Perches and Darters
The perches are one of the largest families of fishes in North America, outnumbered only by one of the minnow families. The perch family includes the Yellow Perch, Walleye, Sauger and many darter species. The perch family is circumpolar. This means it is found in both North America and northern Europe and Asia. Our Yellow Perch (genus Perca), Walleyes and Saugers (genus Sander) have Eurasian counterparts, but the darters are found only in North America. Some of the earliest fossils of the perch family, uncovered in the Utah-Wyoming region, are 38 million years old. The family includes large, sought-after sport and food fishes, as well as some of the most beautifully colored small fishes on this continent. Members of the perch family live in a variety of habitats, from fast-flowing and slow-flowing streams to swamps and lakes.
Even though many anglers are familiar with Yellow Perch, Walleyes and Saugers, the darters are less known. The large darter group in the perch family includes 146 North American species. At least 21 darter species have been recorded in Pennsylvania, especially in the Allegheny River watershed. Several are endangered or threatened in the state: The Bluebreast Darter, Eastern Sand Darter, Gilt Darter, Longhead Darter, Spotted Darter and Tippecanoe Darter. A subspecies of the Walleye that was found in Lake Erie, the Blue Pike (Sander vitreus glaucus), was once a popular food and sport fish, but it has disappeared from the lake. It is believed to be extinct.
Although many of the smaller members of this family are important as food for other fish, the family also includes predators like the Walleye and Sauger. The Yellow Perch is both a food source for larger fish and a fish-eater itself. Walleyes, Saugers and saugeyes (a Walleye x Sauger hybrid) are artificially propagated for release as juveniles in waters where spawning has been impaired or in manmade reservoirs that do not accommodate successful reproduction of these species.
Perch family fishes are elongated–they look a lot longer than they are wide. Their two dorsal fins are separate or very narrowly joined. The leading dorsal fin has six to 15 spines. The second dorsal fin is soft-rayed. The anal fin has only one or two spines. Like the sunfishes, the perches have ctenoid scales, which make the fish feel rough. The back edge of the gill cover, or opercle, has a single sharp spine. During the reproductive season, some species develop breeding tubercles, raised projections on some part of the body. The males of the darters at breeding time are especially bright and colorful. Walleyes and Saugers are duller-colored and camouflage easily in their habitats.
Greenside Darter Etheostoma blennioides
Most members of the perch family prefer cool, flowing water with a clean, unsilted bottom. Some members of the darter family require such clean, clear water that they are considered indicators of water quality–high-quality water when they are present, degraded when they disappear.
The spawning behavior of the perch family varies. Some species scatter eggs over bottom rock rubble or sand. Some species deposit eggs in gravel nests. In other species, males guard nests of adhesive eggs fastened to the underside of flat stones. In still other species, eggs are deposited singly or in draped strings over underwater vegetation.
Many of the perch family live near the stream or lake bottom. Darters usually rest on the bottom. When disturbed, they dart away quickly to a hiding place, which accounts for their common name. In darters, the swim bladder is small or absent, which explains their characteristic locomotion.
Banded Darter Etheostoma zonale
The Johnny Darter is one of the smaller members of the perch family, belonging to the large sub-group of darters. Johnny Darters are among the most widespread and abundant of the darters, but they lack the brilliant coloration that many other darters have. Johnny Darters are found in the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds, and in Atlantic Coast watersheds that are south of Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, the Johnny Darter is found in the western part of the state, in the Ohio River and Lake Erie watersheds. In eastern Pennsylvania, the similar Tessellated Darter occurs. Some biologists do not recognize the johnny darter and the Tessellated Darter as distinct species. Instead, they view them as a single species separated geographically.
