Gar Peril! Iowa, 1912

Browsing old newspapers for interesting fish stories, I uncovered a very brief item of massive importance and interest. That this has remained hidden so long may be evidence of a cover-up (though there is, as yet, no way to know how high this goes).

garfish-bites-eyeball-Iowa-1912

There are, in this single sentence, more stories than young Edward himself might have wanted us to find.

If you have ever seen Jeremy Wade get so worked up over the potential implications of a few sentences of rumored fish-driven carnage that he can spin an entire episode of River Monsters from it before (usually) deciding either that the damage was done by something other than a fish or that it never happened at all, then you know how quickly a story can grow.

This troubling news item is the same.

Was he really swimming? Did he fall in, or was he pushed? Was it really a gar? Could it have been a submerged stick?

What was Edward McKittrick hiding? Who has worked so hard to keep it hidden until now?

Much is missing from this story, but most unfortunate is the absence of an illustration. I tried to find a photo of Mr. McKittrick, hoping for a grizzled river rat with an eye patch, but found nothing. If it’s the same man, I did come up with a birthdate in November 1892, making him 19 when the incident occurred. A prime age for doing dumb things and getting hurt, and a prime age for telling stories to cover your tracks.*

As a public service, I present an artist’s rendering of Edward McKittrick at 19, shortly after his encounter with a vicious Mississippi River gar, and later, when he was a respected pillar of the Fort Madison community. You’re welcome.

A man with a fish stuck in his eye.

Artist’s rendering of young Mr. McKittrick (age 19) and a respected leader of the community.

I am surprised I have to say this, but messages and comments about the severity and/or impossibility of the injury indicate it’s necessary: I made this illustration. Yesterday. 104 years after the news item was printed. There are no illustrations of the real guy or the real gar. I thought it would be obvious. I mean, who wears a live gar in his eyebrow for 30-40 years?

(To be perfectly clear, the news item is 100% real. Don’t know how true it is, but it is real.)

* I did a little research and found out more about Mr. McKittrick. He registered for the draft for both World War I (when he was 24 and already in the ROTC) and World War II (when he was 49). His WWI draft registration card specifically says he has all his limbs, eyes, etc., but does not mention the gar. He may have been in the infantry during WWI, but appears not to have been deployed outside the US. He was stationed at Ft. Snelling (MN) after he enlisted in 1917, and rose from the rank of Private to 2nd Lieutenant at the time of his discharge in 1919. He died in California in 1966.

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, (http://www.nanfa.org/ac.shtml 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 http://www.fishesoftexas.org/taxon/cycleptus-elongatus/ 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 http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Paul Schumann with a Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Paul Schumann with a Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker 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 roughfish.com, 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

DEAD FISH, BUFFALO LAKE, MARTIN COUNTY, 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.)

Mapping the Paddlefish (because someone had to do it) [updated Sep. 2016]

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?*

Map showing range of Paddlefish in North AmericaUPDATE: Thanks to information provided by Jason Schooley (Paddlefish Biologist at the Oklahoma Dept. of Wildlife Conservation Paddlefish Research Center) and Ben Neely (Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, and see the two articles I’ve added to the sources list at the end of this post), I have updated the map to include more of Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri in the Paddlefish’s range.

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 http://moxostoma.com/paddlefishmap 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:

*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 (http://nanfa.org) 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 (395 downloads) or visit http://nanfa.org/join.shtml.

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 http://www.nanfa.org/ac.shtml.

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

 

Cowardly pike, sportless walleye, evil gar, holy trout & virtuous whitefish

Looking for Insults

I tend to get pretty angry when I find anti-sucker (and other roughfish) sentiment on the web or in current publications. By now, shouldn’t everyone know better? In older sources, however, I make a point of looking for insults, dismissals, diatribes and condemnations of the fish I like. It’s fun to read. While I wouldn’t expect old books aimed at a popular audience (how-to-fish manuals, fishing guidebooks, memoirs of fishermen) to cover fishing for suckers, the problem is that very few of them ever mention suckers at all, even in passing. (See this post on suckers as vermin for one exception.)

In addition to suckers, I always look to see what—if anything—these authors had to say about some of my other favorites, such as gar and bowfin. As toothy predators from the time before trout, gar and bowfin are easy targets for insults. Like suckers, they are almost never mentioned at all—except in scientific books. I think I’ve found mention of bowfin in only one or two old collections of fishing stories, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any mention of gar in any old book about fishing.

The scientific books are more fertile ground. Any half decent scientific work of any age that covers the fishes of North America has to include the undesirables I’m looking for, if only briefly, and they usually do it without much entertainment value. The most entertaining prose, unsurprisingly, tends to be in the non-scientific works (see below).

When an author—popular or scientific—feels the need to go beyond simply ridiculing a fish for not being a trout or bass, the usual course is to blame them for harming other, more desirable, species (and it doesn’t matter whether the accusations have merit). Suckers are maligned as mud-eaters lacking esthetic or commercial value, but are also be blamed for eating the eggs of trout and walleye. Gar, bowfin and other predatory fish (other than trout) are blamed for gorging on whatever species are most profitable in a given body of water, be it trout or walleye.

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The Boy’s Own Guide to (sucker) Fishing (1894)

Here’s a first: A book that doesn’t malign suckers and doesn’t just mention them in passing or as bait but

  • has an entire chapter about sucker fishing
  • gives suckers pride of place with the first chapter
  • recommends fishing for suckers
  • recommends eating suckers and says they’re as good as trout
  • instructs the reader on proper methods of worm cleaning

There are some slights against suckers, but nothing major and far outweighed by the positives.

Plus, it teaches the proper method of fishing with an unbent sewing needle.

Less important chapters include: Pickerel Trolling in Spring • Bait-fishing for Trout • Fishing for the Sun-fish and other “Boys’ Fishes” • Fly-fishing for Trout and Fly-making • Fly-fishing for Bass, Perch, Sun-fish, etc. • Minnow-fishing for Trout • Bass Fishing with the Minnow, etc. • Fishing through the Ice • Breeding Trout, etc., in Winter

The boy's own guide to fishing, tackle-making and fish-breeding (cover)

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Suckers, eels and other vermin

From page 217 of The Book of Fish and Fishing by Louis Rhead, 1917:

For big trout, lying low in deep pools, more particularly the brown trout, the worm should be sunk to the bottom; it is sure to be taken quick, if the worm is actively alive. Of course, suckers, eels, and other vermin are liable to take it, if left in one position for any length of time. To prevent such annoyance, keep it moving, a yard or so every few seconds, not so violently as to scare the fish.

Later (p. 300) he accuses suckers and other disreputable fish of interfering with the stocking of trout:

Fry, unless bred in enormous quantities, are very little use in rivers which already contain feeders on fish, like eels, catfish, suckers, carp, pickerel, and perch.