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Common Minnows

Note: This article first appeared in the July/August 1992 issue of The Conservationist magazine. Recently updated. Authors- John J. Hasse & Eileen C. Stegemann. Tenth in a 14-part series describing the Freshwater Fishes of New York.

Some Common Minnows Of New York

Ever since we were young, most of us have pointed to a group of small fish we saw in the water and said, "look at the minnows." We knew they were minnows because, after all, they were small and kind of round, right? Wrong. What most of us did not know is that just because a fish is small, it does not mean it is a minnow. Half the time, what we thought were minnows were probably young fish, perhaps some perch or bass or even trout.

The actual group of fish known to scientists as "minnows" comes in all shapes and sizes. Some species, like the fathead minnow and the blacknose dace, are small and do look like the classic minnow we usually picture. But other species, like the fallfish and the creek chub, can grow to be 11 plus inches long and are fun to catch.

Minnows are interesting creatures to observe. Many minnows reproduce in groups. Several species of minnows spawn in the same location at the same time, resulting in hybrid minnows. Certain species build nests, while others utilize existing nests of coexisting species. Male minnows develop breeding tubercles (small, thornlike structures) on the head and face during spawning. These tubercles may be numerous and feel like sandpaper or they may be few in number and quite large. They are used in nest construction and in maintaining body contact with spawning females.

Minnows are important food items for other fish species in most of the state's waters. They are essential in maintaining healthy aquatic systems. While several species of minnows are caught by anglers and several more are used as bait fish, the vast majority of minnows never even receive a passing glance from most humans.

In New York State, there are 48 known species of minnows. They make up the largest family of fish found in the state. Below, we discuss a few of the more common and colorful species of New York's minnows. Persons interested in finding more detailed descriptions for any member of the minnow family can refer to: "The Freshwater Fishes of Canada," by W.B. Scott and E.J. Crossman and "The Inland Fishes of New York State," by C. Lavett Smith.


picture of fallfish

The largest of New York's native minnows, fallfish can grow to be 17 inches in length. They can put up a decent fight when hooked and are frequently caught by trout fisherman when fly fishing.

With the exception of Long Island, the Black River Basin, and west of the Genesee River, fallfish are found in waters across New York State. They live in clear streams, lakes, and ponds, and do not tolerate muddy water. Young fallfish prefer riffle (fast water) sections of streams while adult fallfish usually remain in deeper pools.

Bright silver in color, smaller fallfish (under eight inches) are often confused with their relative the common shiner. However, larger adults are rather dull silver in color and the differences between the two fish species is more apparent. Mature male fallfish will develop a pinkish tint to their heads during breeding season.

Fallfish are group spawners. Males construct nests in stream gravel by carrying stones in their mouths. The round nest can be four feet wide and nearly one and one half feet high.

Fallfish feed on insects, small fish, crayfish, and some plant material. Small fallfish are eaten by other fish and larger fallfish fall prey to fish eating birds, such as ospreys. Although edible when taken from cold water, fallfish are not normally eaten by anglers. However, smaller fish are sometimes used as bait.

Creek Chub

picture of creek chub

Large minnows, creek chubs can reach six to 12 inches in length. They live in all but the fastest moving waters of streams and rarely inhabit lakes. With the exception of Long Island, they are found in waters across the state.

Generally dark in color, creek chubs have a purple sheen on their sides. They can be distinguished from most other minnow species by a dark spot at the base of the dorsal (back) fin. Male creek chubs develop a pink coloration during spawning.

In some waters, creek chubs look like they have been sprinkled with black sand. This is because they are often heavily covered with the parasite that causes black spot disease. While the parasite may affect the fish's appearance, it is generally harmless to the fish's health and is not transmittable to humans.

