Why are some iconic fish and other aquatic litter considered? In this series, we focus on American fish that are not officially referred to as “game fish.” These species, although native, are grouped into a category of “trash fish”, a distinction that is more than semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money and love. Trash fish do not. We think this is wrong.
Trash Fish Tuesday studies and celebrates fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing public relations problem.
If you walk into any self-respecting fishing bar in the Great Lakes region, chances are you’ll find a pickerel hanging on the wall and a fried version on the menu. Like cheap beer and bar mirrors to match, it’s the lay of the land. But the common name “walleye” actually has nothing to do with a wall they might cling to – the name comes from a Middle English translation”wawil-eghed” from an Old Norse word vagl-eygr meaning “beam” (vagl) “eyes” (eygr). Some people think this name refers to the way their peepers glow in the dark.
While you may hear varying opinions from the MeatEater crew on the joys of walleye fishing, the general popularity of the fish cannot be denied. Disparage their appetite for such an establishment and you might get a lot more than a stinking eye from the old local sitting across the bar.
Less widely recognized however, there are other species of eyes that sometimes swim alongside the revered walters. However, you are unlikely to find them on the menu. It’s even more unlikely that you’ll find dust amid the taxidermy screens. These “eyes — goldeye and mooneye — are often unknown, forgotten, misidentified, or otherwise looked down upon as “trash fish.” However, the value of mooneye and goldeye should not be overlooked. They are native species with much to celebrate from an ecological, angling, and culinary perspective. It is also possible that they helped grow this walleye.
The other “eyes”
Optical monikers aside, Goldeye and Mooneye are not closely related to walleye, but they are very closely related to each other. They are the only two living species in the Hiodontidae family of fish, derived from Greek etymology for the Y-shape of their teeth (“odous”) along the roof of their mouth and tongue, a bony arch called the hyoid. The common names are an ode to their relatively large, reflective eyes, similar to a full moon. Unsurprisingly, the goldeye’s visual organs are a distinct yellow hue. The eyes of mooneyes are more silvery with just a tinge of gold. As visual predators, their eye size is an adaptation for foraging in low light conditions. In addition, just like walleye, their eyes also have a tapetum lucidum—a layer of reflective fabric aids low-light vision and gives the walleye its name “beam-eyed.”
Goldeye and mooneye are flat-sided, silvery fish that are often confused with better-known species of herring or shad. In fact, Goldeye or, taxonomically speaking, Hiodon alosoidesare named from the genus Alosa (river herrings) meaning “shadlike”. Mooneye, H.tergisus, means “polite”. Besides eye color differences, side-by-side comparisons reveal that the dorsal fins of goldeneyes have 9 or 10 rays that originate uniformly behind their anal fin. Comparatively, mooneye dorsal fins have 11 or 12 rays that originate anterior to the anal fin. Gold eyes also have a flatter back (dorsal profile) compared to moon eyes, which are a bit more curved in appearance. Adult goldeneyes usually grow a bit larger than mooneyes – a record goldeneye can touch the 20 inch mark or slightly longer, while mooneyes peak at around 17 inches .
This glamorous Goldeye
Today, however little they are known and however misidentified by casual anglers, goldeyes have an intriguing history. Their appeal to consumers and anglers has fallen out of favor for about as long as they have been known to settlers in North America. They were first described on the Lewis and Clark Expedition in June 1805 when Meriwether Lewis compared them to the East Coast hickory shad.
The first commercial harvests of goldeneye date back to 1876, but they had little value outside of their use as dog food and fertilizer. However, their culinary appeal was quickly recognized when the hot smoking process was used to firm up their soft, bony flesh. With a robust population, Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba quickly became the epicenter of the Goldeye and the smoked “Winnipeg Goldeye” transformed the frequently rejected fish into a delicacy sought after by elites in Toronto, Chicago, New York and beyond. .
As described in a 1950 article “That Glamorous Goldeye” by Fred Bodsworth published in Maclean’s aka “Canada’s National Magazine:” “[this] Canadian fish started its career as dog food at a penny a pound and found its way to the swankiest restaurants on the continent at $2+ a plate… American millionaires, Hollywood stars, European playboys have all repeatedly had ice cream cases of smoked laurels flown in or sent by express to their dinner parties.
