Year of the Fish: Minnows


As the Year of the Fish comes to an end, we saved some of our smallest fish for the end. Last, but certainly not least, our smallest fish covered this installment will be from the minnow family. The minnows, belonging to the Cyprinidae family, more than make up for their diminutive size with their magnificent coloration which often rivals tropical aquarium fish. Blues, reds, yellows and even metallic silver are all colors that can be found on the minnow species that live in the streams that feed Lake James.

The Cyprinidae is the largest family of fish, consisting of more than 2,000 species; 231 of which are found in North America. “Minnow” is typically a generic term is given to any small fish and is generally used to describe small bait fish used to catch larger game fish such as bass or catfish. But, the true members of the minnow family include shiners, chubs, dace, stonerollers, carp and even goldfish. These fish vary in appearance, just as they vary in name. The peak of minnow coloration occurs during breeding season, with the males achieving brighter markings as they fight for the attention of females. One of these minnows that can be found within the park is the warpaint shiner. The warpaint shiner can grow to lengths up to five-and-a-half inches and have a torpedo shaped, metallic-silver body. Where the warpaint shiner excels in appearance, is the markings that give this minnow its name. Just behind the gill plate, on the dorsal fin and tail fin, the warpaint shiner has black bars. Accenting these black markings, the warpaint shiner is decorated with red markings on its face and dorsal fins, making the fish look as if it were a Native American brave preparing for battle. This is just one of the brightly colored fish in the minnow family we have at Lake James State Park.

Minnow species are generally pretty small, so what do they eat? The sandbar shiner is a species that spends most of its time in the mid-water levels of a stream, pursuing crustaceans and various insects. Other species, such as the central stoneroller, consume mostly algae and some invertebrates. Minnows as a group don’t have teeth lining their mouths, but they do have series of teeth located down in their throat that help them crush food. Being the small fish in the pond, or stream as the case may be, makes our minnows prey for many animals. Larger fish, birds, snakes, turtles, frogs, raccoons, crayfish, aquatic insects and even spiders prey upon minnow species.

Some of the Lake James’ minnow species can be found in the lake, but the majority can be found in the streams that flow through the park. Where exactly depends on the species of minnow. Creek chubs can be found cruising stream bottoms in search of algae while others, like the rosyside dace cruise in the middle of the water column.

Our park’s minnows frequently go overlooked and they can be hard to find. Creek exploration programs happen throughout the year and are one of the best chances to see some of them. So, keep an eye out in the park newsletter and online program schedule for these opportunities as the Year of the Fish comes to a close. We hope to see you in the park.

Nature NotesMolly Sandfoss