The sculpin is one Montana fish that will probably never win any beauty contests. They have big heads, large fins, and strange patterns of coloration. But the names of the different species of sculpins is what makes them so memorable to Montana kids.
There are over 300 species of sculpins in the world but most are found in salt water.
There are only five species found here in Montana but the differences between them are so small that only an expert can tell them apart. None of the sculpins ever get larger than about 6 inches so they are not very important as a sport fish, or a fish that people like to fish for. They are, however, important prey and bait fish for the larger predators, especially brown trout and lake trout.
The Rocky Mountain sculpin is named for the way it blends in with the rocks. It is a native fish, widespread in Montana in mountain streams east of the Continental Divide. Like all sculpins, the Rocky Mountain species eats primarily aquatic insects. They occasionally eat small fish or trout eggs but this is not a large part of their diet.
The shorthead sculpin is a native Fish of Special Concern in Montana because it has been collected from only a few sites in the western part of the state; primarily in the Flathead River drainage above Flathead Lake. It's scientific name contains the word "confusus", since it is very difficult to tell the shorthead sculpin from the Rocky Mountain sculpin except by where it is found.
The slimy sculpin is native west of the Continental Divide. Like the Rocky Mountain sculpin, it prefers clear, cold, rocky streams but will also be found along cobbly shorelines of lakes. All freshwater sculpins are spring spawners. The males select spawning sites on the undersides of rocks. The female enters the nest, and deposits a mass of adhesive eggs upside down on the ceiling of the nest. The male then guards the nest and newly-hatched young sculpins carefully.
The spoonhead sculpin is another native Fish of Special Concern due to its limited Montana distribution. Spoonheads are found only in the St. Mary and Waterton river drainages of Glacier National Park, which drain into Hudson Bay. They inhabit deep lakes as well as streams and provide forage for lake trout, burbot, and other species of fish.
The torrent sculpin is found only in the fast headwater streams of the Kootenai River drainage of Northwest Montana. As with all sculpins, it has a strange appearance with its large head, huge pectoral fins, and bulging eyes. Sculpins have a flattened shape which serves them well as they dart along the bottom between the cracks and crevices of rocks.