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Fin-Telligence

Fin-telligence: The powerhouse Smallmouth bass

A standard smallmouth bass, about two years old.
(Conodoguinet Creek, PA – 2019)

The American angler is born with an awareness of the word “bass.” They are so ingrained in our culture that it is likely not until many years have passed that even seasoned reelers realize that they are several varieties (not unlike trout, salmon, and other catch-all words). Beyond the markings on their logo, even the venerable Bass Pro Shops is happy to capitalize on that ambiguity. The seasoned reeler, however, grows aware that there are a wide range of pan fish in this world, and bass are just some of the most attractive quarries.

Today we focus on but one of these muscle-bound fish, the powerhouse that is the smallmouth bass! The smallmouth is part of the ‘black bass’ family of pan fish. There they join thirteen recognized bass species including Alabama bass, Florida bass, Chattahoochee bass, Cahaba bass, Guadalupe bass, largemouth bass, redeye bass (not to be confused with the rock bass), Swannee bass, shoal bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, Tallapoosa bass, and warrior bass. That’s a lot of bass, but only the smallmouth bass serves as the archetype (type species) of the black bass genus. Let’s give it a look and give it some love.

The smallmouth bass is beloved throughout the American northern and middle states because it grows quickly, gives a great fight, can theoretically make for a good meal (don’t quote us on that), and thrives just about anywhere there is year-round water in its extended range.

Biology:

The standard smallmouth bass, with features you will never actually see this clearly in real life. (Wikimedia)

Males typically come in at around 2lbs, but females can top the scales at 4-6lbs. Smallmouth bass lay up to 21,000 eggs per breeding season, but survival rates vary wildly from year to year. On average, smallmouth bass grow about 6-8 inches in their first year, and an additional 2-4 inches thereafter. Specimens over 7lbs are exceedingly rare, but are more likely in warmer climates.

Identification

Green, brown, bronze… the smallmouth can be tough to describe. The minute stripes along its back (and along its face) are the dead give-aways.

The smallmouth bass is generally green-brown, with red or brown eyes, and dark brown vertical bands. It is common to see several ‘stripes’ along its face, but coloration and patterns vary even within the same stream section. Generally smaller than its largemouth cousin, the smallmouth bass can most easily be distinguished by its smaller mouth (stopping before it meets the eyeline) and its vertical striping (rather than horizontal).

The coloration of smallmouth bass is also dependent on their living conditions and diet. River smallmouth tend to be more torpedo-shaped and darker, blending in with tree covering and shadows. Lake smallmouth can be might paler in color, especially if there is a sandy bottom.

Habitat

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2020-06-06-14.57.23-1024x768.jpg
They prefer warmer sections of coldwater creeks wherever possible.
(Jason Meckes – Conodoguinet Creek, PA – 2020)

Smallmouth bass prefer similar water to their trout brethren, but enjoy a wider range of temperatures and water quality. They used to be relegated to the upper-reaches of the Mississippi River watershed and some territory around the Great Lakes, but humans have a habit of spreading game fish. They traveled with the Erie Canal through much of New York, and stocking spread them across much of the country.

They are a good indication of a healthy waterway, but are able to tolerate more pollution than most cold-water species. Most anglers refer to smallmouth bass as a warmwater fish, but they prefer waters considerably cooler than almost any other kind of black bass. These fish can be found most commonly in creeks and rivers, but also are often stocked in private ponds and lakes.

Smallmouth bass slow down their metabolism during the winter months and may migrate to deeper pools and warmer sections of a waterway. Their hunger usually begins to raise their activity level in early spring, and they can still be fairly active through the fall, even in northern states.

Catchin’ Tips

Conventional gear: The smallmouth bass LOVES crank baits, poppers, spoons, and most any kind of noisy or flashy gear in the 1-2″ range. Bass are active predators and eat crayfish, minnows, insects, and honestly most anything that will fit into their mouth. Use quick-retrieve movements and stop at regular intervals to imitate an injured fish. Mid-to-top water retrieves are most successful for moving waterways, but finding their holding areas will always be the key.

What a chunker! Brightly colored poppers don’t look like anything natural, but they get the bass to follow through with a predatory response. (2020)

Fly gear: Smallmouth bass can be a blast on a fly rod. It is recommended that you use a 5-7wt fly rod in the 8-10′ range. A 9 foot leader is a good bet, but larger flies will force you to cut that down a foot or more. I LOVE using poppers for smallmouth (and rarely deviate from that, just change the color based on hunches), but they will also grab wooly buggers, articulated streamers, or mickey finns. Some reelers have luck using mayfly immitations during coffin fly hatches, but I still recommend you stick with a popper or other large offering. They’ll bite!

