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Fallfish: Brute of the Blue Lines

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

In the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains resides a native species that goes toe to toe with its stocked adversary, the Trout. In many streams and rivers the Fallfish has managed a strong foundation and has remained a constant member of the aquatic community despite the introduction of non-native species. Like clockwork, every Fall state agencies begin their annual trout stocking campaign for anglers, and every Spring a large majority of those fish are gone, filling freezers across the land. But one species in particular remains, the Fallfish. They fight as hard as any jumbo trout, perhaps even harder. But their lack for table fare has allowed them to be released when caught and fly under the radar for most anglers with harvest on the mind. This has allowed the species to reproduce and maintain healthy numbers in spite of the influx of competition in the cooler months. The Fallfish are the largest minnow species East of the Mississippi and make for a fun fight on light tackle regardless of if you were searching for them or not.

"The author with his world record catch"

Range

The native range of the Fallfish is along the East Coast from the James River in Virginia and North up to the James Bay in Canada. So, from the James to the James. In their southern range they are found mostly in rivers and streams, and in their northern range they are often found in lakes as well as moving water. The IGFA world record for the species is a tie at 3 pounds 9 ounces, one specimen is from New York, and one is from Virginia. This is a testament to the ability for the species to thrive throughout its range and reach its maximum size in both the cool, deep lakes of the north and the swift, shallow streams of the south.

"A truly remarkable specimen, the new IGFA record."

Habitat

An established Fallfish population means a healthy ecosystem. They are what’s known as a keystone species. This means Fallfish are a good indicator of what the water quality of a stream may be. They require extremely clean and clear water to thrive. The majority of the places you will find them are pristine mountain flows with cool clear water in almost every case. The serenity of the mountain landscape alone is almost enough to justify a fishing trip for them, but about the time you really begin taking in the scenery is when one of these brutes will show up to the party.

"The Fallfish name derives from the currents and splash basins located below falls. "

When searching for Fallfish, look for them to be adjacent to the fast moving water. They will either utilize eddies created by boulders or simply stick to the bottom in the deepest hole in the area. They’ll sit close to the swift water, eating whatever food may get washed past them, but they prefer to stay just out of that current. Tackle

Tackle selection for these fish is about as broad as you can imagine. Fallfish are opportunistic feeders, therefore, they will actively eat everything from a tiny dry fly to a crankbait. However, scented baits and moving baits with flash seem to work the best. A trout spinner such as a Joe’s Fly or a Mepps work really well for when they are in a more aggressive mood, especially around the spawn in Spring. When they aren’t actively feeding they can be coaxed into striking using artificial scented bait such as Powerbait or Gulp. Natural baits like nightcrawlers or red wigglers are always a great option regardless of what type of mood they are in. Fly anglers can target Fallfish effectively using bright colored egg patterns, Kreelex style streamers, and the classic Wooly Bugger style flies. As you are probably starting to realize, the focus isn’t so much on what to throw as it is simply getting a bait near the fish you are targeting. If they see it, chances are they’ll eat it.

When it comes to rod and reels, an ultra light set up is going to give you the most fun when targeting these fish. A 1000 series reel paired with 6lb mono or 5-10lb braid will give you the best casting distance when throwing lighter baits. I typically run a light flourocarbon leader from the mainline to the bait, about 4 foot long. This helps with a little extra invisibility when dealing with the ultra clear water that Fallfish are found in. For rods, I like a 6 to 7 foot ultra light to light action rod. Spawning

"The rosy red cheeks of a spawning Fallfish"

During the breeding season they will change from their normal silver coloration into a brassy sheen with a rosy complexion on their cheeks and down the midsection of their body along the lateral line. The males will grow “tubercles” around their eyes and snout. Tubercles resemble horns or spikes and are used for the mating process and for defending the nest from larger intruders. Fallfish are the architect and construction worker of the underwater world. They dig spawning nests by clearing small gravel away to create a pit and then they depositing larger stones on the upriver side of the nest to create a ridge or current break. They are somewhat unique in that they will actually carry suitable stones in their mouths a considerable distance to then deposit them around their nest. They take great care in constructing the best possible spawning habitat to ensure their young survive. Fallfish share a special relationship with the smaller fish in their environment during this time. They will share the spawning nest they make with smaller minnow species in a mutual beneficial relationship. These “nest associates” take advantage of the clean gravel in the pit to deposit their own eggs amongst the Fallfish eggs. In return, the larger Fallfish is now surrounded by smaller prey specimens and their eggs for potential predators to eat, thus deterring and limiting the predation upon their own eggs.

In Closing Fallfish are a great species for new anglers to experience the joys of fishing. The majority of the time they are willing to strike and are ferotious fighters once you hook one. They have been known to save many trout anglers from a “skunk” trip and are easily appreciated if you take the time to do so. Fallfish are the original apex predators for the streams they inhabit, and they should be appreciated as such. Go out and catch one today!

Josh Dolin



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