Freshwater Game Fish of North America
By Peter Thompson Freshwater Game Fish of North America is an illustrated encyclopedia of freshwater game for anglers, scientists, and nature lovers. In this first book from Fly Rod & Reel Books, Peter Thompson provides the most in-depth information on fish biology, behavior, and habits along with range maps, physical traits, and diets available. This book is an indispensable reference for identifying game fish found in North America. An avid angler and environmentalist, Thompson has created an anthology of full-color illustrations showcasing the gender color variations of each species including the trout family, sunfishes (including bass), pike and pickerel, and less-known species like the river red horse, fallfish, and inconnu to name a few. Thompson also describes each fish’s relationship to humans and their present status regarding potential endangerment. “Deliciously rich illustrations imbued with attitude,” wrote Jerry Gibbs, Fishing Editor Emeritus for Outdoor Life. “Peter Thompson knows his fish and their life stories as both an angler and scientist. If you’re after one guide to all our freshwater game fish, this is it.” Thompson has fished all over North America, and has worked as an educator in the environmental and ecology fields. He has a fine arts degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and has permanent educational exhibits throughout New England, Connecticut, and New York. To purchase Freshwater Game Fish of North America, go to the Store section
at Reprinted with permission by Fly Rod & Reel Books. Copyright 2009, Peter
MOUNTAIN WHITE FISH Distinguishing Field Marks:
– Slender elongated body and a small head with no scales. The eye is of moderate size.
– The mouth is small, with the snout overhanging the shorter lower jaw.
– There is a single flap of skin bridging each pair of nostrils.
– Scales are large, with 74 to 90 in the complete lateral line.
– Fins include 1 soft-rayed dorsal with 11 to 15 rays found ahead of the mid-point of the body. The adipose is of moderate size. The caudal (tail) fin is moderately forked with lobes of equal size. The triangular anal fin has 10 to 13 rays with its trailing edge lining up below that of the adipose. Paired pelvics are set below the rear edge of the dorsal fin and show a distinct pre-axillary. Paired pectorals are located directly behind the lower quarter of the gill covers and have 14 to 18 rays. Average Size:
8 to 12 inches (20.35 to 30.50 cm)
.50 to 1 pound (0.20 to 0.45 kg) Biology:
Mountain whitefish are fall and winter spawners. Actual spawning times vary from October to February, earlier to the north and later to the south. November and December are the norm. Mountain whitefish seek out shallow gravel-bottomed areas but construct no nests. Little is known of the actual spawning ritual, although it has been observed to take place after dark. Since no nest is used, we can assume that mountain whitefish spawn in a manner typical of their family, broadcasting eggs and sperm simultaneously, and then abandoning the fertilized eggs. Females carry an average of 5,000 eggs. Mountain whitefish usually hatch in early March. In their larval stages the fish remain for several weeks in the shallows where they were born before moving into deeper water. Diet:
The young feed on plankton, then graduate to feeding mainly on immature aquatic insects. As adults, they continue to feed on aquatic insects, both immature and adult, and will also consume mollusks, crustaceans, and sometimes small fish. It appears that they do not feed heavily on the eggs of other fish. Locating and Fishing for Mountain Whitefish:
As an inhabitant of lakes, rivers, and streams, this fish provides ample opportunities for anglers. In streams and rivers they can be taken throughout the open fishing season. In lakes they will descend into slightly deeper water during the warmest months. In streams and rivers, they are most frequently taken by anglers equipped for trout fishing and on the same flies. Depending on what species are feeding, the entire water column may hold mountain whitefish. Spin fishers often use artificial flies presented below a light float that can be filled with an amount of water to add weight. Very small spinning lures and small live or cut baits will also entice this species into striking. Keep in mind that, like their whitefish cousins, mountain whitefish have small soft mouths, make very gentle takes, and must be played with care in order to bring them to hand. Significance to Humans:
In the past, certain watersheds have supported small commercial fisheries for this species. Generally those are no longer active, so mountain whitefish are purely a game species. Keep in mind, though, that all the common whitefishes have been commercially taken because their table quality is excellent. Status:
Mountain whitefish are plentiful throughout their somewhat remote range and seem not much threatened.
GOLDEN TROUT Distinguishing Field Marks:
– Golden trout are quite distinctive and difficult to confuse with other species. Throughout their natural range, their overall coloration is an intense yellow, usually with a red band running along the center of each side and the belly and a row of distinctive parr marks along the length of the red band.
– Their gill covers are usually splashed with red as well.
– There are random dark spots on the back and adipose fin (the adipose is edged in black), and regular dark spots following the rays of the dorsal and caudal (tail) fins.
– The dorsal, anal, and pelvic fins are usually tipped with white outside of black edges. These colors and patterns may vary somewhat from watershed to watershed, but remain recognizable.
– Lake-stocked golden trout may be much less brilliantly colored than those that live in streams or are native to lakes where they have access to natural spawning tributaries.
– The scale-less head is often large in proportion to the body. The eye is of moderate size.
– The body is covered with very small scales.
– The anal fin has 11 or 12 rays.