WORLD RECORD

David Hayes holds the record, but a discrepancy caused a controversy over it. (Bassmasters, 1955)

The All-Tackle World Record for smallmouth bass is 11lb 15oz caught in 1955 by David L. Hayes in Dale Hollow Reservoir in Kentucky. Wait, it might ALSO be 11lbs 15oz caught in 1955 by David L. Hayes in…Tennessee? The fact of the matter is that these are the same record for the same fish, but the border-straddling reservoir is just the location. Kentucky AND the IGFA vacated Hayes’ record after a 1996 investigation confirmed that someone else weighed the fish and could have potentially weighed it down.

In a 1996/1997 re-investigation, the facts were laid out that Mr. Hayes did indeed catch a record-setting bass. Independent news outlets interviewed the people involved and the state of Tennessee re-instated the record. KY has since reinstated the record as well, but not the IGFA (which took over record keeping from Field and Stream in 1978).

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Fin-Telligence Fly Weird Fish

Fin-Telligence: The elusive tiger trout!

Baby tiger trout
A baby tiger trout is introduced in Oregon with the specific goal of eradicating pest fish – (Oregon Dept. of Fisheries – October 12, 2015)

When learning about the various quarries that can attract reelers to the outdoors, there are a few time-honored stalwarts that come to mind. Rainbow trout, largemouth bass, tarpon, grouper–all are among the first to cross the mind of a new angler. Murkier water comes with the territory, both literally and figuratively, and even species aren’t clear-cut differentiators.

Case in point: the tiger trout. The tiger trout is not a true species, but rather a sterile hybrid made from brown trout and brook trout parents. The tiger trout is occasionally stocked in lakes and streams throughout the United States (and abroad, though in limited numbers) in situations where wild stocks might be impacted by the act of stocking. For that reason, it is sometimes preferred in otherwise pristine trout water. In the wild, the tiger trout is exceedingly rare and alluring to the adventuring angler. For this reason, the wild tiger trout is a badge of pride that can elevate even the most otherwise-accomplished reeler.

Illustration of a tiger trout.
(International Game Fish Assc. – Duane Raver)

Biology:

Tiger trout can be found in the wild where populations of both brown trout and brook trout intermingle. The union is only viable when female brown trout and male brook trout breed, though some fish procreation isn’t the result of direct intent (but close proximity). The standard survival rate of these hybrids is 5% of fertilized eggs. Scientists also believe that a heat shock can help spur the necessary creation of an extra set of chromosomes that tiger trout require, which is why fatality rates and populations can fluctuate strongly from stream-to-stream (with an upper survival rate nearing 85%). This special hybrid is noteworthy to many researchers because the species are not terribly closely related (brook char versus brown trout), with different numbers of chromosomes.

The biological intricacies of tiger trout have been studied for decades.
(Canadian Field Naturalist Guide, 1983)

Hybrids, such as the tiger trout, are also subject to quick growth due to what scientists term “hybrid vigor.” This can enable the fish to grow more quickly and possibly larger than either of their parents. Hybrids can also display behaviors that neither parent express, though tiger trout do not deviate significantly from brook or brown trout.

Identification

Three tiger trout display the variety of patterns that make identification a challenge.
(Wikimedia commons, Matthew Tyree – 2008)

Tiger trout are fairly easy to identify because of their distinct “noodle” vermiculation (spot) pattern. They are only found in cold water “trout” habitat, and often have the general outline and body shape of a brook trout. Stocked brown trout often display somewhat-noodly vermiculations, but only tiger trout have those patterns throughout their entire flank (with few or no brown-trout-esque spots). Being a hybrid, their colors can vary between the silver-green-brown of brown trout and the green-top red-yellow bottom of brook trout.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY: This brown trout displays worm-shape vermiculations, but they are not prevalent enough to be mistaken for a tiger trout…if you have a keen eye!
(Jason Meckes – Clarks Creek, PA – 2012)

Habitat

The crystal-clear waters that indicate trout habitat are very much the haunting grounds of the tiger trout. Wild populations require brook and brown trout habitat simultaneously.
(Jason Meckes – Clarks Creek, PA – 2012)

Being a hybrid of brown and brook trout, the wild tiger trout is most often found in streams of the northeastern United States. The limiting factor in wild stocks is usually dependent on the brook trout being comfortable enough to breed, as brown trout usually enjoy the same water (and more). Any stream with both populations breeding could harbor a tiger trout population, but they are so rare that they are very difficult to encounter. A reeler that is interested in catching one had better look toward the western states, where they are stocked more commonly (Utah, Colorado, Oregon). For conservation purposes, they are the exclusive stocked species in many streams and lakes.

