People who are familiar with Southern Ohio’s Hocking Hills are quick to take notice to the many stunning rock formations found in the hollows and gorges in the region, such as Old Man’s Cave and Ash Cave. No less noticed, is the abundance of water spilling over rocks forming the many pools and streams which slice through the many gorges. In addition to the many waterways and natural works of rock art sculpted by nature over long periods of time, this region holds many best kept secrets of its diverse animal and plant life.
One such fascinating secret lies beneath the surface of the many streams you are likely to hike near during your visit. There are many small fishes schooling about lazily. Have you ever noticed what kind of fishes they are?
This is a general introduction guide to the fishes of the Hocking Hills region, especially focusing on some of the more abundant, yet lesser known species of the waterways. Interestingly enough, North America fosters the most diverse temperate fish fauna in the world, and the Hocking Hills are an ample part of this diversity!
The following observation of the fishes of the Hocking Hills is not from an angling perspective, but rather what a “fish watching” perspective, in just the same way bird and butterfly enthusiasts explore their creatures of affection!
Let’s begin with the DARTERS
Darters are a family of fish that include the familiar perches and walleyes. They could be represented as “underwater hummingbirds” because of their size, quickness and colors. They are small, colorful or intricately patterned fish, seldom exceeding 5 inches in length. They require clean, clear running streams for their optimum survival. They are elongate fish, with a physique designed perfectly for remaining stable in swift moving water on stream bottoms. In the Hocking Hills they feed on small insect larvae, worms, crustaceans and other small organisms. Darters swim along the bottom of streams in a quick “darting” fashion, hence the name “darters.”
Hocking Hills, of course, is a haven for many kinds of darters, including the endangered eastern sand darter. Other darters finding home here are the rainbow darter, fantail darter, Johnny darter, banded darter, greenside darter, verigate darter and more. It may be surprising that one of the world’s most colorful fishes makes Hocking Hills its home! If you ever happen to be a part of one of the park naturalist’s stream life observation programs, be sure to look closely at the rainbow darter as the naturalist holds the fish up into the sunlight light for viewing purposes in the viewing container.
Next up, the MINNOW family.
There are approximately 231 species of minnows in North America., so the next time you gaze down into a stream while crossing a trail bridge try to identify which kinds of minnows you’re spotting. Even the most camouflaged or mundane colored minnow seems to come alive with the color and shine of sparkling jewels during spawning season when stream waters warm up a bit (approximately late March to late May). Watching a group of spawning minnows can be a sight to behold! You know something unique and complex is happening. Such a scene is similar in appearance to a flock of birds all darting about in tight formation in every direction.
Some minnow species, such as redside dace are indicators of higher water quality, while others, like the creek chub are more tolerant to the erosion and sedimentation that can occur in the gorges where trails are heavily hiked or after heavy rains. By the way, just a small tip for leaving a light footprint on aquatic environments: It is best to not hike too close to stream banks, because trampling plants along erosion sensitive banks eventually kills the plants, and ultimately the root structures stretching into sandbanks.
Southern red belly dace are another type of small minnow which are found in the Hocking Hills headwater streams and in clean, clear, quiet pools, such as those at Ash Cave. During spawning season, southern reds are surely to capture your attention easily, as they are brilliantly colored with a bright “stop sign red” underbody, yellowish- green fins and dark black stripes running the length of the body from near the head to tail.
The central stoneroller is colorful and easily recognized in the Spring. It sweeps clean the bottom of streams by eating excess algae off of rocks, as well as a host of other small organisms. This is a fish that keeps streams clean without anyone paying any extra taxes!
Among many other types of minnows likely to inhabit Hocking Hills streams, are blacknose dace, sand shiners, bluntnose minnow, horny head chub, common shiners, silver jaw minnows, rosefin shiner, creek chub, mud minnows, northern hog sucker, white sucker, and trout perch. Some of the fishes names are as interesting as their physical features! You can identify most of these native fishes in the PETERSON’S FIELD GUIDE TO NORTH AMERICAN FISHES
Now let’s have some fun visiting nature’s fun house side-show in exploring the many ODDITIES OF THE STREAMS……. Hurry hurry, step right up…right here you see the scary looking …mottled sculpin….The sculpin is a small but voracious eater, which like darters, are bottom dwelling fish, never turning away at the chance to lunge up and swallow an unsuspecting baby minnow! They have larger mouths than most small fishes so this is quite easy for this little guy. Against the stream bottom, the sculpin’s camouflage can fool even the sharpest eye. The easiest way to describe the sculpin is that it has the body of a darter, with the head of a toad, or even resembling a bull dog. This description may sound silly, but when you actually see the fish, this description will make sense!
