"Redhorse are beauties to behold, too-perfectly scaled packages of sunset gold and vibrant red, with eyes dark and deep..."
- Doug Stange, In-Fishermen , March 2011
As a National Park Service Ranger for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway I am asked many questions. How much longer until the next campsite? What's that bird up there with the white belly? Are there bears around here? On this particular warm August day, one question really stood out. I was at Stinnett Landing on the Namekagon River, it had been a dry hot summer and the water levels were low. While wading through the low water a fisherman waved me down and asked, "Back a little ways I caught a rough fish with red fins, should I have thrown it on the banks?" There is no doubt this angler wanted to do whatever was best for the river, what he did not know was that "rough fish with red fins" was actually a redhorse sucker, one of the most misunderstood fish in the river.
All redhorse species are members of the sucker family (Maxostoma), characterized by a large horizontal mouth that is directed downwards. There are six species of redhorse sucker found in the state of Wisconsin, including three that are common and widespread and three that are currently state listed species.
To learn more about the distribution, health, and age of the redhorse in the Namekagon River, the Wisconsin DNR conducted a sampling study in 2009 and 2010 at many locations along the river. They found the Namekagon River contains five species of redhorse, including:
Greater redhorse - state threatened
River redhorse - state threatened
Silver redhorse - common
Shorthead redhorse - common
Golden redhorse - common
The greater redhorse and river redhorse are sensitive to siltation and low water quality in rivers; their presence is a good sign for the health of the river. In fact, the results from this and other studies have led biologists to propose removal of the Greater redhorse from the state threatened list. During this study scientists also found the most common species of redhorse in the river is the golden redhorse, while the silver and river redhorse hold the title for longest lived, reaching ages over twenty years.
Although, this study increased the knowledge of redhorse suckers in the Namekagon River, there is still much to learn. Scientists will continue to study and monitor these fish increasing our understanding of their importance to the river system. So next time you see one of these "rough fish" under your canoe, at the end of your fishing pole, or just poking around at a landing; remember how lucky we are to have such a beautiful fish swimming in our river.