Last weekend I finally took a trip to Shawnee National Forest to look for three darters that have very limited ranges in Illinois: stripetail, spottail, and fringed. Their peak spawning month is April, and I've been wanting to look for them for several years, but the timing just hadn't worked out until now.
On Friday I drove down to Cave-in-Rock, a small town on the Ohio River. I camped that night at the state park, went for a run in the morning, and then fished the river for a bit with an inline spinner. Visibility was low, and I didn't get any hits, but that was ok. What I really wanted was in the creeks nearby. My friend Lance Merry and his girlfriend were on their way down, so I packed up and headed over to the first spot.
We chose our sites using data from an INHS paper by Jeremy Tiemann and Josh Sherwood. Our first stop was a tributary of Big Creek. It was clear and cold and the right size to wade with water shoes and shorts.
The creek was full of fish, but I had a hard time finding the stripetail and spottail darters. The riffles and runs were full of rainbow darters. Despite being colorful, they were not what I was looking for.
Rainbow Darter (Etheostoma caeruleum)
The stonerollers were certainly spawning. The males didn't show any interest in my bait (because they were busy doing epic battle with each other), but the females were hungry and happy to bite.
Central Stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum)
Lance and his girlfriend arrived and used their seine downstream of where I was fishing. I found some habitat that looked good for the stripetail and spottail darters - large slab rocks. I dropped my small piece of redworm in between the rocks hoping that a darter head would pop out. However, when a head finally did pop out it was a lot larger than I was expecting!
Banded Sculpin (Cottus carolinae)
Finally, I saw one of my targets, a small stripetail darter. It didn't show any interest in biting my piece of redworm, so I caught a stonefly nymph from under a rock and put it on my Tanago hook instead. Darters go nuts over stonefly nymphs, and right away I hooked my target.
Stripetail Darter (Etheostoma kennicotti) - new hook & line species #324
Once I started using stonefly nymphs, the spottail darters were happy to come out of their nests to bite. Almost every large rock had a male spottail under it. I looked for ones with especially dark heads to target, because I knew they would have the most impressive colors and patterns.
Spottail Darter (Etheostoma squamiceps) - new hook & line species #325
Here is one I think is a female. We didn't see any gravid spottails, and the males' nests were loaded with eggs, so we think the spawn might have been near its end.
This is stripetail and spottail spawning habitat. Most of the larger rocks had males under them, and the females could be seen roaming around out in the open.
Here's one of the male spottails shortly after being released. He sat out in the open for a while, but eventually he dashed back into the rocks. I hope he found his nest!
One species that we saw but I was unable to catch on hook & line was creek chubsucker. They're one of the toughest suckers to fish for, so I'm not surprised that I didn't get one. Before we left I used Lance's dip net to catch one for a photo.
Creek Chubsucker (Erimyzon oblongus)
It's hard to tell from the side photo, but this male had the craziest tubercles of any fish we've ever seen. Instead of small, smooth bumps, his tubercles formed sharp horns that protruded out from the sides of his face. It's hard to imagine two males battling each other with such fearsome weapons!
Once Lance had enough specimens to take photos of, we move on to the Big Creek proper a little ways down the road. We were off to a good start!