Minnows Above Monsters
As a tenderfoot biologist only beginning my journey into the world of aquatic ecology, and attempting to harness that with my passion for fishing, my horizons have expanded greatly in terms of my options hook and line.
And so, I decided to join a minuscule but significant subset of the fishing community, known as microfishing. It is rather self-explanatory; the quest for minnows, over monsters. While it confuses many traditional fisherman who can't imagine the fun of catching something that most call "bait", it is in reality a form of fishing that allows a closer bond to species overlooked by nearly everyone. While it can draw some competition through "lifelisting", microfishing in my opinion is just a way of respecting and learning about nature in a way that combines one of America's favorite pastimes.
The basic breakdown of one of my sessions is the research of a new species, finding the roadside trickle on google maps, the dirt road, skirting the old rusty gate, watching for no-trespassing signs and the resident NC backwoods hillbillies who know three species of fish: "Bass, bream and catfish". Thankfully, it turns out most landowners aren't worried about fish hippies like me bothering these roadside ditches on their land so the worst problem I typically face are the stares of motorists as they drive past my back-crunching posture over a body of water most people wouldn't call a body of water.
Nowadays my typical purlieus are creeks and trickles, swamps and ditches, far from the gasoline blasted lakes filled with mediocre tight-lipped bass and other typical fare. Nowadays, most fish I target are less than three-inches and found in the bait well of your average bucket fisherman. This blog I wanted to focus on shiner species I've targeted up and down the east coast and how each one is unique and special despite many calling them just bass bait.
This begins in the highlands of South Carolina. Tucked away in the upper northwest corner of the state is a wild, untamed area of valleys, drop offs, and streams bristling with crystal water and cyprinids of all kinds. Cliffs and stone bluffs line the turquoise rivers like old buildings, baroque and forgotten, while the water cascades over riffles and earthen shelves organized like pews on the riverbed, creating the shoals this area is known for.
These mountainous waterways of the upper Savannah basin are occupied by a flurry of color come springtime, seen in the hordes of Yellowfin Shiners (Notropis lutipinnis) that dominate these streams. These shiners, along with five other species, occupy a subgenus within Notropis known as Hydrophlox. Phlox, is a known genus of colorful flowers, so it only makes sense that these shiners are some of the most colorful fish in North America. It shares this group with species like the Saffron, Redlip and Rainbow Shiners.
While I missed an opportunity to see these magnificent shiners during breeding season, even amidst the cold, leafless trees of early spring, they still were a vibrant dash of color in the tepid creeks around Clemson, South Carolina.
Our Cyprinid journey doesn't end just there in South Carolina. As you travel towards the coast, away from the hills in the northwest, you come upon a special area in the middle of the state, an extension of the Sandhills region of the Atlantic slope which stretches from Georgia to central North Carolina. Here, there are numerous creeks, all heavily vegetated and well-aerated, their acidic, tannic brew creating a unique ecosystem with a unique set of species compared to that in the mountains.
However different it was from the foothills of the Appalachians, our Hydrophlox friends still followed me around.
These Yellowfin Shiners were brilliantly colored, with a stark lateral line bordered by hues of blue and gold regalia. Though biologically they were the same as their brethren just a hundred miles east these shiners lived drastically different lives. Instead of clear, rocky mountain brooks they preferred the warm, sandy, tea-colored runs that permeated the Edisto River basin. But unlike their dominance in the mountains, these central Yellowfins had to compete with another member of the Notropis genus.
These Coastal Shiners (Notropis petersoni) were everywhere in the tannic creeks, darting about in the current behind the protection of the aquatic grasses, waiting for food. While rather drab looking compared to the vibrant Hydrophlox, these guys still showed flecks of holographic blue and silver in the water, creating a dreamy effect not appreciated by most.
However fun the rambunctious Yellowfins and Coastals may be, they paled in comparison to the holy grail of South Carolina's blackwater shiners. The Lowland Shiner (Pteronotropis stonei).
