How to Observe and Appreciate Fishes
“Fish watching” is logistically more difficult than watching other wildlife. People can’t easily see through or move about in the watery world that fish live in. Water is such a foreign environment to us that fish are seriously underappreciated by most people — they are literally “out of sight, out of mind.” However, fishes are diverse and abundant in our lakes and streams. Many are colorful, with interesting shapes, patterns and behaviors. All are fascinating.
An easy and obvious place to observe fishes is at a public aquarium. Inquire also at state hatcheries and fishways for opportunities to watch fish. Fish can be directly observed in the shallows of clear lakes and streams, although circumstances must be opportune. Choosing a calm day and wearing polarized sunglasses will help greatly in reducing glare off the water. Good spots to look for fish are from a dock, from a bridge crossing, or some other high vantage point over a calm pool in a stream, or along the shore of a lake when the water is still. Occasionally, fish will be active and obvious, but more often they will not be apparent at first. This is because most fish are well camouflaged and wary of movement from above or near the water. They have evolved this strategy because predators, especially birds such as herons, osprey and kingfishers, are common and have seized many a careless fish. Realizing this, you must be very still and patient and train your eye to catch the slightest sign of movement. When you first approach, some of the fish will hide under cover; others will just lie still, relying on their camouflage to conceal them. After a moment of stillness, they will resume their normal activity. To see them, just stand still and stare at the water. Sometimes there’s simply nobody home (at least no one who will show himself). Usually, after a minute or so, what at first seemed like a stick or shadow will, as if by magic, transform to your eye and brain into a fish. Often, more fish will appear, and the whole area, which at first seemed empty, will come alive.
If you really want to observe fishes in their natural environment, you'll have to get in the water with them. You can spend thousands of dollars on scuba equipment, but for anybody who is a relatively good swimmer, the simple purchase of a dive mask, fins and snorkel (a lightweight wetsuit is also recommended) will open up a whole world of fish-watching opportunities. Identifying fish underwater is more challenging than having them in your hand. Due to turbidity and light refraction, your vision will never be as good underwater. In addition, water quickly absorbs colors, causing most fish to appear drab gray or bluish. Therefore, fish must typically be identified underwater by by shape and markings alone, which takes more practice.
Pick a clear lake on a sunny summer day. Snorkeling can be as athletic or laid back as you wish. Some people become skilled at holding their breath and diving down to visit deeper water, but much can be seen by just puttering about in the shallows. When snorkeling, move slowly and look all around to enhance your chances of spotting a fish. The fish can sense your presence before you see them. They are curious and sometimes wary and will often prowl just at the edge of or beyond your field of vision. Instead of just swimming along, stop often and keep looking behind as well as ahead of yourself, because curious fish will often follow a snorkeler. When you do see fish, hold still and they will often let you watch. If you continue to swim towards them, they will usually bolt. A trick to attract some types of curious fishes is to stir up the bottom slightly or to make sounds by clicking small rocks together. If you tip over rocks, fishes like sunfish and smallmouth bass will often rush in to see what insects or other food items you may have exposed for them. Aquatic insects, crayfish and sometimes fish can be observed under the rocks. A 1/8-inch (3mm) thick wetsuit will extend your season and allow you to stay in the water longer. Wetsuits are also positively buoyant, making it easier to stay afloat.
Stream snorkeling can be especially fun. Floating effortlessly downstream with the current, you can watch the underwater world go by and easily sneak up on wary fishes. One feels a bit like Superman, flying along with your arms extended out in front (to ward off the occasional boulder or other obstacle). Check for fishes behind each rock or other structure. Peer under brush piles, and don't forget to check calm backwaters. As in lakes, tipping rocks can yield all sorts of interesting creatures, which are easy to see because of the magnification factor associated with a diver's mask underwater.
