7/27/2017 1:58:00 PM Call me Nerd: The story of a fish obsessed man
The beginning of Moby Dick starts with "Call me Ishmael." It is a story is about a man obsessed with chasing a whale.
My story starts with: "Call me Nerd." It's a newspaper column about man obsessed with chasing a minuscule fish.
I chase Darters.
If you weren't aware, the darter is a tiny fish that lives in the bottom of streams, most typically in rocky riffles. If you wade local creeks, you've probably seen them as flitting little shadows that most people simply dismiss as "minnows."
Darters are members of the perch tribe. They are slim, low-slung fish that spend the majority of their time sitting on the bottom of the creek on their pectoral fins, waiting for tasty morsels to float by on the current. They move with quick, short bursts of speed while chasing food, hence their common name.
There are about 30 species of darter in Indiana according to experts. The problem is the tiny fish live in a variety of habitats and are difficult to catch. In fact, a 2008 study found that several "endangered" species were actually widespread once the researchers learned better methods of finding the miniscule fish.
That's the background. Now to the obvious question: "What's wrong with you??"
Plenty, actually, but I was referring to this question: "Why are you obsessed with darters?"
There are several reasons. First, I like unusual flora and fauna. I've chased wild orchids in Indiana, climbed high into the Smoky Mountains to catch native brook trout and risked death by cottonmouth in a Florida swamp just to glimpse carnivorous plants. During that last adventure, I dragged along a couple of family members, and they still haven't yet forgiven me for enriching their biological knowledge.
The main reason I am intrigued by these fish was an incident a few years ago. I was wading in my favorite creek in springtime and briefly stumbled in an ankle-deep rapid. Suddenly a small panicked fish leapt out of the water, fleeing my crushing foot, and landed on a small rock. It flopped around for a moment then dropped back into the water, never to be seen again.
However, those five seconds shocked me. The underside of the fish was vivid sky blue, accented by improbable orange and blue stripes along the tail and crowned by bright-striped dorsal fin. It looked to be a tropical fish, suddenly dropped into an April Indiana creek.
The whole short incident intrigued me so much that I turned around and headed home to research what I had apparently, possibly, could have, might have seen.
It turned out that the whole thing was relatively unremarkable. I had merely kicked up a rainbow darter in full breeding attire.
However, learning this didn't sate my curiosity but rather ignited a spark. I begin reading about darters, learning about the habits and how to collect them. I found that some people considered them "the most gaudily-colored freshwater fish in America." I discovered that some people even keep them in aquariums. In spite of their diminutive size, I was hooked.
And, of course, it didn't stop there. Shortly thereafter I spent a day building a Plexiglas specimen container for photography. The next morning, I quickly headed back to the creek where I knew the fish were holding court.
Wading into the field of play, I deftly wielded my long-handled Florida bait net to seine a small gravel rapid. I naively assumed success would be mine within one or two passes.
It didn't work out that way. Let's just say that it would have been easier to build a whaling ship by hand rather than all the effort expended stumbling up and down the creek trying to capture a stupid, insignificant fish nobody knows about.
Gripped by obsession yet on the verge of giving up, I decided to try one more full-frontal assault on my now-hated adversary. This time I was even more aggressive, pushing the net hard along the bottom and against the current until I thought it would break. Exhausted after just ten yards, I quickly raised the net high above the water in one swift motion and there, along with a large collection of rounded pebbles, I saw a tiny flapping motion.
I had finally caught my first darter! Gently wrestling the fish out of the net with a trembling hand, it was plopped unceremoniously into my photography rig and I quickly realized that, hope against hope, it was a male rainbow darter! How glorious! Madness had been rewarded!
After making his photo debut, the sullen but handsome Mr. Darter was carefully placed back into the creek to continue his life unfettered, albeit with a really good story.
That's my story of obsession, and I'm now recruiting a full crew to continue the pursuit.
Anyone named Ishmael need not apply.
Brent T. Wheat
Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.