Friday Photospread: Minnesota Darter Hunt, 2021

28 May, 2021

A beautiful spring day and growing COVID vaccination rates combine for the perfect opportunity to gather outdoors with fellow aquarists to do a little fishing. We started our day at Square Lake in Washington County, a 30-minute drive northeast of St. Paul, MN, and near the St. Croix River.
A beautiful spring day and growing COVID vaccination rates combine for the perfect opportunity to gather outdoors with fellow aquarists to do a little fishing. We started our day at Square Lake in Washington County, a 30-minute drive northeast of St. Paul, MN, and near the St. Croix River.

“We’re going on a darter hunt.
We’re gonna catch some gorgeous ones.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.”
inspired by a book I used to read to my children at bedtime…

It’s impossible to write a story lately without reflecting upon the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the rollout of vaccinations, the dropping of mask mandates for fully-vaccinated individuals, and an overall sense that we may finally be able to “return to normal” here in Minnesota, aquarists like myself are eager to get back to the social side of our hobby. In-person events and meetings may have been taken for granted in the recent pre-pandemic past, but hopefully, we’ll see the return of in-person gatherings met with enthusiasm, rather than trepidation.

May 15th, 2021, was the first time I’ve gathered in-person with any aquarists since February of 2020. It also represents the first time since 2016 that I’ve been able to particulate in an amazing annual tradition that’s part of the aquarium-hobby culture here in the North Star State, the Minnesota Aquarium Society’s Darter Hunts.

What’s a Darter?

For those who aren’t already familiar, darters are a subfamily of bottom-dwelling fishes in the perch family (specifically Etheosomatidae). As a frame of reference, darters are reminiscent of gobies and blennies. They are generally small and males of some species are often colorful; some species can be easily recommended for aquarium keeping, provided their basic husbandry requirements are met. Given their interesting behavior and potential for color, it’s no surprise that aquarists might be interested in keeping them in their fish tanks. But it’s not as though you can simply walk into your local fish store to buy some darters. Darters are usually a DIY acquisition project for most native fish enthusiasts, although some species can be ordered and shipped from specialty native fish dealers.

Johnny darters (Etheostoma nigrum) are one of the more widespread darter species, and even show up in the aquarium trade as rare hitchhiking contaminants mixed in live feed items such as ghost shrimps. While not one of the colorful darter species, they make good aquarium inhabitants and are well suited to unheated tanks.
Johnny darters (Etheostoma nigrum) are one of the more widespread darter species, and even show up in the aquarium trade as rare hitchhiking contaminants mixed in live feed items such as ghost shrimps. While not one of the colorful darter species, they make good aquarium inhabitants and are well suited to unheated tanks.

Native Fish Keeping: A Bit Complex From A Legal Standpoint

For nearly 30 years, Jenny Kruckenberg and the Minnesota Aquarium Society (MAS) have organized a unique event available to aquarists from around the state, a series of two or three half-day spring fishing expeditions where aquarists join in the search for elusive and delightful North American native fishes suitable for aquarium keeping. These fishing events are operated under special permits granted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) allowing the limited fishing for and harvest of darters, which otherwise fall into a bit of a gray area within the state’s fishing regulations. Kruckenberg, who is also the Minnesota Regional Outreach Representative for the North American Native Fishes Association (NANFA), handles the permitting process with the state, and carefully records the harvest and reports the data back to the DNR each year. Safety and liability waivers are important parts of this club-sanctioned event as well.

Some of the aquarists who participated in the successful May 15th Darter Hunt. Darter hunt organizer Jenny Kruckenberg is center-left, with fellow NANFA member and organizer Konrad P. Schmidt center-right. Audrey Pedersen, and author Matt Pedersen, foreground center-right.
Some of the aquarists who participated in the successful May 15th Darter Hunt. Darter hunt organizer Jenny Kruckenberg is center-left, with fellow NANFA member and organizer Konrad P. Schmidt center-right. Audrey Pedersen, and author Matt Pedersen, foreground center-right.

