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New Jersey Scuba Diving


New Jersey Scuba Diving

Freshwater Fishes - Bottom


Freshwater gamefish such as trout and bass may not be taken by spear by divers. However, in some places it may be legal to spearfish for carp, catfish, suckers, and other "rough" fishes - check local regulations.

see also: Fishes - Overview


Cyprinus carpio

to 36"
( record over 6 ft )

A heavy bodied, laterally compressed minnow with a long dorsal fin and arched back. The first ray of the dorsal and anal fins is a stout, serrated spine. The small triangular head tapers to a blunt snout. The small, protrusible mouth contains no teeth and is located below the snout. There are two pairs of barbels on the upper jaw. Body color is brassy green on top grading to bronze or gold on sides. The belly is yellowish white. Fins typically are yellow, orange, golden, or light olive in color. The wild type of common carp is completely covered with large, round scales. Mirror carp has a few very large scales scattered over the body and leather carp are virtually scaleless.

Carp is widely distributed in North America. Common carp are a non-native fish from Europe which were first introduced to the United States in the late 1800's. Brilliantly colored Koi (right) were developed from ordinary carp several hundred years ago in Japan, and are widely used in ornamental ponds.

The primary habitat types found in the main channel of the Apalachicola River are steep natural banks, gentle banks, dike fields, sand disposal areas, rock outcrops, and submergent vegetation. In the Ochlockonee River, the upper stretch of the main channel is narrow and shallow with steep banks and becomes progressively wider and deeper with lower banks downstream. There are numerous sand bars, point bars, sand shoals, and backwater sloughs.

Spawning Habits
Carp spawn when water temperatures range between 65 and 75 F. Small groups gather in shallow, heavily vegetated areas that warm rapidly. One or more males pursue a female as eggs and milt are released. The eggs sink and adhere to vegetation and debris on the bottom. No parental care is given to the eggs. Egg production depends on the size of the female with anywhere from 50,000 to 2 million eggs spawned by a single female.

Feeding Habits
Most often carp suck up quantities of silt, spit it out, and select out insect larvae, crustaceans, snails, and other food items. Young carp will also consume zooplankton. Adult carp are omnivorous, consuming both plant and animal foods. Plant foods include both rooted plants and algae. Organic debris can also be an important component of the diet.

Age and Growth
Few wild carp live longer than 12 years but individuals in captivity have lived as long as 47 years. Carp generally grow rapidly for the first few years until they reach sexual maturity and slows as energy is diverted into reproduction. Growth rates of carp vary considerably across North America which may reflect geographical, biological and environmental conditions at different locations.

Common Carp: Several hundred years of selective breeding turns this ...

... into this - Japanese Koi. Goldfish have undergone several thousand years of breeding in China to develop some truly bizarre and even grotesque morphs.

Goldfish ( Carassius auratus ) are closely related to Carp, but lack barbels at the corners of the mouth. They may grow up to 18", but lose their bright colors after a few generations in the wild. Goldfish are the product of thousands of years of selective breeding in China. Many varieties are so exotically mutated that they would be utterly unable to survive outside of captivity.

Grass Carp ( Ctenopharyngoden idella ) is another Asiatic species that has been widely introduced for control of aquatic vegetation. This fish can eat more than its weight in water weeds every day, and quickly grows to 4 feet and over 50 pounds. Generally, only sterile specimens are stocked, otherwise large numbers of these big voracious fishes would do more destruction than good.

State record Grass Carp - 59 lbs

White Sucker

Freshwater Fishes - Bottom

Catostomus commersoni

to 25"

Suckers live in any kind of water, from fast flowing streams to large lakes. They vacuum up invertebrates from lake and stream beds.

Redhorse Suckers are similar, but sport colorful fins, like some kind of tropical aquarium fish.

Freshwater Perches & Darters

Freshwater Fishes - Bottom

Percidae is the second largest family of fishes in North America, after Cyprinidae (Minnows). They are not related to saltwater Perches, which they superficially resemble.

Darters are diminutive perches that inhabit quiet or slowly flowing waters. They swim in hops and spurts, mainly just sitting on the bottom as they search for the small invertebrates on which they feed. The Tesselated Darter Etheostoma olmstedi ( right, to 4.5" ) is the commonest in the area. Many midwestern species are brightly colored, but we are not so lucky, all of ours are drab.

