New York State’s waters are home to a number of unusual fish. Some, like carp and goldfish, are easily recognized by most people. Others, such as bowfin and gar, may only be familiar to Great Lakes and Lake Champlain fishermen. And still others, such as quillback, have probably only been seen by a handful of New Yorkers.
Each of New York State’s unusual fish has its own unique qualities and distinct appearance. From the longnose gar with its long snout and numerous sharp teeth to the snakelike eel that can reach 3.5 feet in length, these fish are all interesting animals to observe.
Because of the large number of fish species that are in this category, New York State’s unusual fish will be discussed in two articles. This article describes a few of New York State’s most unusual fish that anglers can encounter.
First introduced into New York State waters in 1831, carp are now found across the State. They are distinct in appearance, usually with large heavy scales covering their bodies and two short whiskers (called barbels) surrounding their mouths. Their fins have a deep red tint and the dorsal (back) and anal (bottom rear) fins each have a single thick, saw-toothed spine that can produce a nasty wound if touched carelessly.
Carp can grow quite large in New York State’s waters, more than 40 pounds! They eat a variety of plant and animal material and are often spotted by the cloud of mud they stir up as they feed. It is not uncommon to see and hear carp sucking in floating insects at the water’s surface.
Carp display interesting spawning (reproduction) habits. During late spring and early summer, they thrash and splash their way into very shallow, weedy areas and broadcast their eggs. Their bodies are sometimes completely exposed out of the water and the splashing they make is quite a sight to see. A 20-pound female carp will lay nearly 10 million eggs.
Originally from Asia, carp were first brought to New York State to provide another food fish. Over time, however, they have become less popular as a food item and instead have picked up the reputation of a “polluted fish.” Although carp can tolerate polluted waters, they prefer clean waters. Carp taken from clean waters are excellent to eat. Carp are commercially marketed live, smoked, or cleaned and iced.
Often considered a pet, goldfish also live in the wild and are found in many waters across New York State. They prefer warm, weedy, shallow sections of smaller ponds and lakes, as well as slow-moving rivers such as the Mohawk and Hudson.
While goldfish kept as pets may never get larger than six inches, “wild” goldfish often reach 12 to 14 inches long. They are very similar in appearance to carp, but can be told apart by the lack of barbels around their mouths. Goldfish can be quite colorful in appearance, but most are dull olive green (more effective when hiding from predators).
Goldfish are native to China and have been kept as pets for centuries. New York State’s goldfish populations are the result of illegally released pets or escapees from bait buckets. They are hardy fish that easily adapt to different waters and are, therefore, prohibited for use as bait.
Quillback have a limited distribution in New York State. They are only found in large rivers and lakes, such as Erie, Ontario, and Champlain and the Susquehanna and Allegheny rivers. Although quillback closely resemble carp, they are easily distinguished by the lack of barbels around their mouths. In addition, quillback are generally smaller (ten to 15 inches long) and lack heavy spines at the beginning of their dorsal and anal fins. Quillback get their name from the long, soft (quill-like) ray on the front of their dorsal fin.
Only a few facts are known about the life history of the quillback. Adults feed on insects and invertebrates and have few natural enemies. Spawning takes place in spring.
Quillback have little interaction with anglers. At times, they are caught on doughballs, but few people actively try to catch these bony fish.
Grass carp are one of the largest members of the minnow family, commonly reaching weights in excess of 25 pounds. Native to the rivers of eastern China and the Soviet Union, grass carp have the unique ability to eat and, therefore, control a wide variety of submergent plants. This behavior has led to grass carp being introduced into waters all over the world for aquatic weed control purposes.
Although grass carp are related to both common carp and goldfish, they differ in appearance and feeding habits. Grass carp lack barbels and spiny dorsal and anal fin rays. In addition, grass carp feed strictly by grazing aquatic vegetation and do not share the bottom feeding habits typical of common carp and goldfish.
Grass carp can be used as a biological form of aquatic weed control. While fertile (able to reproduce) grass carp have been used in many countries, the majority of states in the U.S. (including New York State) prohibit its introduction due to concerns about the fish reproducing and possibly destroying valuable wetland communities. In 1983, creation of a sterile (called triploid) grass carp eliminated reproduction concerns. New York State now allows the use of triploid grass carp on a limited permit basis.