Similar to fallfish, male creek chubs build nests in gravel. Females then deposit eggs and the males cover them. After several females have spawned in succession in one nest, the nests can reach several feet long. Interestingly, female creek chubs will often float belly up after spawning, as if dead. They quickly recover, however, and swim off to spawn several more times. Creek chub readily take baited hooks and are often caught by children. While they can be eaten, these fish are generally released. Anglers often use creek chubs for bait.

Golden Shiner

image of a Golden Shiner

One of the most widespread fish in New York State, golden shiners are found in waters across the State. They are one of the most popular bait fish and have been raised by people for the bait industry for years.

Although generally a lake species, golden shiners live just about any place the water is quiet, weedy, clean, and somewhat shallow. They do not have the "typical" minnow body shape, but are instead deep and compressed. The lateral line that runs along their sides noticeably dips down in the middle of their bodies, distinguishing them from some of their relatives. Juvenile golden shiners are silver, but adults are gold or brassy with red fins. Adult golden shiners are generally five to seven inches long, but can grow as long as ten inches.

Golden shiners grow rapidly and reach maturity at age two. They reproduce in late spring/early summer, and require algae and other aquatic vegetation to spawn. The adhesive eggs are simply scattered over vegetation. There is no parental care.

Aside from their use as bait, golden shiners are occasionally caught and eaten by fishermen.

Blacknose Dace

picture of blacknose dace

A small minnow, blacknose dace rarely grow larger than three inches long. They live in clear streams where current is present and are often the only fish found at a stream's source (beginning).

Blacknose dace can be distinguished from other minnows by the numerous speckles on their dark upper bodies. The lower part of the body is cream colored with few speckles. A dark line runs from the nose to the tail and during breeding, males develop a green tint and red fins.

Relatively short lived, blacknose dace mature at age two and rarely live past age four. They are spring spawners, with males establishing territories over gravel in shallow riffles. Males perform a spawning ritual but must then immediately defend the eggs from other dace who attempt to eat them.

In addition to falling prey to other fish species and birds, blacknose dace are used as bait by anglers in some areas. They are easily captured in minnow traps or by seines, where allowed.

Longnose Dace

picture of longnose dace

Unusual in appearance, longnose dace look like miniature sharks. They have a prominent snout with an underslung (lower jaw shorter than top) mouth. They range in color from olive to brown on back shading to cream on the belly. They are medium-sized minnows, reaching three to five inches in length.

Longnose dace are found in streams across New York State, except for Long Island. They have specific habitat requirements, living only in riffle areas where there is fast water current.

Spawning takes place in late spring in shallow riffles over gravel bottoms. Male longnose dace guard territories and mate with females as they enter this territory. Following hatching, the young float downstream to live in quiet water areas. After several months, longnose dace change to their adult lifestyle and move to areas of high water velocity.

Bottom dwelling fish, longnose dace use their underslung mouths to feed on fish eggs and insects, especially black fly larvae. Except for occasional use as bait by anglers, this fish has little interaction with man.

Central Stoneroller

picture of central stoneroller

Central stonerollers are found in riffles and pools of streams scattered across the state. They require clean water with a current. Stonerollers are locally abundant in the Mohawk River drainage west to the Great Lakes and from the western side of the Catskills across the Southern Tier to Lake Erie.

Medium-size minnows, stonerollers average four to six inches in length. They have an unusual appearance, with light colored, very noticeable lips. The lower lip has a prominent ridge which they use during feeding to scrape algae and other tiny organisms off rocks. They have long intestines which they need for digesting these foods. Adult stonerollers are generally dull grey with a brassy tint. Males develop an orange tint during spawning.

Stonerollers are spring spawners. Like many minnow species, male stonerollers build nests by using their mouth to carry or push gravel. Nests are communal and usually located at the upstream end of riffles. Stonerollers have little direct interaction with man. However, because of their need for clean water, these fish are occasionally used as an environmental indicator of stream water quality.

Cutlips Minnow

picture of cutlips minnow

With the exception of Long Island and west of the Genesee River, cutlips minnows are common across New York State. They are strictly stream dwellers, found in pool areas with clean gravel and cobble. Cutlips minnow prefer bottom habitat and remain among the stones.

