Category: Fish

A tiny fish story

I strongly believe in local knowledge. If you want to know where the fish are, when to catch them, and what to use for bait, ask a local.

That’s me, a local, at least here on my Potomac River. But the problem was that, up until recently, my kind of knowledge was only good for catching small fish. So I joined the local smallmouth bass club to try to find out what I wasn’t getting right.

At my first meeting the guest speaker had gotten stuck in traffic, so they quickly improvised an “experts panel.” The presenters were just club members whose names regularly appeared in the newsletter’s fishing contest column as winners of the biggest fish, the biggest five fish, and so on.

It was an eye-opener. I found out that my fishing tackle was mostly outdated and much of it was junk. Not using ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene instead of good ol’ monofilament? Shame. Not casting with the latest high modular graphite rod costing upwards of $200? Actually, I mostly fished with a rod I had found in the river. It was clearly time for a makeover.

A question of size. How about lures? I learned that my collection of baits had long been rendered obsolete by a menagerie of molded plastic creatures with names out of a grade B horror film: Strike King Rage, Chigger Quad, Boss Dog, and so on.

OK, I got that. But I still suspected I was still missing something. So after the presentation I sought out one of the speakers, a big man with friendly eyes, and told him my problem about only catching small fish.

“What do you fish with?” he wanted to know.

I told him I mostly use the venerable Mr. Twisters, maybe two inches long, mostly in chartreuse.

“Well, you probably only catch little fish,” he replied.

I felt myself flush as I told him he was right. Only little fish. He took me to the table in the back where one of the club members sells plastic fishing baits. They were big, ugly things packaged in plastic bags that squished between my fingers like pieces of viscera. He helped me picked out a selection, most of them the color of different kinds of manure.

Big lure, big fish. And guess what? I started catching big fish. The big lures were working, or at least seemed to. It was not long before I got confirmation, of a contrary sort.

The day was sunny and the river was lovely, but the fishing was slow. I pulled my kayak up on a little spit of land on the Virginia side of Watkins Island. I needed to try something different. I opened my little box of fishing tackle, and there under a snarl of rusty hooks was a relic from my former life as a little-fish guy. It was a Mr. Twister in chartreuse, two inches long.

The right lure and a well-tied knot
ensure angling success.

The action was almost immediate, although I didn’t realize it at first. I reeled in my first cast, but just before I prepared to flip my lure out again I noticed something moving on my hook.  I had snagged a tiny fish, the smallest I have ever caught.

I don’t remember the biggest bass I ever caught, but I’ll never forget the tiniest. Memories aren’t necessary made of local knowledge.



Can you identify this fish?

You’d think that anybody with the time to read a book published n 1881 book about bass and bass fishing couldn’t have many options in life. Even if that book was written by a man remembered as “Apostle of the Black Bass,” a certain Dr. James A. Henshall.

Dr. Henshall: apostle of the smallmouth bass.

My first mistake was an old one—judging the book by its cover. Its green imitation leather binding looks like it belongs in the most remote and dusty corner of a library’s stacks. The leaping fish on its cover looks like it was drawn from the work of an amateur taxidermist. Then there’s the title: “Book of the Black Bass.” Clearly no marketing expert, Henshall probably came up it himself.

I turned to the frontispiece engraving and met a fine pair of handlebar moustaches and behind them, the author. He didn’t return my gaze, but instead looked resolutely into the distance. Clearly he is a man of probity, determination, and likely unshakable religious faith.

But can he write?

Sly jokes and admonitions. It turns out he can indeed. Henshall’s content-rich prose could only be the work of someone who has lived its subject to its fullest. He writes with a passion that others would reserve for fine Beaujolais or the organ works of J.S. Bach. And he’s witty besides, with a sense of humor that runs just under the surface of each page, occasionally to bubble up in sly jokes and tongue-in-cheek asides.

In one chapter, Henshall gives perhaps the best account of how the smallmouth bass was introduced into the Potomac. It was an event that would prove momentous for the river’s future as well as ironic in light of today’s debate about non-native and invasive species. His descriptions of fishing gear of yore remind me of how much we take our precision reels, graphite rods, and polyolefin lines for granted. I smile with pity when I read, “The line [back then generally silk or linen] should be thoroughly dried, always [his emphasis], after use.”

A companion drawing shows
how to cast to the left.

And then his final words of advice, so politically incorrect in this time of catch-and-release fishing: “Always kill your fish as soon as taken from the water,” he writes. “By so doing, your angling days will be happy, and your sleep undisturbed.”

Small fin indeed! Most of all, I was delighted by Henshall’s wry account of the scientific misadventures that eventually gave the smallmouth bass its scientific name. More than any ordinary farce, it turns out it was a Gallic farce.

The name game began about 1801 when French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède received a smallmouth specimen for study. He noted its diminutive dorsal fin, and called the genus Micropterus, which means “small fin.”

What Lacépède didn’t know was that several of the rays of this particular specimen’s fin had been bitten off when the fish was young. Comments Henshall: “Its scientific birth was, like Macduff’s, untimely; it was, unhappily, born a monstrosity.” And he followed with the barb: “Its sponsors were, most unfortunately, foreign naturalists.”

In his choice of a species name, Lacépède played it safe by honoring his friend Déodat de Dolomieu, a distinguished geologist. The full name would be Micropterus dolomieu.

One fish, 57 names. Matter settled? Not by any means. Henshall tells in page after mind-numbing page the deliberations and disputes of scientists―mostly French―who in the end delivered up some 57 pronouncements on the subject and offered up a minor lexicon of Latin names for this one fish.

