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Golden Shiners

By Bob Lusk

Of course, I put it in a bucket half-full of creek water, and took it home to see if dad knew what it was.

Adult golden shiners captured in upstate New York. Photo courtesy Mark Cornwell.

I remember as a kid fishing a shallow, nearby creek, with a hunk of red wiggler on a bream hook about 18” under a big red and white bobber. It was easy to tell when a hand-sized green sunfish was accepting that offering. The bobber would stand straight up, and then disappear. Sometimes though, it flitted, like it was being slapped around under those fertile waters. But, seems ‘ol sensitive thumbs here, couldn’t catch that flitter.

Finally, when the moon was right, and I was distracted just enough to wait for the fish to actually take the bait in its little mouth, I caught my first golden shiner. Had no idea what that thing was. It was about seven inches long, bright golden fins, and had shiny silver with gold tinges on its sides.

Of course, I put it in a bucket half-full of creek water, and took it home to see if dad knew what it was.

“That’s a shiner, son.” Dad explained that it was a baitfish, and that was as big as it gets. Actually, he said he’d never seen one any bigger than that.

I thought I’d caught a baby. I’d actually caught a beast.

Golden shiners are members of the Cyprinidae family, true minnows.

Some fifty years later, I advise people how to use them beyond the obvious bait bucket.

It’s common to receive a call from someone asking advice about stocking golden shiners as forage fish for their fishing lake.

My favorite part of the question usually revolves around this question, “Are golden shiners good or bad for my pond?”

Here’s your first takeaway point. Learn as much as you can about each species you plan to introduce. Compare that to your pond and your goals, and if it’s a fit, do it. If not, don’t.

In order to yield to that advice, you need knowledge. So, here’s to the golden shiner, probably the species most sold by bait dealers across the nation (except Maine).

 

Typical golden shiners sold at the bait store. Photo courtesy Dave Beasley.

Odds are, if you stop by a bait shop to buy some minnows, especially in the south, as well as along the eastern seaboard and areas in the Midwest, you’ll leave with an oxygenated bag or bucket with a few dozen golden shiners. Odds are even higher that when you get those golden shiners, they were raised in Arkansas. Arkansas raises more than 60% of the nation’s fish for bait, and golden shiners top that list.

 

With a tiny mouth, golden shiners seem like a pretty good fit in your pond. They feed like a teenage boy; scientists use the word omnivorous. They prefer meat, and with a tiny mouth can’t eat large morsels. So, they’ll graze on veggies if they have to.

They spawn in springtime, laying eggs once. But, they may lay as many as 200,000 eggs at a time. I’ll always remember my treks to the big hatcheries in Arkansas way back in the 1980’s during the spawn. Hatchery workers had small trailers, loaded with devices that reminded me of swamp cooler filters—metal fencing sandwiching what looked like straw. Actually, they used flat, de-husked Spanish moss mats, held together between three-foot squares of thin wire cattle-panel-looking material.

Workers put those mats along the edge of breeding ponds and then check them every day during the spawn. When they were covered with eggs, hatchery workers would collect the mats, keep them wet, and quickly transfer them to hatching ponds, where the baby minnows could hatch and grow large enough to become bait.

Golden shiner behavior has been interesting to me, especially when trying to figure out if they are good or bad for a pond fish population.

They travel in schools of like-size fish. They are quick, can avoid predation, and that’s why we often see them grow to seven inches. While a seven inch golden shiner is huge, they’ll actually grow larger than that. Over the years, I’ve seen a few that were 9-10” long, but those are rare.

Back in those early days, in the 80’s, I remember asking a hatchery owner why they moved the eggs from the brood pond into grow out ponds. His explanation made good sense. There were three basic reasons. First, they’d more likely have a uniform-sized crop to sell early on. Secondly, they wanted the fry to hatch in highly fertile water, so survival rates could be high. Third, they didn’t want the adult brood fish to eat many of the youngsters shortly after hatching.

Eat the youngsters?

Remember the word omnivorous?

Golden shiners are predators, limited by mouth size. That’s another takeaway point in your decision-making.

 

A net full of golden shiners set for stocking in a sport fish lake. Photo courtesy Dave Beasley.

Another interesting factoid about golden shiners is their spawning habits. They prefer to lay their sticky eggs on grassy substrate along the pond edge and then go away, with no parental care at all. But, they’ve also reportedly been known to raid nests of other species, especially sunfish, deposit some eggs, and skedaddle, the grackles of the underwater-world.

 

There are several facts about golden shiners, which make me selective about using them in fishing lakes. The nest raider situation is first. If they are predators, and they raid nests, it makes sense to me that they’ll eat some baby fish. If they reproduce more than they eat, then that might be a good offset—or maybe not. Fact Two, they effectively escape predation. They are little underwater rockets, running in schools. They tend to frequent the same waters as bluegill and redear sunfish, so schools of shiners tend to compete for space and food. You can influence that somewhat with a fish feeder and high quality fish food. But, to this day, I’ve never seen a population of golden shiners overtake a pond—never, zero times.

That might be partly due to Factoid Three. There’s this tiny, little ovarian parasite that rocks the world of golden shiners, and those people who produce them. Ovipleistophora ovariae is a parasite, of the class Microsporea. When it infects the ovaries of golden shiners, which it typically does after the fish spawn their first time, fecundity rates plummet, and usually by more than 40%. By the second year, most female golden shiners are functionally sterile. If the fish lives much longer than that, they are taking up space without offering much in return, such as adding to the food chain.

That’s why I tend to be picky about recommending them.

A former mentor and I used to argue about using golden shiners. He used them in sport fishing ponds without reservation. He believed they added to the diversity of biomass to grow huge bass. That man grew some huge bass.

I wasn’t convinced shiners were significant in that quest.

He used them, especially in ponds and lakes that tend to draw down, which is typical in arid parts of the nation, and where he lived in near-west Texas.

It started making some sense to me. In ponds that draw down, golden shiners can spawn once and have lots of eggs each spring when water is highest. Then, as the pond level drops, their resilience is such they can survive. Bluegill don’t reproduce well in falling water, since their beds are soon exposed as dry land. Shiners are survivors. Fall rains come, then spring rains, the pond fills again, shiners do what shiners do, and the cycle continued.

So, if you want a fish that spawns a lot (once a year), depends on annual survival of its young to perpetuate the species, a fish that runs in schools that tempt your game fish, a fish that tends to survive the ups and downs of rain-no-rain, and one that loves to eat meat, but can make a living from the garden, then golden shiners can be a good choice. They certainly diversify the fishery and fill a niche that overlaps with your sunfish.

Oh, the comment about no shiners in Maine? That’s a funny state, Maine. Bluegills are against the law—and they keep shiners out legally due to that little bitty ovarian parasite.

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