Native American Fresh Water Fish
In a close association with some of my native American relatives, it's not lost on me that we sometimes fail to understand that there are other "natives" amongst us. Some of them are native American fresh-water fish.
That brings me to a grim native of our waters, the pike, found in the northern waters of not only North America, but also two other continents.
It is stuff little fish have nightmares about. They aren't alone, many other forms of life in nature dread the pike too. The pike reaches four or five feet in length, with a weight of from seventy to one hundred pounds, if you listen to old native legends.
With its weight are associated great power, huge teeth in the lower jaw and others in the upper part of the mouth that curve backward to the throat, so admitting prey but rendering it impossible for them to escape.
This produces results like those we see when two snakes meet mouth-to-mouth. Some fishermen have indeed found tow pike of practically equal size engaged in such a deadly grapple. One was swallowing the other alive.
When A Log Is Not A Log
Often lurking in the shade, looking like a submerged log, the pike resembles the crocodile. When it makes its dart there is no escape. The prey may be its own young. It may be a rat, a water hen, a duck, a dog, or a young salmon going seaward.
One old-timer told me that he saw one seize first a wild duck, then a wood pigeon, which fell into the water from shots from a hunter's gun -- all in the same hour.
Wisconsin's State Fish -- Muskellunge -- A Pike Cousin
Pike Ice Fishing
Muskellunge-- No Matter How You Spell It
Besides the common pike, we have several other fishes closely related. The largest is the muskellunge (the name is correctly spelled in more than a half dozen ways), found in the Great Lakes region.
Sometimes it reaches a length of eight feet and often weighs a good deal more than a hundred pounds. It is a good fighter. It prefers cold lakes, but is sometimes found in streams and rivers.
Like the pike and its smaller cousins the pickerels, the muskellunge greedily eats smaller fish.
The Salmon Family
Now we come to the salmon family, which is not very large. It includes the whitefish, the salmon and the trout.
Moreover, we must divide the salmon. A European knows only the Atlantic salmon (Salmosalar), but in America the Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus) is even more important than the Atlantic.
The white fish are among the most important American fresh-water fish. There are nearly twenty species, but the common whitefish of the Great Lakes region is the most important. It lives in deep water, but comes to the shallows to spawn.
A female may lay up to seventy-five thousand eggs, but many other fish eat the eggs. In order to keep up the numbers the governments of Canada and of the United States distribute millions of young whitefish every year.
Both the Atlantic and the Pacific salmon spend a large part of their lives in the sea, and come up the rivers chiefly to spawn.
They are called anadromous fish, from the Greek word that means "ascending."
It is commonly believed that they return to the same water they were hatched in, however, that is not true of all species of salmon.
Let us first look at the Atlantic salmon. This fish was much prized by the Roman conquerors of Gaul and Britain two thousand years ago. It is known that the Normans valued them highly, and when John Cabot came to explore the new continent he was pleased to recognize his old friends in the waters of Newfoundland. He found that the natives had learned to spear them as they ascended the rivers. How far north they go was not known at that time.
They are found in all northern European waters, even in Greenland and Labrador. Once they were more common than now. We are told that long ago in Scotland and also in Connecticut servants demanded that they should not be required to eat salmon more than twice a week. It is kind of funny and sad now, to know that salmon are pretty much a luxury or for the more wealthy.
Twice a year, in spring and in fall, salmon leave the sea and make their way up the rivers. Soon after the fish enters the river, the silvery color seems to tarnish. The lower jaw of the male grows and grows, until a formidable hook-like process is established in front.
This fierce-seeming hook is not a weapon of offense, though the males battle ferociously for their mates, and death sometimes results when a greater salmon fights a smaller. That beak is not bone, but cartilage.
Up and up the stream goes the salmon. Its yearly stay in the river may amount to four or five months, and it was long believed in all that time that the salmon took no food! Back then fishermen believed the myth and thought that the salmon were only caught with artificial flies and other baits because the fish were curious. That is a not complete myth, but more of a half truth.
Naturalists later found that in America, at least, the salmon that enter the rivers in the spring come in search of food and perhaps return to the sea. When they again enter the rivers in the fall they do not seem to eat.
Falls and Dams Do Not Deter
Waterfalls and dams do not deter the salmon. So long as there are points in the ascent not more than six feet apart, he will get up, leap by leap.
Of course salmon make mistakes and sometimes jump out onto the bank. At last the head of the stream is reached, and there the final battles are fought between the males.
The females lay their eggs in hollows wriggled out by themselves in the gravel. Then all turn their heads downstream and float out to sea, gaunt specters of their earlier selves and worth no man's while to catch.
In the ocean their feasting will be renewed, their fat and splendor restored, and in due time they will make another journey inland.
The eggs hatch in from thirty days of mild temperature to five months in cold weather. The young stay for their first two years in the river, but at the end of that time they drop downstream in millions, grow great and strong, then return from the sea.
There are salmon varieties, however, that do not go to sea. The Sebago, or Landlocked salmon first found in Maine, and the Ouananiche of Canada are true salmon that live all their lives in fresh water.
Some students of fishes deny that they are really separate speices, yet they are a species of Atlantic salmon.
Finally, anglers say that the Ouananiche is the gamest of all fish, fighting furiously to the very end.
The Pacific Salmon
The story of the Pacific salmon is not quite the same. Like the Atlantic salmon, it ascends the rivers, leaping falls if necessary. The males fight. The nest is dug in the gravel and the eggs, covered in, are left to hatch.
However, the parents never return to sea alive, and the young do not remain in the river. Sadly today, Pacific Salmon are an endangered species and many varieties of them are becoming extinct across the world.
Pacific Salmon -- She's Gone to Heaven
If You'd Like To Know More!
- ADW: Salmo salar: Information
- Atlantic Salmon, An Invasive Threat: - Alaska Department of Fish and Game
- Pacific Salmon (Endangered Species), Wildlife Species Information: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- The Musky
Wisconsin Sea Grant's profile of the musky
- Whitefish Species: Wildlife Notebook Series - Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Whitefish species description from the Alaska Wildlife Notebook Series publication, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.