It is important to discuss that fishing regulations and laws governing the private aquarium keeping of native fishes vary greatly between each state. In some states, darter species are lumped into the loose category of minnows or baitfish and are regulated under those guidelines, but in Minnesota, darters are not part of that category…in fact, they fall into none of the regular fishery categories (they’re not game fish, they’re not rough fish, and they’re not baitfish).

While certain darter species are explicitly prohibited from harvest in Minnesota due to conservation concerns, the others are not explicitly permitted either, hence the need for collection permits to harvest darters. While darters are obviously the “highlight” of these fishing trips, many of the other Minnesota fishes that were targeted and hoped for fall under the “bait” provisions of Minnesota’s fishing regulations, and thus, one could fish for them and harvest them here in Minnesota without having to participate in this limited, state-sanctioned event. Of course, the transportation of live native fishes is also a highly regulated activity in many states, including Minnesota. If there is any doubt or uncertainty, it’s best to talk to the DNR and figure it all out ahead of time!

Minnesota is certainly not the only state with somewhat difficult-to-understand fishing regulations. Some darter species around the United States are at-risk, imperiled, or even endangered and threatened with extinction. Thus, fishing for darters may require specific permits while also demanding a keen ability to differentiate between a common species and one that is protected. So to repeat the advice, don’t just go out and harvest local fishes for your home aquarium. Instead, reach out to the appropriate governmental agency and get the information and permits you need; be a responsible aquarist. Know that once the fish is removed from the environment, there is probably not a state in the nation that would let you freely release it back into the wild later on as this constitutes “stocking”, which is always heavily regulated. The regulations that govern the harvest and keeping of native fishes in the United States can be difficult to follow, but area NANFA members and native fish enthusiasts may be able to help.

Fishing Expeditions on a Budget!

But getting back to the entire concept of a “darter hunt”, one thing is clear to me; this is your opportunity to have a real-world fish collecting expedition on a budget! AMAZONAS Magazine routinely publishes stories from devoted aquarists who travel the world in the quest to find and collect special fishes in their native habitats. Such expeditions require extensive planning, and often incur great costs. While they might represent a dream trip, they may also be out of reach for most of us. I can tell you now that if I suggested to my wife that we make our next family vacation a trip to Peru to go fish collecting for Rio Nanay Angelfish, it wouldn’t go over well. However, taking a day and driving a few hours each way to collect fishes here in Minnesota didn’t even require spousal approval; I just had to make sure it didn’t conflict with the family schedule!

And schedules do come into play, as darter hunts can be subject to the weather. Rainfall can swell streams and render collection impossible. Thus, darter hunts are nearly always “tentatively scheduled” and you might not know for sure if it’s going to happen until 24 hours beforehand. So despite residing in Minnesota for 11 years, May 15th, 2021 was only the second darter hunt I was able to participate in, as oftentimes weather would cancel a trip I could make, or family obligations prevented me from participating when a trip went ahead as planned.

On my first darter hunt, my son Ethan joined me. This time around, it was my 8-year-old daughter, Audrey, who put up with the long car ride and leaky waders to have a bit of fun outdoors. The night before the trip, I gathered up the DNR’s information on the lake we were heading to and showed Audrey all the species of fishes we might encounter. We discussed how to tell them apart, and she instantly latched on to certain species she thought we should bring home for our aquariums. So we set off with a plan in hand.

I’m not going to ramble much more about this recent excursion, but instead, I’ll let the pictures and captions tell the story.

