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Little and big, fast water and slow, the minnows are one of the world's
most successful fish families.
by Scott Skinner

Wyoming Wildlife:August 1993

This is a fish story. But it is not your average fish story. It is not
about the biggest bass, the meanest mack, the toughest pike. It is not
about the grand daddy of all devilfish, or the mother of all muskellunge.

This is a story about big fish and little fish, forage fish and bait
fish, and about fish that tell us things even though they do not speak.
It is a story of 1,600 species, of beautiful fish and strange fish. It is
a story of family Cyprinidae - the carps and dace and shiners and chubs.
It is a story about minnows.

To most people, a minnow is a small fish - any small fish. Not so. A
minnow is a member of a distinct group. It has scales and bones and
internal organs that distinguish it from fishes of other families. And
not all minnows are small. The Colorado squawfish is a minnow. It can
weigh eighty pounds. The carp is a minnow. It can weigh sixty. Of course,
most minnows are small.

It is, perhaps, because of their lack of size that the importance of
minnows is overlooked. But minnows are important. The world would be far
different without them. To begin with, they are forage fish-the food that
sustains the game fish we like to catch. Without emerald and spottail
shiners, Wyoming would host far fewer walleyes. In many waters, the
bug-eyed fish are dependent, at least seasonally, upon a minnow forage
base. Without the shiners, the fishing at Glendo, Seminoe, Grayrocks,
Keyhole, Boysen, Bighorn Lake, Ocean Lake, and Wheatland Reservoir #1
would not be nearly as good as it is.

Without minnows, the lake trout fishing wouldn't be as good as it is
either. In spring and fall, the mackinaw of Flaming Gorge and Jackson
Lake prey heavily on Utah chubs. In Jackson Lake, they also eat redside
shiners and speckled dace. Without those minnows, the mackinaw would find
survival difficult. And if they did make it, they would not be as big, as
healthy, or as game as they are.

The same is true for brown trout. Without minnows, they wouldn't amount
to much. In streams and rivers statewide, brown trout are sustained by a
fish diet. In many of those waters, the fish they eat are minnows. In one
of the state's best brown trout fisheries (a secret place), redside
shiners are the staple. In other waters, the selection is greater. In the
Laramie River, for instance, the browns prey on a variety of minnows
year-round. They eat red shiners, longnosed dace, carp, creek chubs,
common shiners, and fathead minnows. Because of their diet, Laramie River
browns average better than fifteen inches and a pound-and-a-quarter.

Where the browns are big, there's usually a good forage base. And that
forage is likely to be minnows. Of course, minnows feed bass, ling, and
catfish, too. Even rainbows occasionally eat a minnow or two. The fishing
in this state is as good as it is, in large measure, due to the carps and
dace and shiners and chubs. They feed the fish we like to catch. But they
also help us hook them.

In addition to being forage fish, minnows are baitfish. Attached to a
hook and drifted, trolled, or suspended near bottom, a minnow is likely
to catch any one of Wyoming's warm-water gamefish. Walleyes, ling, pike,
perch, and bass are taken by the tens of thousands, each year, by Wyoming
anglers using fathead minnows and golden shiners for bait. Hundreds of
thousands of the little fish are annually sold by the state's eighty
licensed live-baitfish dealers. Last year, one wholesaler (the state's
biggest) sold 840,000 minnows in state. No one knows exactly how much the
baitfish industry contributes to Wyoming's economy, but it must be
significant. And, as the popularity of baitfishing grows, so grows the
industry, and thus the economy.

However, since most of the commercially sold minnows are brought in from
out of state, some people don't believe that's "good" economic growth.
But it is. Because the biggest baitfish dealer in the state (the only one
of any size) imports his minnows, our native carps, dace, shiners, and
chubs are not being depleted by commercial interests, but rather are left
alone to feed predacious fish and birds. If they weren't- if they were
seined and marketed-the gamefish, and thus the fishing, would suffer. And
that would adversely effect the economy. Because, in this state, sport
fishing is big business.

In 1991, more than 300,000 people fished in Wyoming. That year, they
spent almost $195,000,000 on angling related goods and services. If the
fishing were not as good as it is, people wouldn't spend so much on it.
And if it weren't for minnows, the fishing wouldn't be so good. In terms
of dollars and cents, minnows are worth a great deal. But they are also
worth a great deal as environmental indicators.

Generally speaking, an environmental indicator is a plant or animal that
reacts to changes in its environment in an obvious, or readily
determinable, manner. For instance, when dams became numerous in the
Colorado River Basin, Colorado squawfish numbers began to plummet. The
impoundments curtailed the flow of sediments, altered the flow of water,
decreased temperatures, and blocked migration routes. The big minnows
could not adapt. They reacted by dying off. And we learned that dams, or
too many dams. are not good, at least for squawfish.

Other minnow species alert us to dangerous pollution levels. Some of
them, with low tolerances to specific pollutants, die when confronted
with contamination. Others. with greater tolerances, absorb the offending
material and store it in body fat. Either way, researchers are alerted to
the condition and can attempt to gauge its severity. By watching minnows,
scientists can tell when pollution, or other changes in the environment,
threatens humans. The fish are invaluable in helping to determine when
the quality of the environment is deteriorating. But they are also good
at telling us when it's getting better.

When streams and lakes are being rehabilitated, scientists often watch
minnows, particularly the number of species present. If the number
increases, it means the rehabilitation effort is succeeding. When
displaced species reappear, it indicates the environment is, once again,
healthy enough to support them.

