Shortnose Gar Bonanza! (includes underwater video)

 Shortnose Gar

The Spot

There’s this spot. It’s on a river. Tough to get to: a long hike in wet grass, a rocky downhill, slipping in mud and stumbling and rolling on loose stones. Poison ivy everywhere. Trail barely visible unless you know where to look. Then you get to the river, where you slip and trip some more, and lots more poison ivy.

Most of that is not exaggerated much. You won’t like it, even if I tell you how to get there (and you’ll hate the climb back up at the end of the day).

Unless you look at the water, because at any given moment several shortnose gar are surfacing exactly where you’re looking, no matter where you’re looking. They like to bite. Especially spinners. A guy I know caught over 50 of them the other day. (I only caught 30.)

You might see Smallmouth Buffalo and Grass Carp, too. Less visible but catchable are Bowfin, Freshwater Drum, Channel Catfish, Flathead Catfish, Walleye, Sauger, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, Mooneye and Goldeye. And the White Bass: as aggressive and tenacious as the Shortnoses, and everywhere. I know a guy who caught over 50 of them in 5 hours the other day. I only caught about 20.

Unfortunately, Silver Carp and Bighead Carp have moved in over the last few years, and sometimes they’re everywhere. In my experience, when the carp are numerous, the gar are not easy to find and catch. Partly it’s the fact that every cast hits and bounces off multiple carp on the retrieve, often spooking an entire school to jump out of the water (you’ve seen the Silver Carp footage, right?) making it difficult to maintain a winning presentation, but it does seem like the Shortnose population (or at least the number seen and willing to bite) decreases when the carp are there in force.

But the Other Day

The other day, though, I fished for 5 hours and didn’t see a single carp of any kind. This guy I know said he saw a few Grass Carp, but I didn’t. The gar (and White Bass) were biting like crazy. Getting hits on 5 or more consecutive casts wasn’t even notable. Hooking and landing fish several casts in a row was common. I take a photo of every fish I land so I can get an accurate count at the end of the day, and as I scanned through them later I noticed several series of shots separated by only a minute or two.

White Bass

White Bass

I had blisters on my hand from setting the hook (or trying), my pants were coated in gar slime and as inflexible as armor when it dried. Hooks that started the day extremely sharp were dull by the end of the day thanks to gar bone and rocks.

Two guys fishing, well over 150 fish caught. At least twice that many bites missed or fish lost during the fight. I realized too late that I was using too light a rod, so next time I’ll use something less flexible in order to more immediately communicate my hookset to the hook itself.


Since I had the GoPro with me, but not the extension pole or underwater weighted mount, I clamped it to a submerged root and weighted it down with a rock. The water was late-summer dirty and visibility was poor, but I managed to steer a few gar close enough to the camera to be visible.

Hey Jerky

Several gar came home with me to be cleaned, cured with salt and spices, then smoked long and low. The intent was to make jerky, but the result is excellent, spicy smoked fish, crisp on the outside and smooth inside. Some say that gar meat gets rubbery when cooked, but that must be due to cooking methods as both times I’ve eaten it the result has been delicious.

Shortnose Gar. Tin snips are necessary for getting through the armor.

Shortnose Gar. Tin snips are necessary for getting through the armor.

Each gar has 2 long fillets down its back. No need to mess with bones or internal organs.

Each gar has 2 long fillets down its back. No need to mess with bones or internal organs.

Gar fillets on bed of spices, before being covered by more spices and further layers of meat.

Gar fillets on bed of spices, before being covered by more spices and further layers of meat.

Improvised gar rub: salt, crushed peppercorns, crushed mustard seed, salt, various red pepper powders, garlic and onion powders, etc.

Improvised gar rub: salt, crushed peppercorns, crushed mustard seed, salt, various red pepper powders, garlic and onion powders, smoked paprika, etc.

Fully spice-covered gar fillets before 36 hours curing in the fridge.

Fully spice-covered gar fillets before 36 hours curing in the fridge.

Spicy smoked Shortnose Gar "jerky"

Spicy smoked Shortnose Gar “jerky”

Shortnose Gar "jerky" after several hours in the smoker. Spice rub and smoke made a great crust.

Shortnose Gar “jerky” after several hours in the smoker. Spice rub and smoke made a great crust.


Shorthead Redhorse Spawning in Living Color

Spring is the best season. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Anyone who claims fall is better is secretly paid to say it.

Among the surest and most exciting signs of spring are the annual spawning runs of various fish in local waterways. The arrival of White Bass (Morone chrysops) in large numbers makes for exciting fishing. Though futile from a reproductive standpoint, the runs of Coho Salmon and Steelhead (Rainbow Trout) up Lake Michigan tributaries in Wisconsin and Indiana can provide some trophy fish.

Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015

Above all, though, the congregation of spawning suckers signals the irreversible arrival of spring. If spring is new life, rebirth, renewal, etc., then hundreds of spawning redhorses are every bit as vital a symbol as any fawn, lamb, Easter egg or daffodil.


On the first of May, I visited my favorite redhorse stream (where less than 2 weeks earlier I had caught what would have been the new state record shorthead redhorse) to see if anyone was home. They were.


I shot some photos and a little video of the spawning fish. Attempts to get underwater video with my GoPro failed because I spooked every fish in the creek in my clumsy efforts to place the camera, so that will have to wait for next spring.


Among many photos of semi-interesting reflections, there were a few that made the cut.

Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015
Shorthead Redhorses (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015Shorthead Redhorses (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015
Shorthead Redhorses (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015

An album of these and the rest of the photos is at

Watch the video in the highest HD it will allow or lots of detail is lost. (Click the little gear icon and choose the highest quality option you see. Turn off “auto” if necessary.) If you really like hot redhorse action, click the full-screen icon in the lower right corner. You’ll be glad you did.

State Record Shorthead Redhorse Caviar

Shorthead Redhorse (female) ready to spawn

I have asked myself many times what I would do if I happened to catch a record-sized fish. I suspect most of us who fish obsessively have thought about this. There are really only two choices. You either kill it, take it to a certified scale, fill out paperwork and get the record, or you photograph the hell out of it, measure it every way you can think of, then release it and bask in the satisfaction of knowing you caught the record, even if you can’t prove it. (There are, of course, other options. The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum tracks catch-and-release world records, and many states have some sort of catch-and-release record system, plus it is possible to get a portable scale certified.)

I am mostly a catch-and-release fisherman, and always have been. It is partly a conservation-minded thing: I don’t want to kill animals that would (in my opinion) be better left to grow and reproduce. It’s not that I’m opposed to killing the fish, exactly, but that I usually see no reason to do so and lots of reasons not to, such as the fact that I’d rather spend my time catching more fish, not carrying them around, cleaning them, and cooking them. No one else in my home eats fish anyway.

That said, I’ve eaten many fish I’ve caught. Shortnose gar is a fantastic food fish: the meat is pure white, firm, boneless, and utterly without any of the “fishy” smell or flavor that repels some people from eating fish. It is, apparently, more like alligator meat than fish (having never eaten gator, I can’t confirm this). Cleaning gar is simple, though completely unlike cleaning any other fish. If I catch them in a river with a healthy population (and clean water), I sometimes keep a few. Mostly, though, in order to get back to fishing as quickly as possible, I release them (or they flip themselves out of my hand before I can decide).

I eat (usually smoked) any salmon and trout (except Lake Trout) I catch in the Great Lakes. Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon, Brown Trout and Steelhead (Rainbow) Trout are not native to this region, are stocked (at great expense) by state agencies solely to be caught, and are (with a few exceptions) unable to reproduce naturally, so I feel absolutely no guilt in enjoying them.

The record fish question is another thing entirely. Is killing a healthy (and perhaps genetically important) fish to claim a record anything at all beyond satisfying the ego? Seriously: what other purpose could there be? It doesn’t really add anything beyond a few data points to scientific knowledge. It might encourage a few people to take another look at an under-appreciated species, but probably not many. The only rewards for catching a state record (assuming it’s not also a new world record Largemouth Bass or Muskellunge, which would probably lead to substantial financial gain) are certificates and patches, a mention in the state’s fishing regulations booklet, perhaps a picture in the local paper, and a story to tell until, inevitably, someone breaks the record. (I think a world record would probably be a lot simpler to decide.)

Until recently, the whole question has been nothing but a thought experiment, a distraction while waiting for a bite. Though I could easily have said, having not been faced with the decision, that I would choose to release the fish, I’ve honestly never been sure what I would do.

April 21, 2015: Kendall County, IL

Fishing my favorite Illinois creek on a rainy April afternoon, I caught the fattest Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) I have ever seen. It was so much bigger than the Shortheads I usually catch there that even as I netted it I thought it might be a Greater Redhorse (M. valenciennesi), another red-tailed species that is rare but not unknown in the creek. As soon as the splashing stopped, though, I could see that it was an obvious Shorthead (short head, tiny mouth, concave dorsal fin, red tail). I could also see that it was a potential state record. The current Illinois state record Shorthead was caught in the Fox River on April 24, 2008. (Read more about it here.) It weighed in at 3.74 lbs. The weight of my fish, according to the scale built into my Lucid Fishing Grip (I get no compensation for mentioning them, but I have been very satisfied with the product and have used it for many different species of fish —including a hammerhead shark—in both fresh and salt water), was exactly 4 lbs. Though I could not remember whether I’d ever checked the scale’s accuracy with known weights, it seemed unlikely that it would be off by a quarter of a pound. That meant I had just caught the new state record and had a decision to make.

