Nature Bulletin No. 258-A February 25, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B, Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
It is still winter on our lakes, streams and ponds but the fish beneath the
crust of ice already sense that spring is just around the corner. The
males of some kinds are flashing bright new colors not seen in summer
or autumn. Other males flaunt special pearly knobs, horns and other
insignia that dwindle or drop off in the months to come. More often
than not, he is one of those midgets that, when fully grown, is no bigger
than a man' s finger, maybe as small as a paper match. In an aquarium
many of these small species are as colorful and interesting as fancy
Illinois is not especially noted as a fishing state, people often
doubt the statement that we have more kinds of freshwater fish than any
other similar area on earth. However, of the two hundred or more
species known in the state, about two-thirds are little fish too small to
take an angler's hook.
The main causes for this bewildering variety are clear. First, we have an
assortment of aquatic habitats from which almost any freshwater fish
can find one to suit its taste. In addition, Illinois waters are fertile, like
the Illinois soils which feed them, and produce rich crops of fish food.
The state is well-watered by a network of streams that range from cold
clear spring-fed brooks to the mile-wide silt-laden "Father of Waters",
some sluggish, some swift, some deep, some shallow -- we have them
all. Our standing waters include everything from Lake Michigan and the
glacier-made Chain O'Lakes down to the broad bottomland lakes of the
Illinois Valley and the cypress swamps near the Ohio River. Also,
Illinois is geographically the "fish crossroads" of the continent. Its
waterways connect with the Mississippi and St. Lawrence river systems
reaching out to Canada and the Gulf, to the Rockies, the Alleghenies
and the Great Smokies. It is supposed that, over the ages, Illinois has
received fish recruits of many kinds from these far-flung places and has
offered them suitable homes.
Many of our better-known larger fish have dwarf relatives. For
example, carp and goldfish are the big brothers of our fifty-odd kinds of
true minnows, shiners, chubs and daces. While some of these common
"bait" fish are lacking in color, the mature males of others are brilliantly
marked with crimson, pink, yellow, jet black, or iridescent with blue,
green and gold.
The huge hundred-pound catfishes of the big rivers have several tiny
relatives that hide among weeds or under stones and make fine
aquarium pets. The active little Mad Tom is chestnut brown with three
veins of inky black along each side, while the brindled stonecat is
delicately marbled with light tan and velvety black. The strikingly
banded pigmy sunfish and the gaudy orange-spotted sunfish are kin to
our black basses, crappies and bluegills. Several other "half pints" are
orphans as far as large relatives are concerned -- among them the top-
minnows, the trout-perch, the pirate-perch and a dozen others, including
the diminutive cave fish.
Of all these little ones, we prefer that score of aquatic comedians -- the
darters that skitter along the bottom -- blood cousins of the wall-eyed
pike and the yellow perch. Some crouch behind stones that check the
rush of water in roaring torrents and some, like the Johnny darter, will
live almost anywhere.
Small fry are not always minnows.
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Update: June 2012