Well, here’s a topic I could write on and on about indefinitely. I’ll try to keep it short.
I’ve never understood the term “rough fish” nor do I like it. We’ve been refining a pretty good system of fish nomenclature over the last couple of hundred years in the western world and this has allowed those of us who are very, obsessively interested in fish to speak with precision and communicate effectively with icthyophyles in other states and other nations. The generic and specific epithets are familiar to many of us: Ictalurus nebulosus: the brown bullhead; Salvelinus fontinalis: the brook trout; Cyprinus carpio: carp. What does the label “rough fish” add to the conversation?
I suppose it has something to do with tradition, really, and Pennsylvania is a great place from which to launch into this. It’s traditional here to wait in breathless anticipation of the short tanker trucks which will dispense that singular sportsman’s delight: the stocked trout (Salmo trucka?) each spring in measured portions as the state sees fit. “Sportsmen” actually line up to fish as the hatchery produce is pumped or netted into the stream. Why don’t we cut out the middleman – the supermarket’s only a short drive? But these fish are actually considered by many to be superior to our walleye, suckers, and our minnows. In what sense?
I go to the water to not know what I’m going to catch, not to be assured of a fish that’s been placed for me. This is not just tangential to my satisfaction as an angler, it’s essential. The quality of wildness was paramount in my work, The Dying Fish.
Let me catch myself before launching into a tirade or rant. I’m not big on stocked trout – anyone who reads my work knows this but here’s actually an awful lot of room for positivity right now – no need to be down about what’s happening in our streams in addition to all the concerns that weigh us down here in the human world. And perhaps the greatest reason to put a smile on your face has to do with the fact that people are learning to appreciate “rough fish.”
Many of us didn’t need to be taught to appreciate “rough fish” because we never knew what a “rough fish” was. As children, we wanted to wade the shoreline casting poppers to pumpkinseed sunfish, we wanted to fish tiny pools with tiny hooks for sticklebacks or we wanted to sit out at night, fingers pinched to the line in anticipation of the nibbling of bullheads. Only later did some of us fall under the spell of certain sporting publications that showed us the “fish of dreams” which were almost invariably some form of trout or salmon or black bass.
But even in the 1980’s, not all publications fit this mold. In-Fishermen magazine led the charge early into appreciation of various species of catfish, suckers, walleye and sauger. I read this voraciously as did many of us who loved swimming things and were kids in the 80’s and 90’s. And I think it was primarily us who grew up with an open-minded view of North American waters and their native denizens. A foundation was lain by In-Fisherman for the movement that now flourishes – that now enriches angling lives and broadens horizons.
Optimism is entirely appropriate today as we think about the future of “rough fish” and “rough fishing.” On my first long Appalachian Trail hike many years ago, I spent an evening talking with an aging trail maintenance director and asked him how you bring the youth out to participate in the perpetuation of the great trail, the maintenance and other hard work. His answer surprised me at the time: “Just get them to come out and hike it, to fall in love with it. The rest will follow.”
And so it is with underappreciated fishes. People falling in love with them or at least appreciating them is step one. The rest will follow and is now following. People across Pennsylvania and all parts of the U.S. are looking beyond trout and hatcheries to what’s already in their streams or what should be there.
Regulations today exist to protect endangered and threatened fishes, whether or not they are salmonids. But more importantly, the average fisherman today is more aware of the often scaly, sometimes bottom-dwelling denizens that inhabit the waters where maybe he still pursues trout – that one is a sculpin… and the skinny one is a darter. Micro-fishing is trendy, on its own scale. This is exactly what it sounds like: micro line, micro rods (optional) and micro hooks for micro fish. There is no micro fishing without appreciation of all fish.
Fishermen today commonly understand the difference between native and non-native fishes; at least more understand this than once did. And understanding and appreciating this difference by a majority of fishermen is a first step in achieving regulation that favors the natives. This is happening today in most states though it’s still hard to say that PA regulates in favor of natives when they introduce millions of marginally-viable brown and rainbow trout annually to waters where natives could thrive.
Education comes first. When and where government is needed, we want a government that’s responsive to the desires of its people. The goals put forward here could perhaps be accomplished by fiat, the PA Fish and Boat Commission deciding unilaterally that it’s all about natives now – no stocking next year and all of you who’ve grown up fishing trout, just learn to like it! But how much better if the broader angling population could come to appreciate diverse fishes, pushing the change from the bottom up?
So maybe you are a trout or bass fisherman who’s always headed for Pennsylvania’s little stocked lakes or flowages every April and bemoaned the declining catches through late April and early May as the stockies are simply used up. Maybe you’d like to expand your horizons but don’t know which direction to turn. Well, I could write quite a bit about that topic (it’s what I do, write about fish) but instead, I’m simply going to offer a list of some of Pennsylvania’s approximately 180 native fish species, presented with the question and challenge, “Have you caught all of these yet?”
- Longnose gar
- Skipjack herring
- American shad
- Northern Redbelly Dace
- Silverjaw Minnow
- Striped Shiner
- Golden Shiner
- Sand Shiner
- Pugnose Minnow
- Bigmouth Buffalo
- Silver Redhorse
- White Catfish
- Flathead Catfish
- Rainbow Smelt
- Lake Whitefish