Biggest shorthead I've caught

The biggest shorthead I’ve caught.

Weighing a big shorthead

Weighing the big shorthead with Lucid grips.

Indecision Time

I have a well-documented addiction to fishing. It’s extremely difficult for me to stop. I’ve been late for a lot of dinners and I’ve been lost in unfamiliar forests after sunset. More often than not when I ignore the (at least) half of my rational mind telling me it is time to stop, I don’t catch much. Maybe it’s that I rush, knowing I should get going, and my presentation isn’t good. Maybe adrenaline causes minute muscle tremors that are transmitted through rod and line. Maybe my aura gets stormy and scares the fish. I don’t know. Still, despite knowing I’m probably not wise to keep trying, I often keep fishing.

The problem in this case is that fish seem to lose weight after being caught. I have seen several explanations, though no scientific investigations. If the fish is dead, then loss of water would be an obvious cause of weight loss. Even if kept alive, however, a stressed fish may regurgitate stomach contents and/or excrete fluid and solid wastes. In a livewell or net the fish is also not taking in any food. Maybe their ability to regulate the body’s water content is compromised by stress, causing water loss. Guess what I did. I kept fishing. For several hours. The redhorse remained alive in my landing net in the creek, but it couldn’t move around much. I transferred it to a plastic tub full of creek water for the drive home, and it was still alive when, maybe 5 hours later, I finally found a store that was open on Sunday afternoon and had a certified scale. The official weight: 3.73 lbs. That’s right: .01 pounds under the current record. I later tested my scale and found it to be very accurate, so unless I read it wrong at the creek, my fish had been a record and had lost a substantial amount of weight.

Waste Not

My ego led me to kill a fish, so I had to make sure that it was not totally in vain (and vanity). I cleaned the fish, getting a decent amount of clean, firm meat and a ton of ultra-tiny eggs. I chopped the meat (not wanting to get out the grinder for such a small job), mixed in simple seasonings, cracker crumbs and egg, coated with panko crumbs, and fried. It was delicious, and the hot oil melted any small bones that remained. Fried Redhorse balls
Redhorse fish cake

I fried one skein of eggs in basically the same way, but the tiny eggs got hard and it was a lot like eating deep-fried sand. The rest of the eggs I made into caviar. Their size meant that there was no satisfying pop possible (as you’d get with regular caviar), but the fishy, salty taste was quite good. Shorthead Redhorse eggs
Shorthead Redhorse eggsFried Redhorse eggs
Redhorse Caviar

One note on homemade caviar: if you make some and then forget it’s in the fridge for a few months, and if when you open it to share with a friend he says something like “I didn’t expect that sort of sweet, fruity taste,” then you should probably put in more salt next time AND eat it sooner.

Next Time

What will I do the next time I catch a record fish?

To be honest, I don’t know. Stay tuned.

Black Horse, Blue Sucker

H. L. Todd's 1884 Cycleptus illustration.

The Black Horse. H. L. Todd’s 1884 Cycleptus illustration based on specimen 10790 in the U. S. National Museum (Smithsonian). I was unable to locate the specimen in an online search of the collection, so it may have been renumbered or lost. (Plate 224 in The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, Section 1: Plates.)

 The following was first published, in an abridged form, in American Currents, ( and see my post about AC and NANFA here) Vol. 40, no. 1 (January, 2015). This online version will evolve as I find new information, new images, and additional sources.

Fishing in the Public Domain

Unlike features such as scale or ray counts, the names of fishes—scientific and common—are susceptible to the same forces as any human creation. What initially seem like good ideas later fall from favor, new discoveries make old understandings obsolete, and the innovations of earlier generations are eventually old-fashioned. With this in mind, and believing them to be important, I keep track of every common or vernacular name I find for any sucker species. Old sources are especially rich in names, and I have examined hundreds of scientific, popular, and governmental publications (so far).

Thanks to the concept of public domain, 1 (click footnote numbers for information and downloads) the Internet Archive, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Project Gutenberg, Google Books, and other online resources, it is possible to find obscure and very old sources. A staggering number of publications are freely available online, but much remains undigitized. Unpublished sources are a particular problem: rare or unique sources (field notes, unpublished manuscripts, correspondence, sketches) are easily lost, and those that survive are unlikely to be known, cataloged, or scanned. Any one of them might contain fragments of information (e.g., regional fish names and lore) that their authors never managed to fit into published works. Much remains hidden.