– The caudal (tail) is slightly forked. Average Size:
8 to 15 inches (20.25 to 38 cm)
0.5 to 1 pound (.20 to .45 kg) Biology:
Probably owing to their high-altitude habitats, where cold temperatures and short growing seasons are the rule, golden trout tend to develop quite slowly. They are only naturally successful in lakes that are fed or drained by streams in which the fish can spawn. Lakes with no tributaries sustain golden trout only through repeated stocking. These brilliantly colored trout are sexually mature in their third or fourth years. Spawning takes place at water temperatures from 45 to 50 degrees F. (7.25 to 10 degrees C) in tributary streams. This is usually in June and July. Spawning is accomplished in typical Salmoninae fashion, with the female digging a depression in the stream-bottom gravel by turning on her side and rapidly fanning her tail. When she is finished, and hovers over the newly dug nest to signal her readiness, a male swims to a position by her side, they both open their mouths to maximum extension of both jaws and simultaneously release eggs and sperm. The first nest is covered with gravel by the female’s digging more of them (each upstream from the one below), until she has spent all her 300 to 2,000 eggs. The eggs incubate for an average of 20 days at a temperature of around 57 degrees F. (14 degrees C). The newly hatched fry are about 1 inch long and remain in the nursery stream until they are about 2 inches long, when they leave the tributaries and move into the adjoining lakes to feed and grow. In such cold habitats as golden trout are found, their growth is slow; in their fourth year they average about 8 to 12 inches (20.25 to 30.50 cm.) in total length, seven-year-old golden trout may be 12 to 17 inches (30.50 to 43.20 cm.) long. Diet:
The diet of golden trout is made up almost entirely of immature and adult aquatic insects, crustaceans, and, where available, small fish. Locating and Fishing for Golden Trout:
Golden trout inhabit a very limited range of lakes and streams found almost exclusively above the timberline in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. “Match-the-hatch” fly-fishing and spin fishing with small spoons and spinners, perhaps tipped with a bit of cut bait, are the best approaches to entice golden trout. Golden trout are not always the most cooperative quarry. Patience and perseverance are necessary components of any golden trout outing. Significance to Humans:
With the exception of a small group of anglers dedicated to the challenge of reaching these lovely fish, they have remained out of the American fish species limelight. That may very well be a good thing, because the sterile waters in which they live will not support large numbers of predatory fish, nor could they withstand much angling pressure. Status:
Although their remote range affords good protection for most populations of golden trout, their status can be uncertain, especially in this age of global climate change. Before trying them in waters you haven’t fished, be sure to check state and local regulations covering this species. The golden trout is designated California’s state fish.
YELLOWSTONE CUTTHROAT Distinguishing Field Marks:
– Medium-size dark spots crowded toward the tail. The tail fin is heavily marked with dark spots.
– Generally not brightly colored, tending toward gray, gold, and copper. Average Size:
8 to 18 inches (20.30 to 45.75 cm)
0.5 to 1.5 pounds (.20 to .65 kg) Biology:
Yellowstone cutthroats spawn in spring (March through June) in shallows of gravel-bottom tributary streams. Spawning is typical of this species with the female digging redds and releasing eggs as the male releases milt over the nest site, which is covered by the female excavating another nest upstream. Young generally move out of natal tributaries in their first fall, but some spend more than a year there. Diet:
The young feed almost exclusively on aquatic and terrestrial insects and other stream-carried invertebrates. In adults, this insect diet is expanded to include small forage fish and larger aquatic crustaceans and mollusks. Locating and Fishing for Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout:
Four-, five-, or six-weight fly-fishing outfits with suggestive or realistic imitations of what is currently available to these fish will offer the broadest range of angling possibilities. Collect samples of insects for imitation or refer to the many readily available regional or local hatch charts to make fly and presentation choices more manageable. Light tackle spin rodders can take these fish with small artificials. In addition to studying and complying with state and local regulations, I suggest that anyone fishing for species whose lives are as tenuous as these always use single barbless hooks to avoid unnecessarily injuring them. Significance to Humans:
An excellent historically significant game species. Status:
Maintaining through habitat restoration and protection programs in a range greatly reduced from its historic one. As anglers, we must all take personal responsibility for helping to preserve and restore our dwindling fisheries resources.
CUTBOW “Each species of fish has a general shape, distinguishing it from other species. The number, shape, and placement of fins, soft-rayed or spiny, the size and shape of the head and mouth, the overall shape of the body, all these are characteristics that identify a fish. In many cases, I have depicted spawning and non-spawning phases of certain species that show marked differences. Within those larger parameters, individual specimens may vary quite a bit. The Distinguishing Field Marks section of each entry lists the important characteristics that make each species unique. These allow the angler to distinguish a specimen and are the base for confirming identification even with some individual variances.” —Peter Thompson
MALE STEELHEAD Distinguishing Field Marks:
– The bodies of steelhead just entering their spawning streams tend to be longer than those of resident rainbow trout. Fresh-run steelhead have white bellies with chrome silver sides and olive-green or steel-blue backs and are lightly sprinkled with small black crescent or X-shaped spots.
– The head is lightly marked with round black spots, while the dorsal and caudal fins are more heavily spotted.
– The caudal fin has spots on both lobes, which distinguishes a steelhead from a coho salmon.
– A steelhead’s caudal peduncle is quite deep, making these fish difficult to lift with a hand grip at the base of the tail.
– As steelhead move upstream they change color and take on the more typical rainbow trout pattern of white or cream-colored bellies and lower sides with increasingly wider and darkening pink or reddish lateral bands and backs turning from green to brown, males becoming darker and more brightly colored than females.
– Both sexes also become more heavily spotted as spawning time draws nearer.
– Male steelhead develop elongated upper and lower jaws, known as kypes, that increase in size as they get closer to spawning. These elongated jaws usually distinguish spawning male steelhead from spawning females.