Generally speaking, the more species there are, the healthier the
environment is. So as long as our waters host lots of different kinds of
minnows, we can assume they' re in good shape. There'll be little or no
pollution, good numbers of gamefish, and lots of anglers telling stories
about the biggest bass, the meanest mack, the toughest pike.

Wyoming minnows large and small

The grass carp is one of Wyoming's big minnows. In the Mississippi River,
these fish often weigh more than twenty pounds. In Asia, 100-pound
specimens have been documented. The biggest grass carp in Wyoming weigh
about thirty pounds, but no one knows how big they'll eventually get -
they haven't been here long enough.

It was about ten years ago that sterile grass carp were introduced to a
few lakes and ponds. It was hoped they would forage in, and thus control,
dense beds of aquatic vegetation. So far they have. They've done a good
job at Lake Gelatt, Sloan's Lake, Renner Lake, and several other places.
Their eating habits make the water easier to fish, easier for predacious
gamefish to capture prey, and they help prevent winter kill.

Grass carp are long-lived fish known for their leaping ability. They jump
so well they're almost impossible to seine. Pick up the net and they jump
it. They're almost impossible to catch on hook and line, too. That's
because they only eat vegetation, which makes bait a problem.
Occasionally, however, a grass carp is hooked. But few are landed. They
are tremendous fighters that leap and dive and generally spit the hook,
break the line, or wear down the angler. Grass carp are not what most
people think of when they think of minnows.

Most of the time, the red shiner is not red. Most of the time, it's
green. But during breeding season-that's July in Wyoming- its head and
some of its fins turn rosy red; its sides turn bright blue, and its
"neck" purple. For about a month, the red shiner is a beautiful fish. The
rest of the time it's drab' which is probably good because it spends most
of its life trying to hide from the predacious fish that prey on it.

These three-inch minnows are preyed upon in the North Platte River and
its tributaries in Natrona, Converse, Goshen, and Platte counties, in
Grayrocks and Keyhole Reservoirs, and in Packers Lake. They prefer
medium-sized streams with moderate current, and they are tolerant of high
turbidities, silt, and low intermittent flows.

Red shiners are native to Wyoming. They are also found east to Minnesota
and Illinois, and southward into Mexico.

The fathead minnow has a pudgy, blunt head. It has a body that is short
and stout, medium-sized eyes, and a small mouth. It's an odd looking
critter, about three-and-a-half inches long, dark on top, tannish below.

It's also abundant - found throughout eastern North America from Great
Slave Lake south to Mexico. The fathead has been introduced into the
western states as a baitfish and is probably the most widespread minnow
in the nation. In Wyoming, it is common east of the Continental Divide in
lakes and small streams. It's also found in the Green River drainage and
has even been seen in the Big Horn Mountains at 9400 feet.

Fatheads are also seen in bait shops. They're probably the most popular
baitfish in the nation. That's because they're easy to cultivate in
ponds, tough enough to endure transport, storage, and sale, and because
bass, walleyes, and pike love them.

Researchers like them too. Fathead minnows are widely used in laboratory
studies of toxicology. The fry make particularly good test animals.

The leatherside chub is another aptly named minnow. Its small scales give
the side of the body a leathery appearance and a like texture.

These chubs are generally steel gray on top, whitish underneath. But when
they spawn- usually in August - the males sport small, bright orange
crescents around their fins. The brilliant color transforms a normally
handsome fish into a beautiful one.

Leatherside chubs inhabit clear, cool streams and apparently seek out
pools rather than fifties. In Wyoming, they are found in Sulfur Creek and
the Bear River in Uinta County. They have also been seen in Pacific Creek
in Teton County, near the mouth of the Buffalo Fork River, and in the
North Fork of Slate Creek in the Green River drainage in Lincoln County.

While leathersides inhabit a number of Wyoming waters, they are not
common. In fact, they have become rare in the Bear River. That's
unfortunate. These four-inch natives are beautiful, and make excellent
bait when plentiful enough to be used as such.

The spottail shiner has a distinct black spot at the base of its tail
fin-thus the name. It also has a stout body, large eyes, and a
medium-sized mouth. Most specimens are dusky or green on top, silvery
below, and between three and four inches long.

These minnows are widely distributed in central and eastern Canada and in
the Lake States. They were brought to Wyoming in the late 1970s to
provide forage for gamefish in Keyhole Reservoir. The walleyes, pike,
perch, and bass thrived on them, so they were introduced to Boysen Lake
and all the reservoirs on the North Platte River. Today, walleyes in most
of those waters are dependent, at least seasonally, on shiners. If it
weren't for the spottails, Wyoming' s warmwater fishing would not be as
good as it is. Here, the spottails function primarily as forage fish, but
in other places, they are popular baitfish.

The sturgeon chub occurs in the Mississippi River in Louisiana, and in
the Missouri River drainage in Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana,
and Wyoming. But in Wyoming, it is rare, found only in the Powder River
from the Montana state line upstream to the mouth of Salt Creek. At one
time, it was documented in the Big Horn and North Platte rivers but
appears to have been extirpated from those drainages.

This three-inch minnow favors muddy rivers with unstable beds. It also
favors riffles over sand, gravel, and small rubble. Its streamlined body
allows it to thrive in fast currents.

Sturgeon chubs are often found together with flathead chubs, plains
minnows, suckers, and catfishes. However, during the last forty years,
sturgeon chubs have become more abundant. Plains minnows and flathead
chubs have decreased in number.

Robert Rice
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