’ve got 30 days. Each time you catch a new species of fish, take a picture of it and make sure the button (or t-shirt) is in the shot. Post the photos to the site.

Whoever catches the most species wins. (In 2013, it took 43 species to win, while 50 did it in 2012.) The prize is a custom-built fishing rod. Sweet, eh?

There’s also a kids’ division. So far it’s been won by girls both times and I see no reason that will change. My daughter Iris won it the first year and has pledged to fish hard this year in hopes of another trophy.

Some new fishy hats and shirts

There are still more in progress, but I did add a few designs to the zazzle shop. These are all based on woodcuts from 1833.
All are available on just about any size and color of shirt, including baby onesies and men’s and women’s styles.

Who can forget the iconic sturgeon logo of the famous (imaginary) Sturgeon Mfg. Co., makers of heavy equipment that built this country?

Stugeon logo hats and shirts


Everyone loves bullheads. This one’s good to wear or gamble (or play Go Fish) with. In the 1833 book, it’s called the Horn Pout.
bullhead stuff


Show that you mean whatever you say: wear a pike or a sculpin.
pike stuff


Sculpin: if the word “tough” were incarnated as a fish.
Sculpin on shirts and hats


If you like scales or fish faces, wear the rudd.rudd stuff

Illinois Gar Summit I, Feb. 2014

After months of hopeful but vague discussion about getting together to talk gar (and other cool fish), three of the most gar obsessed citizens of Illinois finally managed to meet at the end of February. Solomon David, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Shedd Aquarium (and see, hosted Bill Meyer (founder of and the Gar Angler’s Sporting Society [GASS]) and me for a full day of fish nerding.

We enjoyed a tour behind the scenes at the Shedd that allowed us to see fish the public doesn’t get to see and smell odors the public doesn’t get to smell. The humid air and fishy scent were medicine to me, given how long the world had been frozen and fishless. Thanks also to Kurt Hettiger, Senior Aquarist at the Shedd, for answering my novice questions and showing us various off-exhibit tanks and fishes. One highlight was a South American catfish the size of a large couch, with a mouth big enough to inhale a medium-sized dog. Another was Grandad, the Australian lungfish who holds the title for oldest fish in any aquarium in the world (80 to 100 years, and counting). We were there specifically to do some gar-gazing, so it was very cool to see some of the gars that were off exhibit at the time.

Over lunch we got to talk suckers with Phil Willink, formerly of the Field Museum and now a Senior Research Biologist at the Shedd.

Thanks to everyone at the Shedd for the hospitality and for giving use a glimpse into things far cooler than anyone looking at the exhibits would guess.

The second half of our day was spent in the bowels of the Field Museum of Natural History, where we had the opportunity to examine a wide variety of specimens. 30-gallon jars of preserved gars, suckers, and bowfins; skeletal gars, paddlefish, and sawfish; a 100-year-old alligator gar mount that I’ve seen in old publications (see below); two of the 30 or so harelip sucker specimens in existence (the first fish driven to extinction in North America since Europeans arrived, Lagochila lacera/Moxostoma lacerum is the subject of a very long post—it threatens to become a small book—I’ve been writing for more than a year). It was a fish nerd’s candy store. The overwhelming terror of shattering a shelf full of giant jars and drenching myself in preservative and antique fish parts kept me from grabbing everything in sight for a closer look. Barely. Thanks to Susan Mochel and everyone else at the Field Musem for allowing us into what felt like a holy place, again more interesting (to me, anyway) than the public parts of the museum. The fact that I was less than a foot of discolored, oily liquid away from a couple of gen-u-ine coelacanths is still making me giddy a month later.

This was just the first meeting. I know that dedicated freaks like us will find more excuses to get together and talk about the fishes we love. Once weather and water are conducive to fieldwork, I know we’ll be out there catching gar for science and sport, taking samples and photos, and having fun. Can’t wait. I think we’ll also work on finding more ways to educate the public—anglers and non-anglers, young and old—about the less-loved fish, such as gar, bowfin, suckers, sturgeon, etc.

If anyone’s handing out jobs at the Shedd (how about Roving Photographer and Writer at Large for a job title?), tell me where to line up.

Not wanting to derail the tour, I intentionally left my good camera at home. The photos that follow were taken with my trusty Pentax waterproof point-and-shoot. I take it everywhere with me, as it can take a beating and I won’t cry for weeks if I happen lose or crush it while fishing. That said, its photos are nothing special. I’ll return with a better camera, multiple lenses, and more time in the near future. All those dead fish whisper to me at night, but I can’t quite make out what they’re saying. I have to go back.

