Fishes of Middle River
by Paul E. Bugas, Jr.
Past fish sampling results from a variety of fisheries professionals taken at various times determined there are 37 species of fishes that live in the Middle River and its tributaries. Since there are a variety of habitats represented in the River, each species is assigned to the reach in which it is most typically found: the Upper, Middle or Lower Reach. Some species are only found in small numbers and are labeled as “uncommon.” Let’s take a look at general descriptions of each of the Middle River’s fish species by reach.
Photo credit thanks to: Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, Don Orth, Corbin Hilling, Robert E. Jenkins and Noel Burkhead.
Fish Consumption Advisory: There is one fish consumption advisory pertaining to the Middle River Watershed (below). You can search the Virginia Department of Health database of advisories for the whole state here.
The following are the species of Middle River fishes you can read more about by clicking on the fish or by scrolling down:
Anglers have hope that --with good conservation practices--one day Upper Middle River will support wild Brook Trout which is Virginia's state fish! Biologists have tried small stockings of fingerling Brook Trout along Route 602, but lack of shade and legacy sedimentation kept the fish from becoming established in the river. Despite a number of cold water springs adding water into the upper reach, the River remains largely a warm water stream (over 70° Fahrenheit in the summer).
You can read a description of the Upper Middle here.
If you sneak up quietly to any of the clear pools in these streams, chances are that you will observe the following fish species:
Most Virginians widely admire Brook Trout because of their willingness to rise to a fly, their spectacular colors, and their dependence on pristine water quality. It will be the rare case to find significant Brook Trout populations in streams that are consistently above 70° Fahrenheit during the summer months. They belong to the chars, which are a branch of the trout family that exhibit dark background colors and light spotting. Other examples of chars, which do not
live in Virginia are Bull Trout, Dolly Varden Trout, and Lake Trout. Native “Brookies” are fall spawners, as are their imported cousins, Brown Trout.
Occasionally, non-native Rainbow Trout can be found in certain upper Middle River streams. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) has stocked Rainbow Trout in Falls Hollow, but this practice is now limited to Brook Trout only. Sometimes, private landowners purchase Rainbow Trout and stock them in their favorite waters (although this practice requires a permit). Stocked Rainbow Trout can naturalize in certain conditions, meaning they can spawn and create wild fish. Rainbow Trout are native to the Pacific Coast, but
were moved east in the late 19th Century. Their bodies are silvery with black freckles and a red or pink stripe down their sides. Naturalized Rainbow Trout can compete with native Brook Trout, so many ecologists do not favor them. They are loved for their sporting quality but are uncommon in Middle River.
This is a native “schooling” fish that can be found in deep pools. White Suckers can grow to a large size (20 inches) and were historically a favorite target of anglers during “dipping season.” When adult suckers congregate and are active during the spring spawning season, veteran fishermen use dip nets to haul them in and get them into the pressure cooker. Indeed, canned suckers are a food staple in western Virginia. Their flesh is white and delicious, but bony. The White Sucker feeds on the stream bottom, but is hardly a “trash fish”. They sort through benthic litter
sorting out tiny insects with their unique mouths, then release unwanted material past their gills. They are hardly the scavenger that many folks make them out to be. Their golden flanks, white underside, and sucker-shaped mouths make them a distinctive fish.
The diminutive Fantail Darter is a member of the large Perch Family, which includes Yellow Perch, Walleye, Sauger, and a large variety of darters. “Fantails” are highly adaptable and are found throughout most of western and central Virginia. The name describes the beautiful, lined pattern on the caudal (tail) fin. Males will get dark during spring spawning season and small knobs often appear on the tips of the spiny dorsal fin. Male cousins of the Fantail Darter in Southwest Virginia exhibit brilliant
seasonal colors that rival fish from coral reefs. The name “darter” derives from their quick, darting motions from rock-to-rock on stream bottoms. Their preference for fast-flowing waters (riffles) allows them to access aquatic insect larvae, a favorite food item.
Blue Ridge Sculpin
The Sculpin family is well known among fly fishing enthusiasts, but not so much with the general public. Sculpin fly patterns often lure in big trout. Sculpins are a favorite food of Brook Trout, but are quite voracious on insects and small fish in the cold water food web. There are three species of Sculpin that find their home in Middle River waters. Only the Blue Ridge Sculpin, formerly known as Mottled Sculpin, is found in the upper reaches of the watershed. Sculpins are made for benthic (bottom) dwelling with their large pectoral fins, tapered bodies, upward-oriented eyes, and lack of a swim bladder. Their camouflage is a perfect match for the rocks that they live among.
