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Last of the Darters

We'll make one last pictorial visit to the clear, rushing waters of Big Darby Creek, and take a look at a few more darters. I've got one more ichthyological mission scheduled in early April, and if all goes well, I'll return with even better fish photos.

Speaking of photos and fish, a number of people have asked about techniques for getting shots. This has been my first stab at shooting fish, so I can claim no expertise, but am glad to share what I've learned. Ideally, a photo of a fish should look as if the photographer were in the stream and under the water with the fish. I wasn't.

No real trick to getting the shots, but it is a bit of work. We lugged a small aquarium down to streamside, and fixed it up with rocks and gravel from the very riffles where the fish were caught. I found it is vital to really clean those rocks, or you'll have lots of suspended solids floating around. Then, just fill it up with clear water from the upper column of the stream. Next time, I will more thoroughly clean the rocks, though, and also put more of them in the aquarium, to put the fish higher up from the bottom of the tank, so that the edges of the aquarium don't intrude on shots. Might even try lugging out a few gallons of distilled water, letting them sit in the stream until temperatures are equalized, then using that in the tank for maximum clarity.

The well-being of the fish is most important. We caught them in a seine, and kept them in small holding tanks in the waters of the creek, so that the water would remain cool. When I was ready for a new subject, I'd just remove it from the temporary tank and drop it in the aquarium. After shooting it, the darter would be liberated back to the creek. We didn't lose any in the process of photographing them. And darters are easy to work with. As they lack swim bladders, they sink right to the bottom of the tank. With a bit of prodding, they can be enticed to settle about where you want them, eventually. Next trip, we're hoping to catch things like Rosyface Shiner in full breeding condition, and they'll be tougher to photo as they're more active.

So, no great magic to this, but it is more work than going out to shoot wildflowers.

Orangethroat Darter, Etheostoma spectabile. This is a species of small-order streams and headwaters. Mac Albin and Anthony Sasson, the aquatic ecologists who were with me, found this one in a small tributary. A guaranteed showstopper, orangethroats can be quite common in appropriate situations.

The throat is lightly suffused with orange, as would be expected from the name.

Although not the brightest star in the cast of darters, this one is perhaps my favorite. It is a Tippecanoe Darter, Etheostoma tippecanoe, one of Ohio's rarities and currently listed as threatened. Tips occur in only a few stream systems in the state, not coincidentally, our healthiest ones like the Darby. The odd name stems from the type locality, or first collection: the Tippecanoe River in Indiana. In all, tips are found in only six states and are considered rare or imperiled in five of them.

One of the smallest darters, even a bulked up Tippecanoe Darter is maybe an inch and a half long. Capturing their true splendor is difficult, for two reasons. One, tips like to retreat into rock crevices, even in the tank, and they are so small it's easy for them to hide. I spent some time with thus unit trying to get anything at all. And two, it's hard to get their colors to pop out. In real life, these elfin fish are resplendent in hues of rich orangish-gold. I'll probably see more on the next excursion, and will hope to produce some stronger images.


Kenn Kaufman said…
Wow, what a fabulous collection of images and stories in the last three posts! Beautiful photographs and fascinating information. It's just amazing to think of the endless diversity that's out there, and to think that most of us fail to notice a lot of it. Thanks for the great education!
I am impressed by all the work you went to to get these photos Jim. I was imagining you with an underwater camera snapping away. I was wondering why those fish didn't swish away when you approached. Ha... Thanks for all the effort. It was ceratinly worth all the trouble.
Just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed your darter series—including the photos.

As a kid, I used to accompany my father who often did a bit of seining prior to fishing. Darters almost always showed up in the net—and in the spring, were absolutely stunning with their colors.

Even now, as I make my first smallmouth forays along the streams, I love seeing the bright darters in the riffles…often end on their redds in clear, shallow, and fairly quite portions of the streams.

I believe you've inspired me to make a darter expedition before long. Again, great post!
Jim McCormac said…
Thank you all for your kind comments. It's funny how these darters apparently resonate with people. I had a number of folks e-mail me about them, and even received a few phone calls!

They are absolutely gorgeous stream fish, and I look forward to more opportunities to see and photograph them in April.

Scott said…
A slick trick for photographing fish in an aquarium is to get a piece of glass cut to the width of the aquarium. You can then use the glass to contain the fish to the front of the aquarium where it easier to photograph. The glass vanishes in the water and doesn't show. This gives you more control over the subject without causing injury.

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