Catchin’ Tips

Conventional gear: The tiger trout is very similar to the brown trout in most of its preferences and activities. Larger specimens are nearly entirely piscivorous, so lures that imitate baitfish (and live bait) are successful.

Fly gear: As with traditional gear, your approach should be identical to that which works for brown trout fishing. If you are aiming for larger specimens, using an articulated fly or muddler minnow can be successful.

WORLD RECORD

The world record tiger trout is 20lbs 13oz and caught by Peter Friendland in Lake Michigan, Wisconsin (1978). The world record for fly tackle is 16lbs 12oz caught by Luke Butcher in the UK (2001).

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Blog Posts Fin-Telligence Fly

Fin-Telligence: Brown Trout

Left to their own devices, brown trout (salmo trutta) would own the world’s freshwater. They’re aggressive, voracious predators that start young, picking off insects and invertebrates that inhabit the same streams, rivers, and lakes. Bigger specimens (and they DO get big: more than 40 lbs.) make life miserable for their smaller neighbors, snacking happily on fish, frogs, and pretty much anything else that annoys them.

 

The reason brown trout haven’t emptied the waters of all their rivals is that they are delicious — and fun to catch — themselves. Between people and predators, very few brownies make it beyond a 16″-20″ slot.

 

And that’s why there’s a whole subculture of reelers that chase not only brown trout, but the big, gold, spotted monsters that’ve eluded capture and predation for years. Trophy browns are an addiction that nobody’s found a cure for.

Brown trout surfacing in a crystal clear creek.

If you want to see for yourself, here are a few things you should probably know before you go.

Where are they?

Once limited to their original Central European range, brown trout have now spread across the globe. They inhabit streams, rivers, and lakes and can tolerate water temperatures to the mid-80s if there’s enough oxygen (i.e., fast-moving streams). Water that’s below 68° F. is ideal, which means higher latitudes and altitudes result in the best fisheries.

the U.S., brown trout eggs were brought over from Germany and Scotland. After the German and Scottish eggs were hybridized and hatched, what’s commonly called the “generic American brown trout” was introduced into Michigan’s Baldwin River in the late 19th Century. Since then, they’ve spread to the mountainous areas of the country, as well as the Upper Midwest thanks to management plans and angling enthusiasm.

Whether you’re fishing the Sierra Nevadas, Ozarks, InterMountain Range, Appalachians, or Northeast Iowa, you’ll find brown trout.

Brown trout who are resident in lakes and reservoirs will migrate up rivers to spawn and return to their homewaters afterward. Each season the trip makes these brood trout bigger and stronger — and smarter. They’re essentially the brown trout equivalent of a steelhead.

What do they eat?

Brown trout are opportunistic predators. But they’re also wily and wary. If a presentation doesn’t look natural, a brownie’s likely to give it a look and turn away in disdain.

What you throw out should be dictated by where you’re fishing,

what time of year it is, and the size of the trout you’re targeting. I’ve caught 12 to 16-inchers in the midwest on waxworms and salmon eggs. Chelsea Baum, a fly reeler in Northern California has had luck with nymphing patterns on the Truckee River.

Monster-hunter Andrew Engel has reeled in beefy browns with baitfish and even mouse presentations to pre-spawn trout on his fly rig.

 

Think about what’s natural on the water you’re fishing. Using a spinning reel and see a grasshopper on the bank? Put it on a hook and try your luck. What’s hatching in the water? Pick the fly of the season. Looking for bigger trout? Figure out the baitfish patterns for your chosen fishing spot.

Location, season, size

Andrew Engel takes a photo before the release. @TheFlyDudes

How Big Do They Get?

In spite of their difficulty to catch, brown trout get exceedingly more rare and harder to land as they get bigger. So, if you’re regularly catching 24″, 4-pounders, you’re already in a small minority. But they get bigger. Much bigger. And that drives many reelers absolutely bonkers. They make thousands of casts, ignoring smaller specimens, just to hook a hulking brown. And hopefully put it back after the battle.