The shallow, sandy shoreline of Square Lake was teeming with small fishes.
The shallow, sandy shoreline of Square Lake was teeming with small fishes.
Some aquarists used handheld dip-nets to catch small fishes (as shown above); others worked in 3-person teams with seines to trap fish along the shore of Square Lake.
Some aquarists used handheld dip-nets to catch small fishes (as shown above); others worked in three-person teams with seines to trap fish along the shore of Square Lake.
Fishing at Square Lake actually concluded rather quickly with hundreds of fishes caught. Here, Jenny Kruckenberg pours some of the catch into small, clear containers for observation, photographing, and sorting.
Fishing at Square Lake actually concluded rather quickly with hundreds of fishes caught. Here, Jenny Kruckenberg pours some of the catch into small, clear containers for observation, photographing, and sorting.
Dozens of "minnows" concentrated into a small aquarium for quick sorting.
Dozens of “minnows” concentrated into a small aquarium for quick sorting.
Close up: several spotfin shiners (Cyprinella spiloptera), a bluntnose minnow (Pimephales notatus, exhibiting a black horizontal stripe), a brightly-colored male Iowa darter (Etheostoma exile), and a couple Johnny darters (Etheostoma nigrum).
Close up: several spotfin shiners (Cyprinella spiloptera), a bluntnose minnow (Pimephales notatus, exhibiting a black horizontal stripe), a brightly-colored male Iowa darter (Etheostoma exile), and a couple Johnny darters (Etheostoma nigrum).
An Iowa darter rests on the aquarium bottom, with several spotfin shiners and bluntnose minnows crowding in above.
An Iowa darter rests on the aquarium bottom, with several spotfin shiners and bluntnose minnows crowding in above.
A mature bluntnose minnow (bottom center, facing the camera) exhibits temporary breeding tubercles on his snout.
A mature bluntnose minnow (bottom center, facing the camera) exhibits temporary breeding tubercles on his snout.
A female Iowa darter briefly swims in the water column above the numerous minnows and shiners.
A female Iowa darter briefly swims in the water column above the numerous minnows and shiners.
Only three central mudminnows (Umbra limi) were encountered, being collected by dipnet in deeper water along a fishing pier.
Only three central mudminnows (Umbra limi) were encountered, being collected by dipnet in deeper water along a fishing pier.
Another, slightly smaller central mudminnow was collected in Square Lake. We had hoped to try this species out in our aquariums, but with only three to go around, we didn't want to be greedy! Maybe next time (or we'll catch some ourselves this summer)!
Another, slightly smaller central mudminnow was collected in Square Lake. We had hoped to try this species out in our aquariums, but with only three to go around, we didn’t want to be greedy! Maybe next time (or we’ll catch some ourselves this summer)!
Western banded killifish, Fundulus diaphanus menona, were on multiple aquarists' wishlists. At first, we didn't notice them among the numerous minnows and shiners, but we wound up collecting many of them in our seine close to shore, possibly scaring them out from submerged branches and shoreline vegetation. They were decidedly small, probably young, and appeared to have a mottled coloration when viewed from above. Once most aquarists had what they wanted, we selected several to try in our aquariums.
Western banded killifish, Fundulus diaphanus menona, were on multiple aquarists’ wishlists. At first, we didn’t notice them among the numerous minnows and shiners, but we wound up collecting many of them in our seine close to shore, possibly scaring them out from submerged branches and shoreline vegetation. They were decidedly small, probably young, and appeared to have a mottled coloration when viewed from above. Once most aquarists had what they wanted, we selected several to try in our aquariums.
Even some ghostly, transparent freshwater shrimp were collected at Square Lake!
Even some ghostly, transparent freshwater shrimp were collected at Square Lake!
Sadly, this is the only photograph I managed to get of blackchin shiners (Notropis heterodon) and blacknose shiners (N. heterolepis); two species we had on our wishlist but were sparse in numbers. In addition, you'll see many small specimens of the protected Least Darter, Etheostoma microperca, the smallest vertebrate fish in Minnesota and clearly visible here with their bright orange pelvic fins. Konrad P. Schmidt shared how all these fishes were all destined for another area lake as part of a volunteer stocking program aimed at reestablishing this darter and associated ichthyofauna in an ongoing special project managed by the MN DNR in coordination with NANFA.
