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story.lead_photo.caption Missouri's creeks and rivers aren't just home to large game fish such as catfish — they also host a veritable rainbow of fascinating small fish. A creek such as Tavern Creek in Callaway County could host anything from killifish to minnows or darters to madtoms. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

Missouri anglers thrill in catching the big one.

But Missouri Department of Conservation naturalist Alan Reed argues the little fishes deserve appreciation, too.

"My dad used to call them 'minners,'" Reed said. "But there's more out there than just minnows."

Reed gave a virtual presentation Tuesday about Missouri's colorful small fish. Many of those fish are a nondescript brown or grey for most of the year, but when breeding season rolls around, the males brighten into miniature rainbows.

"They actually rival many of the tropical fish," Reed said.

Most of Missouri's small fish — including minnows, sculpins, topminnows, darters, perches, madtoms and more — prefer small to midsized, well-oxygenated streams with plenty of cover and plenty of food. They're more common in southern Missouri, but a number of species occur in mid-Missouri as well, he said.

"If you can get out and snorkel or wade or seine you can see lots of these little fish," he added.

A few species found in Callaway County or nearby include:

The fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas): These minnows grow up to three inches long. In breeding season, a male develop yellowish bars encircling its body and a fleshy pad atop its head. They're found in small prairie streams and intermittent pools in northern Missouri.

Red shiner (Cyprinella lutrensis): Northern Missouri's most common minnow, these fish flash silvery-blue and range in size from 1.8-3 inches. Males' fins turn orange during breeding season. They're found in streams of all sizes but particularly large creeks and rivers.

Creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus): Missouri's largest native minnow, the creek chub can grow up to 12 inches long. They're distinguished by black blotch on their tail fin and in front of their dorsal fin (the fin on their back). They're widely distributed but most common in intermittent creeks.

Mottled sculpin (Cottus bairdii): Reed described it as the "chameleon of fish world." Mottled sculpins can shift their patterns to blend in with the streambed. Like most sculpins, they have a large mouth and a flattened head; their pectoral fins (the ones extending from the chest region) are large and fan-shaped. Lacking swim bladders, they're strict bottom-dwellers. The mottled sculpin occurs in the Osage, Gasconade and Meramec systems, and in small tributaries to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the northern and eastern Ozarks.

Slender madtom (Noturus exilis): When most Missourians think of catfish, they think of big blue or channel cats, Reed said. But Missouri also has several miniature catfish known as "madtoms." Active mainly at night, they have the classic catfish "whiskers" and venomous pectoral spines. Slender madtoms are 3-5 inches long and have a long rectangular profile.

Longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis): Many are familiar with sunfish and bluegills because they're tasty and eager to bite bait. But, Reed noted, they're also beautiful in breeding season. Male longear sunfish are mottled with turquoise and orange, rivalling tropical fish for color.

Western mosquitofish (Cambusia affinis): Silvery and shaped like a guppy, with a bulbous belly and a pointed face, mosquitofish range in size from 1.2-2.8 inches. They're excellent for mosquito control, feeding on mosquito larvae and other small insects. They're also Missouri's only livebearing fish — they don't lay eggs but instead give birth, Reed said. They prefer shallow areas with warm water.

Orangethroat darter (Etheostoma spectabile): "Darters are called the hummingbirds of the Ozark streams," Reed said. "When you watch them, they dart around." The orangethroat darner's name comes from the breeding male's bright orange gills. Breeding males are flamboyant, with alternating blue-green bars and red blotches; the fins are banded and spotted by blue-green and red.

Several of the above have been spotted in Owl Creek and Cedar Creek in the western part of the county, according to a conservation area management plan for Little Dixie Lake Conservation Area. They might also be found in any number of other streams around Callaway County.

Some of Reed's favorites are restricted to the southern part of the state — but based on Reed's descriptions, they're worth seeking out during visits in the area. These include the southern redbelly dace, the rainbow darter and the studfish.

Reed also mentioned a few fish that live only in a few streams in Missouri, such as the Niangua darter — found only in a few tributaries of the Osage River, including in Cole County. Mostly yellowish-olive with dark cross-bars, males develop an orange-red belly and a serise of iridescent blue-green bars down their sides.

"He lives no place else in the world but right here in Missouri," Reed said. "That's what's so interesting and significant about some of these little fish: They're found nowhere else in the world."

Reed said there are a few things locals can do to help protect Missouri's fascinating small fish. Landowners with streams on their property can work to protect and enhance those streams and the surrounding land. Missourians can advocate for adequate funding for the MDC and federal fish and wildlife protection programs.

"Also, don't dump things into streams," Reed added.

To view and register for upcoming MDC virtual events, visit

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