The Greatest Fish You’ve Never Seen

A look at some fascinating though little-known species. By Tom Dickson. Illustrations by Joseph Tomelleri

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
July–August 2002

Fish intrigue me. I’m awed by their sleek shapes, colorful variations, patterned scales. Even more, I’m drawn to their mysterious allure. Scientists, who have scrutinized every gland and gesture of mule deer and mallards, know surprisingly little about the state’s finned fauna. And no wonder. Beneath the dark surface of rivers and reservoirs swims a world few people can ever see, much less study.

Sure, anglers know about game fish—trout, walleyes, and the dozen or so other varieties sought for flesh and fight. But the majority of Montana’s 84 species, ignobly named “forage fish” or “rough fish,” remain unnoticed beneath the hulls of passing boats.

These rarely seen creatures range in size from tiny darters smaller than your pinkie to white sturgeons big as a park bench. Some are drab colored, like the washed-olive smallmouth buffalo; others, like the Iowa darter, dazzle the eye with their spawning colors.

Collected here are several little-known native fish I find particularly fascinating. A few are visually stunning. Others behave extraordinarily. All of them, combined with the state’s other fish species, make up a large portion of Montana’s extensive underwater ecosystems.

white sturgeonWhite Sturgeon
Montana is fortunate to be home to three fascinating sturgeon species—the white, the pallid, and the shovelnose. All three look like a sucker-shark hybrid (if such a thing were possible).

A sturgeon’s long, rubbery snout is shaped like a bullet. Its suckerlike mouth projects down from the underside of its snout and, like a vacuum tube, sucks crayfish, nymphs, and other small aquatic animals the fish eats.

All sturgeons have a long, cylindrical body that ends in a sharklike tail. And, like a shark, the sturgeon is a prehistoric fish. Modern specimens look exactly like those in 100-million-year-old fossils.

The name sturgeon comes from a Germanic root meaning “to stir” or “to poke around,” referring to the way the fish stirs up river bottoms when feeding.

Though all sturgeon species are remarkable creatures, it’s the white that most captures the imagination. For one thing, it is the largest freshwater fish in North America. The species ranges from Alaska to southern California, and specimens caught in the early 1900s weighed more than 1,500 pounds and measured over 15 feet long (Montana’s state record, however, was a relatively small 96-pounder caught in 1968).

For another, Montana contains the only naturally land-locked population of white sturgeon. This sub-population of white sturgeon is found only in 168 miles of the Kootenai River from Kootenai Falls, 31 miles downstream of Libby, north to Kootenay Lake in British Columbia. Scientists believe this population was cut off from the rest of the Columbia River drainage by glaciation 10,000 years ago. That formed the falls, which prevented white sturgeon—an anadromous species that ordinarily lives part of its life in the Pacific Ocean—from moving downstream to the Columbia River.

Water pollution in the 1950s and ’60s caused the white sturgeon population to decline, but what really hurt the fish was the construction of the Libby Dam in 1975. This altered historical water level regimes needed for sturgeon spawning, blocked their upstream movement, and trapped nutrients that previously had fed the ecosystem downstream. So low did the population drop that it was put on the federal endangered species list in 1974.

The burbot—also known as ling, ling cod, and lawyer—can’t forget it’s the only freshwater member of the cod family. This close relative of Atlantic cod, haddock, and pollock is one of the few freshwater fishes to spawn in winter—the same time ocean cod spawn in the Atlantic Ocean.

Burbot The catfish-shaped burbot is marked by a single barbel on its chin and a mottled pattern of brown blotches on a yellow background. Slow for a fish, the burbot uses its camouflage to dupe minnows into swimming within striking distance.

Though considered a game fish, the burbot is often disdained by anglers put off by the fish’s habit of wrapping itself around their arm like an eel as they try to remove the hook. One friend refers to burbot as the “ish of fish.”

Seen only by a few biologists and ice anglers, the burbots’ spawning ritual is almost mythical. In early February, they move from the depths of rivers and reservoirs to shallow water over mud flats or sandy shoals. The snakelike fish then congregate in a living glob of from a dozen to a hundred or more intertwined bodies that move in and out of the quivering sphere, releasing eggs and spawn.

Noted north woods author and naturalist Sigurd E. Olson once witnessed burbot spawning through an opening in the ice and described the spectacle: “We…saw such a sight as few have ever seen—a struggling, squirming mass of fish, the long brownish snaky bodies twisting around each other, the entire contorted mass turning over and over, beating the water into a foam.”
Burbot are primarily fish of northern waters—including those of Europe—though some occasionally turn up as far south as Missouri. Most swim in clean, deep lakes and rivers. Scientists have found them as deep as 1,000 feet in Lake Superior.

Like that of the cod, the burbot’s liver is rich in vitamins A and D. French connoisseurs prize the foie de lotte de rivière (liver of the river cod), either poached in white wine or made into pâté or canapés. The meat is codlike, too—white and bone-free.