– It is important to understand that all anadromous fish species go through spawning migration body and color changes at a gradual pace allowing for many intermediate stages from salt- or lake-water to spawning gravel. Even in these changing stages, the much larger size of steelhead usually distinguishes them from resident rainbows. Average Size:
18 to 32 inches (45.75 to 81.25 cm)
2 to 12 pounds (1 to 5.50 kg) Although not common, adult Steelhead may reach weights of 20 lbs (9 kg) or more Biology:
Steelhead and rainbow trout (both scientifically named Oncorhynchus mykiss) are something of an enigma. Although various strains of both species have slightly different genealogies, they are essentially one species. Why a segment of a population of O. mykiss will descend the stream of its birth and head to sea after spending 2 to 3 years in that stream, and return to it only to spawn, while another segment will spend its entire life in that stream is unknown. The spawning rituals of both rainbow trout and steelhead are essentially the same as those of other members of the subfamily Salmoninae. In most cases, however, steelhead make long upstream migrations. Both require moving water over clean gravel bottoms. Steelhead typically use shallow riffles above deeper pools for their nest digging. Because of their size, observing these great fish in the act of spawning only requires the naturalist’s walking quietly along a stream where they are known to spawn. I strongly suggest that, even in those watersheds where fishing for spawning steelhead is legal, the conscientious angler will choose to take a young person along, and leave the fishing tackle at home. Various stream-specific strains of steelhead will enter the flows of their birth at different times. The earliest of these runs are known as summer steelhead (the Deschutes River is well known for its summer steelhead run). There has also been an effort on the Great Lakes to establish “Skamania” steelhead, another summer-run strain. The most common runs take place in the fall of the year, from September through December. In many rivers, fall/winter run steelhead “trickle” in on rises in water throughout the winter months. Very often, there will be an early spring run of fresh steelhead to any system where they are established. Like rainbow trout, steelhead, regardless of the time of their river entry, spawn in the spring, or late winter, usually from February through as late as June. Spawning activity is the same as that of other Salmoninae. The average mature female steelhead carries about 3,000 to 8,000 eggs, depending on her size. Although not a large percentage, some of each run will survive to spawn again. These survivors can provide angling opportunities, but the conscientious sportsman will allow them to return unhindered to sea or lake because they represent the best of that watershed’s gene pool and will produce superior offspring. The incubating eggs hatch in 4 to 7 weeks, and remain in the nest gravel for an additional 3 to 7 days while the yolk sac is absorbed, then they swim out of the gravel and begin life as fry. Steelhead fry do not feed for about 2 weeks after they have left the nest. Steelhead spend anywhere from 1 to 4 years living in the streams where they were born. In this parr stage they strongly resemble young rainbow trout, and are extremely beautiful small fish, with their purplish parr marks, white-and black-margined fins, and many black spots on their heads, bodies, and fins. These colors and patterns provide a highly camouflaged appearance when in the water. At an average length of 8 to 10 inches (20.25 to 25.50 cm), steelhead gradually lose their parr marks and take on an almost uniform silver color with darker green or brown backs, and their spots become smaller and less numerous. At this stage in their lives they are called “smolts,” and they re-orient themselves from facing upstream to facing and moving downstream, often in loose schools. This out-migration takes place in spring, usually May through June. Once in salt or Great Lakes waters, young steelhead spend little time in in-shore waters, preferring to move widely in search of food. Of course, at this stage they are still prey for many larger fish, birds, and marine mammals. Steelhead ocean migration patterns have not been widely studied. It is known that they most often spend anywhere from 1 to 3 winters at sea or in-lake, feeding and growing to their adult weight and length.
The fry feed on small stream-borne plankton, graduating to larval and adult aquatic insects and other stream-dwelling invertebrates. At sea, steelhead feed on shrimp, squid, and smaller fish. In lakes they feed on invertebrates and smaller fish. In the Great Lakes, steelhead are less dependent on alewives for food than are chinook salmon, so their Great Lakes diet includes crustaceans and a wide range of smaller forage fish, such as emerald shiners, and recently the exotic round goby. Unlike the salmons, steelhead do feed while in river and stream environments. Where the two species are present in the same waters, steelhead runs will often coincide with those of spawning chinook and coho salmon. Steelhead can be found feeding on free-drifting salmon eggs, often just below the salmon’s nests, which explains the effectiveness of using salmon and trout eggs as steelhead bait. Locating and Fishing for Steelhead:
Steelhead can be taken by trolling or casting from shore as they approach or leave their spawning river systems. That said, traditional steelhead river fishing techniques are best once the fish have begun their upstream spawning runs. Over the last century a massive amount of tackle and techniques has been developed for steelhead fishing. Steelhead fly patterns are as numerous as those for Atlantic salmon, just as varied, and with new patterns coming into use annually. There are traditional wet fly patterns, including Spey flies and tube flies, egg imitations, nymph patterns, streamer patterns, and dry fly patterns, all specifically for steelhead fishing. Great Lakes steelheaders have developed their own series of flies, some are river specific, others are more widely used. The beginning steelhead fly fisher is advised to consult the numerous books written about this type of angling, and about these fly patterns and equipment selections. As with other species, local guides and tackle dealers identified through an Internet search can be very helpful with information and are a good place to start. Bait and lure fishing for steelhead continues to sustain a large following. Again, there is a bewildering array of baits and lures from which to choose, suggesting that the best entry to this type of fishing be guided by a knowledgeable steelheading friend, a professional guide, or a tackle shop. West coast steelheaders often use conventional spool casting reels on medium to long rods, while others prefer spinning outfits. Many Great Lakes steelhead anglers have taken to a recent development in tackle for these fish, known as a “noodle rod.” This outfit balances a light to medium-weight spinning reel with a long (9 to 11 feet (274.25 to 335.25 cm) soft- to medium-flexing rod intended to fish 4- to 8- lb. (1.75 to 3.50 kg.) test monofilament line. The object of this approach is to present light line to heavily pressured fish without unnecessarily disturbing them, and to protect light line from too much pressure from a stiffer-flexing rod. Either natural live bait or artificials can be presented using this system. Significance to Humans:
Although steelhead have historically been and continue to be harvested as food fish, their most revered place is as a superb game fish, easily one of the top five American species. Their size, strength, unpredictably aggressive behavior, powerful runs, and spectacular jumps all add up to an angler’s dream fish. In the 1980s it was not uncommon for Great Lakes steelhead anglers to hook as many as 30 fish in a typical day during the peak of the runs. These numbers, based on hatchery stocked fish, were unheard of anywhere in steelhead fishing history. Since then the numbers of these super-size trout have declined considerably, so now Great Lakes steelheading more closely resembles traditional West Coast numbers of fish hooked, with 2 or 3 fish being a good day on the water. Winter steelhead fishing is very challenging, requiring considerable preparation, especially to protect against adverse weather conditions. Nevertheless, the allure of hooking steelhead under any condition is the basis for winter steelheading and continues to attract significant numbers of devotees. Status:
While Great Lakes steelhead numbers have fallen considerably over the last 20 years, their West Coast counterparts have generally fared even worse than that. Like so many of the Pacific salmon species that share watersheds, steelhead have declined to the point where certain strains are threatened or endangered. Other river-specific strains are sustaining somewhat higher numbers. Anyone seeking these fabled fish should put considerable effort into researching local runs, environmental conditions, and fishing regulations currently imposed on steelhead. Be prepared to accept strict season, tackle, and bag limits wherever you choose to fish, and, as always, consider releasing your fish to provide sport for others and do your part to ensure future fishable stocks of these magnificent fish.
