50 Fishy Facts
50 facts about fish that you need to know to catch the biggest and best!
Maybe you’ll never be able to outfish your best fishing buddies, but you might be able to one-up them in the fish trivia department with the following 50 tidbits. No doubt your friends will be amazed by your vast archive of wisdom. Otherwise, these factoids might simply provide a way to kill time when the fish aren’t biting. Who knows? Some might even help you put a few more fish in your boat. Have fun!
1 ON THE COOL SIDE White and striped bass are members of the temperate bass family, as opposed to black bass, which belong to the sunfish family. The term “temperate bass” refers to the moderate water temperature preference of members of this family. As a rule, they gravitate toward temperatures a little lower than those favored by largemouth or smallmouth bass.
2 SEE IN THE DARK Walleyes are known for their marble-like eyes, which let them see well in dim light. Their retinas have a layer of reflective pigment, called the tapetum lucidum, that intensifies any light the eye receives. (It’s the same membrane that causes a cat’s eyes to glow yellow.) But the sauger, the walleye’s close relative, has even better night vision because the tapetum covers a much larger portion of its retinas.
3 BLACK, BUT JUST BARELY Ever wonder where the term “black bass” came from? The fry of smallmouth bass turn coal black within a few days after they hatch. Even though the fry of largemouths and other bass species do not turn black, all members of the group (genus Micropterus) are referred to as black bass.
4 ORANGE DELIGHT Researchers studying walleye vision found that orange is the color most visible to walleyes, followed by yellow and yellow-green. Small wonder so many chartreuse and orange lures fill the tackle boxes of savvy walleye fishermen.
5 AN EAR THAT CAN’T HEAR The “ear” of a sunfish is really not an ear at all, but merely an extension of the gill cover that varies in color from species to species. The redear sunfish, for example, gets its name from the distinct red margin on its ear.
6 VIVE LA DIFFERENCE Everyone knows that smallmouth bass love rocks, but in waters where the bottom is almost all rock, they could be anywhere. In such lakes or rivers, smallmouths will often gravitate to dissimilar structure such as a sandy bottom with weeds or wood cover.
7 MUD CATS IN NAME ONLY Flatheads are often called mud cats, giving anglers the impression that they scavenge dead food items off the bottom. But flatheads are more apt to eat live fish than any other catfish species. Channel cats are most likely to consume dead, stinky food (and bait) and blue cats are intermediate in their food preference.
8 LIGHTS OUT? LET’S EAT Research has shown that a sudden decrease in light level triggers walleyes to bite. That explains why the fish usually turn on just as the sun is disappearing below the horizon and the light intensity is rapidly decreasing. It also accounts for the hot bite that starts when the dark clouds roll in before a thunderstorm.
9 NOT SO SPECIAL Trout are the only kind of fish with an adipose fin, right? Wrong. Several other fish species, including catfish, bullheads, madtoms, smelt, ciscoes and whitefish, also have an adipose fin (the small fin on the back just in front of the tail).
10 IN-BETWEEN WHISKERHEADS Catfish are generally considered to be bottom feeders, but that’s not necessarily true for blue cats. Blues tend to roam open water more than other catfish species, and commercial fishermen often catch more blues on trotlines fished near the surface than on those fished tight to the bottom.
11 HUNGRY MOTHERS The best time to catch a trophy walleye is five to seven weeks after the fish have completed spawning. That’s when the big females, famished after not having eaten for nearly two months, go on the prowl for food. And with the natural supply of baitfish at its annual low, they’re likely to hit almost anything you throw at them.
12 ON THE EDGE Ever wonder why the teeth of a pike or muskie easily shear your line, while those of an equally toothy walleye rarely do? It turns out that walleye teeth are round, while those of a pike or muskie have razor-sharp edges. So don’t forget to tie on a wire leader when you’re chasing after those esocids.
