Posts Tagged ‘fishes’

The Prehistoric Sturgeon

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Tuesday, November 20th, 2012
Lake Sturgeon

Lake Sturgeon © Dr. Charles Steinmetz, Jr.

The Prehistoric Sturgeon by Gene Walz

Several years ago an angler pulled a big, disturbingly ugly fish out the Red River in downtown Winnipeg as I walked by.

It looked like something that had been dredged up from the prehistoric past, not the muddy waters of the Red. It had facial feelers like a bottom-feeding catfish, but its head was smaller and flatter. Before he threw it back, the fisherman told me it was a sturgeon. To me it was a dinosaur fish. He said they weren’t good eatin’ – too oily. My opinion: too creepy to eat.

I’m a newborn babe when it comes to fish. My dad gave my brother and me fishing poles for Christmas one year when I was ten. I caught the same four-inch “sunfish” (I think) three times before I quickly lost interest in fishing and fish.

Even though there’s a Sturgeon Creek in Winnipeg, I was so naïve about fish that I had no idea sturgeon were from here. I thought they were ocean fish – like the sharks, rays, and skates I’ve since found out are their near relatives. Evidently they can even be found in the US south.

A threatened species, sturgeon (ours are Lake Sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens) are now being studied in the rivers of Manitoba. Not much is known, except that they prefer the very depths of rivers and lakes and are endangered by pollution and hydroelectric dams.

In northern Minnesota the Department of Natural Resources is restocking some rivers with thousands of sturgeon. A news item I saw on tv recently reminded me of my only sturgeon encounter. The sturgeon on the news were jumping out of the water like frolicking dolphins. Not as dangerous as the Asian carp in southern US rivers, but disconcerting.

Jumping dinosaur fish. They are truly odd.

Fishing for the Arctic Grayling

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Tuesday, October 9th, 2012
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Arctic Grayling © Lisa Densmore

Fishing for the Arctic Grayling by Lisa Densmore

Location: Delta Clearwater River, Alaska

As I savored another fork-full of the succulent silver salmon at the Black Rapids Lodge south of Delta Junction, Alaska, the innkeepers, Michael and Annie Hopper, nodded knowingly as I recalled my first encounter the day before with a different salmonid, native Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus).

“Did you taste any of the grayling you caught?” they asked.

“No. Reiny, my guide, mentioned possibly keeping a small one as an appetizer while we camped, but he never did,” I said. Reinhard Neuhauser, an Austrian racer who came to the University of Alaska to compete then never left, revered Arctic grayling for their look and their fight. He fished only with barbless hooks and immediately released whatever anyone on his raft landed.

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Arctic Grayling © Lisa Densmore

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website calls Arctic grayling, “one of the most beautiful freshwater fishes of Alaska.” While grayling are certainly intriguing for their oversized dorsal fin, I personally find spawning brook trout the Miss America of the inland piscine world. It’s hard to peg “most beautiful” on a species that has such a wide range of colorations from location to location. The ones in the Delta Clearwater River were silver and gold with pale speckles between the golden strips on their telltale “sail”, but others might have red, aqua and purple markings on their dorsal fin, and their sides might be black, silver, gold or blue. They might have black freckles or not on their sides and head, but they all have that huge dorsal fin.

I wondered why Artic grayling developed such a large appendage on their back compared to other salmonids, so I took a number of underwater shots of this North American native, so rare in the Lower 48 yet so popular among anglers in Alaska. It appears that grayling use their dorsal fin as a stabilizer which they can raise or contract as needed. The fin also flexes with the current, rarely completely straight up, but that’s the limit of my observations. The dorsal fin on other coldwater fish species also acts as a stabilizer but they aren’t nearly as large or showy. Do you know why an Artic grayling’s dorsal fin is so large?

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Arctic Grayling © Lisa Densmore

iPed Shuffle – The Southern Stingray

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Monday, July 30th, 2012

iPed Shuffle – The Southern Stingray by Jungle Pete

Stingray Shuffle

Stingray Shuffle Sign © Jungle Pete

From May through October, anyone heading into Florida’s coastal waters is encouraged to do the “stingray shuffle”. This Frankenstein’s monster-like gait stirs the underwater sediments and frightens the bottom dwelling rays into taking off. No doubt this aquatic march is a Sand Dollar’s (Echinarachnius parma) worst nightmare.

The Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana) is the most common ray found along Florida’s coast. Its range extends from New Jersey south through the Gulf of Mexico and down the Atlantic coast to Brazil. This relatively flat-bodied, cartilaginous fish is related to sharks, whom happen to be one of their main predators. Despite their venomous bite and stinging barb, the stingray is non-aggressive, but those that don’t heed the “shuffle” warnings run the risk of stepping on one when they enter the water. Stingrays will burrow into the sand to rest and if stepped upon will involuntarily slap their four inch barbed tail up at the offender.

Southern Stingray

Southern Stingray © Graeme Teague

Less than two thousand incidences occur each year in the United States and most of them are minor injuries around the feet and ankles. The knife-like barb is serrated on both edges and terminates at a venom gland at the base which is equipped with a serious nerve toxin. Rarely is the injury serious or fatal and can be treated initially by immersion in hot water which breaks down the proteins in the venom and eliminates the pain. Further treatment is suggested.

If anyone should feel threatened it’s the clams, oysters, mussels, tube worms, coquinas, sand fleas, sand dollars, shrimp and even octopus that the stingrays feed on. The bat-like fish will flap its wings to uncover critters in the sand or blow water over the sand to achieve a similar effect. It even possesses an acute sensory system that detects its prey’s electrical field but most commonly uses its sense of smell.

What is harder to detect is a foot descending from the world above the waves. If you’re heading to the beach in stingray territory, make sure you shuffle; you never know what will surprise you.

Southern Stingray

Southern Stingray © Norbert Wu

Wyoming’s Cutest Cutthroat

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Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Wyoming’s Cutest Cutthroat by Jack Ballard

Cutthroat Trout © Jack Ballard

One of the few native trout species to the northern Rocky Mountains, Cutthroat Trout are named for two elongated patches of skin on either side of their lower jaw colored in red or orange. Four sub-species of cutthroats range across Wyoming: Yellowstone, Bonneville, Colorado River and Snake River. The various sub-species evolved in particular watersheds across the state. Anglers who catch a specimen of each is eligible to receive a certificate from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in commemoration of their “Cutt-Slam.”

My oldest son completed his cutt-slam as a 10 year-old. Although I’ve caught all four sub-species, my Colorado River specimen came from Colorado, not Wyoming. Along the way, I’ve paid due diligence to the natural history and genetic development of the different variations in Cutthroat Trout. These analyses have led to one scientific conclusion. Snake River cutthroats are the cutest.

Also known as “Fine-Spotted Cutthroats” or “Snake River Fine-Spotted Cutthroats” this sub-species differs from the others in appearance due to a profusion of tiny dark dots covering much of their body. Other sub-species of cutthroats exhibit just a smattering of larger black spots that aren’t nearly so cute.

Besides being cuter, Snake River Cutthroats are unique for a couple of other reasons. They’re much more inclined toward vertebrate prey (mainly other fishes) than other sub-species. Although they share portions of the Snake River drainage of Wyoming and Idaho with Yellowstone Cutthroats, they don’t frequently hybridize.

It’s always an angler’s treat to catch a native Cutthroat in its historic environment. Such a feat is doubly rewarding when it involves the Snake River sub-species, the cutest cutthroat.

Out-Fished

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Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Osprey by Jack Ballard

While futilely attempting to tempt a trout from the Clark Fork River, I notice an osprey winging upstream with a foot-long fish secured in its talons. Why, on this lovely spring morning, can a bird catch a trout with its bare hands and I’m unable to get a bite with my several hundred dollars of fly equipment? As it turns out, when it comes to fishing tackle the bird is better equipped than the angler.

From the tips of their talons to the point of their beaks, ospreys are uniquely equipped for fishing. Their feathers are dense and oily, allowing them to shed water like water-dwelling birds such as ducks and geese. Compared to other raptors, their legs are long, which facilitates snatching fish from near the surface of a lake or stream without become completely submerged. However, unlike bald eagles whose fishing repertoire consists primarily of plucking fish from the surface of the water, ospreys may become fully submerged when diving feet-first in pursuit of a fish. When diving, valves on the nostrils of ospreys seal to prevent them from breathing water. The opposable third toe of an osprey aids them in grasping wriggling fish, as do tiny spines on the bottoms of their feet known as spicules.

A host of adaptations equip ospreys for fishing, but even so, successful predation per attempt ranges from 25 to 75%. The depth at which their prey is swimming and surface conditions affect osprey’s efficiency. Deeper dives in choppy water result in fewer fish. Individual ability also varies from bird to bird. Researchers have found that some ospreys routinely exhibit higher success rates per predation attempt than others. When transporting prey, ospreys learn quickly that it’s easier to fly with the snout of the fish forward and almost invariably orient their burden in this direction.