These gorgeous little shiners occupied the same habitat and exhibited similar behavior to both other species. Even superficially resembling the aforementioned Yellowfins. However upon closer inspection, a dusky dorsal band and broadened midsection show a much different species. These guys belong to a special genus known as Pteronotropis, consisting of a handful of species from South Carolina to Mississippi, all occupying relatively the same habitat, with each more beautiful than the next. These guys took some tracking down. It seemed that the Yellowfins and Coastals had vastly better tolerance for water quality fluctuations than they did. I found both those species in the majority of creeks in the region. However it wasn't until I stumbled upon a single, clean, rural spot that I finally cracked the code for these Lowland Shiners. Suffice to say they were one of my biggest targets as I roamed the Palmetto State.
Often I have gotten crazy looks when I tell people I would drive hours on end for a fish that most would see in a bucket and call "bait". But its more than just a minnow; its hours of research, creek walking, picture roaming, spot finding, hunching over a map and finally a reclusive capture that make the preparation worth it. That quenches the build up in melodramatic effect. No there are no television programs devoted to two-inch-long fish. No, I won't be put on a magazine, or get hundreds of likes on social media. It's a solo quest, for the most part. But being able to sit on the side of a trickle, in the middle of nowhere, in a spot untouched by most, watching some of the most beautiful creatures we have in our area, that, that is what makes the quest worth it.
South Carolina had just about fulfilled my expectations; however I was determined to move forward in my microfishing journey. Right across the border from me was Georgia, and that meant a whole host of new species, new drainages to explore, new territory I had never seen before.
I started mainly in the upper Chattahoochee basin, near the town of Helen. Hear the mighty Chattahoochee River, which trundles its way down the state through Atlanta into the Gulf of Mexico down below, is small, pockmarked with rapids, and curvaceous as it winds through a mountain valley. Following a mountain road to small pools in the river, I found a new Luxilus species I never had before.
I'm a big fan of Luxilus genus shiners. The deep bodied, spunky fish are typically a lot more energetic than their cousins int he Notropis, Lythrurus and Cyprinella genera. These Bandfin Shiners (Luxilus zonistius) were no exception. They were lit up in the early spring time, with their saturated hues filling the pools below rapids as they awaited food. No doubt nonnative Salmonids had been released here; but it wasn't reflecting in the shiner's numbers, they were everywhere.
Moving north through the Peach State we arrive in the Hiwassee Basin near the upper border, where a collection of creeks feed into the Hiwassee River of Tennessee and eventually into the Tennessee River. Evidently, this made the host of Cyprinids found here considerably different than those in the Chattahoochee drainage. The Cyprinids I found here are as follows: Warpaint Shiner (Luxilus coccogenis), Hiwassee Dace (Clinostomus sp.), Central Stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum) and finally Tennessee Shiner (Notropis leuciodus).
From the Hiwassee Basin, we can move even further west and dip our toes into the mighty Alabama basin and all it's tributaries. My first taste with this came with a creek near the town of Eton, Georgia. Here, I caught my biggest Cyprinella ever, and my first of many, the Alabama Shiner (Cyprinella callistia).
They weren't quite in their full spawning regalia, but with the hints of tuberculation and the vermilion coming in on the tail, they were striking fish nonetheless. I garnered lots of strange stares here from trout fisherman as I targeted these robust minnows in the waterfalls instead of the Salmonids with undoubtedly better sporting potential. But its the thrill of the unknown, the semblance of a tiny bite that a micro fish gives you that indicated their presence, their interest in your bait. Its a strange, addictive feeling, and one that can't be properly explained or felt until truly experienced. But its part of the thrill that microfishing gives you, in general. Although Alabama Shiners dominated the foray at this creek, I managed one Tricolor Shiner (Cyprinella trichroistia), another new species on my southern travels.
These guys are very pretty, and often overshadowed and outnumbered by their brawnier cousins, but they make for a beautiful fish nonetheless. After dodging the trout fisherman at this north Georgia creek, I headed southward into the blackwater springs and trickles of western Georgia and eastern Alabama.
On my way to the Yellowhammer State, I stopped for a foray in a town called Warm Springs in Georgia. This town is crisscrossed by a shallow, tannic creek, fed by several springs, one of them, the namesake for the town, Warm Springs. In the creek itself, I obtained one of my top goals for the year, the Dixie Chub (Semotilus thoreauianus).
