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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/ognelson/sets/72157654024708812

Watch the video https://youtu.be/vVG3-MDrIkA 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.

Illinois Gar Summit I, Feb. 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FieldMuseum preparator Richard Radatz, pictured in 1905 with alligator gar

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

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum.

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone unsure exactly what a paddlefish looks like, see this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_paddlefish or do an image search.

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

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

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

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

Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

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

Bichirs. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

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

Lamprey kisser. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Lamprey kisser. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Tucan fish. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Tucan fish. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

 

Moxillumination

Sunshine and a cooperative little shorthead.

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

What do we call this intermediate zone between scales and fin?

What do we call this intermediate zone between scales and fin?

Is there a word or term for that zone of both rays and barely-formed scales, or for the stage of scale formation where they are more hints than scales? If not, there ought to be. Suggestions?

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) small enough to be translucent. Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) small enough to be translucent. Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

This little channel catfish (8 or 9 inches at most) also had a healthy glow when x-rayed by the sun.

Underwater/overwater shorthead

Recuperating shorthead's eye underwater taken with a macro extension tube outside the water.

Recuperating shorthead’s eye underwater taken with a macro extension tube outside the water.

Tail underwater, camera out of the water.

Tail underwater, camera out of the water.

Camera out the water, fish in the water.

Camera out the water, fish in the water.

(Click on the photos to see them larger.)

Since this shorthead redhorse decided to lay in the shallows getting its breath back after being caught and released, I knelt down to get some photos. I was still set up for macro (extension tube), so I couldn’t get the whole fish and it was just luck that any of the shots had areas that were in focus. Sand moving by in the current and landing on the fish adds some true grit.

Catching gator gar, making history

In 1966, at the very southern tip of Illinois, a 7 foot, 150 pound alligator gar was caught on hook and line. There are no records of any being caught (by any method) in the state after that.

1966. Three  years before I was born. No one had been to  the moon yet. Computers that couldn’t even send offers of cheap Canadian pharmaceuticals or display low-resolution pornography were the size of Econoline vans and required teams of engineers in lab coats. Hardly anyone had heard of Jimi Hendrix. Even in such remote times, however, we can recognize the familiar smell of human progress, because we had managed to eliminate yet another species, an apex predator, from big chunks of its historical range.

The alligator gar remained on Illinois’ endangered species list until 1994, presumably because in the mid-1970s 20 of them were found trapped against the water intake screens of a power plant on the Ohio River in Kentucky (where the Ohio is the border between Illinois and Kentucky).  In 1994, the species was declared extirpated from Illinois.

Efforts to reintroduce the species in Illinois began in 2010 with stocking of gators brought from hatcheries in the south (Mississippi, maybe?). Early indications are that the fish are growing as quickly as they would in those southern states where they have managed to hang on (though numbers are declining) in spite of the human propensity to misunderstand, ignore and  exterminate the oddballs and misfits of the animal  kingdom.

On a 95 degree day at the end of August, 300 miles north of the location of the 1966 catch, Ben, Garman and I set out to reintroduce gator gar to fishermen. We knew it was a needle vs. haystack situation and that needles in haystacks often remain lost, but we also knew that finding one would be an important personal (and historical) milestone.

Three hours into the expedition, Garman had landed a silver carp snagged on a crankbait, Ben had caught a shortnose gar,  and we had all cursed a few missed hooksets on spinners, cut shad and bluegills. It was hot, there was no shade, and the lack of gators was starting to make the reality of the expedition’s odds sink in. Ben headed to an adjacent lake to take a shot at  spotted gar (which he quickly succeeded in catching), and Garman followed shortly thereafter. I elected to keep trying for the gators. I had a whole bluegill (alive when I first chucked it out, but deceased the first time I checked it) with treble hooks embedded in it, no float or weight, 100 feet from shore. As Garman drove off, promising to come get me  later, I decided to check the bait again. I reeled up a pile of slack line and felt solid, unmoving resistance. A snag. I pulled and felt it dislodge. Then it pulled back!