As the bird wings out of sight beyond a curtain of cottonwood trees, I’m a little jealous. Maybe a 25% catch rate is on the low end for an osprey. But it sure beats getting skunked.

Washed Away – The Sculpin

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Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

On Sunday, August 28th, the Weather Channel reported the last bands of rain and wind had passed through New York City. Hurricane Irene was dubbed a meteorological flop. From the often storm battered coast of Florida, I found it hard to believe that this storm had let so many off the hook.

I checked my facebook page to see how friends and family in Vermont were doing. Photo after photo, along with unbelievable videos of catastrophic flooding proved that A) forecasters and news outlets were quick to dismiss the consequences of heavy rain in a landlocked, mountainous state and B) Vermont is in fact part of the United States. They even have maps to prove it.

My friend Chris Saylor, the ranger at Camp Plymouth State Park in Ludlow, Vermont uploaded some stunning photos and videos of the park as the rampaging Buffalo Brook stormed through it. Turbulent mud and boulders had ripped through roads and taken out bridges leaving behind an unfathomable landscape of debris and muck. In all of the destruction, one little curiosity caught Chris’ attention. Buffalo Brook is known for gold panners who occasionally find flakes and nuggets. Chris found something else bright and shiny. He sent me a photo and asked “what’s this?” In his hand was a now deceased Sculpin (Cottus sp.) that had been washed away from its stony brook hideaway into an open field.

Vermont is home to the Mottled Sculpin (Cottus bairdi) and the Slimy Sculpin (Cottus cognatus). Both thrive in the pebble and stone filled streams and creeks that were severely impacted by the hurricane. These slow-flowing, well-oxygenated waterways are breeding grounds for aquatic invertebrate larvae which sculpin feed on. Although the cryptic coloration of the sculpin aid them in blending in to their aquatic surroundings, they are preyed upon by trout who share the same habitat.

It’s hard to say how Hurricane Irene impacted the wildlife of Vermont’s brooks, streams and rivers. It is clear how it has affected the Vermonters. Despite over 200 road closures, 30 bridge washouts and hundreds of houses destroyed across the state, the people of Vermont are picking up the pieces, digging themselves out and standing tall in the face of adversity. Their positive spirit can not be washed away.

To help Vermonters in need please visit the Vermont Food Bank and offer what you can.

Photos provided by Chris Saylor.

Brook Trout

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Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Location: Horse Creek, WY
My normal fishing waters are in the mountain streams of the Vermont, New Hampshire and the Adirondacks where a big Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) measures 12 inches and weighs a pound. For the record, I’ve never caught one that big, so when I hooked the 18-incher in one of the ponds at the Horse Creek Cattle Ranch near Cheyenne, Wyoming, I would have fallen out of my boat if I hadn’t been in one of those super stable Hobie kayaks. The fish was so strong it towed my boat through the water as I concentrated on preventing it from snapping off the delicate tippet. Fifteen minutes later, when I finally landed the fish, I was ecstatic when I saw how big it was and how vibrant the color.
I can always tell identify a brook trout by the white line on the leading edge of its lower fins, which, on this goliath, was nearly a quarter-inch wide. Just past the spawn, the ruby red in this hefty square-tail’s sides and fins glowed like a flaming band on the horizon just before the sun sets. Its spots looked like mini multi-hued bull’s eye. And the worm-like squiggles on its back were mustard yellow rather than the light pastel typical of the smaller stocked brookies that I usually catch.
Brook trout are not true trout. They are part of the char family. They like the coldest clearest water, which is why I found this one at 7,200 feet above sea level in a pond that’s ice-free for three months per year. Brook trout cannot survive when water temperatures get much higher than 60 degrees. No danger of that here.
The world record brook trout weighed almost 15 pounds. This one was only a third that size, but it was a personal record. As I released it back into the chilly depths, I knew I would remember this fierce fighting fish forever.

Carp: Worth Carping About?

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Thursday, January 27th, 2011

We walk along the water’s edge at a lake near Boulder, Colorado. With each laborious step, my boot presses into a slick sheen of monochrome muck. As I lift my foot for the next stride, a glistening glob of gray goop clings to the sole. It smells of sewage.

Just ahead, my companion has spotted a pod of fish. Trout can’t survive in the murky, heated water of this urban reservoir, but it’s ideal habitat for carp. In fact, they’re at least partially responsible for its muddy character. Carp feed by rooting around on the bottom. The action of their snouts and the wallowing of their bodies stir up dirt and debris, clouding the water and covering rocks and plants. Silt stirred by carp can smother the eggs of other fish and contaminate habitat for a host of aquatic insects.

