50 Fish, 50 States: Small Stream Wonders

I’m on a quest to catch a fish in each of the 50 U.S. states – and to use each adventure as a means to explore conservation, the latest fisheries research and our complicated connections to the natural world.

That nondescript stream you pass every day on your commute to work? I bet it contains fish that would surprise and amaze you. Even if you fish, even if you consider yourself a curious naturalist, chances are you’ve overlooked your local freshwater fish.

When conservationists mention fish diversity, chances are they’re talking coral reefs or the Amazon Basin. But North America’s waters contain a plethora of fascinating fish, most of them unheralded and even ignored. Channel your inner 10-year-old and go poking around a little brook, and wonders await.

Like the cutlip minnow now in my hand. At first glance, I suspect many anglers would dismiss it as a “chub” and continue fishing without a thought. A closer look reveals a bizarre little fish. It’s also a species with some truly peculiar habits. It builds its nest in a style more commonly associated with birds. And, less wonderfully, it has a habit of biting out other fish’s eyes.

The cutlip minnow has been swimming in streams I’ve poked around my whole life, and this is my first meeting. After all these years, I visit running water and I’m a curious kid again.

6-year-old Eli Jones, holds a baby snapping turtle. Photo © Ben Herndon

Tadpoles in a Puddle

For me, this ever-flowing current that runs through my life began not with fish, but frogs. Actually: tadpoles.

I was five or six, barely older than my own son currently is. While other kids played baseball at a family picnic, I poked around the field’s edges. I found a puddle in a gravel road, jam packed with tiny, black, wiggling objects. I ran and got my dad.

“Tadpoles,” he said as he bent over the pond. “And this puddle is drying up. They won’t make it here.”

We decided to launch a rescue operation, as I retrieved a Kool Aid cup and filled it with water and tadpoles. We delivered it to the trickle of a stream that ran through my grandparents’ property. Later that summer, my dad suggested we check the creek to see if any tadpoles survived.

As I sneaked the ledge, a little frog leaped into the water. Then another and another. The water was alive with amphibians. And yes, by then I knew the tadpole-frog story, but seeing it? It was as if that stream could summon magic. How could that little black squiggly blob turn into a jumping frog?

The miracles just kept coming as I poked around central Pennsylvania streams. In those days I explored more with a dip net and bucket (or just my hands) than a fishing rod. Crayfish, water skippers, salamanders, minnows, hellgrammites. Wondrous creatures to seek out and capture. I’m still at. Still finding new creatures. Still a kid.

Photo © Dana Zane / TNC Photo Contest 2019

A Little Stream Somewhere in New York

I recently gave a series of science communications lectures, workshops and classroom talks at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I felt buoyed by the enthusiasm students had for the topic, for their questions, their discussions on conservation and careers and sources of hope. As an introvert, I also admit feeling exhausted after 12-hour days being the center of attention. I had a two-hour break. A small stream was calling.

A fellow stream enthusiast told me about a public access area along a gorgeous little stretch of water. Many fishing informants gave me arguably more exciting options: possibilities of big fish. Atlantic salmon. Lake trout. But I has simpler pleasures in mind.

Yesterday had been postcard perfect. But the weather had turned. Windy, damp, intermittent rain.

Still, upstate New York is a pretty place even on a foul fall day. Gold and red leaves swirled into the stream, and gave the air the earthy smell that permeates an Eastern woodland.

The Pennsylvania woods. Photo © George C. Gress / TNC

I kept the fishing as simple as the surroundings. I pulled out a collapsible ultralight spinning rod I packed in my carry-on, baited a small hook with a piece of redworm, and cast. The bait hit the water and my rod jerked. My first New York fish came to hand quickly. A rainbow trout. Seriously?

Rainbow trout are native to my current home state of Idaho. Not New York. But in a theme that has already become apparent in my “50 Fish” series, it’s hard to escape non-native fish scattered hither and yon by state fish agencies. Wherever you go, you find the same species. Unfortunately, it’s all many anglers ever find. But pay attention. There’s often more than first meets the hook.

