Monday, March 18, 2024

The Rainbow Darter, #200 On The Fly

 Darters are interesting little fish that go ignored by most anglers. Members of the family Percidae, darters share lineage with yellow perch and walleye. If you look at their morphology this isn't terribly shocking, their fin arrangement and build aren't at all dissimilar from perch, with a spikey forward dorsal and big, rounded rear dorsal. Their patterning often matches up pretty similarly too, though it is incredibly varied. Darters are extremally diverse in fact, comprising a subfamily (Etheostomatinae) made up of five genera ( Ammocrypta, Crystallaria, Etheostoma, Nothonotus, and Percina). Of these, I've caught species in two genera: Etheostoma and Percina. Though I live in an area with a notable lack of darters- Connecticut only has two species -I am a big fan of them and when the opportunity arises to target them in areas with more diversity I like to. Of course, they're often very tiny, so it can be a real challenge to get them on the fly. Percina weren't terribly hard as they're larger and a bit aggressive, so longhead darter and logperch were quite easily acquired once I fished around an abundance of each. But the Etheostoma are little bit tricky. And oh boy can that ever be both appealing and irritating. Combine their difficulty with their exceptional diversity and you've got a recipe for a hunched over, frustrated CT Fly Angler with a very sore back sneaking around shallow streams. 

And such was the position I found myself in on a clear, clean flowing mid-sized river in central Ohio this past fall. I knew this area had a number of darters that I'd not yet added to my life list, and I was having no trouble finding a bunch of different ones in the shallows. And some of them were quite ornately colored. In fact, I could already tell that one of the species represented in this spot was the rainbow darter, one of a number of species that are graced with extravagant blue, red, and orange coloration. Their name portrays their beauty, and though they are quite widespread and can be fairly numerous a lot of anglers totally skip over their existence. Brook trout, eat your heart out... if colorful, nearly gaudy elegance is your type, rainbow darters give fontinalis a serious run for their money. Fly fisherman may quickly jump to a salmonid as the prettiest freshwater fish but I struggle to pick between darters and sunfish in terms of the colorful species. 

As I slowly wandered the tail out of a run, examining the bottom carefully, I noted small aggregations of darters around clusters of rocks with vegetation growing on them there were a few species represented though I couldn't identify each. I rigged up carefully: a size 22 hair big with a tiny piece of squirmy worm material affixed to the bend of the hook (darters like something to chew on, I've noticed) and one small shot just a couple inches ahead of it on 6x tippet. Finessing a fly down in front of a tiny darter in this current would be almost akin to dropping a nymph in front of a trout in 10 feet of water in a raging, turbulent flood. It's a very tricky dance that requires precision and patience, one I was already well familiar with. 

The shot placement is a key. If you place a split shot immediately ahead of a fly, it can drop right down to the bottom nd you don't have to control two separate entities down there; the split shot and fly act as one. But some darters like attacking the shot. For some this can almost work in your favor when the fly is right at the shot, eventually they get it in the process of trying to kill the lead ball (it comical, I'm not quite sure where their infatuation with them lies). But some of the really small ones, like the ones I was seeing, my attack the shot once and be done. So I had to play an odd game of keeping the shot far enough away from the fly as not to distract the darter but close enough to have control over where on the bottom the fly settles. Closer means more control, further means less chance the darter just attacks the shot and never cares about the fly. This is, obviously, not an exact science. It requires an immense amount of trial and error. In this case about an hour of it. I had darters attack the shot, run and hide, or hit the fly but not get it in their mouths just right. Persistence pays off though and eventually I did manage to hook one. It was a diminutive but colorful little creature, my first rainbow darter. 

Lifelist fish #200: Etheostoma caeruleum, Rainbow darter. Rank: Species

Though this certainly wasn't the most impressive example to the species, it was exciting to get my first of one of the more well known colorful Etheostoma. When they spawn in the spring the mature males really color up something fierce and I'd very much like to catch one of those. But there's always another fish, isn't there? Darters are just one of a large number of whole families and genera that go largely ignored by the angling world as a while. They flee from the path of completely unaware wading anglers and scuttle for cover as our drift boats shadow the riffle bottom. I don't expect everyone to want to catch two inch long fish on hook and line, but it still surprises me that many just have no interest in learning about them at all. 

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