KOKANU SOCKEYE SALMON Peter Thompson has worked as an educator, primarily in the environmental and ecology fields. He has also fished all over North America. His artwork is in the permanent collections at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Salmon River Hatchery in Altmar, New York; in The New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts; in the Norwalk Maritime Center in Norwalk, Connecticut; and in the Wells Reserve National Estuarine Research Center in Wells, Maine. His previous books include Thompson’s Guide to Freshwater Fishes: How to Identify the Common Freshwater Fishes of North America: How to Keep Them in a Home Aquarium and The Game Fishes of New England and Southeastern Canada. He lives in Syracuse, New York.
GREAT LAKE MALE CHINOOK SALMON Distinguishing Field Marks:
– Chinook salmon have black gums, earning them the common name of “blackmouth,” and distinguishing them from coho salmon, which have white or gray gums.
– Chinooks have narrow caudal peduncles, making them easy to lift with a hand grip at the base of the tail, another characteristic separating them from cohos and steelhead.
– At sea, or early in their spawning runs, chinooks have white bellies, silver sides, and blue-green backs. The back has many small black spots, which are less numerous on the head. The dorsal, adipose, and caudal fins all have black spots.
– Both lobes of the caudal fin are spotted, cohos only have spots on the upper lobe.
– The anal fin has a long base with 14 to 18 rays, longer and not as deep as the anal of coho or steelhead.
– The chinook is the largest species of Pacific salmon. This alone often makes it easy to distinguish. Average Size:
24 to 36 inches (61 to 91.50 cm)
8 to 30 pounds (3.50 to 13.50 kg) Biology:
Adult western chinook salmon enter the river systems of their birth from winter through summer and into the fall. Great Lakes chinooks may enter spawning tributaries in the summer, but most do so in the fall, from late August through October. In both cases, chinooks favor larger tributaries for their spawning activities, unlike coho and steelhead, which prefer smaller streams. In certain Alaskan rivers, chinook may migrate as far as 1,200 miles (1,930 km) before arriving at the spawning grounds, but the usual upriver run is less than 100 miles (161 km). Chinook nests are dug by the females and are often very large, up to 12 feet (3.50 m) long and 1 foot (0.30 m) deep. Both female and male Chinook salmon are aggressive on the spawning beds. When nests have been dug and the female is ready to spawn, she is accompanied by a large male, though smaller males may rush to the site and contribute their milt to the spawning activity. Egg numbers range from 2,500 to 13,000. The spawned female guards the nest as long as she is able, but all chinook salmon die within a few days to 2 weeks after spawning. The eggs incubate throughout the winter months and hatch the following spring. After hatching, the alevins spend 2 to 3 weeks in the nest gravel absorbing their yolk sacs. Some of the emergent fry may spend a few weeks near the spawning grounds and then move downstream to ocean or lake, or they may spend as much as 2 years in the natal stream. Once the young begin to out-migrate, they move downstream as smolts and remain close to shore for some time once they have reached the ocean or lake. In open water, chinooks tend to grow very quickly. Some precocious males return to their rivers after only 1 year at sea and are known as jacks. Their numbers are a good indicator of the likely success of the following year’s returning adults. Most chinook salmon remain at sea or in the lake for 2 to 3 years, but may stay as long as 9 years before spawning.
GREAT LAKE FEMALE CHINOOK SALMON Locating and Fishing for Chinook Salmon:
At sea and in lakes, chinook salmon seldom drop below 100 feet (30.5 m). While they are in deep water, locating numbers of chinooks requires the use of a fish finder. Trolling with lures set at different depths and lengths behind down-riggers is the most popular method. Planer boards can also be used to set lures out to the sides of the boat. This method is most popular when the fish are near shore and in shallower water. Once adult chinooks have gathered at the mouths of spawning streams, they can be taken by casting spinning or conventional spool tackle, either with spoons and lures or live bait (frequently strips of herring). On calm days saltwater weight fly-fishing gear can be used to bring chinook salmon to a stripped streamer fly. Arguably, the most exciting time to fish for chinooks is as they move upstream and take positions in holding pools or make brief stops as they move through riffle areas. Because of their large size, these fish can often be spotted as groups of them make upstream runs. Here, anglers use spinning, conventional spool, or fly tackle. On these annual runs, they may aggressively strike bright streamer flies (especially when they begin the run and are still fresh), and later nymph- and egg-imitating fly patterns. Wobbling lures, spinners, and spoons will take their share of these fish, as will nylon mesh sacks of salmon or trout eggs. In all cases, it is important to present whatever you offer on or close to the bottom as they will not move very far to strike a lure, bait, or fly. Whatever tackle you choose must be able to stand up to these heavy, powerful fish. This means a minimum of 8- to 10-weight fly-fishing systems with sinking or sink-tip lines, and spinning or casting outfits designed to balance well with 10- to 15-pound (4.50 to 6.75 kg.) test line. Sadly, it should be noted that when chinook and coho salmon were first established in the Great Lakes, it was a common belief that they would not take while in rivers, and since they were all going to die anyway, anglers were encouraged to use heavily weighted treble hooks repeatedly yanked through a pool of fish with the intent of foul hooking (snagging) them. Fortunately, although there are still those who feel snagging is a perfectly acceptable way to take these fish, regulations have been established outlawing the practice. Of concern is the disastrous decline in numbers of jack chinooks returning to the rivers of California’s Central Valley. The lowest number, 2,000 fish, was recorded in 2008. This is another indication that Pacific salmon and trout stocks are in serious trouble. Again, it is extremely important for any angler seeking chinook salmon to carefully research state and local fishing regulations governing them. Be aware that there are season, time of day, bag, and tackle restrictions, most of which are river-specific. Significance to Humans:
Chinook salmon have been the basis of significant commercial and subsistence fisheries. The fish are consumed or sold fresh, smoked, or canned. The flesh is usually pale yellow or white, very different from most other Pacific salmon. There are many who consume Great Lakes chinooks in spite of health advisories for the toxic chemicals accumulated in their fatty tissue. The chinook has gathered a devoted following of anglers drawn by its impressive size and powerful, if not acrobatic, performances once hooked. Many rods have been shattered by large chinook salmon. Status:
Variable from watershed to watershed. Some populations are near extinction while others continue to maintain decent numbers.