Henshall was clearly amused by all of this, which he describes as Gallic people “indulging their national love of novelty.”

A citadel of scientific taxonomy.

He tells, for example, how the “versatile and eccentric Professor Rafinesque appeared upon the scene” and gave different scientific names to bass of different sizes. Then a M. Le Sueur, “with a lofty scorn for Rafinesque,” gave these same different-size fish a wholly new suite of names, again failing to realize they were all the same species.

Even Georges Curvier, the famous French naturalist, became the target for one of Henshall’s barbs. For some reason Curvier lumped the smallmouth bass together with the largemouth bass as the same species, and gave them both the genus Grystes, Latin for “howler.” Remarks Henshall: “I have never met an angler who had heard a Black Bass ‘“growl.’”

This goes on for many pages, some of them with interjections of text in French in the style of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which was written around the same time. In the end, Henshall votes for Lacépède’s original name, flawed though it was. “Priority, like charity,” he wrote, “covers a multitude of sins.”

Life and death on a sunfish spawning bed

I won’t tell exactly where the gravel bar is located except that it’s somewhere between Seneca Breaks and Watkins Island on the Potomac River. It looks like any other gravel bar, just a hump of rounded quartzite cobbles capped with a tangle of  knotweed.

This may be my secret gravel bar.
Or maybe it’s not.

What makes this particular gravel bar special is what goes on every spring in the  slack water off its downstream shoreline.

I stopped by a couple of weeks ago for the first time this year. Up until then, the bar had been pounded by weeks of flooding, one storm after another, drowning familiar landmarks in swirls of muddy water and debris. But in late May the river finally calmed down enough that I could get my kayak in the water and check things out.

I slipped my fishing rod out from under the deck and tried a few casts off the side of the bar into the current. I reeled in slowly, feeling the lure bump against the rocks on the bottom. On the second cast, one “rock” wouldn’t let go, and I landed a nice smallmouth bass of maybe 14 inches.

But this wasn’t why I had come to the gravel bar. I pushed through the knotweed to the downstream edge of the little island and cast a little jig into slack water. Immediately something slammed my lure, and a few moments later a redbreast sunfish lay on the weeds by my feet. Next cast I caught another, then a third.

They were small—about the size of my hand—but feisty. And for good reason. They were defending their nests, and they saw my lure as an intruder.

This was their spot. For some reason having to do with the river bottom, the movement of the water, and location, they had chosen this spot as a nesting area. I was an interloper. There was no need to catch any more, particularly after what I had learned just recently.

Bad year for spawning. A few weeks earlier I had attended a meeting of the Potomac Smallmouth Club. The speaker was Jeff Kelbe, Shenandoah Riverkeeper and former fishing guide. His main subject was smallmouth bass, but what he said was equally applicable to sunfish.

Kelbe told the group something that they already knew. “The spawn has been kind of toast this year,” he said.

No sooner had the sunfish and bass built their nests than the next flood wiped everything clean. If the females had not yet released their eggs, they would be reabsorbed into until conditions improve. But if they had already spawned, the eggs and any hatched fry would be washed down the river.

Here we were already at the end of May. Kelbe said the fish might have one last spawning opportunity this season, if the river cooperated. It would be early June or nothing, certainly not later than June 10th.

Someone asked Kelbe for locations of some of the spawning beds. He wouldn’t say, and for good reason as we will see.

Guard duty. As Kelbe explained, fish on their spawning beds will strike any lure that comes their way, making them easy quarry for any fisherman who knows where to go. But there will be a cost.

Spawning season starts with the males scooping out circular depressions in the gravel or sand bottom maybe a foot across. The males attract females to their beds, fertilize their eggs, and then chase the females away. From then on, the males are the first responders in protecting the next generation. Aggressively and unremittingly, they attack anything that poses a threat to the eggs and later to the fry.

Fending off threats is full-time work. Let down your guard, and hungry bystanders—including other sunfish—dart in to grab lunch. The feisty males are effective defenders when the threat is real. But an attack on an intruder made of chartreuse plastic and tipped with a steel hook can be a calamity. The fisherman—maybe a little girl in this case, out for the afternoon with her father—sets the hook and feels the struggling fish on the end of the line. As she reels in, critical seconds go by as one by one the tiny fry disappear into the mouths of hungry opportunists.

The little girl pulls the fish out of the water, and it flops about on the bottom of the boat. Her father tells her to hold it up so he can take a picture. He unhooks and releases the fish. The fish speeds back to the undefended nest perhaps to discover that he has little left to protect.

Bass vs. sunfish.  Of course nature is always more complicated that it looks, particularly when human interests are involved. The meeting where Kelbe spoke was about bass fishing, and the men (and one woman) sitting around me were all bass fishermen. They loved bass and were dedicated to protecting them.

It so happens that a major threat to bass fry are the very sunfish that were the objects of my concern. Therefore, any pressure I put on the sunfish presumably could benefit bass. So I could choose: sunfish or bass? Or I could just walk away from a discussion of ethics that will lead nowhere except which fish I happen to like more.

I checked out the gravel bar four days later. The first thing I saw was that the water had dropped a lot more. It was clearer too, allowing me to see the bottom in some places.

I hauled my kayak up over the knotweed and waded ankle deep off the bar’s downstream side. All around me I could see sunfish nests, their round gravel clearings etched in the silty bottom. There were so many it looked like a heavily cratered part of the moon.

Also like the moon, there was no sign of life. As Kelbe predicted, spawning would be over just about now. I hope it worked out well.