Thanks in part to catch-and-release fishing, the world brown trout record has been set and set again several times in the past 25 years. To-wit:

  • 1992: 40 lbs., 4 oz., Howard “Rip” Collins, Little Red River, Arkansas
  • 2009: 41 lbs., 7 oz., Tom Healy, Big Manistee River, Michigan
  • 2010: 41 lbs, 8 oz., Roger Hellen, Lake Michigan, Wisconsin (still the U.S. record)
  • 2013: 42 lbs., 1 oz., Otwin Kandolf, Ohau Canal, New Zealand

The big ones are out there. Go get ’em! Check out our Brown Trout Tips and Hacks this Friday for some suggestions on just how to go about it.

How Do They Taste?

Like any trout, browns are delicious. And given how hard it can be to land one, a brown on the grill may taste just little bit better than the rainbow next to it.

Try a simple preparation. Gut and dehead the fish. Squeeze fresh lemon juice into the body cavity, spread salt and olive oil on the skin. Wrap the fish in foil and toss it on the grill until the flesh is flaky. Eat smugly.

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Get a grip: how to hold a bass properly

If you practice catch and release, the effect of gripping a fish by the mouth is maybe something many anglers haven’t considered. Is it safest to hold it vertically or horizontally? With a clamping scale?

A biologist and two veterinarians devised an experiment to see what, if any, harm was done by different ways of handling fish. Texas fisheries biologist Steven Bardin teamed up with Drs. Casey Locklear and Steven Mapel to fill in the lack of research on the best way to hold fish, according to Wired to Fish.

First, the team had to gather test samples. Using a private lake Bardin manages, they used electrofishing to gather trophy-sized bass between 2 and 6 pounds. The doctors then took x-rays of each fish being held in four positions: horizontally with a second hand for support, vertically, vertically with a fish scale, and vertically with the fish’s body weight applying downward pressure on the jaw.

The good news: none of these methods resulted in broken bones, according to the vets. They said the stress of being held by the mouth was spread among lower jaw bones, joints and soft tissue. “The weakest parts of the jaw are actually the soft tissue areas, not the bones,” said Dr. Locklear.

They did find that some fish sustained injuries with over-flexion and over-extension to the soft tissue areas. However, they don’t know the extent of the injuries or the recovery time. Fish with these injuries could swim away appearing normal. Bardin said further areas for research include whether the injury could affect a fish’s ability to forage, would the injury recur and how long the fish feels its effects.

The trio also found the size of the fish affects the likelihood of injury. Bigger isn’t be

“The jaw of the largest fish we radiographed actually made an audible ‘pop’ when it was placed into the exaggerated vertical position,” Bardin said, adding that this didn’t happen to smaller fish.

Bardin said he uses a hanging fish scale with a clip and was glad the experiment found using clips did not damage the fish’s joints. “The clips actually act as a pivot point, so as the fish move on the scale, it takes much of the pressure and force off of the jaw,” he pointed out.

In the end, the experiment revealed some tips to handle prized catches safely. Large fish require additional support with a second hand whether being held horizontally or vertically. Fish grips or hanging scales can also be used safely. Holding fish at an angle greater than 10 percent could possibly damage the jaw, and holding a fish vertically with too much pressure on the jaw is not recommended. Even if a fish is injured by a harmful grip, it may swim away normally. The extent of these injuries remains to be discovered.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you reel in a trophy bass. The healthy fish that swims away lives to be caught another day.

 

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Fin-Telligence: Striped Bass

Stripers may be the most popular saltwater gamefish in the country. Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) are voracious — and pretty indiscriminate — predators.

When you combine their hard-striking eating habits with their hefty average size, stripers are a damn fun fish to catch. And that’s why reelers chase these so-called rockfish up and down the Eastern Seaboard, all along the West Coast, and even in landlocked freshwater. 

Where are they?

Stripers are native to the Atlantic Seaboard, where they make yearly fall runs from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Northeast, south to Florida and the Gulf Coast, and back again in the spring. In the late 1800s they were introduced to the West Coast, where they flourish and run between California and Washington.

These highly-migratory fish even make their ways into brackish and freshwater. Some populations became landlocked in freshwater systems when impediments like dams prevented them from returning to saltwater. As such, IGFA recognizes both saltwater and landlocked records for stripers.

More recently, since they are highly-prized by reelers, states have stocked them. They can now be found as for north and inland as North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. Of course, as predatory as they are, non-native striped bass make quite an impact on the populations of smaller species in the fisheries where they’ve been stocked.


What do they eat?

Striped bass generally go after fish, like alewives and menhaden, eels, and clams. But if it swims, and it’s smaller, a striper will probably try and eat it.

