Here’s something new for the blog – fish! I think I may have mentioned fish in passing in one or two previous posts, but never as a topic of discussion. For the most part this was because I was never where there were fish to observe. The only fish I really encountered in Toronto, aside from the schools of little minnows that one sees skirting the shore in the sandy shallows (there’s a good bit of alliteration for you!), were giant, overgrown carp that were hard at work digging up the bottom of a little bay we surveyed in the summer. I’ve spotted the odd salmon moving up-river to spawn, mostly when I was in BC a few years ago. But that’s pretty much it. My parents’ waterbodies don’t have fish because they’re shallow and vernal, and fish can’t survive the drying up in the summer, or the freezing in the winter.
When we made our first visit to view the house, we went down to the dock to look around. Peering in the water we spotted these guys, above, whole bunches of them, several of which might have been 6 or more inches long. These were easily the biggest “real” fish (carp don’t count) I’d seen in quite a long time. I have to go back to my childhood, canoeing in the little man-made lake in town, to recall good looks at largeish fish like this. Although he likely won’t admit it, I suspect that finding these fish loafing near the dock was one of the things that really sold Blackburnian on the house (the other being the view as we stepped out of the car).
In his younger days, Blackburnian was really into fishing. He owns at least three rods and reels of different types, and has two tackle boxes full of lures, as well as his own 14-foot punt boat and trolling motor. For various reasons he stopped when he got in to university and hadn’t touched the gear in nearly ten years. As soon as we had signed the lease for this house, one of the first things we did was return to his parents’ place and collect up all his fishing stuff. His dad brought up the boat not long after we moved in, and he’s been out nearly every day in it.
Initially I tagged along to enjoy the water and the scenery, but it didn’t take long for him to persuade me to let him show me how to fish. I will admit that I was a little intrigued; I’d never been fishing before, and it was a whole genre of creatures that I knew virtually nothing about. The thing about fish is because they live in a completely different environment from humans you either have to go to them through snorkeling or scuba diving, or bring them to you. I’m not able to do the former, so if I was to learn about fish, that left the latter.
This is me with my first fish caught. I’m laughing because it’s such a teensy-weensy little fish. This is the same species we saw off the dock on that first visit, in the first photo. It’s a Bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus, and it’s quite abundant in the lake; based on our fishing observations, I’d rank it third-most common, although it’s hard to say, really. One website (for Wisconsin, but good enough) I found indicated that young Bluegill will only read an inch or two in their first year, but will continue to grow steadily as they age. The largest fish are also the oldest. This one, at four to five inches long, is likely three years old.
This is the same species. The colouration is completely different from the little guys, and it completely threw both Blackburnian and me off for a bit. As it turns out, older adults don’t show the vertical striping as prominently, and they develop much stronger colours. The adult males, especially, become quite vibrant, with bright red breasts. This guy indicates how the species gets its name. When all I was seeing was the little guys I wondered why they were called Bluegills and not Bluefins, since the fins were much more distinctly blue in the little ones, especially when you see them in the water. In this mature fish, however, the blue gill covers and chin are pretty obvious. The main feature that seems to stay constant across all ages is the unadorned black “ear flap” on the gill covers. I estimate this guy to be between 9 and 10 inches long. The same website said he’s likely about 10 or so years old. Bluegill rarely live much over 10 years, so this guy was a real senior.
This is probably my favourite of all the fish in our lake, and also happens to be the most abundant. This is a Pumpkinseed, Lepomis gibbosus, I presume named for its shape rather than its colouration. The Pumpkinseed and the Bluegill are both members of the Sunfish family, Centrarchidae, as well several others in Ontario’s lakes. The family is native to North America, primarily the east, but they have been widely introduced in the west and on other continents because of their appeal to anglers (and also their appeal on the dinner plate – indeed, many of these small fish are grouped together by anglers and colloquially labeled “panfish”). Many sunfish have bright colours such as these two, but some are more drably patterned. Sunfish are identifiable by the spines on the front half of the dorsal (back) and anal (rear belly) fins. You can see the spines folded back under my thumb in this photo. They’re sharp, so care must be taken when grasping the fish.
Care also has to be taken, when holding the fish in a body grip like this, to make sure your hands are wet while handling the fish and that you try to avoid touching more of the fish than you have to. Fish are covered in a slimy mucous layer which acts as a physical immune system, a barrier that helps keep out infection and foreign bodies. Dry hands, or touching a fish to any other dry surface, will remove this mucous layer. This body grip is only really practical on smaller fish, though, and in many cases is really the only option for holding them. Medium-sized fish can be held vertically for a short time without injury by their very strong lower jaw, composed almost entirely of sturdy cartilage. For fish that are too big to fit in a palm, this is usually the safest way to handle the fish without risk of injuring it. Large fish, the ones that you see on fishing shows being hoisted up as trophy catches, are usually held horizontally with one hand on the jaw and the other (wetted) hand supporting the belly, since the fish is designed to be suspended in water, and the weight of such a large fish that is out of water or not otherwise supported has the potential to injure organs. A few fish have big, sharp teeth, and these are generally gently grasped behind the head and gills, around what might be considered the fish’s “neck”.
I’ll admit that I had some reservations initially about fishing, I didn’t really like the idea of using a hook to catch something. After doing a lot of research, though, I’ve allayed most of those concerns. First and foremost, research indicates that upwards of 97% of fish captured using an artificial lure survive without any ill effects (live bait is often swallowed into the stomach, which is much more dangerous to the fish to try to remove). To give the fish the best chance of surviving it’s necessary to reduce the amount of stress placed on it – much like bird banding, in that respect. Trying not to play the fish on the line too long, and not holding out of the water for long periods (or at all, if possible), will minimize its fatigue and general stress. Handling it properly and being careful not to remove the mucous membrane is also important. If practicing catch-and-release, using a barbless hook will minimize both the amount of time the fish is in hand as you’re removing the hook, and also the damage caused by it. A properly hooked fish (and careful removal of said hook) doesn’t bleed.
Not surprisingly, the effects of hooking a fish has been the subject of a lot of research. It’s hard to deny that a fish, like all vertebrates, feels some pain. Studies suggest that fish do have some nerve endings in their mouth but are more desensitized than ours, because they’ll often eat prey items that are prickly or otherwise not happy about being eaten, and delayed resumption of feeding is more likely due to psychological reservations than fear of pain (“Fool me once…”). On the other hand, fish in frequently-fished locations are often recaught, suggesting the effect doesn’t last long. Fish tagging has provided good information about recaptures, longevity, etc. One of the biggest benefits to angling is from a conservation standpoint – groups dedicated to recreational fishing and hunting are among the biggest promoters of conservation, actively involved in conservation or restoration projects.
I’d like to look into fish tags, a little like bird bands, and see what regulations and such exist in applying them. It would be interesting to learn more about the fish that use our bay and lake, and perhaps even get to know some individuals. Considering how drab a fish looks when standing over the water, viewing it from the top, they really are very striking creatures.
More fish tomorrow!