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home : columns : ron kuecker
August 5, 2020

7/1/2020 3:35:00 PM
The lateral line, a fish's sixth sense

Ron Kuecker
Outdoors Columnist

Running down each side of a fish's body is a sixth sense, so to speak. We all know our five senses; touch, hearing, sight, taste and smell. But in the fish family and some stages of amphibians, another sense is present. It's called the lateral line.
Maybe a better name might be motion detector.
I was recently reminded of it as we "catfished" with Del and Shirley Wehrspenn of Montevideo. They served up to the three generations of us Kuecker boys an early evening of fun fishing. Oh, the serving on a platter would come a few days later. But the first serving was the best, a steady tug on the line behind a jig and a crawler.
Wow, those one- to two-pound catfish can fight when against a Minnesota River current, even with the flow and depth being down this late June. No quick reel in and toss in the boat like those bass tourney guys. Let those cats fight as they go side to side, maybe even surface before they go deep and struggle against the seven-foot rods.
No hurry, it's too much fun. We tossed back a couple of three- to four-pound redhorse suckers, even caught a freshwater drum, called s sheepshead because from the side the entire fish looks like a sheep's head. We each kept five of the eight to nine cats we caught in two hours.
In a first-person book about catfishing in the Illinois River, borrowed from Jim Foreman, those one-pound catfish were illegally saved by the locals. Wardens turned their heads to that small indiscretion because it was a ritual in that area to catch a batch of them for a Friday night fry at a local pub. The favorite beer of that era was Pabst Blue Ribbon, so those tasty small catfish became known as "Blue Ribbon Cats."
Well, we brought home five apiece of those tasty Blue Ribbon Cats after being properly filleted by Del in about 20 minutes. This included cutting out the lateral line that Del insisted could give bad flavor to the meat.
Then we soaked them in light salt water in the refrigerator for a day or two. Covered in your favorite batter and pan fried in butter proved Del right. They tasted nearly as good as a walleye filet. In late July or August that might not be so true.
Even the Kuecker gals back in Marshall agreed, they are good. Now they are pushing for a river float with Del and Shirley to catch another batch of those Blue Ribbon Cats.
More lateral line info
That lateral line, easily seen when you remove the skin from the fish is a separate nerve system all its own. It was developed to give fish a feeling of the motion in the water near them. It is composed of both surface and deep receptors with microscopic hair like projections on them. It lets fish know what is going on around them by picking up vibrations in the water.
The way, it seems to me, is it is like having a second spinal cord down each side sending impulses to your brain. Small though a fish's brain might be, it gets info sent to it by a whole 'nother system.
The lateral line allows predator fish to locate, then capture prey fish. It also allows prey fish to detect a nearby predator. Kinda like an arms race between us and the Chinese.
Fishermen and manufacturers of artificial lures have learned how to create motion with both fake and live bait rigs. Spinners of many kinds are long known to be effective. Their motion activates that lateral line by mimicking bait fish to seek them.
I think about my favorite lake fishing technique which is surface fishing a plug on a calm evening for bass. The plop when it lands, the wave surrounding the landing often elicits a strike. Then the retrieval of a wobbly lure attracts others.
Some noise and hearing involved, sure, but the motion detector on each side probably does more.
S.D. pheasant count
South Dakota is considered the pheasant capital of the world. Nobody challenges that. But it's changing a lot. Consider the fact their game, fish and parks has decided to drop its annual summer count of birds.
I'm not sure of their reasoning but I think it's far more than COVID-19 considerations.
It seems a good idea to save the money that goes into such a game census. Use it instead for improving habitat and paying for enhanced predator control, which they are already doing.
South Dakota is fast becoming a sport of releasing farm-raised birds and a nice hunting lodge at the end of the hunt. Still fun for sure but not a wild bird hunt as we still know it in Minnesota.
The last number I have seen, two years ago, indicates that about two thirds of the pheasants shot in South Dakota were game farm raised. So why count the other third?
To me, pheasant counts too easily became promotional. The cities, restaurants, hotels and state game departments that sell licenses occasionally mislead people into promoting game that isn't there.
South Dakota's decision is OK with me. Scouting for your game prior to hunting has always been part of the experience!

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