These guys are close relatives of the Sandhills Chub (Semotilus lumbee) and the Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus), occupying a small part of Georgia and Alabama. This was my third catch of the four-member Semotilus genus, and one of my most prized catches to date. Although nothing much was active in the small, cold creek, I decided to investigate the springs. It was a tiny trickle of flowing water coming in to the creek from the south, and to its name, the water was oddly warm, almost like a hot tub. Here is where I caught one of m most unlikely and rarest catches ever.
This bronze-colored bottom feeder is a Bluefin Stoneroller (Campostoma pauciradii)! These are seldom caught on hook and line and seldom seen altogether. After catching plenty of Central Stonerollers (Campostoma anomalum) in the Georgia mountains I was quickly becoming hooked on the genus, which includes five members across the United States and Mexico. Although brief by trip to Warm Springs was fruitful, and quickly I crossed the line to Alabama, my first time ever in the state.
The very first minnow I caught there was a special one as well. On a back road, in a slow-moving backwater swamp, I found active schools of Taillight Shiners (Notropis maculatus). These guys were further prove of just how diverse the Notropis genus is. Normally I would find them in better aerated, moving water, but these shiners seemed right at home in the rather calm, vegetated water of the tannic stream.
It wasn't until about a month later that I got the chance to add more Alabama minnows to my list. While camping in the Talladega Forest of Alabama, I had the chance to explore a beautiful, crystal-clear tributary of the Coosa River. Here, great schools of Cyprinids were able to be seen dancing in the currents, and Redeye Bass (Micropterus coosae) could be seen prowling the margins and deeper pockets, scanning for a meal.
I managed to catch many Alabama and Tricolor Shiners at this spot, but my first new species was a new stoneroller species, the Largescale Stoneroller (Campostoma oligolepis).
Microfishing for these fish is unlike any other species there is. They graze like underwater cattle in small schools, streamlined in the current, using specialized mouths to scrape away organic material from the sheet rock on the bottom of the creek. Drifting baits into their path is an easy way to go about landing them, and they give up a spirited fight for a fish most would consider "bait-sized". Also at the creek was another new species of shiner for me; the Coosa Shiner (Notropis xaenocephalus).
I had tried for these small minnows a month or so earlier at an upper tributary of the Coosa River in Georgia - the Amicalola Creek, with no success. Although not the most breathtaking of shiners, it was nice to see some more diversity on the end of my line. Lastly, one of my cooler catches from the creek, was a old warrior or a male Alabama Shiner, displaying full tuberculation and the brilliant spawning regalia Cyprinella and other shiners display in the springtime.
After a day spent in the Talladega, I made my way further west into Alabama, stopping at the Cahaba River in the center of the state. Here my main goal was the Cahaba Bass (Micropterus cahabae), this basins edition from the Redeye bass clade. I managed a few Alabama Bass (Micropterus henshalli) and while microfishing, plenty of Alabama Shiners, but I was able to luck into a new species while wading towards a deep riffle in the river.
This is a Blacktail Shiner (Cyprinella venusta), a rather sleek minnow with a broad range across the gulf states. I only manged one of these, and admittedly it was accidental, but I am glad to have done so. While species lists and numbers never particularly concern me, the Cyprinella genus is one of my favorites, filled with robust minnows of great color and character, so adding another was always a pleasure to be had. The riffles of the main-stem Cahaba River were also filled with Alabama Shiners, but sadly no other surprises were to be had.
Next stop in the journey was Alabama's Bankhead National Forest, a wildly unique corner of the state filled with limestone bluffs, springs and scenic waterways. Known as the "Land of a Thousand Waterfalls", every zig-zag in the unpaved mountain roads and river bends yielded riffles and deep holes filled with minnows and ectotherms of all kinds.
From a shallow, sandy creek in a remote corner of the state forest I added a totally new Cyprinid to the list - the Burrhead Shiner (Notropis asperifrons). Although visually unremarkable, it was a welcome catch. They were by far the most abundant in the spring-fed, limestone-enriched streams. Although native across the Coosa River basin, I hadn't run into these until I reached the Bankhead. It seems they favored the secluded, specialized waters of the ancient Alabamian geology.
Besides the Burrheads and the occasional Largescale Stoneroller (Campostoma oligolepis). The only other minnow I ran into were the annoyingly ubiquitous Alabama Shiners. I found a ton of them in the pools below Kinlock Falls, one of the most stunning natural attractions in the forest.