MALE ATLANTIC SALMON “Deliciously rich illustrations imbued with attitude. Peter Thompson knows his fish and their life stories as both an angler and scientist. If you’re after one guide to all our freshwater game fish, this is it.”
–Jerry Gibbs, Fishing Editor Emeritus, Outdoor Life.
LANDLOCKED SALMON “There is a propensity among sport anglers to partition the world of game fish into the priceless and the worthless, extolling the virtues of the few they favor and dismissing the rest as worthless or, in some cases, contemptible. Against the backdrop of this blinkered prejudice, Peter Thompson’s informative text and stunning illustrations show us the remarkable diversity of game species available in North America and, more importantly, remind us of what we cannot afford to forget–that all of them are intriguing and ultimately beautiful creatures.”
–Ted Leeson, author of Inventing Montana
MALE BROWN TROUT Distinguishing Field Marks:
– Brown trout have a large mouth, with the upper jaw extending well beyond the rear edge of the eye.
– Color is extremely variable, depending on the individual’s age and habitat (see accompanying illustrations). The back, sides, and head are usually moderately to heavily marked with irregular black, and often red or orange, spots. Spots on the gill covers are often quite large, sometimes with blue haloes, while the spots on the sides may be haloed in white. The dorsal and adipose fins are spotted, and the adipose fin is usually bordered in reddish orange. The tail fin may or may not be spotted
– Young brown trout have slightly forked tail fins. The tails of adult females are either very slightly curved or nearly straight along the trailing edge, and the tails of adult males are either straight or slightly rounded. Brown trout anal fins have 10 to 12 rays. The anal fins of adult females are nearly triangular, while those of males are rounded.
– Adult brown trout are often deep-bodied, and their caudal peduncles are thick, providing no easy hand grip. Average Size:
12 to 22 inches. (30.5 to 53.25 cm.)
1 to 5 pounds (0.5 to 2.25 kg.) Biology:
Brown trout spawn in late fall and early winter, usually October, November, and December. The spawning ritual is typical of this subfamily, with each female carrying 200- to 2,000 eggs. The fertilized eggs normally hatch within 7 to 8 weeks, and the alevins remain in the gravel absorbing the yolk sac for 3 to 6 weeks before swimming free. At this stage the fry seek the shallow margins of the stream and the shelter of bottom and overhanging structures, such as large rocks or tree branches. Like all young fish, brown trout are preyed upon by a broad range of stream residents, including their own parents. Similar to coastal rainbow trout, coastal brown trout may or may not migrate to sea. This is also true of those populations of brown trout having access to large lakes. Diet:
Young brown trout consume the standard in- stream diet of zooplankton that the current washes to them. As the fish grow, the diet changes to include aquatic and terrestrial insects and other invertebrates. At about 12 inches (30.5 cm.) brown trout begin to develop a diet of fish, including other brown trout. At this stage, they are omnivorous and will take anything that comes into their feeding lanes, although very large browns focus mainly on the larger meals. As they gain in size, brown trout become formidable predators. Often there may be only a few large, dominant browns in a given water. Locating and Fishing for Brown Trout:
Brown trout, the benchmark for European and British trout, are not native to North America. They have, however, been so widely stocked across this continent that nearly any water capable of supporting trout of any species will have at least a section where browns are dominant. They were introduced to provide trout fishing in waters that had become unsuitable for the native brook trout. Brown trout can thrive in less-pristine and warmer water than can be tolerated by brook trout. When brown trout were introduced to North America, sportsmen complained that they were harder to catch than the native brook trout. And this is generally true. Out of their wariness and “selectiveness,” grew a quiet revolution in American fly-fishing. Based in the now fabled streams of the Catskill Mountains of New York–sometimes still known as “the cradle of American fly-fishing”–evolved a tradition of carefully studying the insect life of the stream and tying fly patterns that imitated the various species. Because early observers of aquatic insect life had no access to underwater photography or other recent developments in angling-related technology, their studies were primarily of the adult stages of the insects, hence the evolution of the dry fly. All that said, anglers seeking brown trout can find them throughout their wide range in all types of water, from small, clear, cool headwater tributaries to large lakes and brackish coastal estuaries. They will come to as wide a variety of artificial flies, lures, spinners, and live baits as any fisherman could hope to explore. Bear in mind that the larger the brown trout you are seeking, the better chance of success you’ll have with larger terminal tackle. The variety of habitats where brown trout can be found will provide anglers opportunities to use anything from ultra-light to medium-heavy equipment in their pursuit. Where there are sea- or lake-run populations of brown trout, they will be most available as they enter rivers in fall for their spawning runs. At this time they are full of energy from their stay in rich forage waters. Sea- and lake-run browns are usually quite large and capable of putting up long, arm-tiring battles. There are significant runs of anadromous brown trout in many tributaries of the Great Lakes. In large lakes, trolling with lures, large flies, or live baits is the most common method of fishing for brown trout. When hooked, brown trout are not as acrobatic as steelhead or Atlantic salmon. Rather, they tend to more “bull-dogging” tactics as they struggle to free themselves. They will occasionally clear the water, but not often by much. They will make strong runs in the direction of any line-tangling or cutting structure available to them and if they reach that, it is usually the end of the encounter. Significance to Humans:
Brown trout were introduced and have always been pursued as game fish, and that is their significance to us. They continue to be prized by generations of sportsmen, especially those who fly-fish for them in moving water. Status:
Healthy and maintaining. Many populations are augmented–and some are maintained–by annual stocking. Brown trout are a hardy species, and do well in most habitats, often establishing naturally reproducing wild populations.