At, say, a pound of smoked fish per plate, that’s an increase in value of about 20,000% in a few decades. Commercial harvesting of Goldeye boomed in Lake Winnipeg in the 1920s, when over a million pounds were harvested each year. However, the overfished commercial fishery collapsed in the 1930s. Today, smoked larvae can be purchased for around $15 a pound, although the harvest from Lake Winnipeg is still small. However, the goldeye tradition lives on in the region with the Winnipeg Goldeyes, a baseball team in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
Commercial harvesting still exists in parts of Canada, and targeted sport fishing for goldeneye is relatively popular on the Saskatchewan River in Alberta and Saskatchewan, while bycatch occurs throughout their range . The historic range of the goldeye extends through the Mississippi, Missouri, Yellowstone, and Ohio River watersheds, as well as into the Great Lakes, Hudson’s Bay, and of the gulf. But, like many “rough” native fish that are plagued by mismanagement, the introduction of invasive species, and habitat degradation, goldeye walleye populations are generally declining and unstable in many states and provinces within their range.
The native range of mooneye is similar to that of goldeye. While the goldeye may have a more illustrious history, the ecological importance of the mooneye is still significant. They are often an important food source for popular sport fish such as northern pike and walleye. Mooneye prefer cleaner and clearer water compared to Goldeye and therefore their populations are vulnerable to changes in water quality due to increasing development, agriculture etc.
As an additional level of conservation importance and concern, mooneye, along with Goldeye, serve as obligate hosts for federally endangered spectacled mussels. In fact, just recently a small population of these mussels was located in the upper St. Croix River at the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, and the population was determined to be over 100 years old. The “eyes play a vital role, acting as a host during the parasitic part of the mussel life cycle, and have not been able to access the waters above the St. Croix Dam during spring spawning migrations since the construction of the dam in 1907. Below the dam, they are essential to maintaining the remaining mussel populations.
In other areas where their populations are more abundant, mooneye are popular cut baits for catfish. Discerning anglers even recognize mooneye for their own prestige on rod and reel. With impressive aerial displays and a similar look, though much smaller in body size, mooneye has been nicknamed “freshwater tarpon” in some angling circles. Certainly not a “trash” comparison to a fish that is often considered one of the greatest sport fish in the world.
Fishing for other eyes
If you are interested in seeking angling opportunities for ‘the other’ eyes, it is important to understand the local people and fisheries, which is not always straightforward as they are not usually named as sport fish with clearly written regulations. As mentioned, their populations vary across their ranges – for example, mooneye are listed as threatened in Michigan and New York waters, but available for commercial harvest in Minnesota, even though their status as population is not widely understood. Therefore, if you are fishing in waters where the larva or moonfish can be accidentally caught, it is important to know how to identify them. Regardless of the state of the population, there is no reason to treat these “rough” fish as trash. If you don’t eat it, release it.
If you find yourself on waters with healthy, fishable populations, anglers can easily be rewarded. Even if you fish for other underrated species, you can stumble upon Goldeye or Mooneye, as evidenced by this episode of MeatEater’s B-Side Fishing.
Goldeye and mooneye are often found in the deep reaches, pools, and backwaters of large rivers and lake systems within their ranges. Confluences of tributaries with main channel rivers can be especially fruitful, especially in late spring and early summer, as they move upstream for spawning migrations. The fishing remains good throughout the summer months, and these spirited fish will take just about anything you throw at them – small spinners and worm rigs work well in many hot spots. With their prominent eyes, goldeyes and mooneyes are frequent surface feeders, so dry flies, especially during mayfly hatches or hopper season, can be an exciting approach. In a study examining Mooneye diets, all nine individuals sampled on any given day had a mouse in each of their stomachs. I don’t know about you, but mousin’ for “freshwater tarpon” on a light fly rod is a damn good time in my book.
All told, goldeye and mooneye may not hold a place in the hearts or on the walls of most anglers like walleye, but they are important links in the food chain, fun to catch and even a tasty, smoky treat. And I certainly wouldn’t hurt saying those “eyes” at a peach bass in Manitoba – you might be very politely corrected by the old local sitting on the other side of the bar.