Eastern Blacknose Dace
Of all the minnows in Virginia, the Eastern Blacknose Dace (EBD) is most often found in mountain waters along with Brook Trout. It is a schooling species, often found in quiet eddies. EBD grow to only four inches in length and are distinguished by black dashes on both sides of the snout. Black or brown stripes run down each side.
Longnose Dace have funny looking snouts. They are “turned down” and rounded, plus they have long bodies. Combined with large pectoral and dorsal fins, they look like baby sharks. Adults are typically larger than EBD adults and they are typically found together in the Potomac and James River drainages. While EBD prefer pools and backwater, Longnose Dace are adapted to riffles and swift runs. They are typically long, brown in color, and have a small, triangular spot just before the caudal fin.
Because of its large mouth and habit of taking insects from the water’s surface, this beautiful minnow often frustrates fly fishers who are targeting trout. With a broad red stripe along each side, it has been confused with small Rainbow Trout. However, it has sparse spotting and is without parr marks (found on trout only). Rosyside Dace are often found in clean water transition zones between cold and warm water streams. It is a satellite species in that it uses the nests of chubs for spawning.
Often referred to as “smallie” or “bronzeback”, this introduced species is king of sport fish in Middle River. It is not uncommon to see canoes and kayaks dot the river, casting for these hard-hitting, leaping fish. Smallmouth Bass are native to Southwest Virginia, but were widely stocked in our rivers in the late 19th century. They quickly naturalized (made a permanent home) statewide and now seem like they have been a part of the Middle River ecosystem all along. Smallmouth Bass can be found in tributaries such as Christians Creek and Lewis Creek, but larger specimens make a home in the main stem of Middle River, primarily from the Route 250 bridge to its mouth. Smallies are part of the large Sunfish Family that includes Bluegill, Redbreast Sunfish, and Largemouth Bass. Members of this group have two dorsal fins: one is supported by spines and the second by rays (soft). They are predatory and favorite foods are crayfish, hellgrammites, minnows, and insects in general.
The Middle Reach starts around the Route 250 bridge and ends at the confluence of Christians Creek and Middle River.
You can read a description of the Middle Reach of the River here.
Anglers love sticking nicknames to the fish they are seeking to catch. The Rock Bass is no different. It is often referred to as “red eye” or “goggle eye.” True to their name, their primary habitats are boulders, rip-rap, or rock ledges. They often hit lures with a vengeance, but the fight after hooking them is often weak. They are beautifully camouflaged, with a dark dorsal area and black-and-white flanks. Their large red eyes help them seek out prey such as crayfish, small fish, and aquatic insects. This is a great fish for first-time anglers; they are abundant in Middle River and fun to catch. Their species name rupestris means “living among rocks”.
When we think of river sunfish, Redbreast Sunfish is what we have in mind. These native fish are spectacularly colored, with brilliant orange chests (not red) and wavy blue lines along their snouts and gill covers. Their opercular (ear) flap is jet black, long and narrow. They are usually found near the river’s edge, in deep pools, and often near woody structure. When you find one, you usually find many. Redbreast Sunfish have much smaller mouths than Smallmouth Bass, but you wouldn’t know it by the way they aggressively attack lures and bait. Once, I found a 6-inch Redbreast Sunfish with a 10-inch Northern Watersnake halfway down its mouth!
Green Sunfish are a very common member of the sunfish family and are distributed throughout Middle River and its tributaries. It will quickly populate a river after a fish kill or drought. They have large mouths and will take prey similar to that of Redbreast Sunfish. “Greenies” are beautifully colored with blue wavy lines along their faces and orange or white margins along the caudal (tail) fin, anal fin and opercule (ear) flap. Green Sunfish hybridize with other sunfish species in nature and are a favorite in aquaculture systems to cross with Bluegill to make Georgia Giants. These fish utilize hybrid vigor to grow in excess of one pound, which is very large for a sunfish. They are spread all over different habitats, but prefer slow water.