Carp and Striped Bass feed in Lake Mead, Nevada

When running, a striped bass needs to eat a lot in order to maintain its metabolism, especially in cooler waters. This makes them aggressive and opportunistic, which is awesome for reelers — but not so lucky for a crab, lobster, or squid that gets in the way of a running striper.

How big do they get?

Striped bass are by no means small fish. Adults average 24 to 36 inches (60 to 90 centimeters) but can reach lengths of well over 60 inches. The average weight for adult stripers in this slot runs 10 to 20 pounds. As you can guess, three scrappy feet and 20 angry pounds of scrappy rockfish on the end of your line can make for a pretty good day.

@MorganMattioli with a monster striper. Photo by: @GregMattioli

As noted above, different records are maintained for saltwater and landlocked striped bass. The current IGFA all-tackle record for a saltwater striper belongs to Gregory Myerson, who caught his 81.88-pound (37.14 kg) monster in 2011, on Long Island Sound near Westbrook, Connecticut. Myerson’s fish toppled a 78-pound record that was held by Albert McReynolds for 29 years.

James Bramlett caught the record landlocked striper on the Black Warrior River in Alabama. His IGFA all-tackle beast weighed in at 69 pounds, 9 ounces (31.55 kg).

Freshly caught striped bass being prepared for dinner.

How do they taste?

Striped bass is a tasty species that has been an important food source for as long as reelers have fished for them. They have a mild, flaky flesh when cooked making striper a good choice for anything from fish tacos to cioppino.

Even with adaptability and fast reproductive rate,  but they are a species of concern in saltwater environments and catch and release should be practiced for conservation efforts. In freshwater environments, as with any large predatory fish, folks should be concerned about mercury levels and other toxins when considering striper for supper.

Striped bass farming is now common. It’s a great alternative to eating wild-caught stripers. You get a fresh product that tastes delicious, and you can put the striper you just caught back in the water to get even bigger.

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Fin-Telligence: Common Snook

Several species of snook, or ròbalo, are out there — six in the Atlantic and six in the Pacific — but only four species are capable of growing bigger than 10 pounds. Of these four, only one is found in U.S. waters, in the subtropical Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of México: the common snook (Centropomus undecimalis).

The other large Atlantic species lives in the waters off Mexico, throughout the Caribbean, and ranges as far south as Brazil. The two larger Pacific varieties can be found along coastal Central America.

Three of the large species — the common snook, Mexican snook, and Pacific white snook — can only be differentiated from one another by counting the non-rudimentary gill rakers. This can cause a whole lot of trouble when trying to certify a species.

Fortunately, in the northern part of the range, we can concentrate on the common snook — which we’re just going to call “snook” from here on out to keep things simple.

Snook are prized for their flavor and their fight which is why reelers love to go after them. They were once an important commercial species in the U.S., but the fishery was closed and snook were reclassified as a game fish only.

Even as a game fish, snook are highly regulated. Their sensitivity to water temperatures has led to die-offs during cold snaps in the Gulf of Mexico. From 2011 to 2016, snook were catch-and-release only on Florida’s Gulf Coast, until the population rebounded.

Texas and Florida, the only two states with viable snook fisheries, strictly manage snook seasons, bag limits, and slot sizes. Before you head out with a rod and reel, make sure you check the latest regulations and licensing information.

Where are they?

Snook are tropical fish that thrive in water temperatures between 68 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that the northernmost viable populations are in the waters off Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, as well as in South Texas. Snook have been caught in Georgia and Louisiana waters, but don’t count on doing so.

Snook are inshore fish that rely on estuarine habitats. They enter freshwater ecosystems like the Crystal and St. John’s Rivers in Florida, Gatun Lake on the Panama Canal, as well as mangrove swamps along tropical coasts.

What do they eat?

Snook are carnivorous, eating other fish, shrimp, and crustaceans. They are opportunistic, and as snook get bigger, they chase bigger prey — including smaller snook.

Live bait, like shrimp, crabs, and mullet work well for snook. They also respond well to lures and flies.

How big do they get?

The IGFA all-tackle record for common snook is 53 pounds, 10 ounces (24.32 kg). It was caught in 1978 by Gilbert Ponzi near Parismina Ranch, Costa Rica. In 2015, Heather Connors landed a fat 45-pounder off Sebastian, Florida.

Typically, they run between five and fifteen pounds. The keeper slot in Texas is 24 to 28 inches. In Florida, it’s a little bigger: 28 inches to 32 or 33 inches, depending on where you’re fishing in the state. You have to release any fish outside the slot.