STRIPED BASS Distinguishing Field Marks:
– The body, gill covers, cheeks, and top of the head are scaled. The sides are marked by a series of dark lateral stripes.
– The head is relatively large, with a large mouth.
– The upper jaw extends to the mid-point of the eye.
– The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper.
– The 2 dorsal fins are not connected. The first usually has 9 spines (sometimes as few as 7 or as many as 12), the second dorsal has 1 stout spine nearly as tall as the fin on its leading edge, the tail fin is moderately forked, the anal fin has 3 spines on its leading edge, and the leading edges of the paired pelvic fins each have 1 spine. Average Size:
16 to 26 inches (40.75 to 66 cm.)
2 to 8 pounds (0.1 to 3.75 kg.)
Occasionally to 50 pounds (22.75 kg.) Biology:
Historically, striped bass has been an anadromous saltwater species entering freshwater to spawn. Much of the striped bass’s present range is the result of its having been introduced to landlocked freshwater habitats. In either case, striped bass require moving water for successful spawning. In some watersheds mature fish move into larger rivers in the fall and over-winter there in preparation for the spring spawning. Many enter the spawning water in the early spring. Spawning usually takes place in May and June, depending on latitude. At that time a single ripe female is surrounded by as many as 7 or 8 males that pressure her toward the surface by bumping her, while attempting to attain a dominant position. Once at the surface, the female turns on her side, splashing as she does, and releases her eggs, with the attendant males simultaneously clouding the surrounding water with milt. An estimated 80% of the 500,000 to 3,000,000 eggs carried by each female are fertilized in this way. The fertilized eggs absorb water to attain their full size, at which time they become semi-buoyant and drift with the river’s current during their 4- to 6-day incubation period. It is imperative that they drift in this way so that they receive a continuous supply of oxygen. It is also important that the young soon enter water with a moderate level of salinity. After hatching, as they continue to drift downstream, they remain inactive while they spend another 10 days absorbing their yolk sacs. It should be noted here that less than 1% of the eggs survive the first 2 months of life. In salt-water populations, the young take shelter in estuaries as they grow toward adulthood. As adults, some are known to undertake long seasonal migrations, while others born in the same river may become resident in that system. In freshwater, striped bass are also known to wander widely in search of food. There are very few inland waters capable of supporting natural reproduction of striped bass; in these waters, populations are maintained by hatchery stocking programs. Diet:
Young striped bass at first feed on small crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates, moving on to larger invertebrates and fishes. Adults feed heavily on what is available to them: eels, squid, shrimp, menhaden, alewives, mackerel, and, in freshwater, primarily on gizzard shad. Locating and Fishing for Striped bass:
Over the decades, countless man-hours have been devoted to locating and fishing for this historically important species. In coastal waters, and in their spawning rivers, they are most abundant in spring and again in fall, before and after the water has become too warm for their comfort. Striped bass seem to move in schools made up almost exclusively of fish of the same age, with the largest individuals being solitary or found in small schools and the younger fish often hunting and feeding in schools of 100 or more. Landlocked striped bass will only be close to shore in spring and fall, when they may be taken by casting or trolling artificials or baits. In mid-summer the fish will have gone deeper and will be most reliably located by sonar and then fished for at depth with jigs or live baits. Medium to heavy tackle is in order for this, especially where large individuals may be present. If you’re pursuing the largest bass, then you’ll want to carry fairly heavy tackle, either casting or spinning or fly rod; casting and spinning capable of handling 15- to 30-pound (6.75 to 13.50 kg.) test line and fly rods, reels, and lines of 10- to 12-weight. Large fish want large meals, so saltwater striped bass artificials can average 8 to 10 inches (20.25 to 25.50 cm.) and weigh an ounce or more. Long rods and large-capacity reels are needed to cast these extra large offerings well out into the surf line and control a large fish in heavy surf. In deep, moving river water or in the surf, the largest striped bass may respond best to live eels or other live or cut baits cast or drifted on the current or attached to weight to keep them stationary. Large, lead-headed, rubber-tailed jigs and spoons with added buck-tails are also traditional favorites. An entire line of saltwater flies suitable for striped bass fishing have been developed over the last half century and more and more fly fishers are taking to the salt-chuck for their sport. There is still ground to be broken in this aspect of the sport and creative fly-tiers using natural and synthetic materials are always coming out with new creations, often bearing the designer’s name. Smaller schooling striped bass can be almost as addicting as a good game of golf, appearing, disappearing, and then suddenly re-appearing on a clearwater sand-bottom salt flat, wary and finicky, not taking anything thrown at them. Like trout, large and small striped bass will key in on one form of bait, excluding everything else. It behooves anyone fishing for striped bass to learn the food chain in the waters they fish so that they can be prepared when a group of 20-pound bass suddenly appear within casting distance and are feeding on something not so easy to see. For smaller stripers, 10- to 12-pound (4.50 to 5.50 kg.) test casting or spinning outfits are ideal, as are 8- to 9-weight fly-fishing rigs. These should all be fished with terminal tackle of matching weight to assure maximum performance and pleasure. In the warmer months, the heat of the day will keep these fish inactive and waiting for the cooler temperatures of night to begin feeding. Significance to Humans:
As long as humans have inhabited this continent, striped bass have been an important species, early on as food, and more recently as both food and sport. Until the past 30 or so years, when the species has been strictly regulated, primarily as a game fish, thousands of pounds of striped bass found their way to market, often landed by local surf anglers. The species was also heavily harvested commercially in nets set out from small boats rowed through the surf and hauled back to the beach by hand. A lot of controversy has surrounded the present regulations reserving coastal striped bass as a game species. There are efforts underway to allow the fish to be taken again commercially. Partly for that reason, and partly because mariculture has begun to come into its own, striped bass are being pen-reared and commercially marketed. Of course this industry has raised scientific and citizen-based cries of foul play, due to habitat degradation and the introduction of non-native species through fish-farm escapes. Still, most of the striped bass found at grocery store fish counters have been raised in captivity. Status:
Maintained, as stated above, primarily by stocking in its landlocked inland range.