The Johnny Darter seldom grows much over two inches long. Its body is slender, the head bluntly rounded. The background color is tan or straw-yellow, with brown markings. Brown markings across the back form six evenly spaced “saddles,” and there is some dark spotting on the upper portion of the sides. Midway down the sides, and running from head to tail, are dark scales that seem to form up to a dozen “W,” “M” or “X” patterns. The dorsal, caudal, pectoral and pelvic fins may be speckled. In breeding males, the overall color darkens, with the head looking almost black, and a very dark color on the dorsal, pelvic and anal fins.
Johnny Darters tolerate a wide variety of lake and stream habitats. They are not as specific about where they live as most other darters. Johnny Darters are found mostly in areas with little stream current, over a bottom that is gravel or sand, and in lakes along firm shorelines. They have also been found in weedy areas and rocky riffles. The similar Tessellated Darter is found on gravelly shoals with some water current and vegetation. Although usually considered a fish of inshore waters, Johnny Darters have been recorded at depths of over 130 feet in the Great Lakes.
Johnny Darters spawn in spring, April to May. Although the fish normally has a small home range, for spawning it will travel to find a suitable site. The males move into the spawning areas before the females and establish and defend a territory. The Johnny Darter creates a sort of nest, clearing a spot of silt and debris under an underwater object, like a rock. In a twist different from most other spawning fish, the male and female Johnny Darter turn upside down to spawn. The adhesive eggs, from 40 to 200 per female, stick to the underside of the rock in a single layer. Other females add to the male’s nest, until the eggs there may number as many as 1,000. The male stays and maintains the site after spawning, fanning its fins to keep the eggs clean and aerated. The tiny eggs hatch in about two weeks, depending on water temperature.
Johnny Darters show the bottom-dwelling and darting movement typical of other darters. They are sight-feeders, as are other darters. Johnny Darters eat zooplankton, midge larvae, mayflies, caddis larvae and other small insects, worms and small snails. The males grow faster than females after the first year. Where they are present, they are a food source for other fishes.
The Tessellated Darter can be found from southern Canada’s St. Lawrence River drainage to Georgia. In Pennsylvania, it is found in the Delaware, Potomac and Susquehanna River watersheds. The Tessellated Darter greatly resembles the Johnny Darter, and it was formerly considered a subspecies of the Johnny Darter.
“Tessellated” refers to the fish’s having a mosaic-like or checkered pattern. The Tessellated Darter’s coloration is pale-sandy, fading to white on the bottom. The back and upper sides of the tessellated darter have nine to 11 pronounced, small X-shaped or W-shaped marks. This species, like the Johnny Darter, has a single anal fin spine. Other darters in Pennsylvania have two anal fin spines. The mouth is positioned low and is horizontal. The mouth ends below the front of the eye. Tessellated Darter breeding adults develop 12 or 13 vertical bars on the sides, while losing the X-shaped and W-shaped markings. The upper side scales become wholly outlined in a dark color. The fin membranes, except those of the pectoral fins, grow dark with lighter tips on the pelvic and pectoral fins. In this phase, Tessellated Darters are sometimes mistaken for small Yellow Perch. Tessellated Darters reach a length of about 3 1/2 inches.
The Tessellated Darter prefers the quieter portions of sandy or mud-bottomed flowing water or still water, except in the breeding season.
Tessellated Darters spawn in the spring, around May or June. The female deposits adhesive eggs on the tops and sides of rocks. The female quivers as she drops her eggs, and the male fertilizes the eggs as he swims slowly over them. After spawning, the female leaves the nest. The male remains to guard the eggs. The male aerates the eggs either by swimming upside down, finning them with his pectoral fins, or by holding his position with the pectoral fins and fanning with his tail. The eggs incubate at around 65 degrees and hatch in about three weeks.
Tessellated Darters feed mostly on small insects and crustaceans at first. As the fish grow, they consume bigger insects.
Yellow Perch are native to the northern United States east of the Rocky Mountains and Atlantic Coast watersheds south to South Carolina. They have also been widely introduced throughout the country and are distributed across Pennsylvania in appropriate habitat. Yellow Perch are popular with open-water anglers and ice fishermen. Yellow Perch were netted commercially in Lake Erie. The genus name “Perca” means “perch,” and the species name “flavescens” means “yellow.”