How do they taste?

Snook are delicious, and if you want to taste one, you’ll have to catch it yourself or get yourself invited over to a fellow reeler’s shore lunch. It’s illegal to sell snook, whether in a market, a restaurant, or among friends.

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Blog Posts Fin-Telligence Fresh

Fin-Telligence: Common Snook

Several species of snook, or ròbalo, are out there — six in the Atlantic and six in the Pacific — but only four species are capable of growing bigger than 10 pounds. Of these four, only one is found in U.S. waters, in the subtropical Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of México: the common snook (Centropomus undecimalis).

The other large Atlantic species lives in the waters off Mexico, throughout the Caribbean, and ranges as far south as Brazil. The two larger Pacific varieties can be found along coastal Central America.

Three of the large species — the common snook, Mexican snook, and Pacific white snook — can only be differentiated from one another by counting the non-rudimentary gill rakers. This can cause a whole lot of trouble when trying to certify a species.

Fortunately, in the northern part of the range, we can concentrate on the common snook — which we’re just going to call “snook” from here on out to keep things simple.

Snook are prized for their flavor and their fight which is why reelers love to go after them. They were once an important commercial species in the U.S., but the fishery was closed and snook were reclassified as a game fish only.

Even as a game fish, snook are highly regulated. Their sensitivity to water temperatures has led to die-offs during cold snaps in the Gulf of Mexico. From 2011 to 2016, snook were catch-and-release only on Florida’s Gulf Coast, until the population rebounded.

Texas and Florida, the only two states with viable snook fisheries, strictly manage snook seasons, bag limits, and slot sizes. Before you head out with a rod and reel, make sure you check the latest regulations and licensing information.

Where are they?

Snook are tropical fish that thrive in water temperatures between 68 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that the northernmost viable populations are in the waters off Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, as well as in South Texas. Snook have been caught in Georgia and Louisiana waters, but don’t count on doing so.

Snook are inshore fish that rely on estuarine habitats. They enter freshwater ecosystems like the Crystal and St. John’s Rivers in Florida, Gatun Lake on the Panama Canal, as well as mangrove swamps along tropical coasts.

What do they eat?

Snook are carnivorous, eating other fish, shrimp, and crustaceans. They are opportunistic, and as snook get bigger, they chase bigger prey — including smaller snook.

Live bait, like shrimp, crabs, and mullet work well for snook. They also respond well to lures and flies.

How big do they get?

The IGFA all-tackle record for common snook is 53 pounds, 10 ounces (24.32 kg). It was caught in 1978 by Gilbert Ponzi near Parismina Ranch, Costa Rica. In 2015, Heather Connors landed a fat 45-pounder off Sebastian, Florida.

Typically, they run between five and fifteen pounds. The keeper slot in Texas is 24 to 28 inches. In Florida, it’s a little bigger: 28 inches to 32 or 33 inches, depending on where you’re fishing in the state. You have to release any fish outside the slot.

How do they taste?

Snook are delicious, and if you want to taste one, you’ll have to catch it yourself or get yourself invited over to a fellow reeler’s shore lunch. It’s illegal to sell snook, whether in a market, a restaurant, or among friends.

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Fin-Telligence: Catfish

You can find catfish on every continent except Antarctica (maybe they’re just not looking hard enough…). Across the world, there are hundreds of species, including the leviathan Mekong River catfish and the monster wels catfish of Eurasia.

North America is home to dozens of catfish species, ranging from very small, like madtoms, to beefy blue (Ictalurus furcatus) and flathead (Pylodictis olivaris) catfish, which can easily exceed 100 pounds. Ictalurids comprise are native to North America and at more than 50 discrete species, comprise the largest single family of fishes on the continent, many of them closely related. Flathead catfish, however, are the only members of its genus on continent.

While many folks are happy to catch scrappy bullheads (members of the Ameiurus genus), which don’t really grow over 10 pounds but fight way above their weight class, most catfish reelers target the continent’s “big three:” Blue cats, flatheads, and channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus).

Where are they?

The native range of catfish in North America is east of the Continental Divide, stretching from Canada to Mexico. Many species of catfish have been introduced outside their native ranges, and in such cases, are considered invasive. Because of their voracious nature, invasive catfish put considerable pressure on indigenous species for food resources.

Channel cats are the most abundant species and the most targeted by reelers. Their importance as a food fish makes them a popular quarry for reelers, as well as a staple of aquaculture.

