Michigan's unique and rare fishes

By Scott Hanshue, fisheries biologist out of Plainwell

While most anglers and conservationists are aware of Michigan’s living dinosaur, the lake sturgeon, many are unaware of the other unique and rare species that inhabit the waters of Michigan. Several of these animals are identified in the 2015-2020 Michigan Wildlife Action Plan as needing extra conservation efforts to ensure their continued survival.  

The Wildlife Action Plan was developed with conservation partners to prioritize at-risk species and their habitats. The plan identifies threats to the species and provides several actions to promote their conservation. The Wildlife Action Plan includes 15 mini-plans, each with a specific focus on habitat and other key issues that may be affecting wildlife species in that habitat type. Six of the mini-plans focus on Michigan’s aquatic resources. 

Here are some examples of Michigan’s lesser known fishes and the habitats they call home. Who knows, you just may encounter one ore more of these species while you’re out fishing this summer!

Warmwater Streams and their Headwaters
Warmwater stream and their headwaters are important features on the Michigan landscape providing habitat not only for popular gamefish such as smallmouth bass and channel catfish, but also for rare and unique fishes such as the redside dace, orangethroat darter and southern redbelly dace.

up-close of a redside daceThe redside dace is an elongated minnow with a dark crimson band on its side and prominent lower jaw. These small fish eat insects and their large mouths enable then to catch flying insects by leaping out of the water. The rely on cool clear pool habitats in headwater streams. Redside dace are state endangered and are now limited to three native populations in Southeast Michigan.

up-close of orangethroat darterOrangethroat darters are a colorful members of the perch family. The brightly colored males have an orange throat and belly and orange and blue markings on the body and fins. This species is adapted to life on the stream bottom and relies on shallow gravel riffles in the headwaters of creeks. The orangethroat darter has undergone serious declines and is limited to three watersheds in the southeast portion of the state.

The southern redbelly dace is a small-bodied minnow with red or yellow sides and two dark lateral stripes. This species is only found in clear, cool shaded headwater streams with overhanging vegetation and undercut banks. The southern redbelly dace are a state endangered species that were formerly known from 10 locations. Recent survey work shows their populations have been reduced to three or fewer populations.

close-up of southern redbelly dace





Inland Cisco Lakes
up-close of a ciscoMany anglers are familiar with cisco (formerly known as lake herring) that inhabit the deep waters of lakes Michigan and Superior but may be unaware that these fish are also found in some of Michigan’s inland lakes. Inland cisco lakes are unique, high quality and relatively fragile resources. Although these lakes are distributed throughout the state, nearly half are in southern Michigan. Cisco lakes are characterized as cold and deep with narrow nearshore areas and steep drop-offs.

Cisco are members of the whitefish family and require clean, cold, well oxygenated waters. Cisco are a slender silvery fish with pink to purple iridescence. In Inland waters, adult cisco range in size from eight to 16 inches with highly variable body shapes. Cisco have been reported from approximately 153 inland lakes although several populations have been lost to habitat degradation and the introduction of exotic species. Cisco are a currently identified as threatened in Michigan.

Big Rivers
These are Michigan’s largest rivers and include watershed more than 300 square miles. These large landscape systems are among the most biologically diverse systems in the state owing to the wide range of habitats they provide. These rivers support Michigan’s trout and salmon fisheries, provide anglers with opportunities to catch walleye and smallmouth bass, and contain dozens of lesser known fish species.

close-up of river redhorseRiver redhorse is the largest of six redhorse suckers found in Michigan. Adults can attain lengths of more than 30 inches, exceed 10 pounds, and live for more than 25 years. River redhorse are one of three Michigan redhorse species with red fins and can be confused with greater redhorse and shorthead redhorse. River redhorse are associated with clean water and river bottoms free of silt. The river redhorse occurs in the Muskegon, Grand and St. Joseph river watersheds.

Want to learn even more about the species in Michigan’s Wildlife Action Plan? Check it out online for more details.