Brook Lamprey is another strange fish. Lamprey are one of the native fishes that have been swimming around in fresh waters before the dinosaurs, and have changed little in millions of years. Resembling eels, an interesting role lamprey play in the underwater environment is preying off of sick and dying fishes. By doing this, the lamprey help to keep the overall fish population strong and healthy, by "removing" those sick fish which may spread disease to others! They literally attach themselves to the weaker fish with their jawless and sucker-like mouth and suck fluids from their prey, eventually killing them! I guess you can call them the "Draculas" of the creek!
The lamprey is different from all fish because it is actually jawless and as mentioned earlier, most notably resembles an eel and slithers along the bottom of the stream like a snake searching for food. Certain native lamprey species are endangered in Ohio and are excellent indicators of cleaner water quality. Like most fishes which are either threatened or endangered, loss of habitat and poor water quality contribute to their declining numbers.
Continuing with nature’s sideshow, Hocking Hills streams are home to Madtom catfish. Madtoms are small catfish usually inhabiting grassy and weedy river and stream banks, in shallow, moderately calm waters. They are very small fishes usually found under 5 inches and can deliver a nasty sting if handled improperly. A common species of madtoms found in the Hocking Hills region is the mountain madtom.
Yet another oddity lurking in the hills are the stickleback minnows. Sticklebacks are small, elongate fishes, olive green and yellowish in color with small spines jutting up from their backs. They are a distant relative of the salt water seahorses and pipe fishes, and resemble a little wind up bath tub toy, as they propel through the water with great precision, stopping instantly in mid-water like a helicopter hovering still in midair! During spawning season, sticklebacks become little carpenters with fins. Carrying in their mouths, they will actually move small detritus (sticks, leaves, stones, and other small debris) to a safe spot, where a family nest can be constructed and guarded!
Lastly, let us not forget the gars. Gar fish are also fishes which have changed little since the days of dinosaurs! If an alligator could do it’s best impression of a fish, it would look like a gar fish! In fact, one gar fish, although not found in Hocking Hills waters, is appropriately named the alligator gar--a fish that has historically been known to reach a length of 12 feet! Short-nosed and long-nosed gar, however, are found in the larger deeper rivers in the Hocking Hills region in backwater pools and along quiet banks where there is heavy weedy vegetation. They are passive predators feeding on other small fishes. Gars often swim just under the surface of the water basking in sunlight. Most gars reach a maximum length of 3 feet.
Now let us finish up our tour of the Hocking Hills waters taking a brief look at the popular SUNFISH FAMILY.
The following covers the most familiar fishes of the sunfish family, which are also found in certain waters of the Hocking Hills. In North America, this group of fishes comprises roughly 30 species. Many angles mistakenly refer to various species of sunfish as bluegill, when in fact, bluegill are just one particular species of sunfish. For example, one who is fishing may refer to what is actually the brightly colored central long ear sunfish or the pumpkinseed sunfish as a bluegill. Looking closer, however, there are distinct differences. As mentioned earlier, as with all of the fishes previously mentioned, these too, can be identified in the Peterson’s field guide.
The sunfish have all the earth-toned colors that seem to emulate and mimic the very same colors of the Autumn time woodlands to which they are indigenous. If you happen to enjoy fishing, examine the differences between these fishes in your catch. If you are catching and releasing, be sure to not handle a fish with dry hands, as this irritates their slime layer. The “slime layer” is a protective thin smooth coating over the body of fishes which helps to protect them from infection and disease. Some common types of sunfish similar in appearance, but which are not all bluegill, are rock bass, warmouth sunfish, red ear, shell cracker sunfish (named because of this fishes’ appetite for small snails), orange spotted sunfish, pumpkinseed sunfish and green sunfish. Sunfish prefer habitats ranging from weedy shallows to open pools in a particular river system.
Well, there you have it, an introduction to some of the fishes in the Hocking Hills region. If your interest in exploring fish in the Hocking Hills has been “baited,” learn more about what you can do to keep our streams healthy and clean. Contact your state wildlife division to learn more, or consider joining their “Adopt-A-Stream“ program. Additionally, you may want to consider joining or starting a local watershed stewardship group. There are other components of this region’s unique wildlife assembly that deserve just as much attention to conservation and appreciation as others, no matter how small, large, pretty or not they may be! To lose these local species of fishes through habitat neglect, is to begin to lose the clean water and life support systems that ultimately support our own lives--as well as lose an integral and delicate part of our region’s diverse natural heritage.
Note: You can search Google Images to find many photos of all the fishes mentioned in this article. To learn more about native fishes of North America, contact The North American Native Fishes Association http://www.nanfa.org or to identify all of the above mentioned fishes, obtain a copy of Peterson's Field Guide To North American Fishes available at local book stores or from your local library.