Until the 1930s, no serious attempt was made to standardize fish names, and even scientific names changed frequently. It can be difficult to know what species early observers of North American fishes meant, even when the names they used seem specific. Even the common names of trout and pike in old books are often confusing; the problem is magnified when dealing with less revered fishes such as suckers: suckers exist in almost all areas of the continent and have accumulated many regional and local names, they are frequently called carp, and sucker species were often treated—either out of ignorance of their differences or a feeling that these fish were unworthy of more careful attention—as the single species “suckers.”

LeSueur's illustration of a Blue Sucker, which he called Catostomus elongatus.

Figure 1. LeSueur’s illustration of a (dried) Blue Sucker, which he called Catostomus elongatus. [Plate between pages 102 and 103.] Kirtland (1845: 286) wrote, presumably in reference to this illustration, “Le Sueur drew his figure…from a dried specimen, and, with the exception of the dorsal fin, it has little or no resemblance to the recent fish.” Elsewhere (1838: 192), he wrote “C. elongatus. The Missouri sucker, and the black-horse and black-buffalo of the Cincinnati market. Lesuer’s [sic] figure of [it] has so little resemblance to this fish, that I drew a figure of it and prepared a description under the name of C. fusiformis, before I had any suspicions that we were both aiming at one species. The number of rays in the several fins and the form of the dorsal led me at length to arrive at this conclusion. He had seen only a dried skin.”

 Cycleptus elongatus

The Blue Sucker was first described in 1817 by LeSueur as Catostomus elongatus (1817: 103-104). 2 Hot on his heels, Rafinesque (1820: 60-61) 3 described it twice: he gives LeSueur’s Catostomus elongatus as his 67th species (with the common names Long Sucker 4 and Brown Sucker), then adds a new genus, Cycleptus, which differs from Catostomus in having two dorsal fins. In this genus, as species 68, he puts Cycleptus nigrescens, with the common names Black Suckrel [sic] and Missouri Sucker. As usual, he was less than rigorous: he admits he has not seen this fish. I think we can assume that if he had, he would have noticed that it had just one dorsal.

As it is morphologically and otherwise unique, the Blue Sucker can not actually be in the genus Catostomus (or, indeed, in any other sucker genus). Since Rafinesque’s Cycleptus was the first genus other than Catostomus into which the species had been placed, it is the name Agassiz assigned the genus when he sorted it out in 1855. 5 However, LeSueur’s elongatus remained the proper species name, as it had priority over Rafinesque’s nigrescens.

Agassiz did leave open the possibility that if there turned out to be two species of Cycleptus, one would be nigrescens. It now seems that there may, in fact, be at least one additional species—still not described, so known only as Cycleptus sp. and called Rio Grande Blue Sucker. Nigrescens will not be used as the species name, as far as I know, but it is possible. See for further information.

As evidence of the importance of common names, Agassiz writes of Cycleptus (and of Rafinesque’s shortcomings): “the characteristics of the genus, as given by Rafinesque, are not true to nature. Yet…I do not feel at liberty to reject his generic name; since it is possible to identify the fish he meant by the vernacular name under which it is known in the West” (Agassiz 1855: 82-84). In other words, because Rafinesque had seen fit to write that “it is also found in the Missouri, whence it is sometimes called the Missouri Sucker” (Rafinesque 1820: 61), Agassiz could be certain that the species meant was the one still widely known by that common name.

Though its scientific name was sorted out in under 40 years—a quick resolution compared to some fishes—settling on a common name would take nearly three times as long, and priority would have no role at all in the decision.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See for details.

Paul Schumann with a Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See for details.

Paul Schumann with a Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See for details.

They really do get THAT blue! Blue Sucker from the Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann.

Wisconsin River Blue Sucker (May 15, 2013). Photo by Olaf Nelson

Wisconsin River Blue Sucker (electrofished by Wisconsin DNR personnel, May 15, 2013). (Photo by Olaf Nelson)

Corey Geving holding a Blue Sucker.

Corey Geving, founder of, with a large Blue Sucker electrofished in Mississippi River Pool 2, Ramsey County, Minnesota, April 2007. (Photo by Jenny Kruckenberg)

Color Confusion

As names go, Blue Sucker is perfectly appropriate: these fish can be strikingly blue (see Paul Schumann’s photos, above). They may also be golden, pale gray (like the one Corey Geving is holding, above), jet black, brown, or combinations of these colors and more (like the Wisconsin River Blue Sucker, above). Interestingly, early descriptions of the species never mention the color blue. LeSueur states that he has only seen a dried specimen and can not comment on color. Rafinesque says Catostomus elongatus is “brownish” (and called Brown Sucker), while his Cycleptus nigrescens (which, remember, he had never seen) he describes as “blackish.” (Rafinesque 1820: 60-61) Kirtland (1845: 267) 6 comes closer to calling the Blue Sucker blue. Regarding color, he uses the word “glaucous” (meaning, according to several old dictionaries, powdery white, pale green, gray, or—in a few definitions—grayish blue) in his description of the head. A few lines below that, under the heading “Color,” he writes: “head dusky above, coppery on its sides. Back black, often slightly mottled. Sides and beneath dusky and cupreous. Fins dusky and livid.” Livid (again, according to a dictionary from the same period) could have meant black and blue, as a bruise. The entry in Jordan’s “Report on the Fishes of Ohio,” (1882: 814) 7 mentions color more than many: “the males in spring with a black pigment…coloration very dark, the females olivaceous and coppery, the males chiefly jet black with coppery shadings; fins dusky.”

