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Raising Redtails

Map showing the range of redtail chub

The range of redtail chub.

The price of fame is often high. Ask anglers, who sometimes pay $8 for a dozen Nicomis biguttatus (hornyhead chubs, known locally as redtail chubs), about how expensive fame can be. Fisheries biologists, too, who have watched wild populations of this spunky minnow dwindle in some areas, can expound on the consequences of popularity. As redtail chubs have become increasingly appealing as walleye and smallmouth bass bait, prices have escalated while their abundance in the wild has diminished. Additionally, bait dealers and anglers have noticed that it is more difficult to purchase this prized minnow. The redtail chubs they buy are smaller than they were several years ago, possibly reflecting harvesting pressure.

Redtail chubs hook both game fish and anglers. Some bait dealers laud the redtail chub as the ideal walleye bait. “They are hardier than other bait fish and more active on the hook,” said Barry Thoele, owner of Lincoln Bait in Staples, Minnesota. “Redtails do all the work for an angler.” Retail prices of $32 per pound can make redtail chubs more expensive by weight than Atlantic salmon and lobster.

For the redtail chub, popularity as bait coupled with habitat loss is taking a noticeable toll on its abundance throughout its range. Thoele reports that years ago he was able to supply his market with redtails from nearby streams. More recently he has driven three hours to harvest adequate numbers. By the end of the fishing season, it can be difficult to find bait stores still selling redtails. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources regulations allow licensed anglers to possess up to 288 minnows from streams that are not designated for trout and contain no exotic species. Licensed bait dealers may harvest more than 288 minnows at a time. In fact, on a good day, they might harvest 4,000 redtail chubs (equivalent to 10 gallons, which is how they measure volume within the bait business).

Redtail chubs are native to clear streams of the Upper Midwest. They prefer shallow water flowing over gravel. Agricultural practices during the past century have dramatically changed the nature of many Midwestern waterways. Streams that once bubbled over gravel now flow over sand or silt accumulated from nearby farmlands. Sand and silt are of little use to redtail chubs, which spawn in gravel nests (see “Nest Mates,” below).

Extensive tiling to drain water from agricultural lands and related wetland and riparian losses cause degraded physical and chemical habitat for fish like redtail chubs. Many streams in the Midwest flow more directly and more quickly with wider fluctuations in depth than they did a century ago, having lost their meandering curves and backwaters to stream channel dredging and wetland destruction.

According to a special report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (Dec. 12, 1999), changing land uses have more than doubled the average amount of water coursing down the Minnesota River since 1974. Surges of agricultural runoff accompanying each storm increase a stream’s turbidity and flow rate. Research suggests that, despite their hardiness, redtail chubs are less common in turbid waters. For a minnow that spawns between May and July in shallow water, intermittent flow and pulses of turbidity could impair its reproductive success.

Faced with increasing consumer demand and decreasing access to wild populations, Barry Thoele approached the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) with technical questions about raising redtail chubs in captivity. Thoele had drafted the plans for a spawning system prior to meeting with NRRI scientists. Independently, other entrepreneurs contacted Minnesota Sea Grant and NRRI with ideas for raising redtail chubs. As a result, an alliance was forged that coupled Minnesota Sea Grant and NRRI researchers with several bait dealers and staff from the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute. With some collaboration, four different proto-type aquaculture systems were developed for spawning and raising redtail chubs.

Redtail chub minnows swimming.

Redtail chub minnows are an appealing walleye and smallmouth bass bait.

The results of their efforts are promising. “Redtail chubs responded well to artificial culture methods,” said Paul Tucker, the Sea Grant researcher conducting the aquaculture study. “Our objectives were to get redtail chubs to produce young and then grow the fry to a marketable size. To do that, we had to conquer physical, chemical, and biological problems with the aquaculture system and examine the biological concerns of the fish.”

Tucker was able to raise 95 percent of the redtail chub fingerlings he caught from the wild to marketable size in nine months. “Wild redtail chubs might need three years or more to grow large enough to be caught and sold as bait,” said Tucker. This summer, redtail chubs spawned for the first time in the artificial systems developed by Tucker and the three bait dealers involved in the research. The resulting fry are growing in all four facilities.

Redtail chubs apparently thrived on pelleted food and in the simulated streams of the proto-type aquaculture systems. The collaborators are now considering building bigger systems. At the same time, Minnesota Sea Grant fisheries expert Jeff Gunderson is conducting economic analyses that will help determine if farming redtail chubs might be a new and lucrative industry for rural entrepreneurs. One of the primary hopes for the redtail chub aquaculture project is that a readily available supply of these popular minnows will relieve the harvesting pressure on the diminished wild populations.

Nest Mates

Male redtail chubs are compulsive construction workers. Throughout the spawning season they carry stones in their mouths or push pebbles with their snouts to form nests that can eventually become three feet wide and six inches deep. For a fish with a length that averages less than four inches, a three-foot wide depression is not only large to dig but also hard to defend.

Ten or more females will spawn in one nest but none of them stay long enough to help the male redtail chub build or defend the nest. Researchers have documented, however, that a male common shiner will sometimes share the nest and incidentally become his ally. In a beneficial relationship, they ignore each other but drive off other fish approaching their communal property. Common shiners are most active in repelling smaller intruders, including hungry female redtail chubs, while the chubs take on larger egg-marauders.

Although this biological association may not alter strategies for encouraging the fish to spawn in captivity, researchers are continuing to investigate its potential for increasing hatching success.

By Sharon Moen
February 2000

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