Indiana Darters: You can call me Nerdlinger

Tools of the (Indiana darter) trade

The beginning of Moby Dick starts with “Call me Ishmael.” It is a story is about a man obsessed with chasing a whale.

My book starts: “Call me Nerdlinger.” It’s a story about man obsessed with 2” fish.

I went Indiana darter fishing. There, I’ve publically admitted it.

If you weren’t aware, the Darter is a tiny fish that lives in the bottom of streams, most typically in rocky riffles. If you wade in area creeks, you’ve probably seen them as darting little shadows that most people simply dismiss as “minnows.”

Darters are members of the perch tribe. They are long, low-slung fish that spend the majority of their time sitting on their pectoral fins, waiting for tiny insects and other tasty morsels to float by on the current. They move with quick, short bursts of speed while chasing food, hence their common name. In all, they are much like tiny underwater lizards.

A typical riffle where rainbow darters live

There are about 30 species of darter in Indiana, at least according to experts. The problem is that they are tiny fish that live in a variety of habitats, making it difficult to catch many of the species. In fact, a 2008 study found that several “endangered” species were actually widespread once the researchers learned better methods of finding the miniscule fish.

That’s the background. Now, the obvious question is “What is your problem??”

However, the reader might also ask, “Why are you obsessed with these fish?”

There are several reasons. First, I like unusual flora and fauna. I’ve chased wild orchids in Indiana, climbed high into the Smoky Mountains to catch brook trout and risked death by cottonmouth in a Florida swamp just to glimpse wild carnivorous pitcher plants. During that last adventure, I dragged along a couple of family members and they still haven’t forgiven me for enriching their biological knowledge.

Darter Heaven

Aside from the “hiding in plain sight” aspect of darters, there was an incident a couple of years ago in early spring. I was wading simply for the joy of getting into the water and briefly stumbled in an ankle-deep rapid. Suddenly, a small fish that leapt out of the water in its panic to flee my crushing foot. It landed on a small rock, flopped for less than five seconds then dropped back into the water, never to be seen again.

Those five seconds shocked me. The amazing part was the color: the underside of the fish was vivid sky blue, accented by improbable orange and blue stripes along the tail and a multi-colored dorsal fin. It looked to be a tropical fish, suddenly dropped into an April Indiana creek.

I was stunned and even questioned whether I had temporarily lost my mind or had some non-chemical daylight tropical flashback. The whole short incident intrigued me so much that I turned around and headed home to research what I had apparently, possibly, could have, might have seen.

It turned out that the whole thing was relatively unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. I had merely kicked up a rainbow darter in full breeding attire.

However, learning this didn’t sate my curiosity but rather, ignited a spark. I begin reading about darters, learning about the habits and how to collect them. I found that some people considered them “the most gaudily-colored freshwater fish in America.” I discovered that some people even keep them in aquariums. In spite of their miniscule size, I was hooked.

Fast forward to yesterday. After building a Plexiglas specimen container for photography, I went back to the creek and specific riffle where I had seen similar fish just a few days before while smallmouth bass fishing.

Of course, there was an issue. It was late October, the water was cold and I brought waders. Oh wait; I didn’t bring the BOOTS for the waders. As bare neoprene stocking-foot waders without boots have a shorter life-expectancy than a snow cone at the state fair, I had a major problem.

Don't forget the boots

After driving 20 minutes to this spot and arranging all my gear only to realize I couldn’t get in the water on this long-planned trip, what could I do?

The creek was low enough that I went ahead and dabbled around the riffles. My hiking boots, in all their waterproof glory, kept the creek at bay. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch any darters as they were farther out into the riffles. I would need to get out into the water.


I caught a darter!!

So, I went wading. And, I caught darters. It was glorious!

In fact, I was amazed at the relative abundance of the fish. With my very inefficient hand net, it wasn’t difficult to capture over a dozen of the fish. After making their photographic debut, they were carefully placed back into the creek to continue their life, albeit with a really good story.

In the end, I was exceptionally cold and wet to the thighs, but the day otherwise went as planned. I will repeat the expedition in April when the males spruce up their colors for breeding season and make one think of the Caribbean instead of corn.

For now, onto something else; anyone know how many mayfly species there are in Indiana??

Good reading: Status of Indiana's Endangered Darters

Darter and minnow beauty gallery (photos by author):

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