A stream snorkeling trip can be organized like a canoe float trip. Drop one car at a downstream access site; drive another some distance upstream; and snorkel between the two. Be conservative with your distance, because it takes longer to snorkel a stream than you might realize. A wetsuit is highly recommended for stream snorkeling. Streams are usually colder than lakes. You also need the extra flotation to allow you to rise higher in the current and avoid scraping the bottom too much. The wetsuit also offers abrasion protection from rocks, sticks, and whatever else you might drift into. If you are stalwart enough to not need a wetsuit, wearing some kind of shirt is a good idea for protection.
Those who are a bit more intrepid and experienced might want to give night snorkeling a try. Buy a waterproof flashlight, the brighter the better, and snorkel as you would during the daylight. More often than not, you will see more fish during night snorkeling than during the day. This is because many fish species spend the day in deep water and come into the shallows only at night. Also, many fishes are less active at night and can be found "sleeping" in the shallows. In this semiconscious state, they will often let you approach very closely. Sometimes you can even touch them, at which point they will usually dart away. Some species, such as the catfish, can be seen more often at night because that is when they are most active. During the day, nocturnal fishes like these will often hide under vegetation or rocks, whereas at night they come out and forage for food.
Regardless of where you are snorkeling, know your limitations and be cautious. Especially during stream snorkeling, scout the site out in advance and avoid debris and excessive currents. Whether in a lake or stream, do not snorkel anywhere you would not feel comfortable swimming without aid. It is easy to lose a mask or fin. Especially for children, wearing a life jacket during snorkeling is a good hedge toward being extra safe. Make sure the site you choose has legal access and that there are no rules against snorkeling. Also, check regulations in your area concerning need for a dive flag or similar marker. For example, scuba divers are required to have a dive flag in Connecticut, but snorkelers are not. In Rhode Island, both divers and snorkelers are required to have a flag. Finally, if snorkeling or swimming in a larger pond or lake, always be alert for boats. In a lake with boat traffic, it is prudent to stay close to shore. Brightly-colored equipment, especially your fins, will help make you more visible to boaters.
Many fish species cannot be positively identified unless you look at them up close. Sometimes, magnification is needed to discern small features, such as scale or fin ray numbers. Some fish species live in murky water or habitats where it is unlikely that you'll ever be able to directly observe them unless you capture them. Some sampling gear employed by fishery biologists, such as trap nets or electrofishing, are too costly and usually illegal for lay people to use. However, there are a number of relatively inexpensive ways to catch fish, either just to observe and release them or to take them home for your aquarium (see section on "Home Aquariums"). The items described below can be purchased from many larger fishing and sporting goods stores.
In most states, adults and older children will need a fishing license to use the methods described below. Consult state regulations to find out where and for which species these methods can be legally used. There are also regulations concerning sizes and numbers of certain species that can be kept. Treat your catch with care. If you are going to release the animals you catch, do not keep them out of water for too long, and release them as soon as possible. If you are going to keep what you have caught, do not keep them too long in a crowded container, and change the water often so it doesn't get too warm or low in oxygen.
An umbrella net is a square (typically 4 by 4 feet), small-mesh net attached at each corner to an X-shaped wire frame. A cord or rope is attached to the frame at the top/center. Umbrella nets are designed to be lowered and raised vertically, so they work best from a structure, such as a bridge or dock. They are good for catching schooling fishes, such as minnows and, unless the area is swarming with fish, should be baited. The bait could be something as simple as a piece of bread. A more elaborate bait would be a bit of canned cat food. The drill goes like this: place your bait and a small rock (to help the net sink) in the center of the net. Using the rope, gently lower your net to the bottom in two to four feet of water. Tie the rope off to something and wait about five minutes. Return and take up the slack in the rope very slowly. When the rope becomes tight, pull the whole net straight up out of the water as fast as you can and see what you’ve caught.
Umbrella nets can be effective, but are difficult for younger children to use because fish simply swim away if the net isn’t raised quickly. Due to the resistance of the water, it takes some strength to lift the net fast enough.