Walleyes Stezostideon vitrium are enormous darters that grow up to 2 ft and 20 pounds. Although not native to New Jersey, they are widely introduced for sport fishermen. They are aggressive predators on other fishes. Sauger is similar but smaller.

Yellow Perch Perca flavescens grow to 16 inches. They travel in schools, sometimes of hundreds of individuals, and feed along the bottom on almost anything they encounter.

Juvenile Walleye

Black Bullhead Catfish

Freshwater Fishes - Bottom

Ameiurus melas

to 24"

Ameiurus is Greek and means "primitive" or "curtailed" in reference to the slight notch in the caudal fin; melas is also Greek and means "black." Black bullheads are typically black to greenish-black on the back, ranging to gray or white on the belly. However, in muddy water the back may be yellowish-brown. Chin barbels are dark or black, never white. The anal fin has 17-21 rays.

The original distribution of the black bullhead included the central plains west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies, extending north into Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and south into south Texas and New Mexico. Today artificial introductions have extended the range west of the Rockies in isolated pockets including areas of British Columbia, Alberta, Mexico, California, Arizona, Nevada, and Idaho. Black bullheads are able to tolerate more turbid water than brown or yellow bullheads.

Black Bullhead

Feeding Habits
Insect larvae, small crayfish, snails, and dead fish. Bullheads feed primarily by taste and smell and are most active at night.

Spawning Habits
During late spring or early summer black bullheads excavate nests in mud bottoms and spawn. Areas with some sort of cover are preferred. Nests contain golden-yellow egg masses which are guarded by both parents (at least one is present at all times). Eggs hatch in four to six days. Fry begin to school in compact balls which are guarded by adults until individuals reach about one inch in length. Black bullheads are omnivorous, feeding primarily from the bottom on a wide range of plant and animal material, both live and dead. Fingerlings feed almost exclusively on crustaceans. Immature aquatic insects and crustaceans often comprise a considerable proportion of the adult diet. The average life span is usually less than five years, and most adults are less than one pound. However, some individuals may live more than 10 years and reach eight pounds.

Channel Catfish are often stocked for fishermen. These large catfish can reach sizes of up to 20 pounds, although in their native south they get much larger than that. The deeply forked tail sets them apart from native species.

Catfish are primarily a freshwater family. There are a few species of marine catfish, but none in our area. One species of European catfish grows to 12 ft; a Vietnamese type gets even larger.

A 22 lb. channel cat breeder at the state hatchery.
Channel cats are stocked across New Jersey.


Freshwater Fishes - Bottom

Lota lota

to 15" avg.,
sometimes much larger

The Burbot is the only freshwater representative of the Cod family. Although native to the Great Lakes, and Midwest, they have been widely introduced for fishermen. Adults prefer deep cold water, but spawn under ice in the shallows.

American Eel

Freshwater Fishes - Bottom

Anguilla rostrata

to 60"

Species Profile
By Jeff Brust,
Research Scientist

American eels are an ecologically unique and important species that occur in fresh, brackish and marine waters from the southern tip of Greenland to northeastern South America. This species is closely related to the European eel. Eels support a valuable commercial food fishery, are used widely as bait for sport fish such as striped bass and cobia, and are an important food source for many fish and wildlife species.

Life Cycle

American eels are a catadromous species, which means they spend most of their life in fresh water or brackish water, but when they mature, they migrate to the ocean to spawn once and die. Spawning has never been directly observed, but spawning grounds have been identified based on collection of larval eels. Current scientific evidence indicates that adult eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea, an area of the Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda and east of the Bahamas. Some eels may migrate thousands of miles to reach the spawning grounds.

Spawning is believed to occur around January or February. After hatching and a brief pre-larval phase, American eel enter a larval phase known as a leptocephalus, which resembles the leaf from a willow tree. Eels remain in the leptocephalus stage for approximately one year, during which ocean currents transport the larvae to coastal areas throughout their range.

Generally from February to April, the larvae reach coastal areas in New Jersey and begin transforming into the more recognizable eel body form about 2 to 2.5 inches long. At this stage, they are transparent and are called glass eels. They enter estuaries (where fresh water mixes with ocean water) such as bays and river mouths and begin to migrate upstream toward fresh water. As they migrate, the glass eels begin to darken in color. By late spring, most are fully pigmented and referred to as green eels or yellow eels.