I cast again. Thirty seconds later, my rod tip bounced and I had another fish. A creek chub. If you spend time on Eastern U.S. streams, you become very, very familiar with creek chubs. They are one of the most common of fish species. And they’re eager to bite pretty much what you throw. Some would argue too eager. But they’re native fish.

fish in a hand
A creek chub. Photo © Matthew L. Miller

As is often the case in such fishing, the chubs proved voracious. I walked along deep pools and little riffles. Wherever I cast, a chub found my bait, and quickly. There was never a five-minute period without a bite.

At one point, I felt a lighter bite, and lifted up wondering if I even had a fish. I did: a blacknose dace. I smiled, recalling childhood creek hopping days. This was perhaps my most common minnow catch with nets. It was my first caught on hook and line. Maybe I could get past the chubs and catch something else new.

fish in a hand
A blacknose dace. Photo © Matthew L. Miller

A few casts later, another weird wriggling on my line. I reeled it in and at first saw another chub. But this fish was sleeker, browner. I identified it as a cutlip minnow. No one would mistake it for a colorful tropical fish, but what a dramatic little thing it is.

Meet the Cutlip Minnow

A quick look at this minnow’s mouth reveals the source of its name. The bottom lip includes two fleshy lobes cleaved by what looks like a hardened spade. And this little plate is a tool of sorts, used by the cutlip minnow to scoop up small insect larvae (or my worm) from stream bottoms.

But it’s during the breeding season that the cutlip minnow really distinguishes itself. The male cutlip minnow builds extensive pebble nests. Don Orth of Virginia Tech writes that the males move pebbles at a rate of 6 to 8 per minute, which “results in a pebble mound that can be 12 to 18 inches across and 5 to 6 inches high.”

A cutlip minnow. Photo © Matthew L. Miller

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that these nests consisted of reddish-orange pebbles, almost all following in a very narrow wavelength of colors. It is the only known instance of fish selecting nest material based on color. Some science writers liken this to the behavior of the bowerbirds, males of which build structures and decorate them with colorful objects. I once visited a bower bird lek that was solely decorated with blue objects, including not only bluish rocks but also toys and scraps of clothing.

Researchers suggest the cutlip minnow may build its nest to advertise its fitness to prospective mates. They also report that males will sometimes let a rival build a nest, then take it over.

And make no mistake, this seemingly innocuous fish can be fierce. If a rock bass or perch gets too close to the nest, the cutlips minnow attacks, using its unique mouth to neatly gouge out a predator’s eye. As you might imagine, this is a powerful deterrent.

It also makes the cutlip minnow a poor pet. If you place one in an aquarium, the other fish will soon be blind. Researchers faced this problem when putting multiple fish in buckets.

I quickly released my cutlip minnow, and later caught a few more. Without my fishing rod, I’d have missed this cool species entirely. Cutlip minnows are actually quite common throughout the East, hidden in creeks people pass over every day. Much of freshwater biodiversity is like that: slightly out of sight, majorly out of mind. For me, these overlooked fish propel me to explore even the smallest of streams. I know I’ll often catch (and learn about) new species, gain a firsthand appreciation of freshwater biodiversity.

Each trip, I’m transformed into that little kid who marveled at frogs and other mysteries of the creek, my very own fountain of youth.

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  1. Mick Mlinar says:

    Thank you Matt for another fun and inspiring article. Look forward to reading each of your fifty state articles. It’s all about the connections.

  2. Bob Faber says:

    Check out the web site Micro Fishing if you haven’t already.

    1. Thanks Bob. I have checked out the site, and have a chapter on microfishing in my book Fishing Through the Apocalypse. You can read an excerpt on this chapter on the Field & Stream web site. Thanks for reading. Matt

  3. Maggie Frazier says:

    I learn something new about my own state! Very interesting.

  4. Graham Grieve says:

    Interesting Article, reminds me of 70 years past. Used to draw some of the little fish too.

  5. SafdarAli says:

    Indeed,nature has intense diversity in it’s texture.Fishes,being the most diverse with respect to outlook & extravagant habitat have remarkable attraction.We can live along with them by behaving with them in natural manners.We should do our best to conserve biodiversity

  6. Hamilton Bell says:

    Super Cool Man!