Tag Archives: fishing

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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Appetite

Friday, I took my two sons fishing on the banks of the the White River in Indianapolis. Although signs caution against eating the fish, and although the banks are littered with bits of refuse from the nearby sewer gates, the tail waters of the 16th street, Emricksville’s dam are a very popular place to fish. On this warm spring evening, we joined by six people at the east foot of the dam. Nearly an equal number had lines in the water off the west bank. Due to the crowd, were were a bit downstream of the best fishing, the place where the water turns back against the current and gives the fish a deep hole, an easy swim, and plenty of churned up food.

The boys were, more or less, constantly hung up on the bottom. One exclaimed “A bass!” and set the hook well into the snag. The other fared better, but wound in his bait far too quickly. Retrieving more than fishing. All-in-all, we did manage to catch a dull looking bluegill (hand-sized) and two smallmouths (fingerlings). The first fish of 2010.

I started fishing in farm ponds in my sixth or seventh year of life. I feared cattle, horses (sometimes), stray dogs, and (mostly) the neighbors. My mother feared that I would drown. Although I have had fishing buddies, and although fishing with the kids beats trying to hold a conversation, I still prefer it as a mostly solitary activity, banks and wading. Light gear, big fish, tiny fish, good weather, bad weather, fishing.

Large fish can be a challenge and a thrill (they’re usually “smarter”, after all, they’ve been around long enough to get fat), but tiny fish are jewels. The fingerlings we caught were streamlined to a size slightly larger than their gaping mouths. They were little more than shiny appetites with a slime coat. All three fish were caught with minimal tackle, just a hook and a wiggler on four pound test. We tossed the bait five meters out and let the current wash the offering downstream. A catch was marked by a pause and a strike by the tiniest tick on the line. The boys wanted to hold each fish, but I only let them touch with a single finger tip. There’s only so much handling a tiny fish can take. Released, I hope the fish are finding plenty to eat or are becoming plenty to eat for some other creature.

As for us, we went to a local Chinese restaurant. After trying to scrub the river sewage off our hands, we took advantage of the buffet. I ate some, but mostly watched as my new teenagers each shoveled in four heaping plates of noodles, egg rolls, and fried won-tons. They topped off this deathly mix of greasy, simple carbohydrates with a heaping bowls of soft-serve ice cream. Full, they had very little to say during the drive home. At this age, they are still, very much appetites. For much of our lives, it seems, we are more appetite than a self. Or do we ever cross over? My sons are what they eat; I am what I have eaten?