Sadly, this is the only photograph I managed to get of blackchin shiners (Notropis heterodon) and blacknose shiners (N. heterolepis); two species we had on our wishlist but were sparse in numbers. In addition, you’ll see many small specimens of the protected Least Darter (Etheostoma microperca), the smallest vertebrate fish in Minnesota and clearly visible here with their bright orange pelvic fins. Konrad P. Schmidt shared how all these fishes were all destined for another area lake as part of a volunteer stocking program aimed at reestablishing this darter and associated ichthyofauna in an ongoing special project managed by the MN DNR in coordination with NANFA.
Audrey and I each succeeded in getting good numbers of some of the fish were were after at Square Lake. I wanted a shoal of spotfin shiners, given my past experiences with the related and somewhat common-in-the-aquarium-trade "rainbow dace" or "red shiner", Cyprinella lutrensis. Audrey wanted bluntnose minnows and got her wish. While I hadn't been attracted to them, they're outwardly no less interesting and very similar in coloration to the popular Siamese algae eater or Siamese flying fox, Crossocheilus siamensis.
Audrey and I each succeeded in getting good numbers of some of the fish we were after at Square Lake. I wanted a shoal of spotfin shiners, given my past experiences with the related and somewhat common-in-the-aquarium-trade “rainbow dace” or “red shiner”, Cyprinella lutrensis. Audrey wanted bluntnose minnows and got her wish. While I hadn’t been attracted to them, they’re outwardly no less interesting and very similar in coloration to the popular Siamese algae eater or Siamese flying fox, Crossocheilus siamensis. Given the limited number of darters that can be harvested each year, we opted to forego bringing home any Iowa or Johnny darters this time. We had our sights set on a different prize.
Our second and final collecting location for the day was Old Mill Stream in the town of Marine on St. Croix. The only way to legally fish here for darters is in this sanctioned hunt, as this is a designated trout stream (where any sort of baitfish gathering and netting is prohibited), and it is also listed as an invasive species infested waterbody for zebra mussels. All aquarists had to bring their own water from home for transporting any fishes taken, and Kruckenberg used dedicated gear as well. This location was also the last spot by design, in order to prevent any contamination of other water bodies which could occur if you were to travel elsewhere after fishing here.
Our second and final collecting location for the day was Old Mill Stream in the town of Marine on St. Croix. The only way to legally fish here for darters is in this sanctioned hunt, as this is a designated trout stream (where any sort of baitfish gathering and netting is prohibited), and it is also listed as an invasive species infested waterbody for zebra mussels. All aquarists had to bring their own water from home for transporting any fishes taken, and Kruckenberg used dedicated gear as well. This location was also the last spot by design, in order to prevent any contamination of other water bodies which could occur if you were to travel elsewhere after fishing here.
The group wasted no time getting to fishing. Again, some aquarists used seines to block the creek, while a third person would shuffle downstream towards it, corralling fish in the waiting net.
The group wasted no time getting to fishing. Again, some aquarists used seines to block the creek, while a third person would shuffle downstream towards it, corralling fish in the waiting net.
Jenny Kruckenberg teaches willing children the darter shuffle in the bone-chilling creek water, hoping to catch some brilliantly colored natives!
Jenny Kruckenberg teaches willing children the darter shuffle in the bone-chilling creek water, hoping to catch some brilliantly colored natives!
Beautiful fishes live in beautiful places, and the scenery surrounding Old Mill Stream is certainly an aquascaping inspiration!
Beautiful fishes live in beautiful places, and the scenery surrounding Old Mill Stream is certainly an aquascaping inspiration!
An interesting fern with reddish edges was growing streamside.
An interesting fern with reddish edges was growing streamside.
Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) where in bloom, but were easily overlooked given the excitement and frenzy of the darter hunt!
Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) where in bloom, but were easily overlooked given the excitement and frenzy of the darter hunt!
Audrey examines a brook trout, Salvelinus fontinalis, one of two that were slightly inconvenienced during all the darter hunting!
Audrey examines a brook trout, Salvelinus fontinalis, one of two that were slightly inconvenienced during all the darter hunting!
A closer look at the stunning brook trout before it was returned the stream.
A closer look at the stunning brook trout before it was returned the stream.
Rainbow darters (Etheostoma caeruleum) were the quarry at Old Mill Stream, and the fishing went very quickly.
Rainbow darters (Etheostoma caeruleum) were the quarry at Old Mill Stream, and the fishing went very quickly.
Female rainbow darters were plump, having not yet spawned for the season. They were easily distinguished by their drab coloration, swollen bellies, and dark saddle markings on their backs.
Female rainbow darters were plump, having not yet spawned for the season. They were easily distinguished by their drab coloration, swollen bellies, and dark saddle markings on their backs.
Male rainbow darters, while brightly colored, still appeared dark. There literally was no chance of observing these fish from above, particularly with the broken water surface in riffle sections. The bright coloration is still highly functional camouflage.
Male rainbow darters, while brightly colored, still appeared dark. There literally was no chance of observing these fish from above, particularly with the broken water surface in riffle sections. The bright coloration is still highly functional camouflage.
These “fired up” male Rainbow Darters are downright stunning, adorned with bold oranges and vivid blues rivaling the gaudy coloration of many coral reef fishes!
Aquarists took turns selecting the darters that they wanted to take home their aquariums; here, Jenny selects a female to bring home to add to her existing rainbow darter group consisting of Old Mill Stream fish from prior years' hunts.
Aquarists took turns selecting the darters that they wanted to take home their aquariums; here, Jenny selects a female to bring home to add to her existing rainbow darter group consisting of Old Mill Stream fish from prior years’ hunts.
After selections had been made, Audrey helped release the extra fishes back into the creek.
After selections had been made, Audrey helped release the extra fishes back into the creek.
Audrey proudly shows off one of our female Rainbow Darters!
Hours later, Audrey helps acclimate our new fish to their initial holding aquarium.
Hours later, Audrey helps acclimate our new fish to their initial holding aquarium.
That smile should tell you everything you need to know!
That smile should tell you everything you need to know!
I opted to initially quarantine our bluntnose minnows, spotfin shiners, and rainbow darters in a somewhat bare 54-gallon corner tank. It had been recently drained, cleaned, and set up with a well-established sponge filter from another system. I had left the aquarium partially unfilled and added cold tap water to chill it a bit to match the temperature of the water the fish were in. The aquarium was left unheated, and heavily aerated as well. This aquarium has been their temporary home so far, and all the fish appear to be healthy and adapting well to aquarium life. The spotfin shiners in particular are already developing more vivid coloration including some white tips on their caudal fins; they vaguely remind me of larger Danio species. After a couple more weeks of observation, I will likely move these fishes into other aquariums, and the darters will get a dedicated tank designed just for their particular needs.
I opted to initially quarantine our bluntnose minnows, spotfin shiners, and rainbow darters in a somewhat bare 54-gallon corner tank. It had been recently drained, cleaned, and set up with a well-established sponge filter from another system. I had left the aquarium partially unfilled and added cold tap water to chill it a bit to match the temperature of the water the fish were in. The aquarium was left unheated, and heavily aerated as well. This aquarium has been their temporary home so far, and all the fish appear to be healthy and adapting well to aquarium life. The spotfin shiners in particular are already developing more vivid coloration including some white tips on their caudal fins; they vaguely remind me of larger Danio species. After a couple more weeks of observation, I will likely move these fishes into other aquariums, and the darters will get a dedicated tank designed just for their particular needs.