Generally three to five inches long, these drab, slate-colored minnows are rather ordinary in appearance. Their only prominent feature is their lower jaw that is divided into three lobes (hence the name). While cutlips minnows eat mostly aquatic insects and mollusks, they have the unusual habit of feeding on the eyes of other fish.

Spawning takes place in late spring. Using pebbles, males construct round nests. If the proper sized pebbles are in short supply, the males will steal them from other nests. Several females mate with one male who abandons the nest after spawning. Cutlips minnows have little interaction with man.

Redside Dace

picture of redside dace

Redside dace are one of the most colorful minnows. Their backs are iridescent dark green or blue with a gold stripe on the side. There is a red band that runs from the gills to mid-body below the gold stripe. Dark scales are scattered across the body.

Redside dace live in clean, clear small streams. They are generally found only in pool areas and do not tolerate turbidity. In New York State, redside dace occur in streams across the southern part of the State to the western Catskills, in the upper Mohawk drainage, and in the Tug Hill area.

Small in size (three to four inches long), redside dace feed mostly on insects. Their large mouths enable them to capture flying insects while leaping out of the water. Spawning occurs in late spring. Redside dace are group spawners, frequently depositing their eggs in creek chub nests. There is no parental care given either the eggs or young.

Similar to stonerollers, redside dace make good environmental indicators of water quality because of their need for clean water.

Spottail Shiner

picture of spottail shiner

Silver colored fish, spottail shiners get their name from the prominent dark spot on their tails. They can live in a variety of habitats, but prefer sandy areas in large lakes and streams. Spottail shiners are found in Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, the Hudson River drainage, and the Finger Lakes Region east to the Delaware and Mohawk rivers.

Medium-sized minnows, spottail shiners average three to four inches in length. They are early summer spawners and spawn in areas with sandy bottoms. Large numbers gather over the spawning sites to deposit eggs. There is no parental care given.

Adult spottail shiners feed on algae, insects, and fish eggs and larvae, including their own. In areas where they are abundant, they are usually the main forage item for other fish. Spottail shiners are frequently used as baitfish by anglers. Their scales fall off easily when handled.

Emerald Shiner

picture of emerald shiner

Different from many other species of minnows, emerald shiners are open water (pelagic) fish. They are only found in large rivers and lakes, such as the Hudson, Niagara, and lower Mohawk Rivers, and in the Great Lakes, Oneida Lake, and Lake Champlain.

Emerald shiners average three to four inches in length and have very short snouts with large eyes. They are generally silver in color with green iridescence on the top fading to silver/white on the belly. Young emerald shiners are semi-transparent in appearance.

Emerald shiners travel in large schools. Unlike most other minnows, they do not spawn over gravel or vegetation, but release their eggs in mid-water.

Plankton feeders, emerald shiners will approach the surface at dark to feed, but retreat to deeper water in the day. Their population levels widely fluctuate, with one year their numbers being low and the next year their numbers being high. In years when emerald shiners are abundant, they are important forage fish for predators, as well as important bait fish for anglers. Many anglers know these fish as "buckeyes."

Northern Redbelly Dace

picture of northern redbelly dace

Limited in range in New York, northern redbelly dace are mostly found in the Adirondacks. They occur in boggy lakes, creeks, and ponds where the water is often dark brown. In streams, redbelly dace prefer quiet areas with a bottom of silt or decaying vegetation.

Redbelly dace are dark brown or black on the back and yellow to red on the belly. Two dark stripes run the length of the upper body. They have small mouths and large eyes. Redbelly dace are small minnows, rarely growing larger than two inches.

Redbelly dace spawn in late spring. Eggs are deposited in algae mats and then left unguarded. Adult fish feed on plant materials and some zooplankton and insects. Although they are used as a baitfish in some parts of Canada, redbelly dace are rarely used for bait by people in New York State.