Mottled sculpinMottled Sculpin
This little fish, which looks like a cartoon bullhead, is well known to fly anglers, who use deer-hair-and-feather imitations (such as the Muddler Minnow and Marabou Muddler) to catch trout.
The mottled sculpin’s scientific name, Cottus bairdi, comes from the Latin word for fish and S.F. Baird, who headed the U.S. Fish Commission in the late 1800s. Like its nearly similar-looking Montana cousins—the spiny, shorthead, torrent, and spoonhead sculpins—the mottled has an oversized head that tapers down to a small body and tail. Adult mottled sculpins average about 3 to 4 inches long, though some monsters over 6 inches have been reported.

In Montana, mottled sculpins are found primarily in clear, fast-flowing mountain streams in the Missouri, Saskatchewan, and Yellowstone river drainages. They live in riffles, feeding on midge and caddis fly larvae and also trout eggs and fry, though not to the point where trout populations are harmed.

Mountain whitefishMountain Whitefish
The strike indicator pauses, up goes the rod tip, and now you’re directly hooked to 18 inches of muscular mountain whitefish roaring downstream.

Related to trout, salmon, char, and grayling, the mountain whitefish is one of three whitefish species (lake and pygmy whitefish are the others) that swim in Montana waters.
Like the trout that inhabit the same streams and rivers, the mountain whitefish has a long, muscular body that ends in a small head. Unlike trout, however, the whitefish has a lipped mouth, which it uses to slurp up midge and caddis fly larvae from the river bottom. Because of its mouth, many anglers mistake the whitefish for a type of sucker.

Mountain whitefish are found on either side of the Continental Divide. They stick mainly to clean rivers, and their presence indicates good water quality. Conversely, their disappearance warns of water pollution.

Some anglers express disappointment to learn they’ve hooked this common river fish rather than a trout—apparently because whitefish take bait and lures more readily than trout do and are thus less of a challenge. Yet the whitefish fights hard, grows to over 3 pounds, and in swift current can take a fly line into its backing.

blue suckerBlue Sucker
Here is an aristocrat among warmwater fish. With its elegant shape, striking coloration, and acute sensitivity to pollution, the blue sucker seems more like a trout than a sucker. But sucker it is—one of nine species in Montana.

Like all suckers, the blue is named for the toothless, lipped mouth it uses to pick up food. In clean, fast-flowing waters, the blue sucker pokes its elongated head among stones in search of scuds, mayfly nymphs, and other invertebrates it chews in its throat (pharynx) using broad molars called pharyngeal teeth.

Though sometimes confused with the exotic carp, an import from Germany, suckers are of no relation to that oversized minnow. Suckers are found only in North America, except for those swimming in China and northeastern Russia, where scientists believe the fish migrated millennia ago across the Bering Strait.

North American suckers can be grouped roughly into four categories: the buffaloes, the carpsuckers (no relation to the aforementioned exotic), the redhorses, and the suckers—one of which is the blue.

As is the case for many warmwater species, central Montana marks the western range of the blue sucker, which is found throughout the Missouri-Mississippi river system east to Pennsylvania and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The fish is uncommon in Montana, though occasionally one is caught by a lucky angler fishing the Missouri or lower Yellowstone (the state record, an 11.46-pounder, was landed near Miles City in 1989).

Freshwater Drum
Space limits listing the amazing traits of this remarkable fish. Ranging from mid-Canada to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, the freshwater drum boasts the largest north-south range
of any North American freshwater fish. It is also the only freshwater member of the drum family, which includes the ocean fish served as “blackened redfish” popularized in New Orleans restaurants.

Freshwater drumThis silver, bass-shaped fish is known to scientists as Aplodinotus grunniens. Anglers call it sheepshead, croaker, and thunder-pumper. The name in Louisiana is gaspergou (from the French casburgot—literally, “to break a clam,” referring to its ability to crush mollusks in the heavy molars
that line its throat).

Among the drum’s other extraordinary features:

In Montana, drum are found only in the lower Missouri and Yellowstone rivers and in a few tributaries. Excellent table fare, drum can be filleted and prepared like a walleye or bass.

Shortnose garShortnose Gar
To call a gar a living fossil is no exaggeration. The long-beaked fish today found finning lazily in the backwaters of the lower Missouri River differs little from those that darted among the tree trunk legs of brontosauruses wading prehistoric swamps.

Like its relatives the longnose and alligator gars, both found in the lower Mississippi River drainage, the shortnose looks like an armored tube of muscle. Covering the cylindrical body is a sheath of interlocking diamond-shaped plates that bend and flex as the fish moves. Hard as tooth enamel, gar “scales” were once used by some American Indians to tip their arrows.

A gar can actually breath air by taking oxygen from the atmosphere into its gas bladder, allowing it to survive in water practically devoid of oxygen. This indomitable fish has been known to live 24 hours or more completely out of water.

Rare in Montana, the shortnose gar can occasionally be found in the Fort Peck dredge cuts, where, on hot summer afternoons, an angler might see its trademark snout break the water surface as the fish gulps a mouthful of air and then submerges.

Females lay bright green, poisonous (to humans) eggs in shallow weedy bays and backwaters that warm to over 70 degrees. The young often lie in groups at the water surface, looking like floating black matchsticks.

Gar favor warm, slow-moving water where they can spend sunny days eating young carp and other minnows dumb enough to swim within reach.Bear bullet

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.