You can find channel cats just about anywhere there is water. From natural lakes, ponds, and small rivers to big rivers and reservoirs, channel cats are extremely adaptable fish and easily make themselves at home.

Blue cats, the continent’s largest species of catfish, are less-widely distributed, but are by no means rare. Their native range is in the watersheds of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Rio Grande River systems, including the Ohio, Illinois and Arkansas Rivers. Blue cats have been introduced into several eastern reservoir systems and because of their ability to tolerate brackish water, now occur — and are considered an invasive nuisance fish — in the Chesapeake Bay.

Flatheads, the next largest largest species, generally share the same native range as blue cats. However, flatheads have been introduced more broadly, and they can now be found as far west as California, Colorado, and Oregon.

How big do they get?

@FishonWaco with a fatty.

The “big three” catfish, by the standards for North American freshwater fish, get really big. Blue cats and flatheads are among the largest fish species in the continent’s waters.

The IGFA record channel cat was certified in 1964 when a 58-pound (26.3 kg) scrapper was pulled out of Santee-Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina. These days, anything over 20 pounds is worth bragging about, and a 10-pounder will put a smile on any reeler’s face.

Ken Paulie hauled the IGFA record flathead out of Elk City Reservoir near Independence, Kansas. The beast tipped the scales at 123 pounds (55.79 kg). While flatheads may not be the heaviest species of catfish in North America, they are thought to be the longest, reaching maximum lengths of almost six feet. Average lengths, however, tend to be in the 25 to 46-inch range.

It took reeler Richard Anderson almost 45 minutes to subdue his 143-pound IGFA record blue cat. He caught it while fishing Kerr Lake, Buggs Island, Virginia. Average sizes are 25 to 40 inches and between 20 and 40 pounds.

What do they eat?

The big three catfish are all predatory and feed primarily on smaller bait species and crawdads. Channel cats will also hit surface insects. Flatheads, in particular, are opportunistic omnivores that will eat most anything that seems appetizing.

How do they taste?

All of the big three catfish have rich, mild flavors. The manageable size of channel cats make them one of the most popular freshwater food species in North America. These three fish species are abundant and breed easily in many conditions. As such, they are not threatened, and there’s no problem with keeping smaller specimens for a meal.

You may want to consider returning larger, trophy specimens to the water, though. Bigger fish have lived longer and eaten many other fish. This means they may have absorbed higher levels of mercury and other toxins over their lifespan. Besides, if you put them back, you can always catch them again.

 

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Fin-Telligence: Steelhead

Put simply, steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are nothing but migratory rainbow trout. Yet, they are oh-so-much-more than that. Just ask any reeler who’s tried to hook one.

Fishing for steelhead is a lot like golf (the way I play, anyway): Hours and days of frustration sustained only by the hope of hitting that elusive sweet spot. That’s why reelers call steelhead “the fish of a thousand casts.” Getting one to the net makes the other 999 casts worth it.

Where are they?

Steelhead are native to the waters west of the Rocky Mountains, where their natural range stretches from California to Alaska. Because of their popularity as a sportfish, though, they’ve also been introduced to the Great Lakes region, where reelers have taken up the addiction to chasing these wily swimmers.

@Kodiakkidmansell with a nets a beauty.

Migration is the key difference between a rainbow trout and a steelhead. Rainbows stay in the same body of freshwater, whether a lake or stream, for their entire lives. Steelheads, on the other hand, spend much of their time in ocean or Great Lakes waters, and then run up the stream where they were born (or stocked) to spawn.

Unlike salmon, which usually die after a spawning run, steelhead will make many spawning runs throughout their lives — as long as 12 years — returning to the same stream or river season after season.

The upstream runs make them stronger, as they take in a lot of oxygen and feed voraciously to fuel their metabolisms. The telltale pink stripe that gives rainbow trout their name fades on steelhead. Steelhead take on a more silvery color (hence the moniker) and develop a slimmer, more streamlined profile.

They also get much bigger than typical rainbow trout — and are a lot harder to catch.

Ashley Lewis with reason to smile.

Steelhead guide Ashley Lewis calls them “educated fish.” Years of growing, spawning, and evading predators make steelhead fast, wary, and smart.

The bigger the steelhead, the wiser the fish — and the harder it’s going to be to get it on your fly, let alone into your net.

How big do they get?

The average steelhead weighs around 10 lbs., but they can get much bigger. Twenty-pounders are not uncommon. The IGFA all-tackle record — which doesn’t differentiate between rainbow and steelhead — was a 48 lb. lake-run specimen. Sean Konrad caught this beast in 2009 on Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan.