Kirtland's 1845 Blue Sucker (plus White Sucker and Smallmouth Buffalo) illustration.

Kirtland’s 1845 Blue Sucker (plus White Sucker and Smallmouth Buffalo) illustration.

For almost 100 years, no one specifically mentioned blue, the main color in most descriptions since the mid-1900s. Not until Forbes and Richardson’s The Fishes of Illinois (1908: 65-66) 8 does a description include blue by name (as opposed to “dusky,” “livid,” or “glaucous”): “color dark, bluish black about head; fins dusky to black; spring males almost black.”

The absence of blue may be explained by the loss of color in preserved specimens. Also, coloration can change over the course of the year, vary geographically, and respond to local water conditions. Blue suckers are sometimes light gray, for example, with virtually no color at all. Still, it is not possible that none of the biologists who wrote about it saw blue fish. Thus, “livid” probably indicates blue and black or gray, “glaucous” may mean grayish-blue, and “dusky,” a word most of the writers used (roughly as common a descriptor of color as black and coppery), might mean the gray-blue of a dark sky. “Coppery” or “cupreous” could have been intended to evoke the blue-green of oxidized copper, but I think it is more likely that it was intended to convey the metallic appearance of scales (like the Wisconsin River specimen above). As far as the dominance of black in descriptions—including many in which there is nothing that could possibly suggest blue—and in common names, it is worth noting that specimens were more easily collected in the spring (during the spawn). Since fish are often reported as being darkest at that time, those biologists who saw live or fresh fish would have been seeing them at their darkest. On the other hand, I have handled—and have seen many photos of—blue Blue Suckers during the spawn.

The Many Names of Cycleptus elongatus

Common names found in various publications, 1820 to 1950:

  • Black Buffalo
  • Blackhorse
  • Black Sucker
  • Black Suckerel
  • Bluefish
  • Brown Sucker
  • Gourdmouth
  • Gourdseed Sucker
  • Gourd Sucker
  • Long Sucker
  • Long Buffalo
  • Mississippi Sucker
  • Missouri Sucker
  • Muskellunge (Wabash River, IN, only)
  • Razorback Sucker
  • Schooner
  • Slenderhead(ed) Sucker
  • Shoemaker
  • Shoenaher
  • Suckerel
  • Sweet Sucker
  • Sweet Suckerel

When did the Blue Sucker turn Blue?

No one used Blue Sucker for C. elongatus until the 1920s, but the name itself was not new. Rafinesque (1820: 58) reports it as a “vulgar name” for his Black-back Sucker (Catostomus melanotus; generally believed to actually be Central Stoneroller, Campostoma anomalum). A list of Manitoba fishes received by The Smithsonian (Annual Report 1883: 231) 9 includes Catostomus teres (now C. commersoni, the White Sucker) as “Blue sucker” (oddly, another specimen of C. teres is identified as “Black Sucker” later in the same list). A “Large-scaled sucker, or blue sucker,” (no scientific name given) appears in The Market Assistant (DeVoe 1867: 296), 10 a book of food items available in the markets of East Coast cities, but it is too small to be Cycleptus. Goodholme’s Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information has “blue sucker” twice: first under Chub, then under Sucker (described as small, pale-blue, and not worth eating) (1889: 105; 516). 11 As a final example of misdirection, Evermann, in The Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission (1896: 172), 12 gives Black Sucker and Blue Sucker as common names for Pantosteus jordani (now Catostomus platyrhynchus, the Mountain Sucker).

Meanwhile, the common names used for C. elongatus throughout the first century of its existence in the literature were remarkably consistent. Most texts that gave any at all used one or more of four main common names. Roughly tied for the lead were Blackhorse (as one word, two words, or hyphenated) and Missouri Sucker, with Gourdseed Sucker and Suckerel slightly behind but basically standard.

Suckerel (Century Dictionary, vol. 9, p. 6041), 1900.

Suckerel (Century Dictionary, vol. 9, p. 6041), 1900.

