We live by lakes, rivers and ponds of creatures trying to survive. Here is how it starts:
Tiny fish like shad and newborn bass, crappie, bluegill and catfish feed on zooplankton, organisms that have animal-like traits. The biggest are only five millimeters long and the smallest are just one-thousandth of this size, almost invisible to the human eye.
They float, drift or weakly swim in the water. According to Wikipedia, the name plankton comes from the Greek word ‘planktos’ which means “wanderer” or “drifter.” Big zooplankton eats smaller zooplankton and smaller fish eat the larger organisms.
Eventually our smaller fish grow and start dining on insects. You may note rings on the surface when the lake is calm. That is hapless insects landing on the water and being devoured by fish. Bigger fish, too, eat their share of insects, especially trout.
I have watched big bass come completely out of the water chasing a dragonfly or some other flying insect and fly-fishing anglers catch trout or many other predatory fish on insect imitations. Watch a grasshopper try to swim across a pool filled with hungry fish. They generally don’t reach the shore.
Rains wash in worms and insects for fish to dine on. We once found a bunch of green worms on a mulberry tree that had limbs hanging over a pond. Several good catfish were caught on the worms, and when that supply ran out, the mulberries caught a few more cats. Their stomach contents were purple from feasting on the sweet berries. Several small fish that no doubt stopped by for an easily meal were no doubt shocked to become an easy meal.
Big predatory fish eat smaller fish in big numbers, the reason we don’t have stunted fish in many of our lakes. Shad clouds and small bluegill, crappie or bass offer a floating supermarket for bigger fish. Bass and other predators love to blast through small fish schools.
Two of my grandchildren got to see this sight recently. They are both very young and everything is “awesome” to them, but this time even their mother was impressed, as was I.
The commotion started out in a lake with white splashes on the surface. The shallow water by where we fished almost turned black as a school of minnows moved past. Then, right in front of our eyes, three nice bass busted through the school while breaking the surface and sending minnows and water droplets in the air. The massive school of minnows seemed to drift into more shallow water while the bass repeated their attack. The school soon moved to deeper water and the bass followed.
Bass love to bust through a school of minnows and knock out or kill several. Then they casually swim deeper and collect the dazed or injured minnow that are helplessly floating down. Other aggressive game fish like strippers and white bass effectively use this crippling technique.
I noticed at least a dozen bass early one morning in the shallow end of a lake cove, clearly following a cloud of minnows. No doubt walleye and catfish were nearby, hanging under the schools and feeding whenever possible. Predators are opportunists.
Schools of minnows and other food sources in our lakes, ponds or streams equal quality fishing. Growth rates of quality fish are partly determined by available forage. Clouds of minnows or schools of gizzard shad you see splashing around are swimming opportunities for our predator fish. In fact, the surface-splashing shad are likely being chased by bigger fish. This is especially evident when you see them jumping out of the water.
There are many ways for bait fish to enter our lakes, but the odds are their ancestors were washed in through an adjoining creek or river. They may have escaped from minnow buckets or someone may have dumped live minnows after their fishing day was finished – not a recommended practice by knowledgeable conservationists. High water in past years may have even washed them in from almost anywhere.
The fact is that the small fish are here with the crawfish, insects and other critters that bass, catfish, walleye, crappie, bluegill and even trout feed on. Great forage means no stunted fish of any species and years of great angling.
Smaller fish, too, are eaten by a wild variety of predators. I once watched a snake swimming across the surface of a cove with a small bullhead catfish sideways in its mouth. A variety of birds like cranes will eat smaller fish too.
Under the surface, crawfish occasionally leave their rock sanctuaries in search of food. Crawfish eat plants, materials and dead animals. These unique creatures have two sets of legs for walking on the lake bottom. Their pincers are used to tear off food and hold it while eating. Bigger crawfish use their pincers to fight off predators planning to make them a meal.
Bass, walleye and big catfish love to devour crawfish of all sizes. Note that big bass and catfish will, too, eat small turtles, snakes, an occasional baby duck and about anything small in the water.
Surviving in a lake full of predatory fish means being a feeding opportunist or a feeding opportunity. Fish love easy meals – just another reason why we were lucky not to be born as fish.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.