The fight was not particularly epic, but there was a fair amount of buzzing drag as the fish took line and I resisted the urge to tighten up and crank it in. Given the stakes, I  was nervous as hell. If I had a gator on the end of my  line this was no time to rush. If I somehow lost it, it might be months before I could stop beating myself up. Still, I assumed I had a catfish or shortnose gar on until I got it to the shore and saw the wide, short snout. Adrenaline kicked in. Heart rate doubled. With Ben and Garman absent, no net, and a sudden rush of memories of fish I’d lost at the last moment, I was well  aware of how quickly things could go wrong.

It was not a large fish. It did not freak out, run or jump when it bumped against the rocks at the shore. I was able to grab it without any particular difficulty. Holding it tightly, I took it far from the water, snapped a few emergency pictures in case it somehow  got back into the water before I could call for assistance, then tried to work my phone one-handed without coating it in gar slime and without being able to see the screen in the bright sun. Garman and Ben returned, took some photos of my fish and quickly resumed fishing with patience and optimism fortified. I mostly wandered around mumbling and smiling, casting a spinner and trying not to start singing or dancing. For weeks I had been working to keep my expectations low, and against all presumed odds I had managed to make a little history. Plus, I’d beat Garman to it and he’s called Garman.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the northernmost record of an alligator gar in Illinois is one that was caught (sometime before 1923, method unknown) in the Illinois River, 50-100 miles south of our spot. Garman suggested that my fish might be the northernmost catch in history, then promptly set up his rods 25 yards further north. He landed a slightly larger gator an hour or so later, breaking my record. He mostly refrained from gloating.

After that, we landed a few channel cats, a few shortnose gar, and all had many strong runs that ended with nothing. Ben, unfortunately, did not connect with a gator that day, but since he lives not far from the spot I have no doubt he’ll fix that very soon.

I had hoped to follow the gator with a spotted gar (also a species I have yet to catch), and then get a shortnose and a longnose to complete the Illinois gar grand slam. I managed the shortnose, but the spotteds eluded me and by the time we left I was too tired and sun-baked to go in search of a longnose.

Thanks to Ben for providing the bluegill and location, to Garman for rigging suggestions, to Garman’s boat for not almost sinking until after I hopped out, and to two young alligator gar for cooperating.

It’s just a baby, as alligator gar go, but it’s fine for now.

Here are a few shots of Garman’s norhernmost gator gar ever caught:

Information on the history of alligator gar in Illinois from “Distribution of the Alligator Gar, Atractosteus spatula (Lacépède, 1803), in Illinois” by William J. Poly, in Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Sciences, vol. 94, no. 3 (2001), pp. 185-190.

Insects, ice, turtles, bones and other macro obsessions

It’s not close to overtaking fishing, but my obsession with photography is definitely in the race. Last winter I accidentally discovered a world of beautiful abstractions inside large blocks of ice that formed in the back yard, and when spring finally came and ice was no longer an option, I re-discovered a fascination with insects. Despite not yet having a true macro lens, and despite my dSLR being a few rungs below where I’d like to perch on the Nikon ladder, I’ve managed a few worthwhile shots.

Rather than clutter up this site with unrelated photography, I’ve been putting my photos —including fish photos, but mostly ice, insects and random subjects—on flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/25450563@N03/) and, for a simpler browsing experience (though with fewer photos), on tumblr (http://chinookfly.tumblr.com/). Please take a look if you’re into ice, insects, reptiles or macro photography.
A few samples:

Goldfish under ice

The winter tends to be a time of increased artistic output for me since I can’t fish or garden when water and/or soil and/or air are frozen. This year the area of creativity that’s getting the most sustained workout is photography. Though I am not particularly fond of ice fishing, I do like ice itself quite a bit.

These fish (I’m calling them goldfish, though some may actually be koi (i.e., common carp) were active under the ice of Botany Pond on the University of Chicago campus a week ago. Since then we’ve had snow and the ice is covered completely. I know they’re still under there, so I’m hoping for another chance to photograph them before the ice is gone. Next time I’ll have better equipment and hope to get some better angles and lighting.