Yellow Perch have a long-looking body, but they are not as slim in appearance as other perch family species. The upper part of the head, back and sides is olive-green to golden-brown, shading to lighter yellow-green or yellow on the sides. The underside is white or grayish. Some back and side scales are dark and form a pattern of six to nine vertical stripes that narrow as they approach the belly. These stripes are a perch’s most distinctive feature. The pectoral, pelvic and anal fins are pale-yellow, becoming bright-orange on breeding-season males. The tail is slightly forked. The two dorsal fins are separated. The front dorsal fin has 13 to 15 sharp spines, and one or two spines can be found on the leading edge of the rear dorsal fin. The rest of the rear dorsal fin has soft rays. The anal fin has two spines, and there is a spine on the trailing edge of the gill cover, or opercle.
Yellow Perch live in a variety of aquatic habitats, including warm or cool lakes, ponds and sluggish streams. A prime Yellow Perch lake is cool and clear, with a sandy or gravelly bottom and rooted underwater vegetation. They also inhabit lakes with soft bottoms. Yellow Perch are considered shallow-water dwellers and are not usually caught more than 30 feet deep.
Yellow Perch spawn in spring, April and May, when water temperatures are in the mid-40s to mid-50s. This is usually about a week after Walleyes spawn. Yellow Perch males, which are smaller than females, move into the spawning areas first. Selected spawning sites are five to 10 feet deep in inland lakes, and over aquatic vegetation, submerged brush or along sand or gravelly shorelines. Big female perch can produce up to 100,000 eggs, but most produce 15,000 to 25,000 eggs. Spawning occurs at night and early morning. The females are accompanied by several males, which swim alongside or behind them. The eggs are deposited in a unique form–a long, sticky gelatinous mass that drapes over underwater objects. The accordionlike transparent egg mass absorbs water rapidly after it is emitted and swells, sometimes reaching seven feet long and weighing up to two pounds. The egg mass is semi-buoyant and moves gently with water currents and waves. Bad weather may cause the egg mass to be torn up and washed onto land. Unlike the sunfishes, Yellow Perch parents do not remain to guard the nest, eggs or young.
Yellow Perch eggs take eight to 25 days to hatch, or longer. The hatching time of these and other fish eggs depends on water temperature. Hatching takes longer in cool water, a shorter time in warmer water. Newly hatched Yellow Perch head for deep water, where they form free-swimming schools. After about a month, they return to shallower water, and like the adults, live near the bottom. Young perch feed on zooplankton and small aquatic insects, and in turn are food for larger predator fish. Small fish, including small perch, are mainstays of the adult perch’s diet. Adult perch also eat aquatic insects and crustaceans.
Yellow Perch typically forage during daylight hours. They feed little or not at all at night. They are active all year long, including under the ice, making them a favorite with ice fishermen, who catch them on jigging rods and tip-ups. Minnows and jigs are popular perch-getters.
In small lakes, Yellow Perch may overpopulate, resulting in stunted, slow-growing fish. Perch commonly grow to 12 inches and may reach 14 inches. Even at a young age, the females grow faster than the males, and as adults, they are larger. Yellow Perch sometimes travel in schools of from 50 to 200 individuals. The schools stay in deeper, darker areas during the day and move closer to the shallows to feed as evening approaches. Perch schools usually contain perch all of the same size, which are also generally the same age, or year-class. At times males and females roam in separate schools. In a lake, perch schools show migratory movements according to the season and the time of day, in response to temperature, food availability and spawning urge.
Yellow Perch feature page
The wide-ranging Logperch is one of our biggest darters. It lives in the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and their tributaries, and in the Mississippi River system and some Atlantic Coast watersheds outside of Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, the Logperch is found only in the Ohio River watershed and Lake Erie and tributary streams. Its species name “caprodes” means “piglike,” describing the shape of the fish’s snout.