Like any other weed control method, the use of triploid grass carp is effective in some situations and not effective in others. Triploid grass carp are most effective when used in small (less than five acres) weed-choked waters where low numbers of these fish can be stocked. DEC monitors the use of triploid grass carp by a stocking permit program administered through the Bureau of Fisheries office.
It is prohibited to possess grass carp without a permit. Anglers who may by chance catch a grass carp should immediately return it to the water unharmed.
A large group of fish, numerous species of suckers inhabit New York State’s waters. Some, such as the redhorse, are only found in a few waters in the State, while others, such as the white sucker, can be found all over New York State.
Suckers look like large minnows. They have generally large fleshy lips and most species have underslung mouths. The shape, size, and coloration for a single species may vary according to the habitat they live in. Suckers range in size from six to 24 inches. They are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material along the bottom of streams and lakes.
Suckers are spring spawners. During the spawning period, males develop small, raised structures called tubercles on their head and fins. Suckers migrate upstream and spawn in groups in shallow, swift water. Like salmon, some suckers make large “spawning runs” in certain New York State streams.
Suckers are a main food item of osprey and eagles. They are fun to fish for and although few people have tried them, they are excellent to eat. They have firm, white, light-tasting meat, especially during spring.
Known as “living fossils” to some biologists, longnose gar have been around for nearly 100 million years. They are very distinct in appearance, with long, narrow, well-toothed snouts, arrow-shaped bodies, and heavy, rough scales. Gar are large and can reach three feet in length.
Longnose gar are found around weeds and sunken logs in lakes and slack-water areas of large streams. They can survive in water with low oxygen levels because their unusual swim bladder allow them to breathe oxygen from the air. Adult gar often occur in groups and will float at the surface. In New York State, gar occur in the St. Lawrence River, the Niagara River, Lake Champlain, eastern Lake Ontario, and the larger tributaries to these waters.
Longnose gar often spawn in groups. Newly hatched gar use an adhesive pad found on the tip of their snouts to attach themselves to vegetation. During their first year, gar are the fastest growing freshwater fish in the State, growing nearly five times faster than most other fish species.
Gar are voracious feeders, mostly eating other fish. Although some anglers blame them for eating sportfish, gar mostly eat fish species of no economic importance to people. Only a few anglers actively fish for gar. Gar eggs are extremely toxic to humans, but their flesh (though difficult to prepare) is edible.
The bowfin is another of New York State’s living dinosaurs, having been here for the last 60 million years. They are large fish, averaging 18 to 24 inches in length and growing up to 11 pounds in weight.
Bowfin are so distinct in appearance they are unlikely to be confused with other fish species. They have a massive round head with heavy plates on the cheeks, a large mouth loaded with pointed teeth, a rounded tail and a long, wavy dorsal fin. There is an oval black spot at the base of the tail, and their fins are often bright green with some orange highlights on males.
Bowfin have a limited range in New York State. They live in Lake Champlain, the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and its larger tributaries, and a few other large water bodies in Central New York.
Similar to bullheads and longnose gar, bowfin can live in waters with low oxygen levels. Their modified swim bladder is lung-like, enabling bowfin to gulp air at the water’s surface.
Spawning occurs in May and June. Adult males build nests by biting and tearing out leaves and stems of rooted vegetation. After the eggs hatch, the young attach to nearby vegetation with the aid of an adhesive tip on the snout. Male bowfin stay and guard the eggs and young for up to several weeks.
Although bowfin put up a good fight when hooked, only a few anglers fish for them. Juveniles make interesting and colorful specimens in a fish tank.
Odd in appearance, burbot look somewhat like a cross between a bullhead and an eel. They have an elongated body with a single prominent chin barbel much the same as bullheads, and long dorsal and anal fins similar to those of eels. Their bodies are covered with tiny, deeply embedded scales that give burbot a “slimy” feeling.
Burbot are found sporadically across the State. They usually live in lakes, but are also found in some streams where there is cool water and plenty of hiding places. They are unique among New York State fish in that they are the only freshwater species that spawn in midwinter with ten to 12 fish forming spawning fish balls.