13 BLADDER CONTROL You might have noticed that some fish pulled from deep water can be released and will swim right back down, but others have trouble descending. That’s because some fish (physostomous species such as trout) can “burp” air as they’re being pulled up, relieving the gas buildup in their swim bladders, while others (physoclistous species like walleyes) have no connection between the swim bladder and the gut. Consequently, their swim bladders expand, greatly increasing their buoyancy. Eventually, gases that build up in the bladder dissipate and the fish can once again return to its deepwater haunt.
14 CHOICE TROUT BAIT One of the least known but most effective baits for trout is the water worm, which is the larval form of the crane fly (those big, slow-moving bugs that look like giant mosquitoes). You can often find water worms by digging through the mud and sticks of a beaver dam on your favorite trout stream.
15 WATER DOGS AS PUPPIES Water dogs, which are the larval form of tiger salamanders, make good bait for bass, walleyes and pike. But once the young salamanders lose their gills and turn into adults, they don’t work nearly as well. To prevent water dogs intended for bait from developing into adults, keep them refrigerated in water at a temperature of no more than 50 degrees.
16 YUMMY! A WORM INSIDE OUT Channel cats love catalpa worms, which can be found on the leaves of catalpa trees from late spring through summer. To make a catalpa worm even more irresistible, cut off its head and then poke a matchstick through the body to turn the worm inside out. The extra scent exuded by the juicy morsel helps catfish find the bait more quickly.
17 MADTOM MEALTIME One of the best baits for walleyes and smallmouth bass in the northern parts of their range is the tadpole madtom, also known as the willow cat. These tiny catfish look a lot like bullheads, but the dorsal, caudal (tail) and anal fins are all connected. Be very careful when hooking a willow cat to use as bait. Like those of its bigger cousins, a willow cat’s needle-sharp pectoral fins can prick you worse than a bee sting.
18 CATFISH IN A CAN You might have trouble finding a bait shop that carries willow cats, but you might be able to catch your own supply of bait. String together some empty pop cans and then sink them in a lake or river backwater inhabited by the tiny catfish. Leave the cans overnight and pick up the madtoms the next morning; like other catfish, willow cats like to swim into holes, so the pop cans make an inexpensive trap.
19 NEVER TRUST THE ICE You’ve probably heard that it’s safe to walk on ice when it’s at least 3 inches thick or drive a car on ice that’s at last 10 inches thick. But is the ice ever really safe? No. Schools of carp can gather under the ice and wear it away, occasionally even opening a hole. And groundwater might well up from the depths and melt the ice, as famously happened on several Minnesota lakes during the winter of 2002–03.
20 PLANKTON PADDLES Paddlefish get their name from their long, flattened, paddle-like snouts, which many anglers assume they use to dislodge food from the bottom. But the paddle is really not used for digging; it’s equipped with supersensitive nerve endings that enable it to “feel” for suspended plankton, the fish’s main food.
21 SALMON WITH HANDLES Not sure if that big salmon you caught is a coho or a chinook? Just grab it around the base of the tail and try to lift it. If it slips through your fingers, it’s probably a coho; if it doesn’t, it’s a chinook. The bony structure of a chinook’s tail is much more rigid, making it easier to “tail” the fish.
22 HOW’S THE WATER? Pike and muskies are both classified as cool-water fish, but there is a definite difference in their preferred water temperature, especially among the larger members of each species. Pike more than 30 inches long favor water temperatures from 50 to 55 degrees, while muskies prefer temperatures of 67 to 72 degrees. Another difference: Pike feed actively throughout the year and are a popular target of ice fishermen. Muskies feed much more sporadically in winter and are rarely caught by ice anglers.
23 PICKY EATERS Although most anglers believe muskies are voracious feeders, consuming just about everything in sight, they’re actually much less aggressive than pike. Muskies are considerably more selective, and will examine your offering more closely. They’ll often follow a bait for a distance and then turn away at the last second without striking. A pike, on the other hand, will attack practically any kind of lure or bait that happens to pass its way.
24 MUSKIES GONE BAD Most stories about the muskie’s voracious feeding habits are myth, but there are some notable exceptions, including documented cases of muskies biting small swimming dogs and even attacking humans splashing around in the shallows! In one Minnesota lake, a cordoned-off swimming area had to be closed after a rogue muskie found its way inside the netting and bit a small boy.
