Saturday, November 24, 2018

Species Profile: Sea Lamprey

As most of you hopefully already know, I am a life-list angler. I target, document, and count the number of species, hybrids, and subspecies I catch, specifically on fly tackle. Because of that I spend a lot of time learning about and fishing for many different species of fish. This means I'm more adept at identifying and fishing for an extremely broad range of species than the average angler. This series will attempt to outline species identification, some life history, and methods for targeting with fly tackle. Maybe I'll get to every fish on my life list, but considering it is ever growing... it would take a while. Mostly, I hope this will get a few of you interested in going out and learning about or catching something new. 

Yup. You read that correctly. Sea lamprey. Quite possibly the most maligned and persecuted fish in America in this day and age. After years of seeing article headlines like "The Most Hideous Fish in the World" and "Most Gruesome Animal in History", I felt obligated to spread the word that these fish are important. They are not a pretty fish, and they don't make good sport, but they do not deserve the hate they receive. So, for better or worse, I'm going to profile one of the most fascinating species on the planet: Petromyzon marinus.

Lamprey are truly ancient, oft considered the most basal of existing vertebrates. All of the almost 40-some lamprey species are eel-like in shape, jaw-less, and have circular suction cup-like mouths. Sea lamprey are yellow-brown, often mottled, and can grow to nearly 50 inches. Of the many species two are native to the CT, sea lamprey and American brook lamprey. The brook lamprey, Lethenteron appendix, is listed as endangered in this state. Sea Lamprey are not but declined dramatically in numbers for a variety of reasons. They have suffered from most of the same things that rendered the Connecticut River's wild salmon population extinct. But they have a life history that has allowed them to return more easily, and a native lamprey run exists now in the river many times greater than it was before. Though we don't know much about what sea lamprey do out in the Atlantic, it is safe to assume they follow a very similar lifestyle to other parasites like leeches and ticks, attaching to and feeding on big bottom dwelling fish and not killing them. Unlike salmon, lamprey don't home. At present we are almost certain that adults are attracted to spawning water by pheromones being released by ammocoetes (larval sea lamprey). They may swim the whole way to the spawning grounds, but evidence suggests at least some also attach to large migratory species like striped bass and let them carry them closer. This type of hitchhiking generally doesn't put the lamprey's carrier at much risk of mortality at all. Once in the river, female lamprey carefully construct nests by moving rocks and gravel around with there mouths. Males grapple for position to fertilize the eggs. The spawn typically occurs in May and June. Like Pacific salmon, lamprey all die after spawning, providing the river and it's surrounding with rich nutrients. After ammocoetes emerge they do much the same thing a muscle does. So, when you wade through an East Coast stream and remark at how clean the water is, you probably have the humble sea lamprey to thank (among other things, of course). There is something special in regards to CT and lamprey. We have some very forward thinking fisheries biologists and are currently one of the only states on the coast doing lamprey run restoration work. We have one man in particular to thank for this: Steve Gephard. Gephard and a few others saw what most other still don't in these wonderfully weird fish: they aren't some demonic alien come to destroy our pretty trout and stripers, they are an invaluable environmental asset that we need to protect. Every year CT DEEP counts lamprey in fish lifts and does nest surveys. To restore runs, ammocoetes and adult males have been planted to attract the migrating breeders. And our rivers are all the better because of this. And because of the work CT has done, rivers in other states are getting better lamprey runs too. But because we are really the only ones working on this, there's only so far it will go. Other states need to follow suit.

One of the reasons Americans still despise the lamprey is the destruction of great lakes fisheries by these parasitic fish. Lamprey are not native to the great lakes, and have been relegated to a landlocked population there. Unlike the ocean there are no huge bottom fish for Lamprey to feed on in the lakes, so the feed on walleye, lake trout, brown trout, and salmon. They kill them. It is gruesome, and a massive ecological disaster. Every last Great Lakes Lamprey should be killed, and many states are undertaking that impossibly difficult task. Alas, this destruction and the mere appearance of these ancient animals left such a bad taste in millions of people's mouths, and now the policy with lamprey everywhere seems to be kill first, ask questions never.

And that is a damned shame. 

In late spring of 2015, I sat at the tailout of a pool on the Salmon River and watched a female sea lamprey build her nest. Her body undulated in the current, much the same color as the rocks and moving like a long strand of algae growth. She moved rocks one at a time, carefully forming a bowl shape in which to deposit her many eggs. I wasn't looking at a hideous, gruesome, evil creature, I was looking at another of nature's beautiful fish doing what it evolved to do where it evolved to do it. Right then and there I new I could never again leave a negative remark about native lamprey go without retort. I care about these fish as much as any wild, native species and I will fight to the death to keep them around.

For the few true fish nuts out there that want to see lamprey, visit a freestone river in early June and look in the same water that trout would spawn in, gravelly tailouts. My favorite place to observe lamprey is the Upper Delaware and Beaverkill rivers. On sunny days one may see dozens carefully working their nests their in crystal clear riffles.

Catching a lamprey on the fly is an odd proposition but I have done it. Like a shad or salmon they hit out of aggression to protect their nests. If you are going to attempt to catch a lamprey on the fly use barbless streamers. The females are the ones most likely to grab and a broken or cut off fly in their mouth will make their nest building job much more difficult. Getting one to grab is very easy. You can handle the fish it you want to, but I recommend a "medina release": poke the fly out with the rod tip after photographing the fish. Of course, I don't expect many to follow up on any of this advice. Only crazy life-listers like myself. But that's fine.

I hope this post opens a few minds. These fish really are remarkable. Respect the lamprey.


  1. Interesting post. I often see lamprey's in the Hammonasset R. while trout fishing. I once touched a lamprey, with the tip of my fly rod and was astonished. The creature rose to the surface and actually leaped, out of the water. It was very large, at least 24 inches long and quite thick. They are indeed ugly.

    1. Spawning lamprey often loose their sight entirely and so freak out if they feel anything unexpected. I've have a few startling moments like that in the Catskills.

  2. Replies
    1. I feel giving voice to species that would otherwise be swept under the rug is one of the most important things I do here.

  3. Wonderful, everything has a reason for being alive.
    Tie, fish, write, conserve and photo on...

  4. Your respect for all life is commendable and as usual fills me with pride.

  5. This is so cool and one of the wildest catches on a fly rod I can imagine. In all honesty, I would rather catch a lamprey than catch a large brown trout. I've caught large brown trout, but a lamprey would be a memorable one. Matt

    1. Any lamprey is an absurdly unique fish to catch on hook and line, no doubt.