Illinois Gar Summit I, 2014: Bill Meyer, Olaf Nelson. Solomon David and a cenury-old (plus) Alligator Gar in the deepest recesses of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Illinois Gar Summit I, 2014: Bill Meyer, Olaf Nelson. Solomon David and a cenury-old (plus) Alligator Gar in the deepest recesses of the Field Museum in Chicago. Hypnotized by the self-timer’s flashing light, I forgot to smile.

This same gar appears in a 1905 photograph of Richard Raddatz, Field Museum staff preparator (some monitors show better than others that the gar’s base and the rope suspending it are blacked out on the negative):

FieldMuseum preparator Richard Radatz, pictured in 1905 with alligator gar

Field Museum preparator Richard Radatz, pictured in 1905 with alligator gar. If I ever get a job at the Field, I’m going to wear a tie and overalls every day. Every single day.

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum.

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum.

Gar scales, can't remember which species (dry specimen). Field Museum, Chicago

Gar scales, can’t remember which species (dry specimen). Field Museum, Chicago

A section of skeletal Paddlefish rostrum (the paddle). Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

A section of skeletal Paddlefish rostrum (the paddle). Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

Skeletal Paddlefish rostrum, side view. Basement of the Field Museum, Chicago.

Skeletal Paddlefish rostrum, side view. Basement of the Field Museum, Chicago.

Anyone unsure exactly what a paddlefish looks like, see this: or do an image search.

Fossil gar (Lepisosteus simplex) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Fossil gar (Lepisosteus simplex) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Fossil gar (Masillosteus janei) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Fossil gar (Masillosteus janei) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

Basement of Field Museum, Chicago. Each of these jars could hold 8-10  chickens, if you had 8-10 chickens in need of pickling.

Bichirs. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Bichirs (pronounced “bikers”). Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Lamprey kisser. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Lamprey kisser. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Tucan fish. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Tucan fish. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.


New Work on Species of Western Mountain Suckers (Pantosteus)

A new paper does a lot for our understanding of the several Mountain Sucker species in the genus Pantosteus. It elevates Pantosteus back to genus and elevates some old species. It divides Bluehead Suckers into two species: P. discobolus (in the Colorado Basin) and  P. virescens (in the Bonneville and Snake basins). It divides mountain suckers into P. platyrhynchus (in the Bonneville and Snake basins), P. jordani (in the Missouri Basin), P. lahontan (in the Lahontan basin) and P. bondi (in the Columbia and Lower Snake basins). It also provides diagnostic characters for each species.

Influence of Introgression and Geological Processes on Phylogenetic Relationships of Western North American Mountain Suckers (Pantosteus, Catostomidae) by Peter J. Unmack, Thomas E. Dowling, Nina J. Laitinen, Carol L. Secor, Richard L. Mayden, Dennis K. Shiozawa, Gerald R. Smith

Intense geological activity caused major topographic changes in Western North America over the past 15 million years. Major rivers here are composites of different ancient rivers, resulting in isolation and mixing episodes between river basins over time. This history influenced the diversification of most of the aquatic fauna. The genus Pantosteus is one of several clades centered in this tectonically active region. The eight recognized Pantosteus species are widespread and common across southwestern Canada, western USA and into northern Mexico. They are typically found in medium gradient, middle-elevation reaches of rivers over rocky substrates. This study (1) compares molecular data with morphological and paleontological data for proposed species of Pantosteus, (2) tests hypotheses of their monophyly, (3) uses these data for phylogenetic inferences of sister-group relationships, and (4) estimates timing of divergence events of identified lineages. Using 8055 base pairs from mitochondrial DNA protein coding genes, Pantosteus and Catostomus are reciprocally monophyletic, in contrast with morphological data. The only exception to a monophyletic Pantosteus is P. columbianus whose mtDNA is closely aligned with C. tahoensis because of introgression. Within Pantosteus, several species have deep genetic divergences among allopatric sister lineages, several of which are diagnosed and elevated to species, bringing the total diversity in the group to 11 species. Conflicting molecular and morphological data may be resolved when patterns of divergence are shown to be correlated with sympatry and evidence of introgression.

The article is open access, which means it is freely available:

Unmack, P.J., Dowling, T.E., Laitinen, N.J., Secor, C.L., Mayden, R.L., Shiozawa, D.K. & Smith, G.R. 2014. Influence of introgression and geological processes on phylogenetic relationships of western North American mountain suckers (Pantosteus, Catostomidae). PLoS One, 9(3): e90061.