Transported to the United States in the mid 19th century, carp are native to Asia. They grow quickly and tolerate high water temperatures. Female carp in their prime may produce as many as two million eggs. It’s little wonder they often crowd out native minnows and other species of fish. Considered a delicacy in parts of Europe, carp were released in American waters in hopes they would become a commercially valuable resource. But few people like to eat them.

My guide has hooked a carp with his fly. The brute runs toward the middle of the lake, its stout, strong body bending his rod in a severe arc. He smiles widely. Though a master hunter of trout, he’s a carp dude, one of a small cadre of anglers who, despite their academic disdain for this interloping transplant, relish the challenge of fooling a crafty carp with a fly and bringing its bulk to hand.

Like many non-native species with a deleterious impact on native life, carp are here to stay. The decision to scatter them, willy-nilly across North America waters, can’t be undone. They can be managed, but not eradicated, cussed but not conquered. Carp all you want, but we’re stuck with carp.

Fish in Fall Colors

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Thursday, September 30th, 2010

It was a lovely afternoon to drive through the hills, dressed in their finest autumnal colors, beneath the brilliant sun and indigo skies of Indian summer. The road I had chosen paralleled a small stream, bounded on either side by browning grass and golden willows so lush one often could not see the water. Near its end, as it slowly and sinuously poured itself into a reservoir, I noticed people wandering its banks, occasionally pointing excitedly down at the stream and calling to each other. I ignored them. My eyes were only for the large flocks of birds feeding in the bay created by the stream’s inlet. But as I wandered its banks toward the lake, binoculars around my neck, spotting scope over my shoulder, eyes on the birds, I could not help but notice an occasional flash of scarlet out of the corner of my eye. Finally yielding, I looked. Kokanee salmon were racing up and down the stream at my side, as brilliantly red as the oak in the surrounding, sheltering hills.

The kokanee are land-locked Sockeye salmon. In most cases they are an introduced (nonnative) specie, living in the cold water of a few deep lakes scattered across the western states. Like their oceanic kin most reach maturity in three or four years. They undergo a color change, from silver fish to creatures with scarlet bodies and green heads. Males also develop humped backs and fearsome dagger-like teeth.

As adults they spawn. Some kokanee will breed in the shallows along the lake shores but many return to the rivers and streams of their parents, their flowing hydrological heritage. A female prepares a bed in the stream bottom by scouring it with her tail as a male actively and aggressively patrols the area, protecting it simultaneously from intruders and other potential suitors.

And then they die. Here and there on the stream bottom I saw the casualties of this final creative act, like fallen leaves. The young will hatch in a month or so, assuming the shallow water does not first freeze. While their parents will not be present to protect or nurture them, they will give their young a final gift. As the newly hatched fry make their way to the lake their first meals will be of zooplankton, many of which will have fed on the remains of the recently deceased. Even in death, the kokanee provide life for their children.

Golden Trout

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Friday, September 24th, 2010

Location: Sylvan Lake, MT
I felt the tell-tale tug and set the hook. My fly rod bent as the fish on the other end struggled to disengage the tiny barbless hook from its lip.
“Got one!” I smiled. The trout on the end of my line may have been mere eight-inches long, but excited me as if it were 28 inches. This was a hard-earned fish, a rare golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) found only in few clear alpine tarns, such as Sylvan Lake high up in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, where I stood. The steady 5-mile climb to this pristine pool traversed through fire-burned pillars of Lodgepole pines. The lodgepole saplings carpeting the forest floor were actually over 20 years old, struggling to graduate from shrub to tree in this harsh mountain environment. Above timber line, Sylvan Lake was free of ice perhaps eight weeks of the year. It seemed incongruous that trout surviving in such adverse alpine conditions could not compete with brookies and browns when introduced to the same waters. As a result, golden trout exist in only few isolated populations in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas and can only survive in pure, unpolluted water.
A sub-species of the rainbow trout, golden trout, also called California golden trout, are native to only three streams –Golden Trout Creek, Volcano Creek and the Kern River – all in California. The transplants in Sylvan Lake are a pure strain now used as brood-stock in the northern Rockies.
My rod bent with tension as the giddy golden swam to and fro, eventually tiring enough for me to get a look at him. It was the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. Its golden belly faded to brilliant speckles above its telltale red-pink band. Large spots ran horizontally from its gills to its tail, and its fins ended with a delicate white band. As I let him go, I was thrilled by the chance to see a fish that few other anglers ever would.