25 CREATURES OF HABIT Sure, there’s a lot of water out there, but only a relatively small portion of it suits bluegills for their various purposes. If you spot abandoned bluegill spawning beds along a shoreline while you’re out fishing this summer, remember their locations. Unlike some other fish, bluegills will return to the same beds year after year, providing water conditions are the same. Mark the spots on a map, and you’ll get a leg up on other anglers when spawning season arrives.
26 SEXIST WALLEYES Would you believe that the gender of a baitfish can make a big difference to your fishing success? A male fathead minnow, which has a black head covered with spawning tubercles in spring, is much less effective than the female of the species, which is more silvery. Apparently, the female fathead exudes a more attractive odor to walleyes, pike and other game fish.
27 SCALY CAMOUFLAGE Of all the freshwater game fish, rock bass are the best chameleons, meaning that they can quickly change color to match their surroundings. On light, sandy bottoms, they’re usually light tan, but on dark bottoms, they might be brownish black in color.
28 FISH DETECTORS When you’re fishing a strange body of water and don’t have a clue where to start, locate some fish-eating birds. Herons and loons know exactly where to go to find baitfish–and where there is forage, there will be hungry game fish as well.
29 NO WONDER IT’S SO SKINNY What freshwater fish found in North America makes the longest spawning migration? The winner, hands down, is the American eel. Female eels spend most of their lives in big rivers like the Mississippi. When spawning time approaches, they swim downstream to join the males at the river mouth, then they swim to the Sargasso Sea (a portion of the North Atlantic) to spawn.
30 GOLDENS ARE GULLIBLE Many anglers consider brook trout to be the dumbest, and therefore the easiest to catch, of the salmonids. But golden trout are even more aggressive and have a reputation for being easy marks. Perhaps that helps explain why they thrive only in remote locations and usually at high altitudes, where the only human access is on horseback or by hiking.
31 THE NOSE KNOWS Some veteran bream anglers can find schools of spawning sunfish by sniffing for them. When bream such as bluegills and shellcrackers gather to spawn, milt sprayed over the females’ eggs emits a strong, fishy odor. To a fisherman with a good nose, the smell is a dead giveaway. Follow the scent trail upwind until it is undetectable, then start fishing a bit downwind from there.
32 CAN YOU SEE ME NOW? You’re wading along a shallow stream and see a fish. Has it spotted you, too? Probably, as long as you’re in its “window,” which is a round area on the surface directly above the fish. The diameter of the window is about twice the fish’s depth.
33 SHALLOW LUNKERS Many trout fishermen pass up water where the surface looks broken and riffly, assuming it’s too shallow for trout. That’s a mistake; even a good-sized trout foraging for minnows might lie in a pocket behind a boulder in water less than a foot deep.
34 STURGEONS BIG AND SMALL Members of the sturgeon family are the largest fish inhabiting the fresh waters of North America–and some are also among the smallest. The white sturgeon (shown here), which is found in rivers along the Pacific Coast, has been known to reach a weight of almost a ton, and today’s anglers of the Pacific Northwest commonly catch whites in the 200- to 300- pound range. Shovelnoses, on the other hand, seldom weigh more than 10 pounds in their Midwestern home waters.
35 UPSTREAM HIDEOUTS Though it’s wise to fish the eddies on the downstream sides of boulders or other obstructions, don’t ignore the upstream ends. There is usually an eddy on the upstream side as well, and fish might be stationed there looking for a stream-borne meal.
36 ALASKA’S SILVER KING You won’t find a tarpon anywhere within a few thousand miles of Alaska, but our 49th state is home to a silvery fish called the inconnu (or sheefish), which bears a close resemblance. In fact, inconnu are often called “tarpon of the North.”
37 NET REWARDS The heaviest trout ever taken in North America was a 102-pound lake trout caught in Saskatchewan’s Lake Athabasca. The fish didn’t qualify as a hook-and-line record; it was netted.