Presently, after a severe downturn in the last quarter of the 20th century, coastal striped bass are maintaining and thriving, especially in the mid-portion of their native East Coast range. It is presently less successful in the north of its East Coast range. Striped bass are a species of concern in the Pacific coast range to which they were introduced and in which they once enjoyed significant abundance.
PUMPKINSEED Distinguishing Field Marks:
– Deep, almost round body, with a high rounded back.
– The head is not large, but the eye is and is dark colored. There are pale blue irregular streaks on the gill covers and cheeks.
– The opercular (ear) flap is relatively short, with black interiors bordered by a white outside edge and a short red mark just below the center of the flap.
– The mouth is small and tipped upward.
– The upper jaw extends back only to the front edge of the eye.
– The first dorsal fin has 10 spines and is fully attached to the second dorsal, the tail is slightly forked with rounded lobes, the anal fin has 3 graduated spines, the paired pelvic fins have 1 spine and pointed tips, and the pectoral fins are large, nearly transparent, and pointed. Average Size:
7 to 8 inches (17.75 to 20.25 cm.) Biology:
Winter aggregations of pumpkinseed sunfish break up at water temperatures of about 50 degrees F. (10 C), when mature males move to shallower areas, choose and defend nesting territories, and begin fin-fanning the bottom to open nests situated very close together. Water temperatures in these shallow nesting areas rise quickly, inducing spawning that may last from June into August. Spawning is similar to other sunfish and may continue over the course of a day or 2. Females may mate with several males and pairs will often spawn into nests that are not their own. The eggs, guarded and aerated by the male, incubate for 3 to 5 days, and the male remains and continues protecting the newly hatched fry for a short period. As adults, pumpkinseeds are found in shallow rocky or weedy areas of lakes, ponds, and some streams. Diet:
Pumpkinseeds often feed at or near the water’s surface, on immature and adult aquatic insects and other invertebrates. Locating and Fishing for Pumpkinseed:
Now widely distributed in the U.S. and southern Canada, the pumpkinseed is one of the most frequently caught members of its genus. This colorful, aggressive, hard-fighting species will take a broad range of small offerings. Wet and dry flies, and small poppers, small live baits such as maggots or earthworms, small jigs, and other small lures will all entice pumpkinseed to bite. Ultra-light to light tackle is best for these fish. Fly-fishing with a floating line is an exciting approach as pumpkinseeds frequently take food at the surface, occasionally gain good size, and are very strong battlers, using their deep slab-sided bodies to their best advantage. Significance to Humans:
One of the most common small sunfish, the pumpkinseed is an excellent sport fish for its size and is also a fine fish for the table. It, too, can thrive in a home aquarium. Status:
SMALLMOUTH BASS Distinguishing Field Marks:
– The head is of moderate size. The eye is red.
– The mouth is of moderate size, with its upper jaw extending backward to the rear margin of the eye.
– There are 2 dorsal fins, which are joined. The first has 10 stiff spines, with the last appearing as part of the second dorsal fin. There is no obvious separation between the two fins.
– The caudal fin is slightly concave along its trailing edge. The caudal fin lobes have narrowly rounded tips.
– The anal fin has 3 spines of graduated length along its leading edge. Average Size:
10 to 18 inches (25.50 to 45.75 cm.)
1 to 3 pounds (0.50 to 1.50 kg.) Biology:
The smallmouth bass spawns from late spring into early summer, usually in May and June. Spawning begins as males select nest sites in 2 to 20 feet (61 to 609 cm.) of water, usually near large rocks or boulders on a gravel, rock, or sand bottom, rarely near vegetation. The sites are widely spaced and some may be used by the same male for several consecutive seasons. The nests are often very large, sometimes as much as 4 to 6 feet (122 to 183 cm.) in diameter. When nests are ready, a female will join a mate and the spawning will begin. The ritual is much less showy than in the small colonial nesting sunfish of the genus Lepomis. The pairs hover over the nest and rub and nuzzle one another, then the female turns onto one side, while the male remains upright, and eggs are released and fertilized. These small spawnings are interspersed with the pair hovering very close to one another and circling over the nest, then commencing another short spawning interval. This takes place over a period of several hours until the female moves off, frequently mating with another male. The fertilized eggs are adhesive and sink to the bottom of the nest, where they anchor through their incubation, usually 4 to 10 days. During this period, the male stays at the nest, fanning the eggs to provide oxygen. When they have hatched, the new-born lie dormant in the nest for an additional 5 to 7 days as they absorb their yolk sacs. The male parent continues his vigil until the majority of the young have left the nest. Throughout this period, the male smallmouth is very aggressive toward any intruders into the nest space, and for this reason these often large individuals are rather easy to aggravate into striking your offering, especially if it actually crosses the guarded nest. You should bear in mind that removing the male parent from the nest can result in the loss of all the eggs, as they die of asphyxiation or become prey. Adult male smallmouth bass typically mature between 3 and 5 years of age, females between 4 and 6 years of age. Many factors contribute to the fact that consecutive-year mortality may vary widely in numbers, as spawning success is uncertain at best. Juvenile and adult smallmouth bass are very intolerant of sudden changes in water temperature. Many local fish kills are the result of a strong summer cold front pushing much colder deep lake water into the shallows inhabited by smallmouths. Diet:
Young smallmouth bass feed on plankton, then graduate to aquatic insects and other invertebrates, then to mainly crayfish and fish. However, Smallmouths are omnivorous opportunists that will take whatever comes their way. They are also noted for feeding at the surface, at mid-levels, and on the bottom. Locating and Fishing for Smallmouth Bass:
Large and small lakes, rivers, and the lower portions of streams, any clear to slightly turbid water may hold these fish, although their preference is definitely for water of high quality. They are most often associated with rocky bottoms and not usually found close to vegetation, although they may be. Although they can be taken throughout the open-water months, smallmouths come most willingly at the cool spring and fall ends of the season. At these times this species will aggressively attack fly rod, spinning, or casting poppers and bugs fished at the surface. The strong takes, powerful runs, and somersaulting jumps of even a small smallmouth bass make for a very exciting and satisfying experience. When selecting terminal tackle for smallmouth, keep in mind that this is a smallmouth and will frequently refuse large offerings. In warmer weather, rivers with moderate flows will still produce good smallmouth fishing. In deeper lakes and impoundments, mid-summer smallmouth fishing is best with still-fished live baits (such as crayfish), or weighted jigs, especially along steep drop-offs. Equipment should be selected to most comfortably present the chosen type of lure or fly, but normally it will range from 6- to 8-weight fly-fishing rigs and 6- to 8-pound (2.75 to 3.75 kg.) test spinning or casting outfits. Significance to Humans:
The smallmouth bass has been of considerable importance for centuries as both a food and game fish. As late as the early 1900s they were commercially harvested by hook and line and nets, and were marketed at very low prices. By the 1930s a significant decline in numbers was noted and efforts were made to designate the smallmouth as a game species only. This proved successful and commercial fishing for this species is no longer legal. Today, the smallmouth bass maintains a dedicated following of sportsmen and women who rank it as America’s best game species and, pound for pound, that ranking is hard to argue. Young smallmouth bass do quite well on live foods in large home aquariums. Status:
Cyclically thriving and generally maintaining.
