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Fin-Telligence: The oft-misunderstood Fallfish

The fallfish and its natural predator–the voracious fishing companion (both lived to swim another day–2012).

If you are an avid cold-water angler, then you know that clean, cold water isn’t only attractive to salmonids like trout, char, and salmon. Other fish enjoy the benefits of high-oxygenation and clear channels with lots of insect life. Today we are shining a little light on one of the “nuisance” fish that can ruin a day if you let it–or spare you from the ignominy of a skunk day.

Behold: the humble fall fish. This is actually considered a non-game fish, though it can have many of the attributes of its more glorious kin. The fall fish is actually the largest native minnow species in the North American continent, and can grow over 20 inches long. Not bad for a minnow!

The former commissioner of the PA Fish and Boat Commission used to eagerly refer to them as freshwater tarpon. Indeed, while they look a bit like baby tarpon, they can fight on a similarly measured scale. It takes a bit of imagination, and perhaps a dose or two of marketing, but even the fallfish can be a fisherman’s salvation when the standard gamefish aren’t biting.

Biology:

Early scientific drawing of the fallfish chub.
US National Museum (1875).

The fall fish is found largely in warm stretches of cold water streams and lakes of northern United States and Canada. This predator was actually the apex predator in many streams until humans intentionally added species like smallmouth bass and trout in many locations. Their color is usually silver to bronze, with large arrowhead-shaped scales throughout. They live throughout the Eastern edge of the continent, ranging strongly from Virginia through Ontario.

Fallfish also have a reputation for being especially slimy. This is true–they produce a heavier mucus covering, giving the fish a healthy line of protection against scrapes, diseases, and parasites. This can result in a long-lasting and somewhat smelly residue on the hands of reelers. The cure? Simply put your hands back into the stream a bit longer than you would to “clean off” after landing a trout.

Identification

A large fallfish caught on conventional gear.
(Alexander Y. Suvorov – Wikimedia commons)

Fallfish are often confused with other chub relatives because of their similar coloration, habitat, and diet. However, if the chub in question is larger than six inches long: it’s almost certainly a fallfish. They can also be identified by a slightly pointier snout than their relatives. Males grow bumps around their nose and eyes during the breeding season.

Fallfish enjoy pulling food from the same areas that trout do–they’ll eagerly take flies off of the surface or nymphs from the bottom. This also often puts them into contact with fishermen.

A fallfish falls for a beadhead wooly bugger.
(Jason Meckes – Clarks Creek – 2011)

Habitat

The slower waters that are bass habitat are very much the haunting grounds of fallfish. They prefer warmer sections wherever possible.
(Jason Meckes – Conodoguinet Creek, PA – 2020)

In the northern reaches of their range, fallfish prefer lakes and ponds. Toward the mid-Atlantic states, fallfish are primarily found in warm water creeks and rivers. In both cases, they are more prevalent in slack water than heavy riffles. Their name actually comes from their predisposition to enjoy pools, which are the natural result of waterfalls. Although many reelers claim to catch these fish in the autumn, they aren’t discernibly more active in the autumn than the summer or spring.

Catchin’ Tips

Conventional gear: The fallfish is like a trout in many aspects. They will eat the same gear you’d use for rainbow trout. Larger specimens will chase crank baits or take down a popper.

Fly gear: As with traditional gear, your approach should be identical to that which works for standard trout fishing. It is almost impossible to rig up something that appeals to fallfish over other gamefish– your best bet is to find slower, warmer water and try the same flies there.

The pheasant tail nymph is a prime fallfish fly.

WORLD RECORD

The All-Tackle World Record for fallfish is 3lb 9oz caught by Jonathan McNamara in the Susquehanna River near Owego, New York, USA in April 2009.

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