Kyle is one of those old-fashioned kids who have no apparent interest in the trappings of the modern age. I guess I’ve known him since he was around eight or nine years of age, but it’s hard to tell. Apart from height he has not changed much and is ageless in a very good way. He delights in stomping through the reeds hunting frogs, handling turtles, and fishing. He especially likes fishing – simple fishing with simple gear. In another age he would have been called Tom Sawyer. I could always depend on him to come up with a constant stream of live specimens for the museum. Now that he’s in high school, I can still depend on him.
He and his friend, Huck, (not his real name but it might as well be) have been spending quite a bit of time engaged in night fishing on the River Raisin in downtown Monroe. Two weeks ago he came in and described a fish that they caught one hot summer night in the riffled shallows. “I think it might have been one of those Madtoms,” he said in reference to another fish I introduced to him some time ago,” but it was kinda yellow and about 8 inches long.” Recognizing that Madtoms don’t get nearly that big and that if they did they would become Angry Toms, I proposed that it must have been a Stonecat. He looked at the picture and agreed.
Given that I’d never actually seen a Stonecat before, I asked him what became of it. Unfortunately, he said, they put it in a friend’s aquarium and it died. “The dead fish,” I asked, “what did you do with that?” “Threw it out,” he replied regretfully (only in Kyles’ world does such a statement become regretful). I wished him luck on his further fishing adventures and off-handedly suggested that next time he captured one that he bring it in. “Dead or alive, rotten or fresh” I quipped. I should have known better than that.
The following week, “Tom and Huck” walked through the door with a bucket containing a very live Stonecat. Although neither will admit it, I believe the two fished every hot sweltering night for a week in order to get me one of “those fish.” I would have felt guilty except that I know they loved every minute of it! “Huck” had even photographed the thing on his cell phone to show its true colors in case it died.
At this point, my narrative needs to shift on to the fish itself before I run out of internet cyber space – or whatever you call it. I just wanted you to know that this catfish moment belongs to Kyle.
Stonecats are not terribly rare, but these diminutive members of the cat-fish family, which rarely get over 10 inches in length, are often over looked. They appear to be young bullheads at first, second, and even third glance. Most probably get thrown back without further thought. Like bullheads, they are nocturnal bottom feeders with “taste-sensitive” whiskers and sharp fin barbs. They are much flatter and pointier than bullheads, however, with pop-eyes and a continuous fin around the entire back end of the body like a tadpole (see below). In reference to this last feature, their scientific name Noturus flavus literally means “yellow fish with a tail over the back.”
Held within my hand, the creature looked and felt strangely frog-like (see here) . Not only was it scale-less, but this cat was extremely slimy and very hard to hold. Also, like any good cat, this one could scratch. It nabbed me without even blinking one of its googley eyes. There is a stout sharp spine at the leading edge of each pectoral, or side, fin. A narrow channel in the spine conducts a mild dose of venom which creates a distinct stinging sensation when injected. This is a predator defense tactic. I was injected, if only slightly, in the process of handling the fish. You can see the tiny blood spot on my hand in the portrait picture below. Fortunately, this little prick didn’t cause anything other than a short recurrence of Tourette’s Syndrome in this human. The fish died the next day.
At any rate, it’s good to know that there are Stonecats living in the River Raisin. At Kyle’s fishing location, the river runs very shallow and fast over a bottom of natural rocks and pebbles. This is prime Stonecat habitat. The lower stretch of this river has seen some issues with pollution, especially where it exits out into the waters of Lake Erie, and their presence there is a positive biological health indicator.
Here’s to Kyle, Huck, and the riffling Stonecats of the River Raisin.