American Fly Fishing

Dace, Shiners, Chubs, and Sucker Minnows
By Pat Ehlers

Fly anglers who hunt for big fish know that streamers bring consistent success. Such flies might range from 2 inches in length for trout and bass, to more than 12 inches if trophy muskies are the quarry. Big fish need protein, and they get it from
eating baitfish.
   Baitfish come in two basic shapes: short and stout, like shad, crappies, and bluegills, and long and thin, like blacknose dace, shiners, and chub and sucker minnows. These long and slender baitfish are important forage for both cold-water and warm-water game fish. Trout—most notably browns—and char have a penchant for such baitfish; smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, pike, and muskies all love baitfish. And they see plenty of them, because these baitfish families are well represented throughout North America.
   Blacknose dace, usually about 2 inches long, are typically found in cool, clean, gravel-bottom streams, making them prime protein suppliers for trout and smallmouth bass. Nervous little critters, dace constantly swim around in shallow water. Keep these things in mind when fishing your dace patterns. Quick, erratic retrieves work well and help trigger the predatory instincts of the game fish. Look for shallow, rocky areas next to deeper water. Predators often roam out of the depths and into shallow runs—where the dace hang out to feed—and quickly retreat back into the deeper water after grabbing a meal or two. 
   Because they are generally simple in design, blacknose dace streamers were among the first flies I learned to tie as a kid. A little bucktail or calf tail with a tinsel body makes an effective dace pattern. Some tiers have created beautiful and effective feather-wing and marabou-wing dace flies. Most patterns seek to mimic the dace’s prominent dark lateral line running from eye to tail; these fish generally have brownish backs and white bellies. The eastern blacknose dace (Rhinichthys atratulus) is generally lighter colored than the western blacknose dace (R. obtusus). Despite their names, both the eastern and western blacknose dace are native to the eastern half of North America. More widespread is the longnose dace (R. cataractae), which generally lacks the dark lateral line and has a suckerlike mouth.
   Shiner minnows, like dace, are important prey for game fish. A variety of different shiner species inhabit waters in most of North America, with redfin, golden, and emerald shiners among the more important species. Primarily found from Manitoba through the Maritime Provinces and as far south as Texas, Louisiana, and the panhandle of Florida, shiners have a widened range due to their introduction as forage into lakes and streams throughout the country. 
   Emerald shiners (Notropis atherinoides) and golden shiners (N. crysoleucas), though closely related, differ substantially in habits and habitat. Emerald shiners are pelagic, staying out in open water and away from weeds, while golden shiners prefer weedy areas. Shiners are found in both still water and rivers. They are more common in large rivers than in smaller streams.
   Trout love to eat shiners where the fish coexist, but shiners are more prevalent in waters inhabited by warm-water game fish. Emerald shiners form a critically important forage base for smallmouth bass in the Great Lakes and many of the inland lakes in the Midwest. Golden shiners, more tolerant of warm water, are more important in the diets of largemouth bass, pike, and muskies—fish that live among aquatic weeds.
   Golden shiners generally range from 3 to 5 inches in length, while emerald shiners top out at around 3 inches—proper-size imitations are important when game fish are targeting shiners. Emerald shiners are more translucent than goldens, with a prismatic color scheme that is best imitated by flies dressed with silver, pearl, and purple colors. One of the most effective Great Lakes emerald shiner patterns for smallmouth bass is a sparse purple/white Clouser Minnow accented with pearl flash material. Synthetic materials help substantially in designing flies that appear translucent in the water. Note also that emerald shiner patterns are effective for Great Lakes steelhead in the rivers, as well as for nearshore coho salmon in the spring. 
   Golden shiners are more opaque, and, as their name implies, are golden in shade. They inhabit lakes, ponds, and big rivers, so imitations are generally fished deep, with sinking lines.
   For shiner patterns, experiment with different retrieves until you find a pattern that works. Shiners frequently school, and game fish often stay with the school, picking off individuals. Observation is important: use a fish finder to look for baitfish schools, and also watch for fish chasing shiner schools at the surface. I have often seen smallmouth bass slash through a school of shiners, tail-slapping and stunning the baitfish, then turning back to eat them. Such action occurs near the surface, so quickly casting a popper into the wake of the fish often brings a strike. 
   Chub and sucker minnows, like shiners, comprise numerous species. Some of these can grow to over a foot long, and these large baitfish are important food for big muskies and pike, especially in the fall. Chub minnows are found in moving water, with habitat depending on species. River chubs (Nocomis micropogon) are usually found in warmer-water rivers or slower, warmer sections of cold-water rivers. Creek chubs (Semotilus atromaculatus) are found in more transitional water, where cold water meets warm water. As an example, the Midwest has many streams where trout live in the upper reaches, but bass habitat forms farther down. In the crossover area, creek chubs can become an important food for both the trout and bass. River and creek chubs range across the eastern half of the country; in the West, a variety of chub species occur in generally more limited ranges. The tui chub (Gila bicolor), for example, is a far-west species that inhabits, among other waters, the Columbia River drainage and the Klamath River. It is preyed upon by both trout and warm-water
game fish.
   Sucker minnows, meanwhile, are highly adaptable. They are normally found in warmer streams and rivers, but also in lakes. They are widely distributed throughout the country. Their abundance in warm water makes them important forage for bass, pike, and muskies. Many patterns effectively imitate both chubs and sucker minnows; among the best are permutations of Zonkers, Deceivers, and synthetic-wing streamers. Among muskie fly anglers, 12- to 14-inch sucker imitations for fall fishing are increasingly popular.
   Big fish need big meals. These baitfish families are widely distributed across the country, and sustain a variety of popular game fish. Pay attention to which of these species live in your home water, and get in on the excitement of fishing the streamers that imitate them. 


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