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Waves of minnows, tales of tarpon.

I am sure most fishermen have observed the dark clouds of small fish in huge schools migrating along the beach, through inlets and down the bay or estuary. On a still day their presence near the surface can actually look like rain on the water. Most often they are dismissed as "glass minnows" because they are often transparent or have a silver stripe down the side, thus "shiner." So what are they really? Are they larval fish? Are they adults of some small species?

If they are only 2 to 3 inches in size, you are most likely observing anchovies. Why? The most ubiquitous abundant fish in estuaries and shallow nearshore waters on the east coast of the United States is the bay anchovy, Anchoa mitchilli. You can catch thousands in a single pull of a bait seine. There are actually at least seven species of anchovy in Florida waters. In southeast Florida the Cuban anchovy, Anchoa cubana, often outnumbers the bay anchovy in coastal estuaries. Some anchovies only occur in the ocean, the silver and flat anchovies, whereas the striped and bay anchovies are found in bays and even migrate into freshwater tributaries.

Anchovies have huge mouths with overhanging snouts, resembling miniature sharks. The jaws often extend back to the gill cover. Most anchovy species also have a silver stripe down the side of an otherwise colorless or darkly pigmented body. Anchovies school tightly in shallow water during the day, but disperse offshore at night to feed on small nocturnal creatures, larval fish and crustaceans, that come to the surface only after sunset.

Schools of anchovies are ravaged by nearly all larger predaceous fish, from juvenile snook and barracuda less than a foot long, to 6-foot sandbar sharks and tarpon.

In great contrast to the anchovies, the larger silver bodied sardines, herrings, shad and menhaden have relatively small mouths for their size and belong to an entirely different family of fish, the herring family, Clupeidae. They are more often omnivores or herbivores feeding on plants, bacteria and small animals.

The great overall abundance of these small silver fishes means their ecological role in feeding other organisms, from squid to mackerel, is indispensable.

By R. Grant Gilmore, PhD

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Title Annotation:SPORTSMAN'S ALBUM; schools of small fishes
Author:Gilmore, R. Grant
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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