The origin of the first half of Blackhorse is obvious, and as with redhorse, the reference in the second half seems to be to the supposed resemblance of the heads of these fishes, in profile, to the head of a horse. (Encyclopedia Americana, 1920) 13 The logic behind Gourdseed Sucker is not (yet) clear to me. I have seen suggestions that it refers to the shape of the fish’s body, the shape or size of its mouth, the shape of its scales, or to the tubercles seen during spawning, which might have been seen as  resembling gourdseed corn, an old variety common in the Ohio valley. 14 Missouri Sucker can be read as referring to the presence of the species in the Missouri River or to its existence in the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the state of Missouri 15  Though I have wondered about the origin of Suckerel for years, I have found only one explanation. According to the 1900 edition of The Century Dictionary, the name is the product of combining “sucker” with “-erel,” as in pickerel. 16 In the case of pickerel, “-erel” is the dimunitive suffix added to pike to mean “small pike,” but I doubt those who first used Suckerel knew this. It seems more likely that it came from the same sort of name-copying impulse that caused—and still causes—people to call everything from Largemouth Bass to Bowfin to Yellow Perch “trout.” For numerous examples of this, see Cloutman and Olmstead’s “Vernacular Names of Freshwater Fishes of the Southeastern United States.” 17

Cycleptus (Black-horse) from the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1899).

Cycleptus (Black-horse) from the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1899). Note that the woodcut is a simplified version of H. L. Todd’s. Many illustrations of the species in the late-1800s use Todd’s image or variations on it.

The earliest appearance of Blue Sucker as a common name for Cycleptus elongatus that I have found is in two 1929 articles by Robert E. Coker on the fish and fisheries impacts of the Keokuk Dam. In the first (“Keokuk Dam and the fisheries of the upper Mississippi River”), he twice identifies the species as “Missouri or blue sucker” (1929a: 94, 100), 18 but after that uses only Blue Sucker. In the second (“Studies of common fishes of the Mississippi River at Keokuk”), he consistently uses only Blue Sucker, though he does give “bluefish” as an alternative common name, along with Missouri Sucker (1929b: 182). 19

Though Coker had clearly made his decision, the name did not spread quickly. While he worked at Keokuk (roughly from 1913–28), other publications continued to use the older names. The Encyclopedia Americana (1920) 20 has “Blackhorse, a fish, one of the suckers of the Mississippi Valley (Cycleptus elongatus); also known as the Missouri or gourdseed sucker. It is about two feet long, with a small head, suggesting, in profile, that of a horse, and becomes almost jet-black in spring.” Forbes and Richardson, in The Fishes of Illinois (1908, but unchanged in the 1920 edition), are inconsistent. Missouri Sucker is the common name used in the table of contents (p. v) and one table (p. cxix), but “Black-horse” is used in four other tables (pp. lxx, lxxx, lxxxix, and xcvii). They report later that “to Illinois and Mississippi River fishermen in this state it is commonly known as the Missouri sucker, or occasionally as the black sucker. The name ‘black-horse’ we have not found in current use” (p. 66). 21 Jordan and Evermann’s Check List of the Fishes (1896, but unchanged in the 1928 edition) provides four common names, none of which are Blue Sucker (p. 238). 22 Two works published in 1935 mention Cycleptus: Greene’s The Distribution of Wisconsin Fishes gives Blue Sucker as the species’ sole common name (p. 57), 23 while Pratt’s second edition of A Manual of Land and Fresh Water Vertebrate Animals of the United States gives only Blackhorse and Missouri Sucker, despite stating in the preface that the main purpose of the new edition is to provide updated names (p. 54). 24

Coker’s work may be the earliest publication of the name, but it seems unlikely that he coined it himself. In 1913 he sent a colleague to observe the closing of the gates of the newly completed Keokuk Dam to fill the lake above it. Locals harvested fish stranded in pools below the dam (over a ton), and the list Coker gives uses mostly vernacular names (e.g., “sheepshead, fiddlers”). Among the most numerous were “bluefish (Cycleptus)” (Coker 1913: 10). 25 In this context, “bluefish” seems to be a local name. As Coker repeatedly cites local informants for all sorts of information in all his articles, I suspect Blue Sucker, like “bluefish,” was a name he heard from fishermen, fish sellers and other locals. I hope his notebooks or other unpublished papers survive somewhere.