There are a few different designs for minnow traps, but the most common one is a wire-mesh cylinder about two feet long. At either end are two funnels with the small openings facing inward. A cord or rope is attached to the middle of the trap for raising/lowering. A minnow trap works the same way as a lobster trap. Small fish follow the cone into the trap and, once inside, cannot find their way out again. Minnow traps usually open at the center, with the two halves held together by some sort of clip. The trap can be baited with a piece of bread (for a short-term set) or something more substantial like a piece of dead fish or chicken for a longer set. Experiment with whatever is available for bait. Many fish species are curious and not all that picky. To fish the trap, use the rope to lower it to the bottom, or throw the trap out a few feet from shore. Tie off the end of the rope and let the trap sit at least 15 minutes before pulling it in to check it.
Minnow traps can be hit-or-miss — you have to set them where fish hang out. Short sets might yield a fish or two. The trap could be full of fish after an overnight set. Minnow traps will catch a variety of small fishes (not just minnows), with fish size limited by the size of the opening into the trap.
A seine is a small-mesh (typically 1/8- to 1/4-inch), rectangular net that rides vertically in the water due to floats along the top edge (the “float line,” which stays on the surface) and weights along the bottom edge (the “lead line,” which sinks). A seine is pulled through the water, herding fish to a point where they can be trapped and captured. Generally, larger seines catch more fish, but they are expensive, more difficult to deploy and may require a special permit to use. Smaller seine nets (typically four feet high by 8 to 15 feet long) are relatively inexpensive, easy to use and are legal in many places without a special permit. They can be purchased from most large fishing tackle stores, including online stores, where they are typically called “minnow seines.”
To make your seine complete, you’ll have to acquire two “seine poles.” These can be purchased or homemade. The best poles are hard and/or green wood about 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter and about a foot taller than your seine. A couple of broom handles would work, but it is just as easy to carve your own poles out of two relatively straight tree branches. Lace your poles, which become the seine’s handles, to either end of the seine, with the bottom edge of the poles even with the lead line and the top of the poles extending about a foot above the float line. Lacing through a couple of holes drilled in the bottom and near the top of the poles will help keep the net from sliding up or down.
One disadvantage of a seine (or the fun part, depending on your bent) is that you have to wade in the water to deploy it. Old sneakers and a bathing suit are appropriate attire if the water is warm. In colder water, you will probably need hip boots, chest waders, or a wetsuit. Standard operating procedure requires two people to pull a seine, each holding a pole. Seining is most effective in an area that has few obstructions, like stumps or big rocks, for the net to snag on, and that has a gradual slope up to an open shoreline. A common method is to have the braver person wade out as far as he dares with one end of the net, while the other person holds his end closer to shore. The deep-end person then slowly pulls his end of the net in an arc toward shore with the inshore person acting as the pivot point.
Once the net is parallel to shore, both people continue to pull through the shallows until the net is pulled up onto the shore. When seining, you must ensure that the lead line is dragging on the bottom and the float line remains on the surface. It is also most effective if the poles are held at an angle such that the lead line is slightly ahead of the float line. Once you have your seine up on shore, find the fish by picking through whatever vegetation, muck, etc., you have dragged up. A second way to pull a seine is to have both people wade out as deep as practical and have both pull the seine straight into shore. Try not to walk out through the area you intend on seining or you will scare away the fish.
The length of the seine can be modified by rolling up one or both ends onto the pole(s) until the desired length is achieved. This may be desirable in smaller or more vegetated areas. A seine may even be employed by a single person with some success by rolling it up until it is only about five feet wide. Stand behind the net holding a pole in each hand and push the net ahead of you into the shore.