The Logperch is a long, slim darter that reaches a length of four or five inches. It has distinctive “tiger stripes” along its sides. The thin stripes are dark-olive or black on the pale-yellow or greenish-yellow body, crossing the fish’s back and extending toward its belly. The first dorsal fin is spiny, the second, soft-rayed. The soft dorsal fin and the caudal fin have dark markings on their rays. During the breeding season, the yellowish color of the males becomes more intense, and they also develop small, fleshy projections, called tubercles, on the belly and the underside of the fleshy part of the tail. The Logperch’s head is conical and pointed and its mouth is thick-lipped, suited to its rooting way of feeding.
Logperch inhabit mud-bottomed, sandy, gravelly and rocky areas in big lakes. They can be found living over those bottom types in large rivers. They tend to stay offshore in water deeper than three or four feet, and have been captured at depths of more than 130 feet in Lake Erie. Logperch tolerate a wide variety of habitats, including stream riffles, and they can tolerate silty water. During its spawning runs, the Logperch swims from the larger waterway in which it makes its usual home into smaller tributary streams, where for a short time the fish is abundant.
Logperch spawn in late spring to early summer. They swim from deep water offshore to sandy shallows or gravelly shoals, where a few to several hundred males gather in schools. Logperch also make spawning runs into the mouths of small streams that are tributary to the large rivers and lakes where they spend most of their time, including the Pennsylvania tributary streams to Lake Erie. They occasionally hybridize with other darter species.
When Logperch are ready to spawn, the females join the school of males and swim through it, followed by a few or many of the males. When the female stops on the bottom, one of the males alights on her back and the two fish vibrate as they spawn. The vibrating helps to kick up the sand and bury the eggs. About 10 to 20 eggs are released at each spawning, and females can produce 1,000 to 3,000 eggs. The eggs are not guarded and the males are not territorial. After spawning, the eggs are left unguarded to hatch by themselves. Young Logperch are found in dense beds of vegetation. They feed on small organisms, mostly zooplankton.
As adults, Logperch feed on aquatic insects, especially mayfly nymphs, caddis larvae and midge larvae, which they find under rocks. Logperch use their fleshy, hoglike snouts to root under and roll over small stones, leaves and other objects on the bottom, to reach the aquatic insects beneath them. Logperch also eagerly eat logperch eggs that were not buried in the sand during spawning.
Chessie (Chesapeake Logperch) (PDF)
The Sauger is closely related to the Walleye and very similar in appearance. The biggest difference between the two is habitat preference. Saugers are native to much of central North America, including the Mississippi and Missouri River watersheds and the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay watersheds. They were not originally present in Atlantic Coast waterways. Saugers appear in western Pennsylvania’s Ohio River watershed, but do not occur east of the Appalachian Mountains, so they are absent from the central and eastern parts of the state. Saugers had been recorded in the Allegheny, Beaver and Youghiogheny rivers before 1900. Then they had not been seen in the state for many years. Studies have confirmed that in some years Saugers are the most frequently caught species by anglers in the Ohio River watershed in Pennsylvania, and in navigation pools of the Monongahela River and Ohio River. They are fairly abundant in the lower Allegheny River and upper Ohio River. The species name “canadense” refers to Canada, where the fish was originally found.
