Many of us are familiar with the bountiful life that inhabits the planet’s lungs in the rain forest….BUT, did you know that Ohio, in general, is situated near the northern edges of what is the most diverse temperate fish fauna in the world? A habitat that in its own way is as important as any other more glamorous and exotic environment we have come to know.
WHAT’S IN AND AROUND CLEVELAND BESIDES WALLEYE?
As most of us know about the infamous ’69 Cuyahoga River oil slick catching fire and it being one of several testaments to the decline of the nation’s rivers—and eventually “sparking” a national movement to clean-up our waterways—little is known about the many “lesser known” fishes and bio-diversity of the river and other waters of our metro region and beyond. The Cuyahoga alone boasts over 80 species in the mainstem of the river.
You may have heard about the typical basses, walleyes, and perch, but what of the “other fish?” Many are simply referred to as “minnows” Many are little fish….with little known about them! What about their importance to our own existence as clean water indicator species which support the life systems that keep us alive? Did you know, for example, that Cleveland and N.E. Ohio is home to what is one of the world’s most brightly colored fishes?
Let’s take a look beneath local waters and examine just some of those “other” fish! These waters may include The Cuyahoga River and tributaries, The Grand River and tributaries and of course, Lake Erie!
It is interesting to note that while very popular and familiar, what we know as game fish (Crappie, Bass, Walleye, Perch, etc.) make up less than 10 percent of the fishes on the North American Continent, and nearly the same amount in Cleveland and Ohio in general. We will observe these fish not from an angling perspective, but rather a “fish watching” perspective in just the same way bird and butterfly enthusiasts explore their creatures of affection! So, grab your waders, mask and snorkel, binoculars, viewing containers and pack a lunch…off we go into area waters! Yes, there are many places where water is still crystal clear!
Let’s begin with the DARTERS
Darters are a family of fish that include the familiar perches and walleyes. They could be described 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. 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.”Greater Cleveland and beyond…of course, is a haven for many kinds of darters, including the rainbow darter, fantail darter, Johnny darter, banded darter, and greenside darter.
NO TROUT ABOUT it, they still exist!
It was recently believed by state wildlife officials that the Brook Trout was extirpated from Ohio, meaning that while not extinct, it was no longer found in Ohio. This was the belief up until about 15 years ago, when a small holdout population was discovered in Geauga County near park district lands. This land was under threat of the usual urban sprawl housing development which would surely see to the fishes demise by destroying its habitat and water quality. Thanks to the effort of several preservation minded individuals and through the park district, the land and the fish were protected! What makes this such a special find is that one would never think that within just a 40 minute drive of the epicenter of highly populated and industrialized N.E. Ohio, in downtown Cleveland, that a fish that represents the essence of virgin and wild Ohio” would still exist!
This fish prefers still crystal clear and coldwater pools in small headwater streams. These are limited habitats which are threatened due largely in part to encroaching development laying over small streams and adjacent water cleansing wetlands. The Ohio Brook Trout is a fish that when donning its breeding colors, looks like nature intended to make it the clown of the inland stream waters! Polka dots of white, set over a background of cobalt blue, red and orange…with fins trimmed in white! It’s presence is truly a sign that the water in which it lives is amongst the highest quality. The Cleveland Metropaks Zoo features a Brook Trout exhibit in its aquatics building. There you can learn more about this amazing trout!
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 in one of Cleveland’s Metro-parks 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 parklands of the Cuyahoga River Valley 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 area tributaries of the Cuyahoga and Grand River. They are typically found in headwater streams—and in clean, clear, quiet pools. 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 or fees for the service!
Among many other types of minnows likely to inhabit Cleveland area streams, are blacknose dace, sand shiners, bluntnose minnows, common shiners, silver jaw minnows, creek chub, mud minnows, and northern hog suckers. Some of the fishes names are as interesting as their physical features!
Now let’s have some fun visiting nature’s fun house side-show in exploring the many ODDITIES of the Cleveland area 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, it will make sense!
Brook Lamprey is another strange fish. Lamprey are one of the native fishes that have been swimming around since before the dinosaurs, and have changed little in millions of years. Resembling eels, an interesting role lamprey play in the underwater environment here 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 slithers along the bottom of the stream like a snake searching for food. Certain native lamprey species are endangered in Ohio and are another excellent indicator 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, The Cuyahoga Watershed and other Cleveland area 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. The Stonecat Madtom is one example of a madtom indigenous to our region.
Yet another oddity lurking in the Cleveland region 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 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! The Brook Stickleback is a commonly known stickleback in Greater Cleveland/N.E. Ohio.
Lake Erie Monster….LAKE STURGEON????