Now here is an interesting fish. All American Eels are born in the Saragasso Sea (think Bermuda Triangle area in the Atlantic). The larvae begin their migration to the mouths of North American rivers by riding ocean currents. Along the way, they mature into different stages: glass eels, elvers, yellow eels and, finally, silver eels. American eels will often migrate
great distances inland from the estuaries. To catch an eel in Middle River, it first has to migrate up the Potomac River, find the Shenandoah River at Harper’s Ferry, take the South Fork in Front Royal, find North River at Port Republic, then move into Middle River at its confluence with North River. American Eels have been found as far inland as Franks Mill in Middle River. Along the way, migrating Shenandoah River eels must navigate around at least five hydroelectric dams and many other obstacles. Mature eels, often 2-3 feet long, out-migrate to the Saragasso Sea after living up to 20 years in fresh or brackish water. They will spawn once, then die. Hook-and-line anglers generally do not like them, and casual observers fear them because they are “snake-like” in appearance. Native Americans and early pioneers subsisted on eels caught in pots or fish traps. Europeans and others find them a delicacy. Ecologically, they serve as both predator (fish, insects, carrion) and prey. Biologists are continuously discovering different layers of their life history and are always trying to find ways to help “pass eels” around obstacles such as dams. It’s time we respect the eel!
If you held a mature Potomac Sculpin next to a Blue Ridge Sculpin, one of the things you would notice is the size difference. Adult Potomac Sculpin tend to be much larger than other sculpins, plus they have a very large head. Their chins are mottled in color and they possess a large cheek spine on each side of their head. The have a terrifically camouflaged dorsal area. They prefer fast flowing rocky habitats similar to other sculpin species. Potomac Sculpin can handle slightly warmer water temperatures than their cousins. Most members of the sculpin family are found in salt water environments.
Slimy Sculpin adults are smaller than Potomac Sculpin and tend to occupy similar habitat. They prefer to inhabit springs in which the Middle River has plenty. Several physical features separate Slimy Sculpin from their cousins: uniform pigmentation in the chin area, two black spots on the first dorsal, and two dark “saddles” stretched over the dorsal area. These sculpins are primarily distributed in northern states with the Shenandoah River watershed being its southern-most area of distribution to the south.
Tessallated and Johnny darters are closely related and look very similar. Even their distribution range overlaps, so it is difficult to key out the two species. In Middle River, if you see anything that looks like a darter, it should be either a Tessallated Darter or a Fantail Darter (see Upper Reach). Tessallated means having a checkered or repeating pattern. In this darter, you will see a black “teardrop” streak under its eyes.
First, let’s get this out of the way: madtom is a very cool common name for a fish. Apparently, ichthyologists of yore named these small catfish madtoms because of their erratic swimming behavior when disturbed. There are six madtom species found in Virginia, from the diminutive Tadpole Madtom to the rare Yellowfin Madtom. All catfish have an adipose fin, but the madtoms’ adipose is not free-standing: it is attached to their caudal (tail) fin. The species that inhabits the bottom of Middle River is the Margined Madtom. It is so named because of the distinctive black margins of
the caudal fin and the anal fin. They are fairly abundant and are a favorite bait for anglers in search of trophy bass. They have barbels (whiskers), small eyes, and generally reach an adult length of 6 inches. Be careful when handling them; there are small pouches of toxin located at the base of the dorsal fin and pectoral fin spines. If a needle-sharp spine pricks your hand or finger, you will feel a painful sensation for several minutes before it subsides. Be attentive when handling madtoms!
There is a phenomena in some freshwater fishes called “sexual dichromatism”. This happens with male fish in the spring, primarily in the minnow and perch families. Males will attain brilliant coloration in order to attract female fish for spawning purposes. Depending on the species, fins, flanks, and heads will change color for weeks before returning to the silvers, olives and blacks the rest of the year. Common Shiner males exhibit this trait, often seen with pink sides and bright red fin tips in the spring. They are a large, schooling minnow that can be found in the runs and pools of Middle River. Common Shiner use chub and Fallfish nests for spawning.
When you see small, silvery minnows swimming in quiet water in Middle River, there is a good chance that they are Comely Shiners. There are few outstanding features on this fish to separate it from the pack, but look for the dorsal fin to be set behind the pelvic fins when looking at specimens from the side. There are no stripes or spots to be found on this minnow.
Direct your eyes to the caudal (tail) fin of the Spottail Shiner and you will notice a pronounced dark spot directly in front of it. Its large eyes and rounded snout are good features for identification. Spottails occupy a wide range of habitats and make for good food for predators such as Smallmouth and Rock Bass in the Middle River.
The male Rosyface Shiner probably gave this species its common name. In the spring this slender, schooling minnow displays red-orange coloration at the base of its fins, plus a bit around the head. Its dorsal fin is placed behind the pelvic fins. Rosyface Shiner is also a nest associate of mound building minnows (see Bluehead Chub).