Blue Sucker appears more and more frequently in the 1930s and 1940s, though the old names persist. For example, both the 1943 (original) and 1947 (revised) editions of Eddy and Surber’s Northern Fishes use Blue Sucker but give the four traditional common names and call it “the blue, or Missouri, sucker” (1943: 108; 1947: 127). 26 Perhaps the authors, who must have known about the efforts of the American Fisheries Society to establish accepted common names, saw that Blue Sucker was the leading contender but understood it was not yet universally established. The 1974 edition of the book, of course, gives only Blue Sucker (pp. 279-80). 27

Making it Official

Though Blue Sucker had gradually gained traction for almost two decades, it did not become the “official” accepted common name until 1947. Compilation of “A List of Common and Scientific Names of the Better Known Fishes of the United States and Canada,” released in 1947 by the American Fisheries Society (and available by mail for 25 cents) had been underway since the 1930s. It was intended to help eliminate confusion caused by the “several groups applying [different] common names to fishes [including] sport fishermen; commercial fishermen; fishculturists; and scientific workers,” and “by purely local names applied to the same fish in different geographical areas” (p. 355). 28 Having worked to make sense of the evolution of common names for years, I applaud the effort.

The upstart name Blue Sucker was chosen over all of the species’ previous names (p. 361). The index at the end of the AFS list includes rejected names, but Missouri Sucker is the only one of the Blue Sucker’s former names included (p. 383). It seems unlikely that no other names were considered, given that the vast majority of published sources had consistenly also mentioned Blackhorse, Suckerel, and Gourdseed Sucker. Additionally, Missouri Sucker was not eligible for acceptance, since the naming committee’s rules explicitly disqualified geographic terms unless appropriate for a species with a restricted range.

The list’s introduction mentions disagreement and multiple rounds of voting (less than half the names on the list were unanimous choices), but not which fishes’ names were contentious. Though I would like to think Cycleptus was a hot topic, I have found no record of what—if any—discussion or debate was involved in the decision. I continue to hold out hope that notes exist in the papers of some committee members, but finding them will not be easy. The AFS is not aware of any records of the process, and Walter H. Chute, chairman of the committee, apparently left nothing in his papers archived at the Shedd Aquarium (he was its director at the time). If Reeve M. Bailey—a member of the first committee and its next chairman—left notes, they might be among his papers at the University of Michigan (and I intend to find out).

In the end, Blue Sucker was probably the right choice. It identifies the species’ family (suckers) and uses a modifier (blue) that is not applicable to other species of similar size or range. The fish is blue, of course, and the name Blue Sucker (whatever its origins) had been in use for at least two decades.

Still, I wish they had chosen Blackhorse.


(List of sources and footnotes below.)

Continue reading

1917’s Sweet Smell of Spring in Minnesota: 2 Million Pounds of Dead Buffalo & Carp

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

Estimated 175,000 pounds smothered in this lake alone last winter. Game Warden Altenberg of Fairmount made a careful survey of the lakes of Martin county and found loss of fish in twenty lakes, the following, Martin, Charlotte, Cedar, Buffalo, Fish, North Silver, Iowa, Tuttle, Susan and East Chain, suffering most heavily. Mr. Altenbergy estimated the total loss from smothering of fish in Martin county last winter, chiefly carp and buffalo, at nearly two million pounds. There were caught and sold from the lakes of this county last season about 770,000 pounds of carp and buffalo, but several lakes were not opened for fishing by the county commissioners. The loss of fish in Martin county last winter illustrates the folly of closing shallow lakes to “rough” fishing.

The obvious question here: what do you do with 2 million pounds of dead fish? Luckily, the same issue provides some options:

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)

Modoc Sucker Delisting: Public Comment Period Extended

Anyone with scientific or other evidence regarding the health of the Modoc Sucker as a species has a very brief window during which additional comments may be submitted regarding the FWS proposal to remove the species from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife.

De-listing was proposed a year ago (February, 2014). See my post about it here.

The proposal states:

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), propose to remove the Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps) from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. This determination is based on a thorough review of the best available scientific and commercial information, which indicates that the threats to this species have been eliminated or reduced to the point that the species no longer meets the definition of an endangered species or a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). If finalized, the effects of this rule would be to remove the Modoc sucker from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. This proposed rule, if made final, would also remove the currently designated critical habitat for the Modoc sucker throughout its range.

If this proposed rule is made final, it would … remove the Modoc sucker from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and … remove designated critical habitat for the species. The prohibitions and conservation measures provided by the Act … would no longer apply to this species. Federal agencies would no longer be required to consult with the Service under section 7 of the Act in the event that activities they authorize, fund, or carry out may affect Modoc sucker.

The announcement of the additional comment period is at It says, in part, “We will consider comments received or postmarked on or before March 16, 2015…. Any comments that we receive after the closing date may not be considered in the final decision on this action.”

We intend that any final action resulting from the proposed rule will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and be as accurate and complete as possible. Therefore, we request comments or information from other concerned Federal and State agencies, the scientific community, or any other interested party concerning the proposal to remove the Modoc sucker from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife…

Only 8 comments were submitted last year during the initial comment period.