After Bankhead, I began my way out of Alabama and eventually traded the Coosa basin for the mighty Tennessee River basin. High in the limestone barrens of northern Alabama is the Paint Rock River basin, a crystal-colored maze of turquoise, spring-fed creeks and trickles full of diversity, with new species being constantly discovered. I only added a couple new minnows here. One of the first was the rather uninspired Bluntnose Minnow (Pimephales notatus), not found in North Carolina but a rather common catch in most of the central basins in the continent.
I caught plenty of these in a slightly turbid tributary of the Paint Rock River called Dry Creek. My main stop in this area was the Estill Fork, a clear, shallow and abundantly diverse stretch of water high up in some of the most rural countryside I had ever been in. The road to access it was a well-paved one, littered with tiny houses and crisscrossed by unpaved driveways. There were no buildings, or stores, or gas stations up here. As it meandered parallel to the river, you sporadically caught glimpses of the cerulean runs below you, as they cascaded south towards the Tennessee River far below. My first new species from here was the humble Telescope Shiner (Notropis telescopus).
Although bland to most, these guys are pretty recognizable to the trained fisherman through the xanthic line running laterally down its body. Although these captured my attention moderately enough, it was the larger minnows in the stream I was interested in. Immediately in the deep pockets and powerful runs cutting through the middle of the creek I spotted several robust cyprinids jumping and sparring in spawning mood. I began lightly drifting my bait through the school, and the aggressive fish would latch on but powerfully come loose time after time. After several tries I finally managed to land one, a new species, one from my favorite genera.
These Striped Shiners (Luxilus chrysocephalus) are even still some of the most robust, and vivacious micros I have ever caught. In spawning regalia this male displayed wildly vibrant patterning and an impressive amount of tuberculation on its head. In this small stream, these guys were the dominant species, and with their ambitious courtship displays and their breathtaking, salmon-like pulses in the current.
After the exploration of this stream I had to adjourn from Alabama and quickly crossed over to Tennessee where I camped on the Conasauga River. Heavy rains that arrived with me in the dead of night made fishing nearly impossible, but I can still share one of the most impressive catches I made this year, that came from a marshy, spring fed creek feeding the river.
This creek was nothing more than a grassy ditch as it flowed under the small mountain road that tracked the Conasauga River up into the Tennessee mountains. It didn't even possess a name, but in the crystal-clear trickles it possessed a special cyprinid known far-and-wide but seen by few.
I'm of course referring to the Rainbow Shiner (Notropis chrosomus). These guys were a kaleidoscope of colors, freckled with black splotches and colored in with turquoise and sapphire. And at this point of the year, these guys weren't even spawning.
My crappy photography skills did an adequate job at capturing their beauty. It was truly like watching tropical fish frolic in some equatorial aquatic Eden; except this was winter in the mountains of Tennessee. I made sure to catch more and take plenty of pictures before I left the stream for then, saving it for another day when I might be able to return.
This brings me to the end of my saga on the minnows of the southeast; and yet, there were so many I didn't get to see. So many rivers still left unseen, creeks and springs left untouched, and fish whose faces were still occluded in these streams, hugging banks and riffles in the most remote areas of the state, waiting for me to glance upon them.
Most normal people have vacation spots across the globe, bucket list items in faraway, exotic lands, and yet, my ideal vacation still lies in the limestone bluffs of northern Alabama; in the amber colored blackwater in the center of the state; in the pockmarked, suicidal mountain road along the Georgia-Tennessee border where the rainbow fish live; and in the faces of the mountains and trees that welcomed me, a weary traveler, far from the urban hellscapes and suburban outbacks of my everyday life. Big fish aren't always found in my ideal purlieus; and yet, the majesty of these small fish keeps me enthralled, keeps me coming back. It's an addiction I think all need to experience; the bass and catfish typical of American fisherman can be found nearly anywhere; this ubiquitous nature exemplifies the unifying factor fishing entails. And yet, it feels the obvious evolution as a conservationist, as an explorer, as an outdoorsman, and as a fisherman is to turn to the smaller things in life. It's a newfound appreciation for nature and for the places it takes me that makes it all worth it. And I promise it will be worth it for you as well.