38 ONE COOL DUDE What freshwater game fish has the coldest water temperature preference? It’s the lake trout, whose preferred temperature range is 48 to 52 degrees. This explains why lakers are sometimes found in water more than 100 feet deep. Use a temperature gauge to find water that’s in the right range, and you’ll find lakers.
39 PRETTY IN PINK Perhaps the strangest name for a freshwater fish is the Dolly Varden, a pink-spotted char found in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The name comes from Miss Dolly Varden, a character in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge who wore a pink-spotted dress.
40 BROWNS ARE NO GENIUSES Brown trout are said to be among the most intelligent of the salmonids, and consequently their populations can hold up under quite heavy fishing pressure throughout their range. The brown’s elusiveness has nothing to do with its brainpower, however. Rather, it’s a result of their affinity for heavy cover as well as their night-feeding habits.
41 FISH OLDER THAN DIRT Sturgeon are North America’s oldest and longest-lived game fish. Fossil records prove that some sturgeon species date back almost 100 million years. The lake sturgeon lives up to 80 years and the white sturgeon might reach 100.
42 DIFFERENT STROKES Many species of fish found in fresh water are anadromous, meaning that they spend most of their lives at sea and then swim into fresh water to spawn. Examples include steelhead, Pacific salmon and striped bass. Only one fish found in fresh water is catadromous–meaning just the opposite of anadromous. The female American eel spends its life in a river and then goes out to sea to spawn.
43 WHAT’S IN A NAME? Walleyes are commonly called walleyed pike, but they are actually members of the perch family (Percidae), not the pike family (Esocidae). Similarly, the white perch does not belong to the perch family, but is actually a member of the temperate bass family (Moronidae). Incidentally, in some parts of the South, if you brag about how many white perch you caught, you’d actually be talking about crappies, which are members of the sunfish family (Centrachidae).
44 KINGS OF CRUNCH Redear sunfish are called shellcrackers in some parts of their range because of their habit of eating aquatic snails, which they crush with special grinding teeth in their throat. Where snails are scarce, redears will forage on various small crustaceans, insects and fish fry. Shellcrackers or not, the fish are commonly caught on earthworms.
45 EITHER WAY, WATCH OUT FOR BITES What is a copperhead? If you answered that it’s a poisonous snake, you’d be right, but you’d also be right if you said it’s a Florida bluegill. This jumbosized bluegill subspecies, which is a popular panfish found throughout the Deep South in stocked lakes, derives its name from the copper-colored patch in the middle of its forehead. A variation is known as the coppernose.
46 IT’S JUST MORE PROTEIN Those unsightly black spots on the skin (and sometimes in the meat) of freshwater fish are probably tiny parasites called Neascus metacercariae, or black grub. The black spot is actually a protective case formed around the grub by the fish’s body. Don’t worry–Neascus is not harmful to humans and if you don’t tell your dinner guests, they might think the flecks are just pepper.
47 ALL THE SAME FISH What’s the difference between a cisco, a tullibee and a lake herring? The answer is…nothing. When caught from deep water, one of the species (Coregonus artedii) is likely to be referred to as a cisco; when caught from mid-depth water, the same fish might be called a tullibee; and in the Great Lakes, it’s a lake herring. It’s all just a matter of locale.
48 ALL IN A DAY’S WORK What’s the longest anyone has fought a fish in fresh water? The record appears to be held by an angler on the Kenai River, Alaska, who reportedly fought a 100- pound-plus king salmon for more than 24 hours. He finally lost it at the net.
49 LATCH ON Leeches are among the best baits for walleyes. Just make sure you’re using the right kind. Ribbon leeches, which have firm bodies, are preferred. Don’t use a horseleech or medicine leech with its soft, squishy body.
50 WHAT A BITE! Flathead catfish have tooth pads consisting of hundreds of tiny, recurved teeth. The pad helps them hold their prey so it can’t wiggle around and escape. Don’t ever stick your hand into a flathead’s mouth to dislodge a hook; use pliers instead. Otherwise, you might get your hand back minus some skin.