Yellow eels remain in fresh or brackish water until they reach maturity. Some will remain near the estuary, while others move several hundred miles upstream to live in streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. Most upstream movement occurs between March and October every year, and some eels will continue to move farther and farther upstream every year until they reach sexual maturity. There is some evidence that eels remaining in brackish waters generally mature into males, while those that move farther upstream mature into females.

Eels are generally nocturnal, spending most of the day hidden among rocks and other structures or buried in mud bottoms. At night, eels will venture from their hiding places to feed on small fish, insects, snails, clams and worms, among other prey.

Females generally live longer and grow larger than males. Males reach maturity in five years to seven years at a size of about 11 inches or greater. Females, however, may take 15 years to 20 years to reach maturity at a size of 18 inches or greater. Very few males grow larger than 15.5 inches, but females may grow more than 39 inches. Plainfield resident David Payne learned firsthand just how large eels can grow. While trout fishing in Round Valley Reservoir last June, he landed the New Jersey freshwater state record American eel, which measured 41 inches and weighed 6 pounds, 13 ounces. Almost certainly a female, the eel was sent to Dr. Ken Oliveira at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who determined that the eel was 16 years old when it was captured. According to Dr. Oliveira, the eel would have continued to live, and possibly grow, for several more years had it not been caught.

Following the yellow phase, which lasts 6 years to 16 years in the Chesapeake Bay region, eels begin to mature, and their appearance and body functions change. Externally, the eel's body fattens, its eyes enlarge and its skin thickens. The coloration on its back changes to dark bronze or black, and its belly is white. These eels typically have a silvery sheen and are aptly named silver eels. Internally, the eel's digestive system shrinks; it stops feeding, and its swim bladder, gills and other organs change to enable its survival in sea water. These changes occur during the summer, when maturing eels begin migrating downstream. Silver eels leave rivers and coastal areas in late summer and early fall.

Their migration occurs mostly at night, coinciding with rising water levels and the moon's new and full phases. Little is known about the distribution and timing of the spawning migration once the eels enter the ocean, but it is believed that they make their way to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and then die.

Environmental Tolerances and Concerns

Historically, eels were abundant on the Atlantic coast. Estimates suggest that eels could comprise up to 25 percent of the total fish biomass in a stream. In addition, eels are an extremely hardy species and can adapt readily to their environment. They can withstand temperatures ranging from below freezing to nearly 100°F for short periods. During the winter or in drought conditions, eels can bury themselves in mud to escape harsh conditions. They can absorb oxygen across the skin and can survive out of the water for longer periods than most fish. Young eels have been observed climbing dam walls and other obstructions or traveling on land around obstructions.

One eel was known to have been held in captivity for 85 years. Despite their adaptability, eels are susceptible to a wide range of impacts that can affect their survival. Fisheries exist for glass, yellow and silver eels, which are used for food and bait. Dams and other structures hamper upstream and downstream movements and have significantly decreased the amount of suitable habitat available to eels.

In addition, the high fat content of the American eel and its bottom-dwelling lifestyle make it prone to accumulate contaminants that may increase mortality or reduce reproductive potential. Eels are susceptible to a parasite that can invade the swim bladder, affecting survival and reproduction. It is important to note that each of these mortality factors impacts eels before they can spawn which could result in decreased eel populations in the future.

Because of their unique lifestyle and ecological role, there are still large gaps in our knowledge of eel biology and how the population responds to different factors. Recent data from the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and Canada suggests that American eels are at or near historic low levels of abundance. These findings have sparked great interest and concern in eel biology and population management. The research results will guide fisheries managers to maintain healthy eel populations at levels permitting sustainable use by anglers and for the marine resources that depend on this distinctive species.

This article first appeared in New Jersey Fish & Wildlife Digest - 2006 Marine Issue

Anguilla and rostrata are both Latin, meaning "eel" and "beaked, " respectively. The latter is probably a reference to the fish's snout. The American eel has a slender snakelike body with very small scales, and the fish may appear naked. A long dorsal fin usually extends for more than half the length of the body and is continuous with a similar ventral fin. Pelvic fins are absent. The back may be olive-green to brown shading to greenish-yellow on the sides and light gray or white on the belly.

American eel hiding in a clump of filamentous algae.
Note the bulldog jaw.

download: US Fish & Wildlife Service Species Profile

download: US Fish & Wildlife Service Species Profile

download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine - American Eel



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unless otherwise noted



since 2016-09-11