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Mountain Fish Show Their Spring Colors

By John Beckman and Nanci Bross-Fregonara

It is well known that birds show their brightest colors in springtime as a way to attract mates.   But did you know many fish species also show their brightest colors during this season for precisely the same reason?   Here are four exceptionally beautiful fish found in the streams of the Mountain State.

Longear Sunfish

Longear SunfishIf you go fishing this spring, you might catch this small, colorful sunfish.   Reaching a maximum size of about six inches in length, longear sunfish have orange-brown bodies flecked with bright blue scales.   The head is decorated with pale blue wavy lines on a bright orange background.   The prominent earflap is black, but with a white or pale blue margin.   The belly is pale yellow and the fins are mostly translucent.

Longear sunfish are found throughout most of West Virginia, but are most common in the western half of the state.   Longear sunfish prefer small upland streams.   They are occasionally found in reservoirs, but are virtually unknown from slow-moving portions of large rivers.   Longear sunfish breed from May to July each year.   Some individuals can live as long as six years.

Mountain Redbelly Dace

Mountain red-belly daceThe mountain redbelly dace is a small, minnow-sized fish about two inches long.   This species has a yellow body that is marked with two nonparellel black bars running along the length of the fish.   Smaller black splotches are arranged on the upper portion of the back.   The fins are yellow and the belly is bright cherry red.   Much has been written about the harlequin appearance of this fish.

Unfortunately for those who take the time to seek out this species, the bright colors of the mountain redbelly dace are subdued for most of the year when the fish is not breeding.   The brightest colors can be observed mid-spring to early summer in male fish that are guarding nests and attracting mates.

In West Virginia the mountain redbelly dace is found primarily in the New River and its tributaries.   This species is most abundant in the Greenbrier River drainage.   Mountain redbelly dace prefer to live in pools and riffles of small headwater streams, usually over sandy or gravelly bottoms.   These fish mostly eat algae and detritus.   Mountain redbelly dace spawn in stream bottom nests that are actually built by another species of minnow called a chub .   Female dace entering the nest are swarmed by 2 to 10 male fish.   Fertilization occurs when the whole group of spawning fish releases eggs and sperm into the water simultaneously.

Orangespotted Sunfish

Orangespotted sunfishAnother Mountain State fish that shows beautiful colors in the spring is the orangespotted   sunfish. Although it tends to have more subdued colors when young, with only a few scattered dark and orange spots, as it gets older the colors become more spectacular.

Like many fish species, the male has much more pronounced coloration than the female. During the spring breeding season, the males have a bright yellow or orange breast and belly. Spawning usually occurs in the late spring through the sum-mer, with the males constructing small nests in quiet water areas. In the Mountain State, the orange-spotted is mostly found in the Ohio River embayments along the state's western border.

The males will dig disk-shaped nests in coarse sand or pea-sized gravel, usually near the nests of other males. They entice females in one at a time to spawn, then guard the nests until the fry are old enough to lose their yolk sacs. The fish will grow to be a maximum of only four to six inches in length. Its small size makes it of little interest to anglers, but its beautiful colors make it a pleasure to see. The female has a more golden hue with dark, almost black, spots.

Similar to the longear , the orangespotted has a very pronounced earflap that is very dark with a broad white or light green margin.   But unlike the longear which enjoys upland streams, the orangespotted's favorite habitat is sluggish water. Its diet is made up mostly of the microcrustaceans and aquatic insect larvae found in that type of environment. It has a reputation of being a very aggressive feeder and will compete with other sunfishes. What is its   favorite hideout? Under an overhanging branch with bagworms !

Candy Darter

Candy DarterThis fish has the general shape of a yellow perch, as it should since it is a member of the perch family, Percidae . Like the mountain redbelly dace, however, the candy darter is a very small fish, reaching a maximum length of less than three inches.   The candy darter gets its name from its teal body and bold red vertical stripes that resemble the pattern on a candy cane.   The fins of the candy darter are also very ornate, featuring alternating horizontal bands of   teal, red, yellow and black.   Breeding male fish are more colorful than non-breeding males or females, and are also slightly larger.

The candy darter is endemic to the New River drainage in West Virginia and a small portion of the New River in Virginia.   This fish is primarily found in the Greenbrier and Gauley river systems.   The candy darter is most abundant in the riffles and runs of swift, rocky creeks.  

There is concern about the long-term survival of this species because of its restricted range. Some populations may be disappearing from Monongahela National Forest streams.

Take the time to look carefully at the rainbows of color that swim about our waters in the spring. You won't be disappointed.

John Beckman was formerly a wildlife biologist for the DNR based in Romney .   Nanci Bross-Fregonara is a public information specialist in Elkins .