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.

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.

Gar and suckers (and me) on the radio (and iTunes) today

As if the newspaper article about my deviant fishing tastes and the alligator gar I caught wasn’t enough, today a radio show is being broadcast on the same subjects. I was actually allowed to sit in a recording studio and talk for half an hour about my thoughts on fish, fishing, and more. After a week of imagining all the stupid things I might have said and strange sounds I might have made, I’m relieved to be able to say that I didn’t curse, belch, forget the names of my children, or otherwise completely screw it up. I’m still waiting for a scientist to correct my pronunciation of moxostoma, since I’ve only heard one or two people say it out loud. So chime in, scientists. There’s still time for me to be embarrassed.

Download:

It’s available through iTunes, or right here: Talking gar, suckers, fishing, family and more on "Outside" radio/podcast (318 downloads)

(Thanks to Dale Bowman and WKCC for permission to host the file on this site.)

iTunes users can find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/olaf-nelson-loves-native-fishes/id424644694?i=168720244&mt=2

While you’re at it:

Previous episodes of “Outside” with a focus on gar and roughfish include:
An interview with Solomon David of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago (iTunes link)
An interview with Nathan Grider about the reintroducation of alligator gar in Illinois (iTunes link)
An interview with Nick Doumel, the (another) Brookfield Angler (iTunes link)

I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting. I’m grateful to Dale for hosting a show in which mentions of gar, redhorse and other rough fish are common enough that I can’t remember them all. Anyone interested in fish and nature more generally will probably find episodes of his show worth downloading, particularly those who live in IL, IN, WI and MI.

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.

A blue sucker in the hand is worth 100 in books

I have held blue suckers. A bunch of them.

Tuberculate blue sucker. They are incredibly cool looking fish. Wisconsin River, May, 2013.

Tuberculate blue sucker. They are incredibly cool looking fish. Wisconsin River, May, 2013.

 

(There are more photos below. Read on or scroll down.)

It turns out that if you start a site devoted to catostomids, and you’re very polite to the right people, you might find yourself spending a sunny May day on board a boat in the Wisconsin River with a net in your hands and hundreds of suckers (of many species) and sturgeon (of two species) surfacing all around.

Wisconsin DNR research scientist and fish expert John Lyons invited me to join him and his crew on a DNR electrofishing (shocking) boat as they stunned blue suckers (Cycleptus elongatus) and shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus), measured and weighed them, checked for existing PIT tags and tagged those that had none. In several hours we covered about 3 miles of river and pulled in 2 lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), 39 shovelnose and 17 blue suckers (9 female, 8 male). Almost all of the blue suckers had completed their spawning efforts for the year.

To many of us who choose to fish for little-known and seldom-seen species, the blue sucker is a holy grail. As befits grails and objects of quests, they are difficult to find and rarely caught on hook and line. Even among all the roughfishing experts who frequent roughfish.com, only two or three have done it. Just to taunt us, every year a few are caught (and/or snagged) by walleye anglers since walleye are also bottom-feeders. The problem for would-be blue sucker anglers is that blue suckers are at home in fast, deep water. Getting a bait to the bottom in such locations, let alone getting it to stay there long enough for a blue to find it, requires a lot of weight. Unfortunately, that weight also means it is difficult to feel a subtle bite if it happens.

The blue sucker is listed as threatened in Wisconsin (see the WI DNR blue sucker page for information and photos). Its range has been massively curtailed by the march of progress: dams, dredging, pollution, silt, reduced flow, warmer water, and other side effects of our presence.

Those same factors make life and reproduction difficult for the shovelnose and lake sturgeon, but there is a glimmer of hope.

Lyons explained that the sampling we did (and which he and his crews do periodically in the same area) is part of a project aimed at better understanding the biology—age and growth, seasonal movements, habitat use, and timing and locations of spawning—of shovelnose and lake sturgeon, paddlefish, and blue suckers in the Wisconsin River. The plan is to build a serious fish passage to let fish get around at the Prairie du Sac dam. This will make it possible for paddlefish, shovelnose, and blue suckers to re-establish themselves above the dam and it will allow lake sturgeon access to prime spawning habitat above the dam. Information gained in advance of such a major project should help make sure it is designed and operated as effectively as possible.

