Redhorse Army, show your allegiance!

There is a new redhorse design for sale in the zazzle store, created in response to a few people who told me that they like the pyramid of redhorse lips, but don’t want to have to explain it all the time.

This time the word REDHORSE is prominently featured (along with an unblinking redhorse eye). I don’t know how much it will help, since I’m asked all the time what “redhorse” means.

A fancier take on the pyramid of lips. Available on shirts, cups, phone cases, etc. at the zazzle store.

Wear the insignia of that most selective branch of the Forces of Truth and Fishing: The Redhorse Army!

Show your allegiance with shirts, water bottles, phone cases, hat, etc.: http://www.zazzle.com/chinookdesign. (True roughfishers start young, so there are baby and kid sizes.)

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 (281 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.

Juvenile quillback carpsuckers on hook and line

Multi-species angler Ben Cantrell managed to catch a couple of juvenile quillbacks (Carpiodes cyprinus) recently (late March, 2013), and since I have never seen any this young—in person or in photos this clear—I asked if he would let me post them here.

(Edit: Ben has since written up this story on his own blog, along with other fishing successes. Check it out for some great fish and photos: http://bencantrellfish.blogspot.com/)

These were caught in an area of no visible flow in a side channel or small creek connected to the Wisconsin River. Ben estimates the water was 18 inches deep with a temperature of about 40°F.

Ben’s description of his tactics:

There was a massive school of shiners in the channel, so thick it was difficult to see the bottom.  Every now and then I saw a flash of silver as slightly larger fish on the bottom turned on their sides, which I assumed was feeding behavior.  I was fishing with a Tanago new half moon hook and a tiny bit of nightcrawler.  The shiners would attack the bait before it could reach the bottom, so I put a bigger piece of crawler on (a piece smaller than a pencil eraser).  This allowed the bait to get past the shiners and reach the bottom.  I left the line slack and every 5 seconds gave it a pop to see if a fish was on.  This produced 2 of those juvenile quillbacks in about 15 minutes.  They were both definitely fair hooked in the mouth.  I checked the lower lip for a nipple and did not see one in order to rule out highfin or river carpsuckers.  I suppose it’s possible that juveniles of those species do not have the nipple on their lips.  However, quillback strongly outnumber the other 2 species in the lower WI River, so I’m sticking with quillback.

In fact it is possible for the nipple to be absent from juveniles of the other two species: Etnier and Starnes (The Fishes of Tennessee, 1993, pp. 264-265, full text available online) say of the quillback “This is the only carpsucker that lacks the tiny, nipple-like projection on the lower jaw, but young carpsuckers of other species may have this process absent or weakly developed, and are very difficult to identify.” These are quillbacks, however, based on scale counts. According to Becker (The Fishes of Wisconsin, p. 630, full text available online) the quillback has 36-40 lateral line scales, while the highfin (p. 638) has 33-35 and the river (p. 634) has 34-36. There are about 39 on both of Ben’s fish. There is always the possibility that young specimens of Carpiodes can be confused with young specimens of Ictiobus. Anal fin ray counts can help distinguish the two, but are not available in these photos. Based on their bright silver coloration and general appearance, and on the shape of the suboperculum (symmetrical in Ictiobus, assymetrical in Carpiodes and Ben’s fish), I don’t think there is any need to worry about these being young buffalo.

Ben estimates (based on a measurement of his hand) that these fish were about 5.8 inches long. Given the vagaries of measurement in photos, I’m arbitrarily considering them somewhere between 5.25 and 6 inches (roughly 130 to 150 mm). Becker’s growth chart shows southern Wisconsin young-of-year quillbacks, hatched in May or June, reaching an average total length of 41 mm by the middle of July and 100-110 mm by the middle of September. He writes that “in the lower Wisconsin River, age-I quillbacks are 144 (134-155) mm TL by mid-July; age-II fish average 202 mm.” (p. 632) If Ben’s fish were 130-150 mm long, and if I’m reading the data correctly, they would be products of 2012’s spawn.