Like the Walleye, the Sauger has a long, roundish body, a forked tail, canine teeth and large, glassy eyes. A light-reflective coating behind the retina gives the eye a milky glow. As in the Walleye, this is an adaptation to feeding at night and in dim light. On its back and sides the Sauger is olive-gray to brown or tan with a brassy tinge. Its back is crossed by three or four distinct, dark saddle markings, which extend down the sides. Its belly is white. It has two separate dorsal fins, the first with 12 or 13 spines, the second with two spines on its front end. The dorsal fins have small dark spots that form lengthwise rows. This characteristic is absent in Walleyes. The Sauger does not have a white tip on its lower tail, as does the Walleye. There is no dark blotch at the back corner of the Sauger’s first dorsal fin, which the Walleye has. The Sauger does have a dark blotch at the base of its pectoral fin, which spills onto the fin itself. The Sauger is generally a smaller fish than the Walleye, reaching three to five pounds and 15 to 20 inches, but normally weighing only a pound or so. Female Saugers of all ages are larger than the males.
Saugers typically inhabit large, often muddy rivers and big, silty reservoirs. For an unknown reason, Saugers do well only in the largest lakes and rivers. Schooling fish, they seem to need the “wide open spaces” of big, shallow waterways, which are typically turbid. Introductions of Saugers in smaller lakes have always failed.
Except for its preference for bigger and muddier waters than the Walleye, the Sauger’s lifestyle is much the same as that of the Walleye. Saugers spawn very early in the spring, when water temperatures approach 45 degrees. They begin congregating near their spawning areas in late winter and may migrate a considerable distance to reach them. Because their spawning needs and timing are similar, natural hybrids between Walleyes and Saugers are not uncommon where the two occur. The resulting fish is the saugeye, which has characteristics of both parents.
Like the Walleye, the Sauger spawns at night. Spawning takes place over a two-week period, and there is no nest construction or parental care. Several males swim along with a female and spawn with her. The eggs are scattered over rock rubble and gravel. This may happen in impounded water, on an upstream run into a river, or in the tailrace of a dam. Large female Saugers may produce more than 100,000 eggs, but most spawn 20,000 to 60,000. The adults go back to deep water after spawning. The Sauger’s eggs are smaller than the Walleye’s and adhesive for a short time, sticking to the gravelly bottom. Those that don’t adhere may be widely dispersed by currents. Hatching takes about two weeks, depending on water temperature. The tiny fry feed on zooplankton and midge larvae. Like Walleyes, as the young fish grow to adulthood, they switch to eating almost exclusively fishes, but they also eat insect larvae. Also like Walleyes, Saugers are nighttime feeders.
Sauger feature page
Sander canadensis x Sander vitreus
The saugeye is a hybrid, the result of mating the Sauger with the Walleye. The crossbreeding can occur in the wild, but is mostly the result of purposeful mixing of the species in fish hatcheries. As a hybrid, the saugeye has the advantage of “hybrid vigor,” growing larger than the Sauger parent. In Pennsylvania, the saugeye is stocked in a few waters that are in the natural range of the Sauger, in the southwest part of the state.
Saugeyes have variable body markings and coloration, but generally look like the Sauger, with saddles and blotches more subdued. In saugeyes, membranes of the spinous dorsal fin have distinct spots similar to those of a Sauger. A black blotch is also usually present at the posterior base of the spinous dorsal fin, like the Walleye. In saugeyes, a white spot is usually present at the tip of the lower caudal fin, also similar to Walleyes.
Like most hybrids, the saugeye’s habitat preferences are similar to its parents, tending to survive best in turbid water. Saugeyes offer anglers an opportunity to catch a Walleye-sized fish in habitats suited best for Saugers.
Almost all saugeyes begin life in a fish hatchery, where the eggs of one parent, either a Walleye or Sauger, are mixed with the milt of the other. In its spawning urge, it behaves similarly to its parents, and its feeding habits are about the same, feeding mainly on fish and insects.
Walleyes are native to central North America and Canada, including the Ohio River and Great Lakes watersheds. Popular sport fish, they have been extensively stocked. In Pennsylvania they are now found throughout the state, including the Susquehanna and Delaware River watersheds, as well as their original Allegheny River and Lake Erie watershed homes. One of the Walleye’s nicknames is “Susquehanna salmon.” It has also been called “yellow pike” and even “pickerel.” All these nicknames put it in the wrong fish family–it’s neither a pike cousin nor a salmon. It’s the biggest, toothiest member of the perch family. The name “Walleye” refers to the fish’s large, milky eye that looks luminous when light is shined on it. The eye has a reflecting membrane behind the retina, which causes this effect. The species name “vitreum” means “glassy,” and refers to the luminous eye.