What do they eat?

Young steelhead eat zooplankton. Adults eat insects, minnows, crabs, clams, mussels, and even fish, including trout. Steelhead are fiercely territorial and will eat the eggs of other trout and salmon to protect their own bloodlines.

@Henry.vandelaar with a steelie and a smile.

When fishing for steelhead, think about what’s natural on the water you’re fishing: Fish the hatch.

They are opportunistic predators. But steelhead are also wily and wary. They tend to stay near the bottoms of streams, and if a presentation doesn’t look natural or reach its strike zone, the steelhead won’t even give it a second glance.

How do they taste?

Steelhead are trout, so they taste pretty darned good. However, throughout much of their western range, Steelhead are classified as either endangered or threatened, due largely to dams preventing them getting upstream to spawn. So, even though you may have 10 pounds of delicious fish in your net, consider putting it back so you can catch a 12-pounder next year.

 

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Fin-Telligence: Marlin

Blue marlin (Makaira nigricans) are some of the biggest, fastest — and most beautiful fish in the world. The challenge they present once hooked was chronicled perhaps most famously in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Their power, beauty, and scrap keeps reelers going after them again and again, sparing little in the way of time or money to hunt these incredible creatures.

Blue marlin, like all other marlin, are billfish, with a characteristic, spear-like protrusion from their upper lip. Also, like other billfish, they have a tall, blade like dorsal fin. But on blues, it extends down the spine toward the tail. Blues can be distingusihed by their deep blue coloring on top and a white, almost silver underbelly. Lighter blue stripes appear perpendicular to the spine, and a yellowish strip may be present along the sides. When agitated, blue marlin “flash” — and their colors become even brighter.

@Keywestphotog beautifully captures @Islandbaby4life ‘s Marlin release.

Where are they?
The short answer is, pretty much everywhere — well, anywhere they want to be that is. Blue marlin can be found in tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. But they’re pelagic, which means they’re blue water fish, and extremely migratory. They cruise warm ocean currents — ranging hundreds or even thousands of mile — looking for their next meal and, when it’s time to mate, other blue marlin.

Blue marlin are generally broken down into two varieties or geographic subspecies: Atlantic and Indo-Pacific, named after the bodies of water where they can be found. Regardless of the ocean in which you go looking for them, rest assured that the blues will be the biggest, baddest marlin around.

@soolymanSportfishing with a beauty on the line.

What do they eat?
The metabolisms of blue marlin keep them close to the surface, where they prefer warmer water. There, they’ll chase tuna and mackerel, using their bills to slash at schooling fish and then eating any fish they stunned or wounded in the process.

They will also dive into the depths to hunt squid. This, of course, explains why squid-shaped baits, like Kona rigs can be effective when trolling for blue marlin.

How big do they get?
They get really big. Female blue marlin, which can be three or four times larger than males, can grow to as long as 14 feet and weigh close to 2,000 pounds. Males, on the other hand, rarely get larger than 8 feet and 350 pounds.

One thing that partially explains the size difference is that females (27 years, on average) live significantly longer than males (18 years). Average blue marlins (both genders) run in the 200 to 400-pound range and are typically 7 feet, or so.

The IGFA all-tackle world record for a Pacific blue is 1,367 lbs (624.14 kg) and was caught off Kona, Hawaii. The record Atlantic blue was 1,402 Lbs, 2 oz (636 kg) was caught off Vitoria, Brazil. But IGFA records adhere to a lot of rules regarding assistance from other reelers and how their caught.

In 1970, an 1,805 lb blue (“Choy’s Monster”) was hauled in by rod and reel off Honolulu. Due to some technicalities, however, IGFA could not certify the record, in spite of the giant fish and its scale-crushing weight. By all accounts, it stands as the biggest marlin boated by rod and reel.

Longline fishermen have reported blues in excess of 2,000 lbs.
One legend that’s been immortalized by a statue in Cabo San Lucas has a commercial fisherman hauling in a 4,500-pounder. They say the monster (“El Marlin”) had to be chopped into three pieces just to be weighed.

Conservation
Although they’re not yet listed as threatened or endangered, conservationists and reelers alike believe blue marlins — and all billfish, really — are being unsustainably fished, especially in the Atlantic.

Evidence of this is declining catches of truly big fish. For this reason, groups like IGFA and the Billfish Foundation encourage catch-and-release angling. Many tournaments now have a catch (or tag) and release option, and several are tag-and-release only.