In the methods described above, the seine is moved to drive the fish toward shore. Once the fish encounter very shallow water, they have no choice but to swim back into the net. Another method, called “kick seining,” is particularly effective in streams. Hold the seine vertically still across a spot downstream of where you think the fish might be. The best spot to set the net is often a constricted exit point, such as the end of a small pool or up against a bank. Have one or more people walk around to a spot about six to 12 feet upstream of the net (distance depends on the size of the net and area you are trying to “fish”). These people then drive the fish toward the net by rushing downstream while stamping, kicking up rocks, and making as much commotion as possible. Just before the drivers themselves get caught in the net, the two people holding the seine poles should scoop the lead line forward and draw the net tight between them, raising it horizontally out of the water to catch the fish. The drawback of this method is that it needs more participants, but it’s a lot of fun — expect to get soaked.
Seines are very effective gear for catching a variety of fishes. However, they are bulkier and require more people than the other fish-catching methods outlined here, and you must be willing to get wet!
A scoop net has a small-mesh net bag on a hoop with an attached handle. Any size scoop net can catch small fish, even the small ones sold in aquarium shops or advertised as baitwell or livewell nets. However, the best scoop nets for catching small fishes are larger, about the size of a normal boat angler’s landing net. Hunt around in larger tackle stores or online fishing catalogs and look for a net with about a 16-inch diameter hoop and a 36-inch handle. They are sometimes called shad, smelt or shrimp nets.
Scoop nets will catch a variety of small fishes. Fish can sometimes be directly snatched out of the water if they are schooling, but this takes pretty quick reflexes. Generally, the best way to employ a scoop net is to stand on the shore and place the net as far out into the water as practical in an overhand motion. Then drag the net directly toward you along the bottom until you have pulled it up onto the shore. This can be done very fast to try to trap free-swimming fish before they can escape. A second, sometimes more effective approach, is to drag the net more slowly and try to dig up as much muck and weeds as possible, because fish and other aquatic animals often hide in the “goop.”
In streams, a scoop net can be used by a single person in a fashion similar to kick seining. Wade out and face downstream in a riffle area with stones and cobble. Reach out as far downstream as you can and place the net vertically (handle upward) with the edge of the hoop touching the bottom. Stomp and kick over the stones until you reach the net and then snatch it up. Often, small fish will be dislodged from under the stones and will swim right into your net.
The main advantage of a scoop net is that it is inexpensive and can be employed by a single person without getting too wet. The technique is simple enough to be effectively done by older kids. Picking through the weeds and muck scooped up by the net will yield a variety of interesting insects, fish and other aquatic life. Fishing a scoop net (or a seine) at night is often more effective than during the day because many fishes are more inactive then and cannot easily see or avoid the net.
Angling is one of the best ways to observe fishes or catch them for the aquarium, and almost all larger fish species can be taken by some sort of angling technique. There is a variety of angling methods, equipment and baits tailored for different gamefish, some of which require a good deal of skill and expertise. However, if your aim is to just “see what’s there,” light tackle and line and small baits will usually catch the greatest variety of species. One very simple, yet effective method of catching young fish and smaller species (less than three inches long) is to scale your tackle down to the extreme. Use a light rod and reel with line of no more than two- to four-pound test and a hook no larger than size twelve. Very small hooks are typically sold in tackle stores specifically to catch bait or for tying artificial flies. Place a small bit (no more than one-quarter inch) of earthworm or night-crawler on the hook and perhaps a small split shot weight on the line about a foot above the hook to help the worm sink. The weight and bait will be far too light to cast, so simply pull about six feet of line off the reel and lob your bait from the shore or dock. If the hook is small enough, all sorts of minnows and young sunfish, perch, etc., will readily take this offering. Set the hook (yank upward) quickly when you detect a bite to avoid having the fish swallow the bait.
Angling with light tackle and small bits of bait is a fun, easy and effective method of catching small fish for kids and adults alike, and because you are fishing in such close quarters, you can often see the fish chasing after your bait.
Text and images adapted from Jacobs, R. P., O'Donnell, E. B., and Connecticut DEEP. (2009). A Pictorial Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Connecticut. Hartford, CT. Available for purchase at the DEEP Store.