Reflecting On Time Well Spent

Ultimately, I will cherish these trips, and I’m always eager to participate in more if I can. So far I’ve only been to two of the collecting locations where Krukenberg takes people fishing. There are more rivers to see, and other species of native fish I have yet to personally see and keep. My wishlist of native species is long; I’m particularly enamored with the Fantail Darter (Etheostoma flabellare) which is anything but colorful!

My local MAS Darter Hunts will have to scratch the itch to go into the wild to collect fish for my home aquariums, at least for the foreseeable future. I don’t anticipate traveling abroad to collect fish anytime soon, but these darter hunts extend the aquarium keeping experience in a new dimension for myself and my children. Hand collection with nets is literally how some of your favorite aquarium fishes are collected in far-flung places, and participating in these fishing activities here at home may give you a deeper understanding of what goes into the collection trips we recount in the pages of AMAZONAS.

Collecting native fishes for your aquariums is also good for the soul and good for the family. Why? In the days following the darter hunt, my son repeatedly asked me to take him fishing and even spent some time practicing his fly casting skills in the front yard; I’ve never had him ask me to take him fishing before, even though he seems to enjoy it once I actually drag him along.

A successful darter hunt sparked my daughter's desire to spend more time exploring our local waters. She won't touch any normal-size gamefish you might catch with a rod and reel, but she's slightly gotten over her fear of tiny fishes!  This young largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) was briefly inconvenienced while testing our newly acquired seining skills at Grandma and Grandpa's lake home the next weekend!
A successful darter hunt sparked my daughter’s desire to spend more time exploring our local waters. She won’t touch any normal-size gamefish you might catch with a rod and reel, but she’s slightly gotten over her fear of tiny fishes! This young largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) was briefly inconvenienced while testing our newly acquired seining skills at Grandma and Grandpa’s lake home the next weekend!

During an early hot spell last weekend, my daughter and I dug out the minnow seine that I originally purchased for use as a barrier net to self-collect marine fish in the Florida keys some 14 years ago. Having learned how to properly seine on this recent darter hunt, we tried it in the lake at Grandma & Grandpa’s house. The only thing we managed to catch (and let go) were several bluegills and some young largemouth bass that were only a couple of inches long, which my daughter really wanted to bring back to the fishroom! My daughter connected with the lake in a new way, and I got to spend some real quality time with my daughter while encouraging her interest in something that I’m also passionate about.

Learn More In A Future Issue?

As time permits, I hope to bring you a comprehensive look at the Minnesota Aquarium Society Darter Hunts in the pages of AMAZONAS.

If this story gets you excited about the possibilities of collecting and keeping your own native aquarium fishes this summer, I encourage you to:

  • Join NANFA
  • Connect with fellow NANFA members where you live
  • Learn the local regulations governing the collection, transport, and aquarium keeping of native fish species
  • Learn what local fishes may actually make good aquarium inhabitants, learn how to care for them, and learn where to find them
  • Learn about your state’s angling laws as they pertain to trespassing and public access
  • Talk to your local DNR about your plans so you’re on the right side of the law. Get any necessary permits.
  • Gather the necessary gear and prepare your tank ahead of time
  • Then get out there with your seines and dip nets and have fun!

Further Reading

Visit the NANFA website for more information on the captive husbandry of commonly-kept darter species.

The AMAZONAS Digital Edition FREE SAMPLE currently features our July/August 2019 issue, NATURALLY NATIVES! You can read all about the native fish hobby right now! This issue is also available as a printed back issue.

Currently available exclusively as a printed back issue, Ken Zeedyk shares his experiences keeping and breeding the Rainbow Darter, Etheostoma caeruleum, in the May/June 2013 issue of AMAZONAS. Order a copy today!

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About the author

Matt Pedersen

Matt Pedersen is a Sr. Editor and Associate Publisher with Reef To Rainforest Media, LLC & CORAL Magazines, and is a Sr. Editor and Publishing Partner with Aquatic Media Press, LLC & AMAZONAS Magazine. Matt has kept aquariums for 38 years, has worked in most facets of the aquarium trade, is an active aquarist and fish breeder (both marine and freshwater), and was recognized with the 2009 MASNA Award as the MASNA Aquarist of the Year.

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