Five of the 8 comments from last year are in favor of delisting, 1 (written by a USDA Forest Supervisor in Oregon) does not explicitly state a position but does point out errors and omissions in the proposal, and 2 are against delisting.

Of those in favor, one is a peer review (by the person who has done most of the scientific work on the species’ status) of the science as presented in the proposal, one is a peer review (by the same person) of proposed monitoring efforts after delisting, one is a letter from the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife in support of the proposal (with a few notes on possible improvements of the monitoring plan), one is from a USGS fishery biologist, and one is a long letter from the California Cattlemen’s Association (much of it describing good work done by individual ranchers so far and promising that they will continue to protect habitat even if they are no longer required to do so).

Neither dissenting comment presents evidence to support continued protection of the species. A letter from the Tribal Chairperson of the Pit River Tribe (of northern California) asks that protection of the species and its habitat be continued and that more be done to protect the Pit River from pollution and degradation. The other comment against the proposal says only “Do not delist the Modoc Sucker. Instead stop giving their water away to wasteful farming endeavors.”

These comments carry little to no weight, since only those with evidence are considered:

Please note that submissions merely stating support for or opposition to the action under consideration without providing supporting information, although noted, will not be considered in making a determination, as section 4(b)(1)(A) of the Act directs that determinations as to whether any species is an endangered or threatened species must be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”

Much of the science regarding this species seems to have been done by (or on behalf of) various government agencies to monitor it under the requirements of its endangered species designation, particularly during a 5-year status review begun in 2006 (at the end of which it was recommended that the species be downgraded from endangered to threatened). Since there are few scientists or organizations studying or supporting study of the species (compared to species that are more economically important or with wider cultural impact and value, such as salmon), it’s not surprising that no evidence-based cases are being made against delisting.

Of course, maybe there would be no such evidence if more science existed. As I said a year ago, it is possible that the Modoc Sucker is secure and that delisting is warranted. It has been found in more streams than at the time of listing (1985), and numbers in some areas are up. Threats have been reduced, at least in some streams, and some habitat has been restored. Some of the information available at the time of listing was lacking, and methods of monitoring have probably improved. I don’t think there is any doubt that the Modoc Sucker, as a species, is healthier today than it was 30 years ago. Whether it is healthy enough, however, seems less clear.

A peer review submitted by Eric Janney (Supervisory Fishery Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey, Western Fisheries Research Center, Klamath Falls Field Station) says that though there is not enough scientific information, delisting is the appropriate course of action:

I have thoroughly reviewed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule to remove the Modoc Sucker from the Federal Endangered Species list as well as the post-delisting monitoring plan. Based on my professional scientific opinion, I agree with the Service’s decision to delist this species. Although specific scientific information concerning the population dynamics (i.e. abundance, survival, recruitment) for the Modoc sucker is lacking, I believe that the available scientific information (based primarily on observational count surveys) is sufficient to conclude that the threat of extinction for this species is currently very low. I’m basing this conclusion primarily on the fact that during the 29 year time period since the species was placed under the protection of the ESA, there has been no apparent reduction in range or extirpation from any critical habitat. In fact, the known range for this species has either increased substantially since listing, or was dramatically underestimated at the time of listing. Also, newer genetic information concerning the rate of hybridization between Modoc suckers and Sacramento suckers suggests that the threat of introgression is substantially less than previously believed and the rate of hybridization is not increasing. So, although the amount of scientific information concerning abundance and population dynamics is relatively scarce, other types of evidence suggest relatively healthy populations in multiple sub-basins. This leads me to believe that extinction risk for this species is not high enough to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

I predict that the Modoc Sucker will be delisted. That said, if even a scientist who supports delisting admits that “specific scientific information concerning the population dynamics (i.e. abundance, survival, recruitment) for the Modoc sucker is lacking,” and since substantial support for this proposal is agricultural (and, in the case of the foundation that petitioned in 2011 for downgrading, philosophical) in origin, I remain concerned that this decision will be eventually be seen as a mistake. Without habitat protection, and given the relatively short proposed duration of the monitoring program, the species could easily be put in jeopardy more quickly than new protections can be put in place.

The Oregon Chub (Oregonichthys crameri) has officially been delisted this week (the first time a fish has been removed from the list for a reason other than extinction), and all indications are that it truly has recovered sufficiently that extinction is no longer likely. I hope that the Modoc Sucker’s story has a similarly happy outcome.

See all the comments, along with the text of the proposal, supporting documents, etc., here:!docketBrowser;rpp=25;po=0;D=FWS-R8-ES-2013-0133

The FWS Modoc Sucker Species Report (2013), which includes the population data, survey reports, threat assessments, etc., on which the delisting proposal is based, is available as a 70 page PDF.

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 (255 downloads) 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 now 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