The Sturgeon is another ancient element of the local aquatic fish heritage dating back to the last Ice Age. It is long, and shark-like with an armor-like covering instead of scales and is listed as a state endangered species. But, while it has long been believed by many wildlife professionals to be virtually absent from Lake Erie due to habitat loss and over-fishing in the late1800’s, recent reports on sightings and catchings–some official, some unofficial–suggest the fish is either making a comeback, or finding its way into Lake Erie via locations in the Great Lakes region where populations are more stable.
When overfishing occurred, millions of pounds were taken out of Erie because they were considered to be a nuisance that damaged fishing nets. Lime firewood, the fishes were thrown into piles and burned. Later, a market was discovered for them, particularly for their roe, so millions more were taken from the waters. This practice continued until the early 1900s–And in less than twenty years, they were almost extinct! It is sad enough that protection of this fish for shear environmental reasons was not in the language of any laws at the time. Moreover, from even a sport perception, to not foresee any conservation needs for this fish is laughable. Why? Can you imagine what would be more challenging for fishing fun? An 8” bass or an 8′ sturgeon???!!!
The Eastern Burbot is another odd looking fish that calls Lake Erie native waters. It is an elongate fish with adults ranging from 16″ to 32″ in length. If you could cross the shape of a carving knife, catfish and eel into one fish, you would best describe the burbot! The burbot has a coloration that is brown to olive mottled brown. Adults can range from 16″ to 32″ in length It prefers deeper and cooler waters It is the only freshwater member of the codfish family and is a relic of Lake Erie’s glacial past!
Lastly, let us not forget the gars. Short-nosed and long-nosed. Gar fish are another group of 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 Cleveland area waters, is appropriately named the alligator gar—a gar 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 Cleveland area such as the Grand River region in backwater pools and along quiet banks where there is heavy weedy vegetation. They also native to certain areas and habitats in Lake Erie. They are passive predators feeding on other small fishes. Gars often swim just under the surface of calmer waters basking in sunlight. Most gars reach a maximum length of 3 feet.
Finally, let us finish up our tour of Fishes Of Cleveland waters taking a brief look at the popular SUNFISH FAMILY.
Not all sunfish are “bluegill!”……
The following covers the most familiar fishes of the sunfish family, which are also found in certain waters of the Cuyahoga River Watershed, Greater Cleveland/N.E. Ohio, and in Lake Erie. In North America, this group of fishes comprises roughly 30 species. Many anglers 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.
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, (westernm Lake Erie/Maumee Watershed), northern longear sunfish, pumpkinseed sunfish, black crappie and green sunfish. Sunfish prefer habitats ranging from weedy shallows to open pools in a particular river system or lake. Sunfish, from an aquarist’s perspective, are like the North American version of the ever popular chiclids raised in home aquaria.
LET’S GO HOME NOW….
Well, there you have it, an introductory tour to some of the “Fishes Of Cleveland!” If your interest in exploring fish in the metro area and beyond has been “baited,” learn more about what you can do to keep our local lakes and streams healthy and clean! Contact your state wildlife division to learn more, or consider joining their “Adopt-A-Stream“ or “ “Adopt-A-Beach” program. You can find much of this information at Gardens Under Glass in The Galleria complex in downtown Cleveland. You may also want to contact The North American Native Fishes Association, www.nanfa.org for a perspective in “fish watching” and other conservation initiatives regarding North American fishes. There are other components of this region’s unique wildlife assembly that deserve just as much attention to conservation as the more familiar ones. To lose these local species of fishes through habitat/water quality neglect, is to begin to lose the clean water and life support systems that ultimately support our own lives. We also stand to lose an integral and delicate part of our region’s unique diverse natural heritage. I hope that this article has helped to promote a better respect for our local waters and aquatic wildlife habitats in general. For in them, there is so much to learn, inspire and stimulate the imagination..while having fun doing so!
Note: You can search Google Images to find many photos of all the fishes mentioned in this article. You can identify all of these native fishes in the PETERSON’S FIELD GUIDE TO FRESHWATER FISHES. Also see The North American Native Fishes Association at www.nanfa.org to learn more about native fishes in our region and North America.
Sources: The North American Native Fishes Association, ODNR Division of Wildlife, Peterson’s Field Guide To Freshwater Fishes-Page/Burr, The Fishes Of Ohio-Milton B. Trautman
Photos: coming soon!
Carillio is a former Ohio Regional Contact for The North American Native Fishes Association, avid self-taught naturalist, native fish enthusiast/advocate of 23 years, and volunteer for Gardens Under Glass in downtown Cleveland. For information on field trips to local streams, please contact Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org