Lyons believes that both blue sucker and shovelnose sturgeon populations are stable in the Wisconsin River, which is good news. If they can get a passage built around the dam and the fish actually use it, the news will only get better and better.

I’m no fan of dams, and I’d prefer to see them all gone. That said, I know it’s not going to happen and I’m glad when states realize that they have an obligation to do something to reduce the negative impact of dams as much as possible.

A final note on my first experience electrofishing: it was awesome.

There was a time when I didn’t know how many interesting species were swimming around with the bass, pike and trout I fished for. Then I found out that suckers, bowfin, gar and other rough fish were literally all around me. It was a revelation. In the years since, I’ve become comfortable in the idea that I have a good sense of what the water holds, even if I can’t see it. In other words, I was ripe for another revelation.

Standing in the middle of the electrofishing boat gripping a 10 foot long net handle, trying desperately not to miss blue suckers or sturgeon, I watched literally hundreds upon hundreds of fish surface, some floating still as if dead and other launching themselves out of the water like miniature silver carp. In addition to the sturgeon and blues we were after, there were shorthead, golden and silver redhorses (and at least one river redhorse), quillback (and possibly some river and/or highfin) carpsuckers, smallmouth (and possibly bigmouth and/or black) buffalo surfacing all around me. There were also a few walleyes, smallmouth bass, mooneyes, and one large, beautiful paddlefish.Sometimes there would be a couple dozen fish within a few feet of me—fish I would have had no idea were there in such numbers if I’d been fishing.

I learned, again, that I have no accurate sense of what is below the surface. The number of suckers I saw that day without even trying was much greater than the total number of suckers I’ve seen in my life. It may have approached the total number I’ve seen in photos in books and online.

It is a useful revelation in at least two ways. First, I have a better sense of how many unseen targets are out there for me as an angler. Second, an excuse has been removed from my arsenal. I can’t as easily fish a big, healthy river like the Wisconsin and blame failure to catch fish on an absence of fish. I will have to admit to myself much more quickly than I might want to that I am probably doing something wrong.

I regret that I did not shoot any video of the constant crowds of fish passing by. Next time…

Many thanks to John Lyons, Aaron Nolan and Dan Walchak for letting me tag along.

Now, some photos. I didn’t take as many as I should have. It means I’ll have to convince them to let me join them again, and next time I’ll keep a camera close at hand the whole time.

Two brothers, two days, two Illinois state record redhorses

This story is a few years old (the following is based on Dale Bowman’s report in the Chicago Sun-Times on May 14, 2008, linked below), but it’s a beauty:

Brothers Andrew and John Chione were fishing the Fox River west of Chicago in 2008 for carp, catfish and anything else that would bite. On April 24th,13-year-old John caught a 25.5 inch, 6.71 pound silver redhorse, got it weighed on a certified scale and had the ID confirmed by an Illinois fisheries biologist. Pretty cool? The next day—the VERY next day, and in the same area of the river—his15-year-old brother caught a 21 inch, 3.74 pound shorthead.

For my money, however, the best part of the story is that they knew what they had caught. It’s a rare fisherman who knows the difference between redhorse species. In fact, most probably don’t know there are multiple species of redhorse and can’t reliably see the differences between redhorses and other suckers. I’ve watched clearly skilled anglers kill suckers in the mistaken belief that they were carp. But when John caught the record silver, he knew what it was and he knew the existing record. Bowman quotes him as saying “‘We go through a lot of DNR magazines and remembered the record was around 5 pounds.'” Icing on the fishcake is Andrew’s comment regarding his record shorthead: “‘I knew it what it was. We caught the species before. I knew what the record was.'”

Bowman shares my feelings about this: “What I find most interesting is how sharp the brothers were. They knew the species of redhorse (something I normally have to look up)
and that they were Illinois records.”

The Illinois shorthead record is beatable. I’ve caught specimens longer than and very close to the weight of Andrew’s fish. Hook an egg-laden female during the spawn and you could fairly easily have a state record fish.

To see the photos and read the whole story, see http://blogs.suntimes.com/bowman/2008/05/oh_brother_record_shorthead_su.html