Common Shiner

picture of common shiner

As the name implies, common shiners are found in numerous waters across New York State. They are primarily stream fish, preferring areas without fast moving water. They will tolerate some salt, but cannot survive in muddy water.

Common shiners are generally three to four inches long, but can grow as large as six inches. They have large, diamond-shaped scales covering their mostly silver bodies. During the spawning season, male common shiners develop blue backs and red bellies.

Spawning occurs in late spring. Males select nest sites at the upstream end of riffles. Common shiners will spawn in both groups and individual pairs. These fish are known for using other minnow nests to spawn in and so hybrids are common in this species.

Common shiners eat a number of different food items, including insects, fish larvae and plant material. In turn, these minnows are eaten by other fish and wildlife species, such as kingfishers, mergansers, bass, and pike. Northern pike anglers often use common shiners for bait.

Fathead Minnow

picture of fathead minnow

Fathead minnows are small in size, averaging two to three inches in length. They are sturdy, heavy bodied fish with small mouths and a lateral line that stops under the dorsal fin. They are generally dull in color, with dark bodies and a slight brass tint on the sides.

With the exception of Long Island, fathead minnows are found in waters across New York State. They prefer ponds and slow moving water in streams. They can tolerate muddy water, and are occasionally found in roadside ditches. In addition, fathead minnows can tolerate water with salt in it.

While fathead minnows do use nests during spawning, their nests differ from other minnow species. Fathead minnows deposit their eggs on the undersides of logs, roots, rocks, lily pads and even inside beer cans. Several females deposit eggs in the same nest. After spawning, males chase away the females and then remain with and guard the nest until the eggs hatch.

Because of their small size, fathead minnows are an important food item for a number of fish and wildlife species. Fishermen also find fathead minnows important. These fish are raised commercially for bait and for stocking in farm ponds as forage for game fish. Fathead minnows are also the most commonly used fish in toxicity studies.

River Chub

picture of river chub

River chubs are stubby looking minnows with small eyes. They have large scales, edged in black, covering their generally silvery bodies. While they normally average four to six inches in length, they can grow as long as eight inches.

River chubs live in large gravel or rocky bottomed creeks with clear water. They are found in the Susquehanna drainage basin and parts of western New York. They are only occasionally used as bait by fishermen.

Male river chubs expend a great amount of energy while constructing nests for spawning. Nests are built in stream bottoms that contain large gravel and rocks. The males dig shallow pits and backfill them with selected stones until a small mound is formed. During this process, male river chubs will move nearly 200 pounds of pebbles. Actual spawning takes place in a trough built on top of the nest which is then refilled with pebbles after the eggs are deposited.

Scientific Names

Many species of fish look alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. In addition, many types of fish have different common names in different parts of the country. To distinguish one organism from another, biologists give each a scientific name that is unique to that organism. The names are derived from the Latin language and consist of a genus and a species. The genus name is first and is capitalized. The species is second and is in lower case. Both the genus and species are either underlined or italicized when written. While several organisms in the same "family" share a common genus name (like family members sharing a last name), they have different species names. Occasionally, two members of a family are so similar that one is considered a subspecies of the other. In these cases, the organisms are given two species names. Here are the common and scientific names of New York State's common minnows:

Scientific Names of Fish Species
Common Name Scientific Name
fallfish Semotilus corporalis
creek chub Semotilus atromaculatus
golden shiner Notemigonus crysoleucas
blacknose dace Rhinichthys atratulus
longnose dace Rhinichthys cataractae
central stoneroller Campostoma anomalum
cutlips minnow Exoglossum maxillingua
redside dace Clinostomus elongatus
spottail shiner Notropis budsonius
emerald shiner Notropis atherinoides
northern redbelly dace Phoxinus eos
common shiner Luxilus cornutus
fathead minnow Pimephales promelas
river chub Nocomis micropogon

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