WALLEYE Distinguishing Field Marks:
– The walleye is more robust than the sauger, more oval than round in cross-section, deeper-bodied, and not as noticeably elongated.
– The head is shorter than that of the sauger.
– The gill covers are scaled, but the cheeks are not.
– The space between the first and second dorsal fins is smaller than in the sauger.
– Frequently there is a large white patch on the lower portion of the bottom lobe of the caudal and anal fins. Average Size:
13 to 20 inches (33 to 50.75 cm.)
1 to 3.5 pounds (0.50 to 1.50 kg.) Biology:
Walleyes spawn over a wide time span, depending on the latitude: March or April in the south, well into June in the north of its range. Successful natural reproduction is more likely in waters where tributary rivers and streams enter the lake or impoundment. In the spring, adults move into tributaries where available. Pre-spawning migrations may begin as much as a month earlier as males move to the spawning areas in fast water below impassible dams, other barriers to upstream migration, or gravel or boulder-strewn shoals in lakes. Mature walleye form small groups with 1 or 2 females and 2 to 6 accompanying males. Spawning takes place at night with plenty of pushing, pursuit, fin displays, and swimming in circles. As if on cue, the larger group rushes forward into shallow water and then stops. The females roll onto their sides and release eggs that are fertilized by the males’ simultaneous release of milt. The fertilized eggs are not adhesive and simply settle into openings in the substrate or vegetation. Incubation usually requires 10 to 20 days and another 10 days to 2 weeks for the young to absorb the yolk sacs. The fry begin actively feeding as they disperse toward the water’s surface.However, after a short time of surface orientation, the walleye change their habits and become bottom oriented. Adult walleye are sensitive to light and avoid shallow water during the day, however. At dawn, dusk, and throughout the night they range widely about their habitats, returning to shallow water in search of forage. Diet:
The early diet of walleye is made up of small aquatic invertebrates, but soon changes to one of almost exclusively fish. Locating and Fishing for Walleye:
Walleye have been widely introduced beyond their original native range. They typically inhabit lakes and impoundments with inflowing tributaries, which they use for spawning. They are found in both clear and turbid water. Clear water restricts their active feeding to low light hours due to the sensitivity of their eyes. In cloudy water, walleye may be active throughout the day and night. Walleye tend to feed heavily and will take a broad range of offerings. In fact, anyone unfamiliar with angling for walleye is advised to consult as many sources as possible for information on the lures, spinners, jigs, rubber products, and live baits that are most effective for this species. That search might best be started on the Internet or with friends who know the fish well. Adult walleye do not feed at the surface, so fishing attention should be focused from mid-water down to the bottom. As with most American game fish, what works well today in walleye baits, might not work at all tomorrow, so successful anglers will carry a large variety of colors, shapes, and sizes in their tackle boxes. Until you’ve spent many seasons of trial and error, resulting in a collection of “old reliable” offerings, experimentation is in order. Tackle for walleye should be in the light to medium range. Although they can be caught on artificial flies, most are taken on casting or spinning equipment. Within this scope, rod selection is at the purchaser’s discretion. Rods from 7 to 9 feet (2.25 to 2.75 m.) in length with moderate action are recommended. Anglers should bear in mind that walleye can grow quite large, into the 10- to 12-pound (4.50 to 5.50 kg.) class, so using equipment that is too light could result in losing a trophy. Remember to fish in low light conditions in clear water. Also bear in mind that walleye tend to form schools, so drifting while still-fishing or trolling to locate a school will be more productive than staying in one spot. Walleye are not spectacular fighters, but will put up strong, dogged resistance as they struggle toward the bottom. Anyone fishing for walleye is strongly advised to pay very close attention to state and local regulations on time, season, length, and bag limits. Significance to Humans:
Walleye are of major significance to American commercial and sport fishermen. They are also commonly farm-raised in enclosed ponds for direct shipment to market. Walleye continue to be an important commercial species in Canada. Walleye are also the basis for an intensive sport fishery throughout their range. Most sport- caught walleye are consumed directly by anglers and their friends and families.
Walleye are some of the very best American freshwater fish for eating. The meat is white, firm, and flaky, with very few bones, and has an excellent, slightly sweet flavor. Walleye are usually prepared by filleting, though cooking methods are entirely your choice. As with any fresh fish, keep in mind that over-cooking any fish will ruin its delicate flavor. I also recommend that those consuming walleye consult state health advisories. Status:
Maintaining, thriving. The walleye, although its numbers decline or increase in repeating annual cycles, seems to be one fish species that can support year-round sport-fishing pressure and a commercial fishery as well. The walleye is well protected by state regulations, which certainly help maintain it as a viable species. To purchase Freshwater Game Fish of North America, go to the Store section
at Reprinted with permission by Fly Rod & Reel Books. Copyright 2009, Peter