Identification: Walleyes have a long, roundish body, a forked tail and sharp canine teeth in their jaws. The large eye is glassy and reflects light at night. The dorsal fin is separated into two parts, the front portion with 12 to 16 spines, the rear portion with one or two short spines and the rest, soft rays. The anal fin has one or two spines.
Walleyes vary in color, ranging from a bluish gray to olive-brown to golden-yellow, with dark-on-light mottling. Side scales may be flecked with gold. Irregular spots on the sides can join to make a vague barred pattern. The belly is light-colored or white.
One way to distinguish a Walleye from its cousin, the Sauger, is to look for the Walleye’s dark spot at the rear edge of the front (spiny) section of its dorsal fin. Also, on the Walleye, the lower portion of the tail fin is whitish, and so is the bottom margin of its anal fin.
Walleyes live in large lakes, big streams and rivers. They are rarely found in lakes smaller than 50 to 100 acres. Walleyes are abundant in water that is cool and moderately deep, with a gravelly, sandy or rocky bottom. They tolerate turbid and clear water conditions. Walleyes also need relatively cool water, where summer temperatures do not exceed 85 degrees. They use extensive gravel or rubble areas for spawning, and typically inhabit lakes or rivers that have expansive areas deeper than 10 feet.
Walleyes travel, feed and spawn in schools. They range widely in their home lakes or rivers. Walleyes are one of the first fish to spawn in the spring, sometimes even before the ice has completely melted from the surface or around the shoreline. They return year after year to their spawning sites, sometimes traveling a long distance, so they truly make a “spawning run.” The spawning site may be rocky or gravelly shoals or shallows in a lake or river cove at the base of dams or riffles, or the Walleyes may travel up a tributary stream to spawn over flooded marsh grass.
The females move into the spawning area first, when water temperatures reach 45 to 50 degrees. The eggs are scattered randomly. The females spawn with several males, usually at night. Eggs are commonly deposited where there is some water movement, whether from stream flow or wave action near the edges of the lake. After they are extruded, the eggs fall into protective spaces in the rocks and gravel. Walleye eggs hatch in about 12 to 18 days, depending on water temperature. Females produce 25,000 eggs per pound of body weight, so a single large female could spawn 500,000 minute eggs or more. When they hatch, Walleye fry are about a half-inch long and paper-thin. At first they drift about, absorbing the yolk sac.
Young Walleyes feed on microscopic animals, or zooplankton. When they reach several inches long, Walleyes switch to other small fish as their primary food. Like the adults, they spend much of their time in deep water, moving closer to shore during mornings and evenings to feed. Typically, adult Walleyes feed at dusk during the cooler months and at night during the summer. In turbid water, Walleyes can be active during the day. The light-reflective coating behind the Walleye’s retinas, which gives the eye the glowing appearance, is an adaptation to feeding at night and in dim light. Walleyes are often the top predator fish in their habitat, eating other fishes, as well as frogs, crayfish and large insect larvae.
Walleyes can grow to 36 inches. The state record is over 17 pounds. Although Walleyes can be caught at any time of day, night fishing or fishing the dim depths with live bait or fishlike lures and jigs is effective for catching Walleyes.
Walleye feature page
Tippecanoe Darter Etheostoma tippecanoe
Bluebreast Darter Etheostoma camurum
Gilt Darter Percina evides
Spotted Darter Etheostoma maculatum
Eastern Sand Darter Ammocrypta pellucida
Eastern Sand Darter (PDF)
Longhead Darter Percina macrocephala
Rainbow Darter Etheostoma caeruleum