I went fly fishing on Father’s Day, as I normally do, but this year I fished a new stretch of river with another fly fishing father and, befitting the day, learned to appreciate on an entirely new level, what dads bring to this world.
Father’s Day honors fathers and for us fly fishing fathers, it’s a day to fish without that nagging guilt that the lawn needs mowing, the front door needs painting, or the honey-do list needs some attention. Us father fly fishers should recognize on “our” day that there are other fathers among us – fathers of the fishy kind. Some are not known for their fatherly qualities, while others are role models for all species, the human kind included.
If you’ve fished any of the warmwater rivers of the Southern Tier or even some of our coldwater rivers and streams – the Salmon River included – you might have noticed large piles of stones of the same size that stood high and possibly even dry above low summer flows.
A fallfish nest this size means there’s a big male around…
You also may have wondered how these stones came to be piled in one spot. The answer is as old as the Native Americans of the Hudson Bay region who called this interesting fish, “Awadosi” or “stone carriers.”
When caught, these fish are often called chubs or suckers. But upon hook-up, this feisty member of the minnow family puts on a show reminiscent of a nice brown trout or smallmouth bass. Black-backed, silver-sided, and streamlined, these flowing water dwellers put a good bend in a fly rod and can be taken on streamers, wet flies, nymphs, and even dry flies. They can attain sizes of over 18″. In fact, the New York state record is a 19″ fish that weighed over 3 lbs and was caught in the Susquehanna River.
Besides the piss and vinegar the fallfish displays on the line, this species has a unique fatherly devotion to its offspring like no other.
Every spring, fallfish feel cupid’s arrow and spawn. Water temperatures and seasonal light patterns provoke changes to mature male fallfish. The head area of the males will turn a beautiful red grape color and develop small breeding tubercles, also called “horns”. These horns actually shed after the spring spawn. The horns possibly play a role in nest defense and stimulation of mates.
The fallfish spawning ritual consists of the male moving over a pit or trough he has excavated and by trembling in place, sending sexual signals to the female. The female swims to the side of the male and deposits her eggs, releasing between 1,000 to 12,000 eggs. Timing is critical because fertilization occurs externally in flowing water. But it’s after spawning that the male fallfish truly comes to the fore of fatherhood.
When spawning is complete, the male selects and totes stones with his mouth and stacks the stones back into the pit over a two- to four-day period. The mound created may contain thousands of similar-sized stones. Big fallfish move larger stones and make huge mounds. The somewhat-circular mound of a large fallfish can measure up to six feet in diameter and three feet in height. The male covers the pit and eggs with stones presumably to prevent predation of eggs and suffocation of the eggs by silt.
Sometimes you’ll find a series of these nests spaced apart in a row in line with the current flow. During my trip to the Otselic River, I saw several areas with 3 – 5 nests in a row. It’s a pretty amazing sight to see, particularly in regards to the size of the larger nests, remembering they are built one stone at a time by a minnow that must swim in current while doing it.
Fathers are part of the whole in the human dimension: dads wouldn’t exist without moms and vice versa. In the fish world, there are fathers that simply broadcast, others that help, but the fallfish, like a truly good father, builds and protects. Next time you’re out on one of our local streams or rivers, look for that pile of stones. And if it’s a big pile, be sure to work a nymph or streamer through the faster water, runs, and pools. One never knows where the next state record might be. But be gentle. That big fallfish has many more stones to move and progeny to shelter…