Now, let me get to the point. I love fish and fish science, but I am first and foremost a fisherman. Even worse, I’m a fisherman who chooses to pursue suckers. I have to point out the most remarkable thing about Ben’s story:

“This produced 2 of those juvenile quillbacks in about 15 minutes.”

Those who do not target quillbacks may not know that they are generally very difficult to catch fairly because of their extreme skittishness, their preference for small foods (see below), and their ability to suck in and spit out a bait faster than the vibration can travel up the line to the angler’s hand. By the time the signal has traveled from the fish to the hand, then from the hand to the brain and back to the hand as an order to react, the quillback has already expelled the bait. Because of this, quillbacks are frequently snagged outside the mouth when the angler attempts to set the hook. I know fishermen of undisputed skill and expertise who have tried for years, without success, to fair hook a single quillback despite snagging many. That Ben managed two of them in 15 minutes is both remarkable and probably annoying to some others.*

On the subject of quillbacks’ culinary habits Becker writes (p. 632):

The quillback feeds freely on debris in the bottom ooze, on plant materials, and on insect larvae. According to Harrison (1950), only small amounts of indentifiable material are found in the visceral contents: 86% undeterminable debris, 12% algae, and 2% insect remains, with a trace of other invertebrates. Very small tendipedids, sometimes occurring by the thousands, were the only insects found intact in the digestive systems examined. Other insects were represented by larvae cases, detached legs, and wings. In southeastern Wisconsin (Cahn 1927), the quillback’s food consisted of fragments of aquatic vegetation and algae, occasional Chironomus larvae, and a variety of snails (Planorbis, Physa), and small clams.

Thanks to Ben for the photos and information, and for making the rest of us feel like chumps.

The following video shows a feeding quillback (starting at about 2:40, after lots of gar, cats and others) in an aquarium at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, IA. I keep meaning to go back and get some better quality footage. (http://youtu.be/iuVh2BWmUoQ)

*(Due entirely to dumb luck, and not at all to skill or knowledge, the first sucker I ever caught was a quillback. That was several years ago and despite seeing thousands of them since, and trying every trick in my arsenal, I have never hooked another one.)

 

Recovery and protection of the Robust Redhorse

Judging from the photos I’ve seen, and from the gorgeous tuberculate specimen depicted by Joseph Tommeleri (see the factsheet pdf mentioned below), the robust redhorse is an awesome fish. They get big, they live a long time, and they have come back from extinction.

For more on robust redhorse see The Robust Redhorse Conservation Committee website (http://www.robustredhorse.com/) and download their 2 page fact sheet.

This video gives a very brief account of the efforts of the state of Georgia, Georgia Power and agencies of the US government to protect the robust redhorse (Moxostoma robustum) since its rediscovery in the 1980s (after over a century of assumed extinction).

 

The RRCC site has many good photos, tons of information and a very extensive list of publications about the robust redhorse, including many that can be downloaded as pdfs.

It is unfortunately rare to hear of an extinct species being rediscovered and then helped to survive. I hope the work will continue and the fish will survive both because of that work and in spite of the human propensity to do stupid, short-sighted things with unforeseen consequences. It would be the work of a few minutes in some back room to cancel funding for a project like this. After all, when times are tough and everybody wants something, who really cares about some fish no one has ever heard of and no one spends millions of dollars to fish for?

On the other hand, I’m surprised to find myself—against my better judgment—feeling optimistic. I think the robust redhorse has a chance to survive and maybe even thrive.

Northern Illinois Greater Redhorse, April 2012

How often do you get to meet a new fishing buddy, discover half a dozen excellent multi-species fishing spots within an hour of home, sample the fish resident in those new locations while learning a bit about handling several different types of seines, learn a bit about photo tanks and fish photography, and see and handle dozens of new fish species, including one that’s listed as endangered in the state?

Not very often.

In April I had one of those days when good planning led to an experience that exceeded the daydreams leading up to it. Continue reading