Mountain Redbelly Dace
This simply has to be the most beautiful minnow species in Virginia, and Middle River has plenty of them. Males turn brilliant red, deep black, shiny gold, and fluorescent yellow (paired fins) during the spring months. These schooling fish carry their coloration throughout the year, but spawning season is the best time to see them in their “Sunday finest”. They, too, are nest associates. Mountain Redbellies have an exceptionally long gut, an adaptation to their herbivorous ways.
This species is a close cousin of Fathead Minnow, a popular baitfish for anglers. As its common name implies, it possesses a rounded head, often peppered with a crop of tubercles or “horns” on the males. A dark stripe usually adorns each side, punctuated by a black spot in front of the caudal fin. These are hardy fish who prefer to spawn on the underside of a log or rock rather than build a conventional nest!
This minnow has certainly earned its common name. If you examine the mouth’s underside on a Cutlip Minnow, you will see a rigid appendage that looks like a tongue. Cutlips and their cousin, Tonguetied Minnow, both exhibit this unique feature. Old folk tales insist that the structure is there to gouge out the eyes of competing fish species. More than likely, it exists to help the fish dislodge snails while feeding. It is a large, “stout” minnow with flecks of iridescent purple scattered throughout its scales.
Bluehead Chub is what ecologists call a “keystone species”. Simply put, if you eliminated this species from the Middle River, many other fish that rely on blueheads would disappear. If you have ever waded in the Middle River, Christians Creek, or Lewis Creek during late summer, you may spot large mounds of pebbles. These are the result of male Bluehead Chub selecting and depositing thousands of small rocks on top of each other to form a large nest. From when they start until after it is built, his mound is used by Mountain Redbelly Dace, Rosyface Shiners, Common Shiners and other fish
species for the same task. An interesting adaptive feature is that, if the male chub does not have enough nest associates around when he begins to build his nest, he will abandon it and start over in a more “attractive” location. When the fall rains arrive, these mounds are leveled and the whole process begins the next spring. Male Bluehead Chub display a feature called “sexual dimorphism” during the spawn. Their foreheads develop horny knobs (tubercles) ) and the entire develops a blue hue. Like bucks, these antler-like structures to ward off competitors attract female chubs. These developments seem to work, because Bluehead Chub have been in our rivers a long time!
Creek Chub are often found building pebble mounds in transition waters from the mountains to the valley floor. They have large mouths and a distinct black spot at the front base of the dorsal fin. Males also exhibit curved tubercles on their head during the spawn, but they tend to be fewer and larger than River or Bluehead Chubs.
Largemouth Bass are at the top of the freshwater sportfishing world. Tournaments around the world draw participants by the hundreds and the payouts are staggering. You are probably asking why a fish that prefers lakes and ponds is included in the Lower Middle River section? As the river’s elevation flattens and pools become deeper and slower, Largemouth Bass have found a natural home in these habitats. Soft sediments in Lower Middle River provide ample spawning substrate for this predatory member of the sunfish family. The difference between Largemouth Bass and Smallmouth Bass is evident in their color patterns. Smallmouth Bass are brown or bronze looking with color bars radiating across their gill plates and their lip (maxillary) bone does not extend beyond the eye when their mouths are closed. Largemouth Bass tend to be olive or dusky colored with dark diamond-shaped markings along each side of the fish. When you close their mouth, the maxillary extends beyond their eyes.
Above: the author, Paul Bugas, with a Largemouth Bass caught at Lake Anna.
The lower reach of Middle River starts at Christians Creek confluence and runs to the mouth of Middle River where it enters the North River.
One dam still exists on Middle River and it is located just upstream of the bridge at Route 616, Damtown Road. It is a non-functional dam that needs to be portaged if you are on a float trip as it is a drowning hazard if you get too close in high water.
You can read a description of the lower reach of the River here.
Largemouth Bass may be a favorite with the tournament crowd, but Bluegill win the overall popularity contest with children and cane pole anglers. They are the most popular pond and lake sunfish across America. They are quick to take bait and often are found in large schools. Besides being a fun fish to catch and eat, Bluegill are an important prey item for Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass. Bluegill eat insects, so their mouths are typically small. They get their name from the deep blue coloration found on male gill
covers during the spring spawn. As with most sunfish, Bluegill males build and guard nests during their reproductive period. When the dorsal fin is fully displayed, a large dark spot can be found at the back end of the soft dorsal. Their numbers are not great in Middle River, but their can be caught in slow moving pools.
