Do You Really Know Your Local Baitfish? Apparently I Do Not

By Joe Cermele

Last weekend I decided not to be lazy and took a long wade to a secret hole on one of my favorite local streams. In the summer it's a fun wade. In the winter, not so much, especially considering it's a long shot that may or may not give up one or two holdover trout at best. Well, it gave up nothing except the little fish in the photo below, which I found dead on the water's edge. I unfolded its little fins, took one look at their shape and structure and thought, huh...that's a baby walleye.

I'm not a walleye expert, but I know what the fins of fish in the perch family look like. This find had me baffled, because I have never heard of walleyes inhabiting the stream I was fishing, nor, to the best of my knowledge, does it drain into any bodies of water that contain walleyes. The entire drive home I was thinking about all the deep, dark holes I knew of on the stream and wondering if there was a monster 'eye or two lurking in any of them.

All that wishful thinking ended with one Google search, which proved it was not a baby walleye at all. Five more Google searches and I learned that the fish was a shield darter. Now, I've heard of darters and I've seen them in various rivers and streams bolting at lightning-speed between rocks. I never thought much about them, or looked into them. If I had, I would have known that all 1,200-plus species of darter are members of the perch family, which explains the walleye fins. You learn something new everyday.

So how many of you are well-versed in baitfish species, took one look at the photo and made an ID? And how many of you would have picked up the dead darter and thought you just unlocked the secret to some hidden walleye population?