Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Today I finished reading Dave Whitlock's latest book Trout and Their Food. It's a great book, probably the best I've seen on the basics of what trout eat and the flies that imitate those food sources. I wrote a brief review article on the book for Examiner.com that you can check out by clicking here.

Dave's book has a great section on "minnows"... all of the baitfish that trout eat and we in turn try to imitate with streamer flies. In this section, Dave recounts a time when he met a man who was "fly fishing for sculpins" on the Norfork River in Arkansas. The man was using an old fly rod tip section, a couple of feet of monofilament, and a 1/2" long San Juan worm tied on a size 20 hook to catch the bottom dwellers which he sold to a local trout fishing resort as bait... the going rate... 25 cents a piece!

Ozark Sculpin (Cottus hypselurus) from the White River, AR
Banded Sculpin (Cottus carolinae) from the Spring River, AR

Dave's sculpin story got me thinking about all of the "minnows" I have unintentionally caught on the fly rod. Sadly, there have been many days when "minnows" were the only thing I caught. Although I did manage to catch 2 trout this weekend when Kelly and I went to the Spring River, I also caught 2 "minnows"... actually Bleeding Shiners... not wounded, that's just their proper name. (In case you were wondering... Yes, Kelly caught more trout than I did... 6... but who's keeping score?)

An uncooperative fly caught Bleeding Shiner (Notropis zonatus)

You may be wondering why I keep putting the word "minnow" in quotation marks. Well... as a biologist, I'm not a big fan of the word. I don't really claim it as part of my vocabulary. My training in biology and my experience as a naturalist has made me prefer to call things by their proper names. "Minnow" is a loaded word. It can mean a lot of different things, and depending on who you ask you will likely get different ideas of what is and is not a "minnow."

Merriam-Webster defines a "minnow" as...
  1. a: a small cyprinid, killifish, or topminnow   b: any of various small fish that are less than a designated size and are not game fish
  2. a live or artificial minnow used as bait
By this definition, pretty much any little fish that isn't a game fish could qualify as a minnow. The first part hints at biology, including cyprinids, killifishes, and topminnows... but leaves out the shiners, shads, and herrings which would probably be called "minnows" by most anglers. Carp are cyprinids, but I don't think anyone would call a 40 lb carp a "minnow"... well, except a biologist referring to it as a fish of the family Cyprinidae: the true Minnows. All this being said, what you consider a "minnow" is up to you... I'll continue to call a Logperch a "Logperch."

Logperch (Percina caprodes) from the Spring River, AR

Some of the "minnows" I have caught over the years have been quite impressive. In Tennessee, we have a fish called a Tarpon... that's right... the "Tennessee Tarpon." This fish is actually a Skipjack Herring (Alosa chrysochloris), but if you ever see one you will understand the local name. They look very much like a tiny Tarpon... particularly because of their projecting lower jaw. I have only caught one, and it was not on a fly rod. I caught it one evening while fishing the Tennessee River in Knoxville with ultralight spinning gear. I admit I had no idea what it was. I immediately went home to look it up in a book, and subsequently did a little online research to discover that people actually do target them (sometimes with fly rods) for sport... and as bait for catching monster catfish. The "Tennessee Tarpon" I caught probably weighed a little over 1 lb. The Tennessee state and IGFA World Record is 4 lb... now that's quite a "minnow."

One of my best "minnows" caught on the fly was a River Chub from Cypress Creek in Alabama. I considered it to be picture worthy because it put up such a good fight.

River Chub (Nocomis micropogon) from Cypress Creek, AL

It was easily as big... or bigger than most of the wild trout I ever caught in the Great Smoky Mountains.

As a naturalist, the "minnows" are always a welcome bycatch. They let us know that our stream biodiversity is what it should be, and are often great indicators of the health of our waterways. Be kind to the "minnows" you unintentionally catch... remember that they feed all of those big hungry predators we're really after.


  1. Nice blog Jay.

    I fear the reference of 'minnows' may well originate from hear in the UK. The species we have over here are an unbelievable pest. In the summer the rivers can be thick with them in places and they drive us up the wall. Not only can they cram a bait far larger than you think they could in there mouth but they can strip a lump of bread the size of a golf ball to nothing in minutes. But they do make a great bait for big perch and pike.

    It's funny but myself and a few other anglers have this year competed against each other in a challenge to catch the current UK record weight (however many fish it takes) of a bunch of species. This forced us to go out and target some micro species like the bullhead and you don't realise how hard it is to actually do.

    Personally I always refer to undersized fish as tiddlers so as not offend the local minnow population.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Daniel. Very interesting to hear the British perspective on the matter.

  3. I have got some really nice pics of some creek chubs I have caught while trout fishing. Some days, I catch more of them! Caught some nice ones, too. I don't mind catching them - changes things up a bit. Haven't caught a sculpin, although I have spied them.

  4. Casey, glad to know I'm not the only chub photographer out there... a good fish is a good fish, even if it is just a "minnow."

  5. I can tell that I'm going to be educated following your blog Jay. Thanks. By the way, don't feel bad, my wife usually out fishes me.

  6. Great write-up Jay! That is a good looking river chub. What size and type of flies were you using when you caught these "minnows"? Have you tried more of this micro-fishing recently?

    1. Bryce, very cool to see that this post is still generating some interest two years after it was posted. I'm glad you commented too. It seems like people are often afraid to comment on older blog posts.
      I haven't specifically tried any microfishing lately, but we're always catching chubs when fishing small nymphs for trout. A size 16 or 18 zebra midge is usually a good choice for cooler weather and a similar sized elk hair caddis usually gets them on the surface when it's warm.
      Thanks again for stopping by.

    2. Thanks for the reply Jay. I enjoy fly fishing for panfish but have yet to target chubs. They should be fun on a light weight fly rod.
      Thanks for the info and keep up the good work!

  7. Nicely done! We are huge minnow fans! On a side note, minnows are some of the best table fish around, I would put them up against a trout any day. Smoked Common shiner, lake chub chowder, fallfalfallfish... all good stuff...we were turned onto your blog from the guys at microfishing and will share it on our facebook page.

    1. Thanks, Dave and Clay.
      I'm a pretty big minnow fan too. As a biologist with a serious interest in biodiversity and conservation, I know how important they are to the health of a fishery. Thanks for sharing on Facebook.