Here is the third sunfish that is featured in this reach. Actually, there are not many Black Crappie found in Middle River, but they are occasionally caught in deep pools around woody debris. They are beautiful fish with silver sides punctuated with dozens of small, black spots. When you locate one, you will likely find many more. They have delicate mouths; when extended, they are paper-thin and transparent. They attack minnows and smaller fish with vigor!
I liked the name of this fish so much that it was my computer password at work for a long time. Northern Hogsucker (NHS) can be distinguished from its cousin, White Sucker, by looking for the black ring around its sucker mouth. It also has a block-shaped head with a concave depression between its eyes. Northern Hogsuckers have enormous pectoral and anal fins that sometimes are peppered with small bumps (tubercles) during
spawning season. They like swift water and seem to
be less of a schooling fish than White Sucker. NHS can actually grow to large sizes, some approaching 15 inches long.
Fishers of Middle River will occasionally hook a Yellow Bullhead. These are not large fish by catfish standards, but are often the first fish caught by children because of their universal distribution and their willingness to bite. Bullheads in Virginia come in all colors: black, brown, and yellow. They are appropriately named because of their oversized head. Yellow Bullhead can be differentiated from their cousins when examining the chin barbels
(whiskers), which are bright yellow. They have beady eyes and live near the bottom of deep pools. As with all catfish, handle them carefully, as their dorsal and two pectoral fins are supported by a sharp, serrated spines!
Local anglers catch Channel Catfish in Middle River downstream of the inoperative dam at Damtown. This species is not widely distributed upstream of the dam, if at all. Channel cats are native to Southwest Virginia and were probably introduced to the Shenandoah River system in the late 19th or early 20th century. Channel Catfish are a popular sport fish and can attain lengths of over two feet long. They are slate-gray on top, white below, often with black spotting toward the caudal (tail) fin. Males guard the cavities where they spawn. Their barbels are sensitive sensing organs that assist with locating food.
This species is an odd occupant of Middle River because it is usually found in the quiet waters of eastern Virginia. It is, however, a beautiful member of the topminnow clan, with males showing off vertical bars of gold and blue along their flanks. It possesses a superior mouth, meaning that it is turned upward to eat insects off the waters’ surface. Anglers like them due to their hardiness and effectiveness as a bait fish. You might spot them in the quiet eddies of Middle River or one of its tributaries.
This is a good-looking minnow. Also a favorite of bait anglers, Satinfin Shiner is a hardy schooling shiner that was first described in 1859 from a Potomac River tributary. Its scales are diamond-shaped on a blue-silver surface. The dorsal, caudal (tail), anal, and pelvic fins are tipped with white.
This minnow falls in the same genus as Bluntnose Minnow. Their name generates from the fact that their head develops a mass of tubercles (horns) during spawning season. They are also very hardy and can adapt to a wide variety environments. Two identifying features of this prolific fish are a dark spot at the base of its dorsal fin and it does not possess a complete lateral line. The lateral line is an important sensory organ in most fishes and is found along each side, usually from behind the gills to the tail. An incomplete lateral line begins behind the gill and ends before it reaches the tail.
This species belongs to the same genus as the Bluehead Chub. The best way to tell them apart is by looking at the horny projections (tubercles)_ on the head of the male during breeding season. The River Chub is peppered with numerous tubercles from in front of the eyes to the mouth. Bluehead Chub have fewer tubercles which can be seen from the top of its head to the nares (nostrils). None exist between the nares and the mouth. River Chub often have orange dorsal and caudal fins. Sexually mature males will turn rosy in color during the spawn.
They, too, are mound builders and are considered a keystone species. River Chub eat everything from plants to insects to crayfish to small fish.
Common Carp (Israeli Carp) are America’s most notorious freshwater fisheries import. Originally from Eurasia, they were brought here in the early 19th Century as a food and sport fish. Later, it was thought to help control algae and plant growth in ponds and lakes. Their large size and active spawning behavior are responsible for many muddy waterbodies and can contribute to the detriment of native fish ecology. Koi, Leather Carp (scaleless), and Mirror Carp are variations of the same fish. Common Carp generally have large scales, barbels that look like mustaches,
and large, serrated, spikes located in the dorsal and anal fins. Common Carp are a delicacy in some cultures, but have yet to “catch on” in the States. Their flesh is embedded with small bones and can often carry a muddy taste with it. Common Carp are a “beast” on hook-and-line and are responsible for large gatherings of tournament anglers in Europe. Grass Carp are a wholly different species of minnow.