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You Gotta Know!

Recently, it seems like it happens all the time–someone posting photos and misidentifying fish, or just plain not knowing what they have caught.  I suppose it could be the result of more new folks starting to fish with all the cornonavirus craziness.  Or, perhaps it is just more noticeable because of social media?

A fish is not just a fish, you gotta have some identification skills.

No, I do not expect everyone to be an ichthyologist.  However, I do expect that if you choose to be an angler, you have some responsibilities to fulfill.  You have a responsibility to the resource to know some fish identification.  Rules and regulations vary by species of fish.  At the least, knowing your fish could save you a pretty pink ticket.

The challenge is that you never know what might bite on your line.  Often you do not catch what you are targeting.  Once, while doing an angler survey, I checked an angler and his mother who were targeting bullheads.  Instead of catching bullheads, they had caught a walleye, and they literally did not know what they had.  All they knew is that it was not a bullhead.

You gotta know more than that.

Another time I checked some anglers who said they had caught several white bass.  I asked if I could see their fish.  They proudly pulled the stringer up to show me.  Hanging on the chain stringer were four or five adult gizzard shad.  I wonder how good those “white bass” tasted when fried?

You gotta know.

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The problem is I have no easy solutions.  You will have to invest some time, you will have to do some homework.  And yes, like most things in life, the more experience you have the easier it will be.

I can suggest that we have some fish identification resources on our Game & Parks website.  You can find that here, Fish Identification.  There is not a “key” there, but you can look through the different families of fish we have in Nebraska and see some color illustrations.  There also are some brief descriptions and key characteristics.  We are working on some additional fish identification resources and you better believe I will blog about that when it is completed.

You can also find a number of other fish identification aids on the interwebs.  Just know that different states are going to be at least a little bit different in the fish species they have.  Knowing what a spotted seatrout looks like will be necessary on the Gulf coast, but not so much in Nebraska.  However, the more you learn, the better.

I have seen a few “apps” advertised that can be used to identify fish.  Take a picture, and the app will tell you what you have.  I have no experience with any of those products, so I do not know if any of them work as advertised.  I also do not know how applicable any of them would be to Nebraska waters and Nebraska fish.  If you have some experience with those apps, do not hesitate to recommend a good one!

I would suggest that a good place to start would be to look up the waterbody you are fishing in the back of the Fishing Guide.  There you will find a list of species in that waterbody that anglers are most likely to catch.  It would be a really good idea to know how to identify all of the listed species.  Yes, there can still be less common species caught that are not on the list, but knowing what is most likely to caught is a great place to start.  The Fishing Guide also has some color illustrations that will help with fish identification.

Another aid we have is a tackle-box size booklet, Common Fishes of Nebraska.  That booklet also has color drawings and identification tips listed.  I may regret this offer, but if you want a couple hard copies of that booklet, drop me an e-mail with your U.S. Postal mailing address and I will get them in the mail for you, daryl.bauer@nebraska.gov .

Visiting aquaria is a good way to see a variety of fish and learn some identification.  You all know about the aquaria at some of the big box sporting good stores.  Let me also suggest taking your family to visit the aquaria at our Schramm Education Center would be an excellent way to learn and have a great time while doing it!

I have mentioned color illustrations or photographs and those are a great way to recognize and identify fish.  However, let me caution you about identifying fish solely on color.  Coloration of fish is a highly variable trait.  Colors can change on an individual fish due to water quality, reproductive condition, and even territoriality.  Some fish will not look like the pictures!  Try to learn other key characteristics to identify; those characteristics are far less variable and changeable.

Likewise, be careful relying on your fishing buddy or other anglers.  Now I am not saying that you cannot learn a lot from other anglers, you can.  Some of those experienced anglers will know their fish identification as well as any pointy-headed, fish biologist.  However, how do you know?  Unfortunately, those who claim expert status the loudest, sometimes know the least.  Ask for help, but make sure you can rely on that help.

Learning never stops!  Once you master the sport fish that are commonly caught by anglers, you might want to explore others that are less common and maybe a lot smaller.  There are some beautiful little gems swimming in Nebraska waters if you put in the effort to find them, catch them, and identify them!

Learn your fish identification!  You owe it to the fish, you owe it to yourself, you owe it to other anglers!

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About daryl bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager. Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species. He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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