Shiners, Darts and Daces

Eastern Blacknose Dace

Eastern Blacknose Dace (Rhinichthys atratulus). Ellen Edmonson. (1926-1939) from The Freshwater Fishes of New York.

“Minnows” (not just the Cypriniformes, but any finger-sized and smaller, fresh water fish) exist in fascinating micro-cultures. I have spent hours watching them flit in creek pools no larger than a kitchen sink. And, when the sun hits them, some (particularly the daces and darters) display color patterns (reds, greens, blues, browns, gold, silver and black) seldom seen on a single living organism. One can be so near a minnow, a hand’s depth, and yet separated (by water, size and speed) at a great distance from knowing. This gap bothered me less when I was younger–time was ahead of me and the eyes were sharp. Of all the losses gained in middle age, deteriorating vision is a dull one. I miss the minute differences, the flights of small birds, the progress of moss and fern, the endless throats of tiny flowers. At forty, I now need to hold my minnows up at eye level, in good light, 18 inches from the face. It was for this reason that I finally purchased a minnow trap.

Minnow and crawfish traps consist of wired with one or two funnel-shaped entrances. The minnows swim into the trap through the fat end of the funnel, but struggle to find their way out; their chances of slipping through the narrow neck are … slim. Traps are easy enough to make, and I had planned to build my own, but a moment of honesty about my laziness prompted an impulse buy. (Buying the materials would cost roughly the same.) The trap I purchased appears to be useless for crawfish; so, I have cause to keep “building a crawfish trap” on my to-do list.

I took my store bought trap to Dale Hollow in July. When it was not serving as an impromptu fish basket for our catch of bluegill, I baited it with bread and leftover meats. The oils from the meat attracted a dozen-or-so mid-sized sunfish, all too large for the trap. I suspect that any minnows in the area would have been readily snatched by the sunfish long before finding their way into my basket.

A week later, I had more success at a family reunion. My in-laws own a piece of land with a small creek running through a low pasture. After baiting the trap with a fried biscuit and some fried chicken skins, I lowered the basket near the upstream lip of a culvert pipe. Thirty minutes later (escaping the family chit-chat), I pulled up a half-dozen, flapping little fish. After they stopped jumping (a few seconds), I could see that I had trapped juvenile sunfish, mostly rocks bass, but also a couple of pumpkin seeds.

Adding another fried chicken skin (with a history of heart disease, my in-laws have no business eating the stuff), I moved the trap to the downstream end of the culvert pipe. There, an hour later, the rock bass had escaped. (How?) They were replaced, however, by five, two-inch cyprinids. They were probably common shiners, but I did not have my glasses, guide book, or camera. I think that they were too far upstream to have been (my second guess) juvenile common carp. Do carp hatch in slow, warm and weedy waters only to swim upstream against pencil thin currents?

Moving the trap 50 meters downstream to a deeper, shaded pool proved even more productive. In minutes, the trap collected well over two dozen small fish. A few rock bass again, but most of these were cyprinids, predominately daces. Many looked similar to (and might have been) Eastern Blacknosed Daces; others had red sides and/or irregular black markings–I remember a blot about a third of the way from the head. The trap (loaded with chicken skins and live fish) also attracted other creatures. Crawfish picked at the skins through the wires, but avoided the funneled entrances. I could also see that a few, tiny darters were resting on nearby rocks. Darters are both still and too fast; they perch without moving, but suddenly dart away when disturbed. Near the end of the evening, a small snake arrived and tried its luck at catching minnows near the trap. It seemed frustrated and rose to the surface and did not move for at least twenty minutes; I felt watched.

At dusk the mosquitoes arrived and I pulled in the trap and dumped the whole lot (minnows and chicken skins) in the creek. If they had been crawfish, it would have been time for a small meal.

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