Although burbot are frequently caught by anglers, most people do not eat them. In the past, Indians and Europeans ate these fish, but today, human consumption is mostly limited to Scandinavian people who relish the livers.
A big water fish, freshwater drum or sheepshead, can grow to be 20 plus inches in length and ten pounds in weight. These heavy-bodied fish have a blunt head and a pronounced humpback appearance. By using the muscles surrounding the swim bladder, these fish can produce a drumming sound, hence the name.
Freshwater drum live in big rivers and lakes. They prefer clear water, but are quite tolerant of turbid conditions. They use their numerous small rounded teeth for crushing and eating their favorite foods (freshwater snails, clams, and crayfish). Their unique skull has many cavities and supports for the muscles needed to grind up these foods.
Freshwater drum have a long spawning season. They are unique in that they are the only North American freshwater fish that have planktonic eggs that float and drift with the currents. Spawning of drums has never been observed in the wild.
Freshwater drum have large otoliths or ear bones. These round, smooth bones, called “lucky stones,” are often picked up on the beach as a souvenir. On one side, there is an angled groove that forms an L for luck.
Drums are commercially harvested on a small basis in the Great Lakes. The catch is mostly used for animal foods, though smaller fish are eaten by humans. Freshwater drum have a reputation of putting up a good fight when caught on hook and line.
A familiar shape to most people, the eel’s long, slender, snakelike body is hard to confuse with other fish. Small, embedded scales like those of burbot give eels a slippery feeling. American eels have both their dorsal and anal fins connected to the tail so they appear to have one continuous fin wrapped around the end of their bodies.
Migratory fish, eels are found from the ocean to the headwaters of many streams. They spend most of their time buried in the gravel and mud or hiding under rocks. Due to their snakelike way of moving, eels are able to bypass most barriers and have even been seen crossing lawns during heavy rains.
Eels are the only freshwater fish in New York State that are catadromous, meaning they migrate out to sea to spawn. It is not known exactly where and how they spawn, but the suspected spawning site is the Sargasso Sea. Spawning adults and eggs have never been found, and it is assumed the adults die after spawning.
During the first stages of life, eels have a larval form. The larvae are transparent ribbonlike creatures that drift with the current and take approximately one year to reach the New York State area. When they grow to be 2.5 inches long, larval eels then change into the classic eel shape. Now called glass eels, they are still transparent. As these glass eels near coastal rivers, they become colored and are called “elvers.” The three inch long elvers then begin the trip upstream with females moving far upstream, while males remain near the ocean. Eels usually spend ten years in freshwater before returning to the sea to spawn.
Eels are important commercial fish in New York State. Most are exported to Europe and Japan, where they are smoked, jellied, or cooked in olive oil and vinegar. Unfortunately, many of the prime fishing areas for eels have been closed due to high PCB levels.
Unusual Fish and People
The term unusual can mean many things when talking about New York State’s fish. It does not necessarily mean a fish is uncommon or odd in appearance. Fish that display unique behavior or are exotic (originally from another area) to the State may also be considered unusual elsewhere.
Many waters contain fish species that were not native nor the result of an authorized introduction or stocking. One common method for fish to be introduced is by people placing live fish or eggs into waters that may or may not already contain them. This may occur if aquarium fish outgrow their homes, when fishermen release their bait at the end of a day’s fishing, or when people intentionally introduce a new fish into a water.
While none of the these actions seem harmful, they can actually cause a lot of damage to the aquatic community of a water. Introduced fish can harm the local aquatic community in a number of unanticipated ways, including:
- disrupt or even destroy long-established feeding relationships
- compete with local fish species for food and space
- alter habitat (grass carp may eat vegetation that is important for another fish species spawning)
To avoid the possible harmful effects that introduced fish species can cause, there are a few simple rules you can follow: don’t stock waters with live fish unless you have a permit by DEC; don’t release baitfish into a water body at the end of a day’s fishing even if you doubt they will survive; and don’t use live baitfish in waters expressly forbidding this.
All credit for these great tips goes to the Department of Environmental Conservation. https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7014.html