Finding joy in the unseen colors of spring

Friday, March 15, 2002

March is not a very colorful month. The browns of winter are still hanging on and the colors of spring have not started to show.

Or have they?

Many creeks and small streams at this time of the year look cold and barren from the surface, but hide a wealth of vibrant colors. A good example are the darters of Missouri. This group of overlooked fishes is among the most colorful in the state. Missouri's darters typically spawn from late March to early June. Male darters of some species become brilliantly colored as early as mid-February. For example, the rainbow darter, which can be found in most of our local streams, have bright blue-green vertical bars encircling the body interspersed with splashes of bright orange-red.

The fins have bands of red, orange-red, and blue-black running through them. These darters truly live up to their name because they possess a rainbow of colors.

Missouri is home to 38 species of darters. They occur in the largest of rivers, like the Missouri and Mississippi, to the smallest of creeks.

Most darters can be found in or around riffles in a stream. Riffles are typically shallow gravelly areas that have flowing water. Those areas are easy to seine for darters. All that is needed for capturing darters is a small seine, rubber boots if the water is too cold to wade in, a fishing license, and a friend. The technique is easy. Begin by holding the seine across the riffle. Have your friend Kick the rocks and shuffle their feet through the gravel above and toward the seine. After getting close to the bottom line of the seine, raise it up and see what you caught. The male darters should stand out above all others.

Many people keep aquariums because they find them enjoyable and relaxing. Most keep tropical fish species. Personally, I like keeping native fishes, especially darters, in my office aquarium. They are interesting to watch and two of the species, the scaly sand darter and the crystal darter, like to bury themselves in gravel in the tank. Darters are easy to take care of because most are hardy and unlike tropical fish, don't need to be kept at a certain water temperature. I feed my darters frozen brine shrimp and they love it. There is not a skinny darter in the bunch. So if you are tired of waiting for spring flowers to show their colors, try looking for darters in our streams for the colors they are providing right now.

David Ostendorf is a fisheries biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation

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